May 5, 2003

Dubliners: Diagnosis and Cure

In the fall of 1902, a twenty-year-old James Joyce enrolled in Dublin’s Catholic University Medical School. Joyce quickly grew bored, however, and soon dropped-out. The following year he again enrolled in medical school, this time at the University of Paris. After sitting in a few lectures, he again grew bored and again dropped-out (Walzl 158-59). It seemed that Joyce was not destined to become a medical doctor.

Although James Joyce never became a medical doctor, he went on to become a great spiritual doctor—diagnosing people’s spiritual maladies and suggesting cures. Such is certainly the case in Dubliners, Joyce’s first great work. In the book’s fifteen short stories, Joyce, using mostly fictitious characters and events, outlined what he believed to be the sickness of his countrymen. In the book’s final story, he recommended a remedy. In what follows, we will examine the diagnosis and cure offered in Dubliners.


Joyce believed that Dubliners were suffering from paralysis of the will. As he wrote in a 1904 letter to his brother Stanislaus, “What’s the matter with you is that you’re afraid to live. You and people like you. This city is suffering from hemiplegia [paralysis] of the will” (Walzl 159). In Dubliners, we see that paralysis of the will is a weakness of the will, a weakness that causes people to “miss or surrender their chance” to “escape into a fuller and more meaningful existence” (Kelly vii). Let’s look at a few examples of this.

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, Bob Doran longs to escape, to “ascend through the roof and fly away to another country where he would never hear again of his trouble” (65). But he finds himself unable to do so. Feeling guilty and afraid of losing his reputation, Bob, even though he has a “notion” that he is “being had” (63), abandons his hopes of living a happy life and agrees to marry the rather vulgar Polly.

Little Chandler’s paralysis has prevented him from ever taking a chance and pursuing his dreams of becoming a writer. Chandler has long dreamed of being published. Even as he walks to the bar to meet Gallaher, he dreams of “sentences and phrases from the notices which his book would get” (71). He, of course, 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. James Duffy’s paralysis has caused him to live a life of isolation. We learn at the beginning of “A Painful Case” that he had “neither companions nor friends, church nor creed” (109). He temporarily shares his life with Mrs. Sinicio, but eventually rejects her, denying her “life and happiness.” As the story ends, Mr. Duffy realizes the misery of his lonely existence: “No one wanted him; he was outcast from life’s feast” (118).

Jimmy Doyle’s irresponsibility causes him to lose his inheritance in an all-night card game. Farrington’s alcoholism causes him to squander his money and beat his son. Mrs. Kearney’s pride and love of money ruins her daughter’s musical career (Walzl 185). Gabriel’s selfishness prevents him from ever experiencing what is most important in life—love. The examples go on.


It is obvious that Dubliners diagnoses the sickness of Dubliners. When reading this collection, we cannot help but notice how dysfunctional and meaningless these people’s lives are. What is not so obvious is that, along with diagnosing this sickness, the book also offers a cure. Joyce clearly intended the book to do this, calling it a first step towards his people’s “spiritual liberation” (Tindall 4).

The cure to Dublin’s paralysis is found in “The Dead.” We know that “The Dead” offers the cure because it is the only story that ends hopefully. The first fourteen stories in Dubliners all end on discouraging notes. After being introduced to characters who are living miserable and/or corrupt lives, readers leave the stories without any hope that things will get better. As we leave Mr. Doran, he has an unhappy life awaiting him; as we leave Little Chandler, he is miring in remorse; as we leave Farrington, we have no reason to believe that he will give up drinking and become a kind husband and father; and so on. Since “The Dead,” unlike the other stories, ends in hope, it follows that it offers the cure to paralysis of the will. Why else would a story, which is in a collection of stories focusing on a particular disease, have an optimistic ending unless it offered the cure to that disease?

The claim that “The Dead” ends in hope is contested by some scholars. Jack Ludwig, for instance, interprets Gabriel’s act of letting Gretta’s hand fall as a recognition of his failure to identify with others. “Gabriel,” he writes, “now knows that his last hope of achieving identification—for all his other attempts have been failures just as his acts at the party ended in failure—is gone.” At this point in the story, Ludwig writes, it is significant to note that the descriptions of Gabriel in the beginning of the story are similar to the descriptions of “the snow-covered statues of the departed great, Wellington and O’Connell.” By “connecting Gabriel with the statues, Joyce is saying that Gabriel is without life, inanimate, made of stone, a paralytic after his final stroke.” The snowfall in the story’s final scene reinforces Gabriel’s death, as well as the death of all of Ireland. As Ludwig writes, “Paralysis is general all over Ireland. Death is general all over Ireland. For his own death Gabriel not waits. He merges with the dead of the past and the dead of the present, watching the snow—the death of all—‘falling faintly…upon all the living and the dead’” (162).

