Realism in James Joyce’s Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

What does Joyce clearly state? What does Joyce clearly state?
What does Joyce clearly state?

(Fritz Senn, ‘Dynamic Adjustment in Dubliners’)

chisono_scrWhen James Joyce said that ‘in realism you get down to facts on which the world is based; that sudden reality that smashes romanticism into a pulp’, he affirmed something that doubled into a question: what constitute the “real” for Joyce? Recent criticism offers an extensive analysis on what constitute “reality” in both Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and proposes a reading of Joyce’s realism in terms of representation of a harsh reality in Dubliners, and of interplay between harsh reality and subjectivity in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The aim of this essay is to investigate Joyce’s realism in Dubliners and in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on two levels. Firstly, in the analysis of realism in Dubliners critics have too often underestimated the role played by subjectivity, and I will argue that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not the first depositary of James Joyce’s relativistic attitude towards reality, as critics such as Riquelme seem to suggest.(1)Secondly, I will suggest looking at Joyce’s early fiction in terms of an evolutionary realism, a mode of representation of life and experience that aimed to arouse, or to make others see, a development.

It is often said by critics that of ‘the two epiphanic modes of stark realism – “the vulgarity of speech or of gesture”- and the visionary fantasy – “a memorable phase of the mind in itself”’, the vulgarity of speech is characteristic of Dubliners where ‘the visionary [is] displaced by the grim limitations of living and dying’.(2)Dubliners is certainly a realistic text, so realistic in terms of places, people, and subject matter represented that Joyce met not few difficulties to publish it as he had wrote it. The themes narrated in Dubliners – such as the violence of a drank man beating his son (‘Counterparts’), or the story of a married woman who has a relationship with another man and commits suicide when the man resists her (‘A Painful Case’) – were unusual material for fiction, and even more unusual was the frankness with which Joyce treated them. A true representation of these facts – or even ‘unfacts’ as Jeri Johnson suggests-(3) was for Joyce the mode by which Dubliners could see that to ‘make[…] most people lives unhappy [was] some disappointed romanticism, some unrealizable or misconceived ideal’.(4)

In order to depict reality faithfully Joyce expanded the limits of nineteen-century realism of writers such as Honorè de Balzac and George Eliot. The distinctiveness of Joyce’s realism lies in the close relationship between subject matter and style, between objectivity and language, a relationship that reaches is climax in Finnegans Wake.

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(1) John Paul Riquelme, ‘Stephen Hero, Dubliners, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Styles of Realism and Fantasy’, in The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, ed. by Derek Attridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 103-130 (p.123).

(2) Riquelme, p. 104.

(3) Jeri Johnson, ‘Introduction’, in Dubliners, by James Joyce (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. vii-xl (p. xxii).

(4) James Joyce, quoted in ‘Introduction’, Dubliners, p. xiii.

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