James Joyce’s Dublin

The modern Dublin of the early twentieth century was the first city of Ireland, the second city of the British Empire and the seventh of Christendom (Attridge 2004). James Joyce insisted that this city had not been represented before in literature, rendering its representation by him problematic in his writings: Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. He employed description, mimetic specificity and narrative symbolism in different works to achieve slightly different objectives, all the while recognising Dublin as his previous home that he had chosen to be exiled from.

To assess whether Dublin is intended and/or acknowledged as a background or a character in Joyce’s works, its representation should be analysed, from the sterile specifics of listed street names, through contested ideas of place and identity within a historical context, to the notion of a living city with its own personality and voice. Of all Joyce’s works, it is Ulysses, the ‘novel to end all novels’ (Levin 1941 in Johnson 1993) that provides the richest representation of Dublin, and will be used most to ascertain Dublin’s status in the writings of Joyce.

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In the novel, Dublin is drawn ‘with more precise physical specificity than any other city in literature before or since’ (Johnson 2003); Joyce stated his aim was to ‘give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book’ (in Bulson 2003). This remark was tinged with irony, as Ulysses was written several years after its temporal setting and the destructive consequences of the rebellion of 1916, but does refer to the mimetic specificity employed. As a background setting, the topography of Dublin mattered to Joyce (Kearns 2006).

Ulysses is a novel of ‘carefully recorded movements over carefully mapped spaces’ (Seidel 1976), with all physical action taking place in very particular locations in very particular ways (Gunn and Hart 2004). Writing from Trieste, Zurich and Paris between 1914 and 1921, he pored over maps and ‘Thom’s Official Directory of the United Kingdom and Ireland’, and checked details with relatives still in Dublin, to laboriously construct the Dublin of Ulysses and of the 16th June 1904 (Johnson 1993), tracing the paths of the human characters as they moved through his novel and their city (as was also the case for Dubliners).

The excessive massed accumulation of detail include over 200 street names, and many shops and businesses: – What way is he taking us? Mr Power asked through both windows. – Irishtown, Martin Cunningham said. Ringsend. Brunswick street. Mr Dedalus nodded, looking out… … Mr Bloom smiled joylessly on Ringsend road. Wallace Bros the bottleworks. Dodder bridge. Hades episode (Joyce 1922) Before Nelson’s pillar trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley started for Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clanskea, Rathgar and Terenure, Palmerston park and upper Rathmines, Sandymount, Green Rathmines, Ringsend, Sandymount Tower, Harold’s cross.

The hoarse Dublin United Tramway Company’s timekeeper bawled them off: – Rathgar and Terenure! – Come on, Sandymount Green ! Eolus episode (Joyce 1922) The bombardment of place names, familiar to a Dubliner, alien to others, exists without complementary simple description, which was more apparent in Dubliners. Joyce’s exacting fidelity to the city therefore seems to be for more than urban verisimilitude (Thacker 2000; Johnson 1993): if Joyce’s only aim was to provide a guide for the potential rebuilding of Dublin 1904, Ulysses would have been a ‘sterile undertaking’ (Gunn and Hart 2004).

Instead questions are raised about the nature of the relation between fiction and reality (Johnson 1993). Joyce thus created both a ‘real’ Dublin and also the distorted Dublin mediated through memory, the media, and a necessity to ‘fill in the gaps’ left by Joyce’s exacting, though incomplete, prose (Gunn and Hart 2004). The notion of Joyce’s Dublin as a background setting raise issues concerning the conceptualisation of the city space and place.

Thacker (2000) notes how representational space (from Lefebvre) is well suited to visualising the polytopic or heterotopic world of Ulysses, and interrelates the material and metaphorical senses of space to the textual space of the novel. The space represented is hyperrealized in some places and derealized or ignored in others (Duffy in Attridge and Howes 2000), and becomes labyrinthine and complex (Kearns 2006). Attridge suggests Joyce’s Dublin was a conflicting nowhere and everywhere – a place that was not really a city at all but in which ‘all human history was rehearsed’, an absence and presence, of peripherality and centrality (2004).

Duffy even proposes that the representation of Dublin in Ulysses entirely rejects and transforms the idea (from Augi?? ) of anthropological ‘place’ (in Attridge and Howes 2000). Given the possibilities of different representations of spaces and places of Dublin, it is clear that Joyce’s city is no mere passive, static, inconspicuous background. It is a setting for the movement and activities of the human characters undoubtedly, but this is a richer and deeper setting than first envisaged when presented with 200 place names. The contested history and identity within the landscape hint at Dublin’s character, and should be investigated further.

The ambiguities and hesitations within Joyce’s writings ‘testify to the uncertain, divided consciousness of the colonial subject’ (Nolan 1995 in Attridge and Howes 2000). Ulysses was written during a modern age of fast-paced change, revolution, war and currency instability (Kearns 2006), and emerged from a history of colonialism, subordination and Anglicization. The British colonial imposition on Dublin is a recurrent theme in Joyce’s representations of place and space. Paralysis is a major theme of Dubliners and is represented at the very end of The Dead by snowfall, ‘general all over Ireland’.