Now Ludwig certainly makes some valid points. First, Gabriel’s act of letting Gretta’s hand fall seems to symbolize his recognition that he has failed. He realizes “how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life” (234), and he acknowledges that, unlike Michael Furey, he has never truly felt love for another (235). Second, Ludwig is correct in claiming that the description of Gabriel is similar to the descriptions of the statues of dead heroes. While we read that Gabriel has a “light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat and like toecaps on the toes of his galoshes” (185), we later read that “patches of snow” lay on one of the statues (226). Third, the snow over Ireland undoubtedly symbolizes the death of Gabriel and of all Ireland. Just before we read that “snow was general over all Ireland,” falling “upon all the living and the dead” (236), we read that Gabriel’s soul “had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead” (235). Before the description of the snowfall, we also read that the “time had come for him [Gabriel] to set out on his journey westward” (236). Going westward, as William York Tindall writes, has traditionally meant dying (46).

Although the above points should be granted to Ludwig, it nevertheless seems that “The Dead” has a hopeful ending. Although the final snowfall symbolizes death, it symbolizes Christian death. And Christian death is filled with hope, as it is followed by resurrection. So while Ludwig is correct in claiming that the snowfall symbolizes death, he is wrong to equate this death with hopelessness.

Proof that this snowfall symbolizes Christian death can be found in the final few sentences of “The Dead”:

It [the snow] was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead (236).

As Walzl points out, the images of crosses, spears, and thorns point to the passion of Christ (216): Christ was crucified on a cross (John 19.17-18), thrust in the side with a spear (19.34), and crowned with a crown of thorns (Mark 15.17). Christ’s passion, of course, is not a dreadful, but a glorious event, as his death was followed, not by his body rotting in the grave, but by his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15.3-4). Since “The Dead” ends with symbols of Christ’s passion, it seems that Gabriel’s death must be interpreted in terms of Christian resurrection and, thus, hope.

Once we recognize that “The Dead” is a story about death followed by resurrection, and not death ending in despair, other images in the story take on new meaning. The snowfall, for instance, also becomes a symbol of resurrection. The snow no longer merely symbolizes death, but death awaiting rebirth. As Walzl writes, “the icy snow, the image of death, melts in the ‘mutinous Shannon waves’ and becomes water, the archetypal symbol of life; and for the Christian, the baptismal symbol of rebirth” (216). Similarly, the word that the story begins with, “Lily,” also takes on significance. As Tindall writes, “Taken literally, Lily is the name of a bitter servant; but a lily, white as snow, serves at funerals and at the ceremony of resurrection at Easter” (47). It seems that it is no mere coincidence that a story about rebirth begins with a symbol of resurrection.


So “The Dead” ends in hope. And since it ends in hope, it is reasonable to infer that it contains the cure to the sickness that plagues Dubliners—paralysis of the will. But we still have not discovered why “The Dead” ends in hope. In other words, we still have not discovered why Gabriel has found new life. If we find this answer, we will have found the cure to paralysis.

Given the importance that epiphanies play in Dubliners and the fact that Gabriel’s epiphany is followed by images of resurrection, it seems that the hope of the book is found in his epiphany. In other words, since there is a cause-effect relationship between Gabriel’s epiphany and the book’s hopeful ending, we must understand his epiphany to understand why there is hope. In order to understand hhis epiphany, however, we must first understand his paralysis.

Gabriel’s paralysis is that he is selfish and, as a result, alienated from others. There are several examples of Gabriel’s selfishness. For instance, he worries about himself—whether he will look ridiculous during his speech (187), whether anyone hears Miss Ivors call him a “West Briton” (200)—but he never thinks of others. As he admits to himself towards the end of the story, unlike Michael Furey, he has never felt love for any woman (235). Along with being selfish, he is alienated from others. For instance, he is estranged from his homeland, as is evidenced by the facts that he vacations on the continent (198) and even fashions his clothing after the continent’s styles (189). He is also estranged from the people at the party, taking “no part in the conversation” at dinner (208). At one point during the party, he looks outside and thinks, “How pleasant it would be to walk out alone” (201).

In his epiphany, Gabriel, for the first time, sees himself as he really is—a self-centered, alienated man. He realizes “how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her [Gretta’s] life” (234). “Generous tears” then fill his eyes as he realizes that he has lived a loveless existence (235). As Tindall writes, Gabriel realizes that he is guilty “not of withholding love but of lacking it entirely” (43); he realizes that Michael Furey, though “employed in glassworks,” was, unlike himself, “capable of love” (44). Gabriel realizes “it is better to have died as Michael Furey died than to have lived after the fashion” of himself and the others at the Christmas party (Trilling 155): “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age” (235).

