[Bibl. note: Dubliners, in James Joyce: The Artist and the Labyrinth, ed. Augustine Martin (London; Ryan Publ. 1990), pp.63ff.; also in Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (July 1991), p.31-37.]
Dubliners has often been compared to The Untilled Field; Moores stories are seen to have foreshadowed Joyces, and they are linked in trying to establish a tradition for that dubious enterprise, The Irish Short Story. I do not use dubious in the pejorative sense, other than the absurdity of trying to tout one race or literary form above any other. Remarkable work in the short story has come continually out of Ireland, but it is likely that its very strength is due to the absence of a strong central tradition. Stanislaus Joyce is most persuasive in his articulation of this problem for the Irish writer, if problem it be; for to live here is to come into daily contact with a rampant individualism and localism dominating a vague, fragmented, often purely time-serving, national identity. James Joyces remark about the citizens of Trieste - They are all for the country when they know which country it is- could be equally true of his own countrymen. Moore expressed this rowdy individualism, and in some respects he personified it, as did Patrick Kavanagh later, but it is not applicable to Joyce.
The author of The Lake, Drama in Muslin, Hail and Farewell, was a writer of genius. The stories in The Untilled Field are as fresh on the page today as when Moore wrote them to be translated into Irish in 1900. That he wrote them for translation may have much to do with their freshness and energy. Moores artistic insecurity was as great as Kavanaghs. That he was writing the stories for translation probably freed him from a crippling responsibility: he did not have to protect himself with an imposed formality; above all, he did not feel called upon to ruin them with style. In his forthright way Joyce described these stories as stupid, but the social inaccuracy he pinpointed we do not notice today. Moore was not so scathing about Dubliners, though his reaction was almost as unsympathetic. Given the disparity in temperaments, backgrounds, and upbringings, it could hardly have been otherwise, and it makes the attempt to force the two books into the same tradition extraordinarily misplaced. Moores genius was erratic and individualistic. Joyces temperament was essentially classical, and he knew exactly what he was attempting in Dubliners [quotes]:
[...] My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis [...] Had I listened to them I would not have written the book (Ellmann, Sel. Letters, p.83; abbrev. here.)
The authority and plain sense suggest that Joyce was well aware that he was working within a clearly defined tradtion. To look towards Moore for any tradition is not useful. All of Moore is self-expression: he constantly substitutes candour for truth. In Dubliners there is no self-expression; its truth is in every phrase. The author is like God in nature, present everywhere but nowhere visible.
I do not think we have to look further than Flaubert and the group of writers close to who wrote in France at the height of the nineteenth century.
[Quotes at length Henry James letter to William Dean Howells.]
The first reactions to Dubliners were not unlike the criticism Flaubert had to confront until the end of his life: that the work was depressing, with no uplifting message, too withdrawn and cold; and though all too accurate, lacking in feeling and compassion.
In the light of Joyces statement - I have written from the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness and with the conviction that he is a very bold man who dares to alter in the presentment, still more to deform whatever he has seen or heard [...] - it is interesting to look at the following paragraph from a letter George Sand wrote to Flaubert in 1876:
[Here McGahern quotes extensively from correspondence between Sand and Flaubert, that is, from a letter of hers in which she challenges his favourite heresy, earlier identified as supreme impartiality and the desire to write for twenty intelligent people, not caring a fig for the rest, and one of Flaubert in which he shows himself to be uncompromising in his belief that he has no right to express his own opinions and his related belief that Form and Matter never exist without [each] other.]
The concern for external beauty you reproach me with is for me a method. The method of Dubliners is that of people, events, and places invariably find their true expression. This is so self-evident that comment becomes superfluous. Everything is important in Dubliners because it is there and everything there is held in equal importance.
In The Sisters, a priests madness is toned down to the banal, to social insanity and acceptance
[Quotes Wide-awake [...] something wrong with him].
A simple walk in Westmoreland Street in Counterparts is seen through a vain and weak man raising himself in his own eyes.
[Quotes He came out of the pan-office joyfully [...] the curling fumes of punch.]
The whole of the Roman Church in the figure of the silenced priest is completely redeemed into the company of the little Dubliners engaged with themselves and the ward elections in Ivy Day in the Committee Room:
[Quotes Tell me, John, said Mr. OConnor, [...] God forgive me, he added, I thought he was the dozen of stout.]
The rich local humour is never allowed to stray out of character. It generally consists of badly digested scraps of misinformation which are adhered to like articles of faith once they are possessed, and used like weapons to advance their owners sense of self-importance, or to belabour that of others. it could have been a happy enving in race but they vituperated one another:
[Quotes Pope Leo XIII, said Mr. Cunningham [...] McCoy [...], saying: Thats no joke, I can tell you.]
While Maria in Clay is disturbed and confused and sings the first verse of her song twice over, the prose is never any of these things and remains wonderfully alert and balanced:
[Quotes: But no one tried to show her her mistake [...] he had to ask his wife to tell him where the corkscrew was.]
Particularly in The Boarding House, Grace, and The Dead, pun, coincidence, and echo are used as a writer of verse would use the formality of rhyme, deepening the sense of the lives of these mortal-immortal Dubliners, drawing together the related instincts of the religious, the poetic, and the superstitious.
The prose never draws attention to itself except at the end of The Dead, and by then it has been earned: throughout, it enters our imaginations as stealthily as the evening invading the avenue in Eveline. Its classical balance allows no room for self-expression: all the seas of the world may be tumbling in Evelines heart, but her eyes give no sign of love or farewell or recognition.
Joyce does not judge. His characters live within the human constraints in space and time and within their own city. The quality of the language is more important than any system of ethics or aesthetics. Material and form are inseparable. So happy is the union of subject and object that they never become statements of any kind, but in their richness and truth are representations of particular lives - and all of life.
I do not see Dubliners as a book of separate stories. The whole work has more the unity and completeness of a novel. Only in the great passages of Ulysses was Joyce able to surpass the art of Dubliners. In many of these, like the Hades episode, his imagination returns again and again to his first characters, his original material.