Paralysis is the theme of James Joyces’ Dubliners. Joyce himself declared this, writing of his work: “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.” Although it is clear that paralysis is the theme of Dubliners, it is not clear what exactly paralysis is. In order to discover what paralysis in general is, we must understand how it manifests itself in the lives of individual characters. In other words, we must begin with the particulars in order to find the universal. In the following paper, we will attempt to find the paralysis of individual characters by determining the distinctive flaws or shortcomings of those characters. After doing this, we will make some general conclusions.
The flaw and, thus, paralysis of some characters is their timidity, their fear to take a risk and better their lives. Eveline and Little Chandler certainly fall into this category. Eveline has the opportunity to escape her miserable life—which is marred by a demeaning boss and violent father—by marrying Frank, a man who will “give her life, perhaps love, too” (35). But by the end of the story, we find her “passive, like a helpless animal” (36), lacking the will power to sail with Frank to Buenos Ayres. Much like Eveline, Chandler has long been afraid to take a risk and pursue his dream of becoming published. We soon learn that he has never been published because he has been afraid to leave Dublin; and “if you wanted to succeed you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin” (70). Because of his timidity, Chandler finds himself immersed in an unhappy life, working an unfulfilling job and being married to an unkind woman.
The flaw of some characters in Dubliners is their lack of self-control. Farrington and Jimmy Doyle are good examples of this. It is clear that alcohol controls Farrington’s life. His day is spent thinking about and longing for alcohol: “He felt his great body again aching for the comfort of the public-house” (91). By the end of the story, we see that Farrington’s addiction to alcohol has turned him into a mean husband and abusive father (96-97). We never get the impression that Jimmy Doyle is addicted to alcohol like Farrington is, but his inability to put down the bottle and stop playing cards results in him losing his inheritance.
The flaw of other characters is their selfishness. James Duffy has lived his life in isolation from others: he had “neither companions nor friends, church nor creed” (109). By the end of the story, we find that he is alone and miserable: “No one wanted him; he was outcast from life’s feast” (118). Much like James Duffy, Gabriel has lived his life in isolation from others. Although married, he realizes at the end of “The Dead” that he has lived a loveless life (235). It would have been better, he realizes, to, like Michael Furey, “pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age” (235).
In our short survey, we have seen that the characters in Dubliners suffer from such weaknesses as timidity, lack of self-control, and selfishness. But what do these weaknesses have in common? How are all of them forms of paralysis? The answer, as John Kelly writes, seems to be that all of these weaknesses prevent their owners from escaping “into a fuller and more meaningful existence” (Kelly vii). Paralysis can take on many different forms; its defining characteristic is that it prevents one from being what he could be, what he ought to be. For various reasons, Joyce believed his countrymen were not being what they ought to be and, in an attempt to spur them to change, he wrote Dubliners.