For the past two years, I’ve been part of a wonderful book group, which started life as a small group ministry through my church. Even though I was (by far) the youngest member of this group, I felt welcomed with open arms by all of these lovely people. During the past many months, we’ve all shared a bit of our lives while sharing our joy of books and literature. They were there when my grandfather died, when I lost my job and when Boston faced a week of fear and uncertainty after the marathon bombings.
So, naturally, it was bittersweet to attend my final book group meeting a few weeks ago. The group will continue on, and I’ll be there in spirit. For my last meeting, we read James Joyce’s Dubliners in my honor.
Dubliners is Joyce’s ode to Irish nationalism, with its realistic, earthy portrayals of the emerging Irish middle class at the beginning of the 20th century. These 15 short stories all center on characters experiencing a moment of revelation or understanding, a moment when they realize something integral to their lives. As a whole, the book flows from childhood to adulthood, with each story progressing along life’s journey. Joyce’s prose is simple and spare – no unnecessary words, no superfluous adjectives, just pure, straightforward, every-day language. Most of all, Dubliners is grounded in a distinct place and time. It’s Dublin, Ireland, at the turn of the century.
Most of the stories revolve around characters who feel trapped in some way by their routine, mundane life. Many characters have moments when they were looking out a window, literally yearning for the life on the other side. Many of the characters also experience a feeling or desire to escape, to have some grand adventure. In some cases, the adventure turns out to be a disappointment. In others, they are held back by their own fears, unable to take that first step.
(It seemed fortuitous that we read this book at this time, as I had similar feelings of needing a big change, which in turn led me to my own upcoming trans-Atlantic move.)
Among the stories, one of my favorites was “Araby.” In this tale, a young boy is in the throes of first infatuation, as he believes himself in love with a friend’s older sister. Eager to prove his love and his worthiness, he devises a scheme to attend a local bazaar and bring her home a treat. Alas, reality has a way of sometimes encroaching on our dreams and the boy’s actual experience at the bazaar is bitterly disappointing. Though somewhat melancholy, “Araby” perfectly captures the high of young love and youth, and the inevitable let down when real life creeps in.
I’ve read Dubliners before, as many an English major has, but I enjoyed revisiting it as an adult and as a soon-to-be resident (albeit a visiting one) of the Emerald Isle. Joyce often gets most of his praise and attention for his long-form novels, including Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, but Dubliners remains his love song to the ordinary, every-day Irish and it’s as lovely and as sad as it was when I first read it.
[Photo Credit: Goodreads]