Although James Joyce began these stories of Dublin life in 1904, when he was 22, and had completed them by the end of 1907, they remained unpublished until 1914 — victims of Edwardian squeamishness. Their vivid, tightly focused observations of the life of Dublin's poorer classes, their unconventional themes, coarse language, and mention of actual people and places made publishers of the day reluctant to undertake sponsorship.
Today, however, the stories are admired for their intense and masterly dissection of "dear dirty Dublin," and for the economy and grace with which Joyce invested this youthful fiction. From "The Sisters," the first story, illuminating a young boy's initial encounter with death, through the final piece, "The Dead," considered a masterpiece of the form, these tales represent, as Joyce himself explained, a chapter in the moral history of Ireland that would give the Irish "one good look at themselves." But in the end the stories are not just about the Irish; they represent moments of revelation common to all people.
As a woman of Irish heritage who majored in classic Briitsh Lit in college and now works in the book world, I'm just gonna come clean with this... this is my first foray in the works of James Joyce. I know! I know! You can pull up your jaw now, I can explain. He's just one of those writers that has always been on my "meaning to get to" list. And the horror stories of people that have tried Ulysses -- I at least have a copy of that one somewhere on my shelves -- can scare a girl off. So I thought I would start small with this little short story collection.
I read the blurb on the back of the paperback copy I have that mentioned how Joyce started writing these 15 somewhat interconnected stories back in 1904 at the age of 22, and how he had them finished by 1907 but had to wait til 1914 to get them onto bookshelves thanks to the sensitive Victorian readership of the era. Joyce's publisher was concerned that the themes of the stories might be a bit too gritty for the prim general public. Also, as I understand it, Joyce makes some thinly veiled references to actual people of the time that I'm guessing would not have been received as a form of flattery so much... Well, naturally that made me curious as to what was in store for my modern reader eyes!
As you might've guessed by now, for many of today's readers, this collection will read pretty tame. Yes, it does focus on the lower class citizens of Dublin, yes there are descriptions of squalor that sometimes include coarse language. But all in all, you've likely heard worse these days. A number of the stories focus on children or teens; the very first story being one of a boy processing news of the death of a beloved mentor, others describe two boys playing hooky from school who have an encounter with a creepy guy on a street, and one of a girl attempting to escape an abusive father. There are also stories with more adult themes, spotlighting the topics of promiscuous women, flat-out prostitution, women just generally worn down (physically and emotionally) by their husbands. There's also a story here and there that are less the underbelly of Dublin and more just a Upstairs / Downstairs style story (you know, the privileged & wealthy vs their estate staff). The very last story, "The Dead", was one of this style and ended up being my personal favorite.
Oh, the husbands. Yes, many of them here are portrayed as alcoholics --- another shock, I know! LOL Also, we're talking about the Irish here, so it's somewhat inevitable that at least a little religion gets worked into the stories here and there.
My impression of Joyce, in this instance anyway, is that while his stories approach risque themes, his writing style beats around the bush so much it was hard for me to feel much shock or offense. In fact, some of the stories featured quite sweet scenes of family bonding between parents and children or lively, jovial times between friends. It's not all grim and grit! But it did end up being largely blah for me. There, I said it. At the risk of offending my Irish ancestors, I'm putting it out there --- I found Joyce's writing here kind of dull! Meet y'all at the square in five for my stoning, hehe.