When we read a novel, watch the latest film or television series, we see it as a chance to escape our lives and to kill time for a few hours. Talking teddy bears, animated cartoons fighting the Big Bad, or a United States politician scheming his way to the presidency are situations far removed from our own. However little we actually relate to these characters or situations, we seek the novel as a means of entertainment.
This desire for the new and stimulating doesn’t deserve our scorn as it is only human. The desire does lead us, however, to overlook the beauty and truth in the apparently mundane. The everyday struggles of regular people, at first glance, do not sound sexy at all. Many of the works we read in high school or university for English class probably bored us for that same reason: it was about commonplace situations, characters, and emotions. But these so-called ordinary tales can teach us something, whether about ourselves or people and society in general, if we only bothered to take the time and look for these wisdom nuggets.
With that, I recommend Dubliners by James Joyce the next time you want to pass the time. It is not too long, and the writing is approachable (compared to this other works. I’m looking at you, Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake). The Modern Library edition is small enough so one may carry it on the subway or bus. The stories are laid out in an arc that resembles the human life span: the first story deals with the death of a priest, and the last deals with the death of a forlorn lover. In between are tales of adolescence and adulthood, and all the things these life phases entail. The stories are insightful and attest to Joyce’s understanding of folks, of the inhabitants of his native Dublin and perhaps of Ireland itself. There are issues of Irish nationalism and identity, but we should take this to mean that one needs to be Irish to understand what he’s trying to convey. Each tale capture an emotional snapshot of a character struggling with a problem that, however minor to us, takes on gravity because it shapes them as human beings.
One of the themes of Dubliners, which is that the past will always cast a shadow on the future, is a common one in literature but Joyce deals with it in a straightforward manner. In the last story, “The Dead”, the married couple cannot have a peaceful night together because the wife inadvertently recalls the death of a teenager during her youth. This teen so strongly loved her that he traveled far to try to see her, despite the effect the cold had on his health and ultimately his life. The husband envies the dead youth, knowing he could never sacrifice himself that way for her. Here, Joyce points out that past memories will haunt a person’s future like an unwanted ghost.
It is not all melancholic musings, however, as there are stories of youth and children that capture the awkwardness and excitement of those phases of our life. Dubliners is a literary tapestry of different moods and colors. Each story changes in style to reflect the character at its center. The omnipresent narrator passes no judgment on the characters and their doings, allowing us to eavesdrop on their lives. The realism in Joyce’s descriptions ooze through the page without degenerating into the overwrought nature of purple prose. The hues and patterns of this tapestry are beautiful to behold without overwhelming the eyes.
If you’re looking for a painless good time, then be wary of this little book. If you have the time, however, then I urge you to invest the time and check it out. In an age of rapid messaging and massive amounts of data, Dubliners is the eye in the hurricane. If you put in the time, you’ll enjoy yourself too in the quiet it offers.