Lessons From Stories: James Joyce’s Dubliners & The Necessity of Action

James Joyce was a novelist, short story writer, and poet. His short story collection, Dubliners, is comprised of fifteen stories all of which depict and explore the Irish middle class in the 20th century. A common theme that runs through these stories is of inaction. Where the characters wish to live a different, more fulfilling life but fail to take the necessary steps in order to achieve their dreams. This is exemplified in the stories “Two Gallants,” “A Little Cloud,” and “Eveline.” Joyce’s ability to capture realistic human behavior is one of the reasons why his writing has lived on. The failure leaves the characters frustrated and disappointed with life. A common occurrence in the everyday life of many people who wish they had acted differently in the past so their present could be more satisfying.

In the story, “Two Gallants,” we follow the characters, Corley and Lenehan. Both men are frustrated and disappointed with their lives. Corley wishes to be respected, to be a man of power. Lenehan tells us how Corley was “Fond of delivering the final judgment,” and how “His conversations were mainly about himself.” But Corley doesn’t have the abilities to earn this respect so he is left to trick and charm women into fulfilling his needs. This is shown at the end of the story where it is implied that he convinced the girl he was seeing into stealing money from the family she worked for.

Corley is almost an archetype of the kind of person we need to look out for in our lives. The selfish individual who uses his cunning to trick people. Someone with enough charm to manipulate the actions of others. He is also only focused on the short-term gain which will unlikely break the cycle of disappointment. Such action only brings temporary relief, something many of us can relate to with our own experiences.

Lenehan, on the other hand, has his own frustration which stems from how his life has turned out.

This vision made him feel keenly his own poverty of purse and spirit. He was tired of knocking about, of pulling the devil by the tail, of shifts and intrigues. He would be thirty-one in November. Would he never get a good job? Would he never have a home of his own? He thought how pleasant it would be to have a warm fire to sit by and a good dinner to sit down to.

These thoughts are easy to recognize and empathize with because most of us have had something similar to them. However, it’s not in the simple connection with these thoughts where the lesson is derived from but rather the actions of Lenehan prior to these thoughts and after which reveal the truth about human behavior. Before, he is simply walking around, wasting time, buying into the schemes of his friend. Directly afterward, Lenehan meets two friends and he spends time talking to them and telling them how the previous day he was with another friend, drinking and having a good time.

This action is also recognizable. The repetitive routine which kills your time as you get no closer to your dreams. Lenehan is unhappy with his life, he recognizes this fact but he doesn’t take any steps to improve it. Rather, he gives in to the feelings of self-pity and says that this “Experience had embittered his heart against the world.” Although he adds that there was hope left, it’s hard to imagine how long that will last if he doesn’t bring about change in his life. This goes for anyone who wishes to improve their lives. The longer you wait, the more concrete your foundation becomes and harder it is to break free.

The inability to undertake action is also seen in the story “A Little Cloud.” This story contrasts two figures, Little Chandler, who is the protagonist and Ignatius Gallaher. The story shows how the inactions of Little Chandler leave him envying the life of Gallaher. Gallaher is a poet and he travels the world, something Chandler wishes he could do. However, Chandler relies on two false narratives to ease his disappointment with life.

First, Chandler claims that if he had really wanted to, if he had truly dedicated his mind to the task, he could also write great poems. He believes that he could write “Different moods and impressions he wished to express in verse” however, he is too shy and timid to do so.

Secondly, he believes that he isn’t like Gallaher because he is married and has to take care of a wife and child. While Gallaher is still single and is able to travel to different cities and enjoy life.

If you wanted to succeed you have to go away.

With such thoughts he consuls himself and gives himself an excuse to why he isn’t a poet. When in reality, it’s the lack of ownership and action that has resulted in his unfulfilled life.

Such excuse-making is common in everyday life. It’s a coping mechanism in order to keep your self-esteem high. By having outlets to blame, we can then avoid the true reality of our failures. However, in this manner, we also forgo any hope of growth. This is also seen in Chandler’s story. He has just been dreaming and hoping for that magical one day where everything will work out for the best. Instead of taking action, he lives passively and so, his character doesn’t grow and his life doesn’t change. While, Gallaher took the risk, put his work out there to get criticized, figured his way out and now can live his desired life.

The lack of action is also present in the story “Eveline.” In this story, a young girl named Eveline has fallen in love with a sailor and wishes to leave with the boy. However, instead of her accepting this call to adventure, she refuses it.

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt hims size her hand:

‘Come!’

All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would down her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.

‘Come!’

No! No! No! It was impossible.

Her refusal to accept this new life was due to the promise she had made her deceased mother. The promise is that she would look after the household.

She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to god to direct her, to show her what was her duty.

It’s this duty she felt she owed that stops her from taking action. It’s the same kind of commitment many of us feel we owe other people that act as a barrier to experience our own life. It’s also our own insecurities and nerves which cling to some possible excuse to not be uncomfortable, to not go into some unknown path. But by doing so, we limit the possible experiences we can have. Just as Eveline cuts off this adventure with her love or how Little Chandler stays dreaming about being a poet while he works an office job or how Lenehan fails to make any progress in life. It’s the inability to make an uncomfortable choice that forces these characters to live lackluster lives. Lives which can be empathized with by many readers.

However, if we were to act opposite of these characters then perhaps we can get closer to achieving fulfillment ourselves. Lenehan dreams but has no plans to improve his situation. He repeats his bad habits which have lead him to dislike his situation. So, if we were to plan the course of our life for the next month or two months or however long, that will get us going down our desired path. Along with the recognition of bad habits which comes through self-reflection. Little Chandler, on the other hand, has excuses as to why he isn’t living his preferred life. These excuses deny ownership and responsibility. By taking on ownership we also take on the ability to have an effect on our life. We can overcome being timid and shy and take action in this manner. While, Eveline is afraid to experience life, to be uncomfortable and so, she falls back to pleasing other people rather than living her own life. Sometimes being selfish is good. To put yourself before others in order to live your own life. This can be difficult, especially when you have to disregard the opinions or wishes of your loved ones. However, opportunities don’t come around often and they certainly don’t wait around for you. If you wish to be fulfilled then that uncomfortable decision must be made.