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Throughout this marvellous collection of short stories Joyce presents the readers with real characters, facing real problems, in real life situations. The characters are based on the real Irish of the time and ‘these tales catch glimpses of moments in the lives of ordinary Dubliners’ (Joyce, J. (2000) p.xiii), providing the reader with a vivid sense of realism that ‘smashes romanticism to a pulp’ (Joyce, J. (2000) p.xiii). Within this collection of short stories, Joyce succeeds in amalgamating these realistic ‘slices of life’ with metaphors and symbols which bear a long lasting significance on the reader, in order to provide them with not only the obvious truths and realisations of the concrete characters but also leading to a variety of personal epiphanies and insights on the readers behalf.
In this essay I intend to carefully analyse the two short stories Eveline and A Painful Case in order to highlight that the characters Joyce presents us with in Dubliners are simultaneously ‘real’ and ‘symbolic’. The main characters in these stories, Eveline Hill and Mr James Duffy, not only represent themselves and their own individual problems in life, but they also represent the societies of contemporary Dublin at the time of publishing. While battling personal difficulties they also act as symbols that represent larger scale difficulties and problems in life and indeed one could also say that each individual character represents a different aspect of human nature.
In the short story Eveline, the main character, while individually struggling with the real problems in her life, concurrently provides the reader with a representation of individuals in abusive relationships and their failure to rise above this abuse. ‘Eveline is a study of frustration, in her case an elopement that fails to materialize.’ (Melzer, S. (1979) p. 480)
It is ironic when Eveline says ‘Everything changes’ (Joyce, J. (2000) p.25) at the start of the story as this presents the reader with the false hope that Eveline, unlike many of the other characters in the collection, possess the ability to rise up above her paralysis. This hope is proved to be false as one reads on in the story. In the end nothing changes for Eveline as a result of her clearly choosing the ‘stasis and paralysis of old ways, refusing the sacramental sea as the baptismal font and water of liberation.’ (Melzer, S. (1979) p. 483)
What makes Eveline such a simple piece of work and yet a wonderfully complex and symbolic piece at the same time is the
‘way Joyce works within the formula of the anti-emigration story and uses it to show that people stay where they are in Dublin not because they discover the wisdom of doing so but because they are trapped – and one of the ways they are trapped is the ideology of a pure and lovely Ireland.’ (Attridge, D., ed. (2004) p.94)
While the real and concrete character of Eveline Hill dreams of escape and the perfect outcome to her plan of elopement ‘People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been’ (Joyce, J. (2000) p.26) she also presents the reader with a disclaimer that is created through Joyce’s clever uses of symbolic diction. A warning of the dangers of the human imagination and its ability to ‘sugar-coat’ the normal and elevate the seemingly banal to the brilliant. On a figurative level this story warns the reader that the creation of an ideal world by the protagonist does not guarantee the creation of courage required to overcome ones current, unfavourable situation in order to reach their idealised outcome in life.
A similar parallel between the real and the symbolic can be drawn in the short story A Painful Case. In this, my favourite story of the whole collection, we are presented with the character of Mr Duffy and his monotonous daily routine. It is clear from the beginning of the story that Mr Duffy’s obsessive, compulsive behaviour is as a result of his need to conform in society, just as the books on his shelves and the furniture must conform within his house, Mr Duffy feels he too must conform. ‘Mr Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder’ (Joyce, J. (2000) p.82)
In my opinion, the real character we are presented with at the start of this tale is constantly struggling with his true identity and as a result he is stuck in a state of involuntary paralysis. On a symbolic level the troubles of the concrete character of Mr Duffy appear to represent human natures unexplainable need to conform in society and as a result represents a repression of one’s true identity. It is clear from reading the story that Mr Duffy is a homosexual man who is struggling to adapt in the world of sexual relations between men and women. Duffy’s despair is evident when he observes ‘venal and furtive loves’ (Joyce, J. (2000) p.89), which he cannot share as he is an ‘outcast from life’s feast’ (Joyce, J. (2000) p.90).
In his search to understand his ‘condition’ Mr Duffy seeks the wisdom of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy as set out in his work The Gay Science, of which the central idea is a ‘desire to determine how life might be affirmed without illusion’ (Joyce, J. (2000) p.244) and the idea of ‘life affirmation’. As a result of these studies Mr Duffy comes to the conclusion that he is different and he attempts to come to terms with this difference through his relations with Mrs Sinico. He is willing to ‘entangle his thoughts with hers, to share his intellectual life with her’ (Magalaner, M. (1953) p.102), he is however incapable of sharing intimacy with her as he ‘coldly rejects the advances of his companion’ (Magalaner, M. (1953) p.96). ‘We cannot give ourselves, it said; we are our own’. (Joyce, J. (2000) p.85) The real and symbolic tragedy of this story lies in Mr Duffys inability to overcome his unconscious need to conform and as a result he is made an ‘outcast from loves feast’ and he is forced to be satisfied with a ‘solitary, self-sufficient existence’. (Magalaner, M. (1953) p.98)
In conclusion, both characters from James Joyce’s Dubliners are both ‘real’ and ‘symbolic’ characters. Throughout both stories the characters are skilfully presented in real life situations facing concrete problems, while they are simultaneously representative of a greater symbolic meaning. In both cases the characters ‘potential insight is systematically reconfigured into panic and paralysis’ (Attridge, D., ed. (2004) p.100) and these stories ‘communicate significance through what the characters know or wish to know, but also what they are unable to see, or are afraid to feel’ (Attridge, D., ed. (2004) p.101) and as a result they are both real and symbolic.
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