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We must cherish our yesterdays, but never carry them as a burden into the future. Each generation must take nourishment from the other and give knowledge to the one that comes after. ~Ardis Whitman1
Traditions are important to the survival of a nation or culture. Traditions offer stability, provide a link to the past, and create unity among people. Continuity in an era of change is important in providing cohesion within a social culture. However it is also possible to become so marred in tradition that it leads to stagnation, thus stunting progress or growth. More often than realized, it is only by letting go of past experience or tradition that it is possible to grow, develop and move forward. People often become so centered and focused on habitual day-to-day activities that they do not even realize they are not living life, but merely, existing in it. In literature, an author's own life experiences are often what influences his or her writing. Many will use their gift as a mirror to reflect how something really is, thereby offering an outsider's view. James Joyce is no different. At the time of his writing Dubliners, "Dublin was the administrative centre of British rule in Ireland and had been so since the Act of Union between the two countries was passed in 1800" (Barsanti 2). Comprised of a series of short stories, Joyce's book is a declaration of cultural, independence. By looking at the short stories, "The Sisters" and "Araby", a careful reader can see that insular characters and social continuity (i.e., faith, family, traditions) all come under attack and call for middle-class Dubliners to step out of their stagnation, or paralysis, and step away from the traditions that bind them; an act that can only lead to independence, thereby allowing for new traditions to become distinctly their own.
The protagonist in both stories is an unnamed boy, even though they are not the same boy. The fact that Joyce uses an unnamed young person can be viewed as a symbol for a civilization of people that have yet to fully develop into mature independent people. A civilization that is incapable of standing free from British rule. The first boy protagonist in "The Sisters" is obviously young, curious and impressionable. He is also very observant and cautious. His friend, the priest has died and he is exploring how he feels about the situation as he goes through the traditional motions of paying respect to the dead. When he first learns of the news from Old Cotter, we can see how the boy avoids confrontation of being observed on more than one occasion. First, he "continued eating as if the news had not affected him" (Joyce "The Sisters"). Later he avoids confrontation again by avoiding eye contact with the Old Cotter while they were eating (Joyce "The Sisters"). During the wake, he continues to try to remain invisible by not drawing attention to self and declining crackers that are offered by the aunt for the fear that they may be too noisy. It can be said that this is how Joyce saw the middle-class, people that continued to go through life not drawing attention to themselves and therefore remaining invisible, insignificant members of society, rather than contributors to the betterment of it. However, his message is clear when he has the boy gain enlightenment through learning the truth about Father Flynn. He was an unhappy man; unhappy with the church and unhappy with his life. Several people thought he had gone mad. At the moment that the boy realizes his mentor was not what he first appeared to be, the youngster creates a conscious ceremonial act signifying a rite of passage; one that opens his eyes and no longer allows him to continue life blindly naÃ¯ve.
By Joyce creating the story "Araby" around the acts that lead up to an Eastern cultured bazaar, he is telling the people of the day that there is more to life outside Dublin. There is something to be gained by learning to appreciate other cultures. Even though to story carries with it a religious atmosphere, the introduction of non-Christian culture is significant. We see the young adolescent as he prepares to leave his Catholic Ireland for what he believes to be an exotic Eastern culture. The two religious cultures intermingle throughout the story as we see how the boy idolizes Mangan's sister while fantasizing about a made up world. His epiphany comes through failure. He experiences failure to 'get the girl' and humiliation that he feels for being "driven and derided by vanity" (Joyce, "Araby"). The two short stories have two separate protagonists that both have similarities, but "the separate histories of the protagonists [create] one essential history, that of the soul of the people" (Mann 31).
In an opening line the protagonist is speaking of a priest that he had befriended and says that "[t]here is no hope for him this time," which sets the tone for the story that is to follow (Joyce, "The Sisters"). It is not only the priest that has "no hope" but the practice of his religion as well. The boy realizes "how complex and mysterious were certain institutions of the Church" and the "duties of the priest towards Eucharist and towards the secrecy of the confessional" and he "was not surprised" that the "fathers of the Church had written books" that were "closely printed as law" that explained all of the details of "intricate questions" (Joyce, The Sisters). These laws were not to be questioned, only adhered to. In "Araby," religion continues to be a theme in when the reader encounters "Christian Brothers' School," figures that are "defined by light," "chalice" and "silence like that which pervades a church after a service" (Joyce, "Araby").
The language that Joyce uses throughout the two stories is dark, dismal, and foreboding, reflecting the current civilization of the era. Phrases such as "darkened blind," "paralysis," "dark room," and "antique fashion" describe places, situations and scenery (Joyce, "The Sisters). The pattern is continued in "Araby" when the house is "uninhabited," and was "littered with old useless papers," and had "dark dripping gardens" with "dark stripping stables" (Joyce, "Araby"). It is not only the house that the boy lives in, but "the other houses of the street" had "brown imperturbable faces" that had "grown somber" (Joyce, Araby). Even people are described as "queer," "uncanny," "[t]iresome old fool," [t]iresome old red-nosed imbecile," "disappointed man" and three different occasions Aunt Eliza says the of the priest "poor James" (Joyce, "The Sisters").
Given the dim light that the Dublin is portrayed in these stories, it is no surprise that Joyce faced difficulty in getting Dubliners published. Over a period of nine years he battled with Irish publishers to print the book that mirrored their society. It can be hard to face truth when it is brutal. Joyce knew that it is brutal and that it would be judged harshly. Unlike his protagonists he did not live blindly. This is demonstrated in the letter over a dispute about publishing. On August 18, 1911, he writes "Their attitude as an Irish publishing firm may be judged by Irish public opinion. I, as a writer, protest against the systems (legal, social, and ceremonious) which have brought me to this pass" (Gorman 207).
Joyce skillfully uses allusions that are traditional, but he did so in a non-traditional way. His short stories offer readers a way to remain connected with the past without becoming stuck in it. Like his separate but yet connected protagonists, there is a link between the past and present, traditions and a modern world, an earlier culture and our own, that creates a cultural continuity even when there is discontinuity in traditions of history.