The Paralysis of Irish Society in James Joyce's Novel 'Dubliners'

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction: Unveiling Joyce's Dublin
  2. Joyce's Exploration of Paralysis in Irish Society
  3. Character Analysis: A Mirror to Dublin's Paralysis
  4. Symbolism and Setting: Depicting Dublin's Stagnation
  5. Conclusion: The Enduring Relevance of Joyce's Dublin

Introduction: Unveiling Joyce's Dublin

‘Dubliners’ is a collection of fifteen stories written by James Joyce. All the stories together create a depiction of Irish people living in Dublin, set at the beginning of the 20th century. This was the era of Irish nationalism and of a search for independence from Great Britain. The English had control over Ireland that resulted in impeding the development of the country and disempowering Ireland politically. This led to paralyzing the Irish inhabitants as well as their politics and culture. In a letter to Grand Richards, Joyce stated his purpose of choosing the paralyzed society of Dublin: “My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis” (Selected Letters 83). The characters in the stories are either emotionally, physically, or sexually paralyzed. Nevertheless, Joyce provides them with life-changing moments, and with moments of self-understanding, which enable the characters to escape from the tediousness of their lives. This paper will discuss the elements of paralysis in Joyce's Dubliners. In order to examine these elements, I will first discuss the theme paralysis in general to illustrate possible causes of paralysis in Ireland, then I will focus on two stories from the collection, namely ‘The Sisters’ and ‘Eveline’, and analyze the events that led to the paralyses of the characters.

Joyce's Exploration of Paralysis in Irish Society

For the purpose of understanding the meaning of paralysis, it is necessary to discuss Joyce's reasons for thinking that Dublin represented the core of paralysis in Ireland before analysing the stories. Joyce wrote these stories when the Irish were under the rule of Great Britain, they were controlled by the British and had no independence. The collection was meant to show the people living in Dublin that there was something they were missing because they did not even notice they had fallen into a paralytic state. Throughout the stories, the protagonists have an epiphany which was Joyce's way of helping the Dubliners realize this paralysis, and of showing them how to snap out of it. This was one of Joyce's main reasons for writing about the paralytic state of Dublin. According to Joyce, as is stated in his essay ‘Ireland - Island of Saints and Sages’, the Dubliners were not able to move forward because they were kept from making any progress. The point therefore was to show the people that if they did not change anything they would be paralysed forever and there would be no future for them. In a letter to Richards, Joyce states that his intention was not to write just a novel about his country, but a satire which will help to liberate Ireland (Delany, 257). Joyce also highlights the importance of believing in oneself in order to become aware of the paralytic state. As is argued in Paul Delany's ‘Joyce’s Political Development and the Aesthetic of Dubliners’, Joyce believed that the people of Dublin would lead the Irish to realize their inadequacies (Delany, 257).

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Character Analysis: A Mirror to Dublin's Paralysis

The theme of paralysis in ‘Dubliners’ is apparent from the beginning of the collection and that is the story called ‘The Sisters’. The very first line “There was no hope for him this time” (Dubliners, 1) indicates that there has been hope for Father Flynn, but now it is too late, and this can also be related to the Catholic Church. Joyce attempts to express that there is no hope for the Church, in the same manner as for Flynn, and points out that the Dubliners are paralysed in the way they live, and they should realize how easily their lives became a part of a vicious circle. Living in this circle cannot be terminated unless the people strike out on their own and change their lives somehow. Then Joyce gets straight to the idea of paralysis in the line “Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly the word paralysis” (Dubliners, 1), which hints to the fact that it was Joyce's intention to work with this idea of paralysis, and that it is going to appear throughout the whole collection. The story continues on to describe the boy's and Flynn's state of paralysis. Father Flynn experienced paralysing strokes which resulted in death. Whereas the boy is paralysed because of the influence that the priest had on him. At first, it seems that he had a good relationship with Father Flynn, but later he pulls away from the dead priest. This may be considered as a sign of fear, and therefore as a source of his paralysis. In addition, his state of paralysis may also be illustrated by his inability to express his feelings about the priest's death.

It can be seen from the above analysis that the theme of paralysis is accompanied by the theme of religion in the story ‘The Sisters’. Joyce thought that the church had too much control over the Dubliners and over Ireland in general. This is supported by the fact that the priest's death somehow freed the boy: “I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death” (Dubliners 4); he does not feel trapped or paralysed anymore. The reason why Joyce felt that the church was one of the sources of paralysis in Irish society was that religion represented an important part of the country in those days. At that time, Ireland was also trying to break free from the control that Great Britain had over it. However, the connection that existed between Ireland and the Church impeded the chance of being free from the British. This may be backed up by a statement in Joyce's essay 'The soul of the country is weakened by centuries of useless struggle and broken treaties, and individual initiative is paralysed by the influence and admonitions of the church' ('Ireland'). This statement indicates that Joyce believed that Ireland, specifically every individual living in the country, was hindered by the Church. Being shackled by the rules and influence of the Church, the Irish people could not fulfil their potential. This idea is again supported by the fact that the boy's paralysis is discontinued after the priest has died. Flynn's death freed him, he has an epiphany, because he realizes the priest does not paralyse him anymore. Joyce attempted to make the readers have an epiphany while reading the story, and make them realize they are shackled or even paralysed by the Church in the same way as the boy was, but shows that they may also become free if they break the relationship with the Church off. Taking this into consideration, the boy symbolises the future generations that will be able to escape from paralysis and lead the Irish as well as the country to achieve great things.

