If I were tto sum up what I believe Joyce was trying to do with this collection of connected stories, that’s the word I’d use. But back to that in a moment.
Critiques of Joyce’s work goes in all directions, but that’s ultimately to his benefit, as far as I’m concerned. Most criticism terms his portrayal of the city and its inhabitants as sketchy and uneven. Further, these critics believe certain stories go on interminably and with no clear point – that they provide no crisis and resolution, that the characters are hazy and incompletely developed.
All this is true if one were to read and attempt to digest each story individually. Joyce himself made the point early on that Dubliners describes a progression – from childhood through deep adulthood. But even with that said, readers and critics alike have remained uneasy with this collection, preferring to declaim it as the failed work of a writer who only later gained his literary footing. Critics do ferret out Joyce’s upset with the Catholic Church, his concern with the malaise growing over the Isles – and over Europe in general – as colonialism, industrialization, and the growing militancy of western nations led Europe toward WWI.
I dispute these critics' claims. (Yes, I realize it’s dangerous to project one’s interpretations too deeply into the intent of writers, particularly one as experimental as Joyce.) But this brings me back to my central premise: possibilities.
It’s generally conceded that the first stories in this collection are the most accessible, so let’s take a quick peek at that first one, "The Sisters," narrated through the eyes and ears of a young boy:
In this story, a priest, Father Flynn, has died, and the man’s decaying life becomes the topic of conversation between a group of men first, then three sisters, these three women having varying relationships with the priest, hence different perspectives on his life.
But there are certain undeniable facts: the priest has acted in odd ways; all are at a loss as to how to interpret these odd actions. Was he possessed by the devil? Was he going insane? Was he simply growing addled and childish? Or was he demonstrating some discontent with the Church?
Each of these questions tell the reader something about Dublin and its inhabitants, which I believe is to Joyce’s point. No longer, Joyce seems to be saying, is there a consensus reality for such a group of people as the inhabitants of Dublin – their reality is tempted away from such consensus by individual biases, fears, and consequent individualized perspectives. And, I believe, Joyce used such a trope of an emerging Modernism in different ways to dissolve the classical belief that the Church proclaimed spiritual reality, that the Irish and British Governments legislated economic and political reality, and that art was simply a metaphor to represent such a monolithic consensus.
But Joyce seems to want his readers (of that time, and perhaps today as well) to understand that each of us lives various shades of reality, that perhaps a consensus can be shaped from the sum of these shades, but that no one person could possibly represent such an overarching consensus.
Over and over, as in "The Sisters," Joyce seems to present this to us through the possibilities he depicts in his stories. Whether it’s boys observing and reacting to other children and adults on Dublin’s streets, whether it’s in political and religious conversations, whether it’s in the life choices a character makes, Joyce presents us with…possibilities. Possibilities that often lead in a literary sense to the old chestnut of suspense. And these in turn can lead the reader to understand that reality is (a cheap analogy, I admit) a road with many branches, not an all-inclusive bubble.
If I’ve plumbed James’ intent with anything resembling accuracy, this makes his work the precursor of the best of today’s postmodern thinkers and writers.