Upon realizing his paralysis, Gabriel takes the first step towards change and begins to be reconciled with his fellow Irishmen. In the book’s final paragraph, we read that Gabriel’s “identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world” (235) and that snow was “general all over Ireland,” falling “upon all the living and the dead” (236). As we saw earlier, this passage contains images of death—the death of Gabriel and of Ireland. But it also speaks of Gabriel’s act of identifying himself with his countrymen. By allowing his own identity to fade and by finding a commonality between himself and others, Gabriel takes the first step towards escaping his isolation and finally becoming united with others. He is no longer separate from others; he is now “a willing part of the general flow of things” (Daiches 36). As Tindall puts it, “His self destroyed, his identity gone, he becomes one with all the living and the dead. This dramatic extinction of personality could be another hopeful sign. No longer Gabriel alone but one with everyone, he may be ready to accept, give, and participate” (43).

That Gabriel is changing is further evidenced by his acknowledgement that the “time had come for him to set out on his journey westward” (236). Although, as we saw earlier, going westward is a symbol for dying, Gabriel’s journey westward symbolizes more than his approaching death; it also symbolizes his act of being reconciled with his fellow Irishmen. In the story, the west symbolizes Ireland: it is where Miss Ivors vacations, as opposed to the east, the continent, where Gabriel vacations (Tindall 45-46). The west also symbolizes selflessness and love: it was in the west, in Galway, that “Michael loved Gretta and caught his death of cold” (Tindall 46). Gabriel’s journey westward, then, is a journey of reunification with the people he has long been alienated from and it is a journey towards living the life of love that he has long refused, but is now ready to embrace.


To summarize, “The Dead” ends in hope because its protagonist realizes that he is paralyzed and begins to turn from it. There is hope for him because, even though he has been sick all his life, he has at last found health. So it seems that self-realization is the cure to paralysis—to be more precise, self-realization that leads to change. Self-realization is not only the cure to Gabriel’s paralysis, but the cure to the paralysis of all the characters in Dubliners. There might have been hope for all of these characters if, like Gabriel, they had only been able to see themselves as they really were. Had Eveline realized that she was a person deserving of happiness, she might have been able to escape her life of misery. Had Bob Doran realized his cowardice, he might have been able to resist the trickery of Mrs. Mooney and her daughter. Had Little Chandler realized his timidity earlier in life, he might have been able to leave Dublin and fulfill his dreams. Had James Duffy, while he was still young, realized what an isolated wretch he was, he might have been able to love and be loved.

In writing Dubliners, it was Joyce’s hoped that he could help his fellow countrymen realize their own sickness and, thus, change and be cured. He hoped Dubliners would give Irishmen “one good look at themselves” in a “nicely polished looking-glass” (Tindall 4).

Dubliners, however, was not written just about and for Dubliners. It was written about and for all of us. As Joyce once told a friend, “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal” (Walzl 157). We suffer from the same maladies as Eveline, Bob, Chandler, James, Gabriel, and the other characters—cowardice, self-delusion, pride, selfishness, avarice, and so forth. When we look at the characters in Dubliners, we see people that are strikingly similar to ourselves. But by seeing our own shortcomings in people that are different than ourselves, we are able to see ourselves in a new light and learn things about ourselves that would not have been otherwise possible. One is reminded of the story of King David and the prophet Nathan. David had slept with Uriah’s wife and ordered Uriah to be murdered, but he did not see the wrongness of his actions. In order to show him the light, Nathan came to David and told him a story about a man who had committed similar sins: this man had stolen and killed another man’s sheep. Upon hearing the story, David “burned with anger” and declared that that man should be put to death. “You are the man!” Nathan then told David. After hearing this, David realized, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12). Similarly, by showing us ourselves through the lives of different people, Joyce gives us the opportunity to truly see ourselves and, thus, change and become the people we were meant to be. He gives us the chance to be healed.


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Works Cited

Daiches, David. “Dubliners.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Dubliners: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Peter K. Garrett. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968. 27-37.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. 1914. New York: Signet Classic, 1991.

Kelly, John S. Introduction. Dubliners. By James Joyce. 1914. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. vii-xlix.

Ludwig, Jack Barry. “The Snow.” James Joyce’s Dubliners: A Critical Handbook. Eds. James R. Baker and Thomas F. Staley. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1969. 159-62.

Tindall, William York. A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce. New York: Noonday Press, 1959.

Trilling, Lionel. “Characterization in ‘The Dead.’” James Joyce’s Dubliners: A Critical Handbook. Eds. James R. Baker and Thomas F. Staley. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1969. 155-58.

Walzl, Florence L. “Dubliners.” A Companion to Joyce Studies. Eds. Zack Bowen and James F. Carens. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984. 157-228.