Symbolism and Setting: Depicting Dublin's Stagnation

An equally significant depiction of paralysis is to be found in the story called ‘Eveline’. The paralysis of the main protagonist – Eveline – may be divided into three different forms. Until she finally decides to escape, she remains in a static position throughout the story which is indicated by the very first line: “She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue' (Dubliners, 24). After some time, her position is not any different: “Her time was running out but she continued to sit by the window” (Dubliners, 27). These aspects may be regarded as physical paralysis. However, Eveline does not move metaphorically either, she is kept from moving forward, unable to fulfil her dreams because of her indecisiveness, and remains stuck in life, which represent a psychological form of paralysis. She is aware of the fact that the world around her changes, but she just cannot find any way of escape, just as the people living in Dublin can find no means of breaking out of the British rule. Furthermore, Eveline is paralysed verbally since she is not able to put her feelings and thoughts into words. She cannot express her feelings for her lover Frank, her father, and fails to verbalize dissatisfaction over her life. On the basis of all these arguments, it is obvious that psychological paralysis is prevailing in the story; however, at the end of the story when Eveline is watching Frank on the ship she cannot join him, and her mental paralysis results in real physical paralysis.

In order to find the causes of Eveline's paralysis, it is necessary to analyse the events preceding the present state of her psyche and mentality. She lives a tedious life with her father, but she is given an opportunity to start a new life with her lover Frank in Buenos Ayres. Even though Eveline experienced her father's violence towards her mother and does not want to end up in the same situation, she is fighting with the dilemma of whether to stay or run away throughout the whole story. This dilemma may be considered to be one of the causes of Eveline's paralysis. She knows that leaving with Frank could change her life for the better, but on the other hand she gave a promise to her mother “to keep the home together as long as she could” (Dubliners, 27). Although her father treats her badly, Eveline sacrifices herself for the family trying to keep the promise. This creates the theme of duty and responsibility, which later leads to the theme of paralysis. Her duty to her father displaces her desire for a better life. The story continues, but Eveline has not made a decision yet. To justify her urge to stay with her father she recalls happy moments from their past. This represents Joyce's attempt to criticise glorification of the past, because it hinders Eveline from pursuing her own happiness, and again it leaves her paralysed. Another possible reason for Eveline's paralysis would be her sense of powerlessness raised by her father. He epitomises repressive force in her changeless life and orders Eveline about. Nevertheless, everything around her contributes to this paralysis, she is paralysed by the whole family, by the city, and also by the possible guilt she would feel if she escaped from her present life. Even though Eveline believes that leaving her father is a logical thing to do, she still remains paralysed. Joyce used this situation to illustrate the fact that a change is necessary for terminating any form of paralysis. He tried to show the people living in Ireland that unless they do something with their lives or actually make a change, they will forever remain paralysed. It is not enough to want something, Joyce highlights the necessity of acting upon their desires. At the end of the story, Eveline is described as a “helpless animal” (Dubliners, 28) which exemplifies the situation when paralysis weakens one's strength and human capabilities. She is so paralysed that she cannot move nor react. Eveline is given the opportunity for escaping her miserable life, but her paralysis does not let her go.

Conclusion: The Enduring Relevance of Joyce's Dublin

The characters analysed above epitomise a general state of paralysis which the Irish people suffered from during the era of stagnation in Ireland. As this suggests, it is not only the city of Dublin which represents the core of paralysis, but it is the group of people who live in Dublin that are portrayed as the centre of the paralyzing difficulties. Joyce created a great portrayal of Irish society being afflicted by different forms of paralysis. He thought that one of the sources of paralysis in Dublin was the Church which he clearly demonstrated in ‘The Sisters’ through the relationship between the boy and Father Flynn. Joyce also pointed out that there were many other factors that made the Irish paralysed. In most cases, they were paralysed by the tediousness of their lives, their family, indecisiveness, failing to express their feelings, or mainly by their inability to move forward. However, the characters are given moments of epiphany, moments of realization in other words, about a truth that they are not able to fully understand because of their paralysis. These self-understandings work as means of escaping, and it is up to the characters to decide whether they break away from their own paralysis or continue living their lives without any change.

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The Paralysis of Irish Society in James Joyce’s Novel ‘Dubliners’. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 16, 2024, from
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