James Joyce’s surprisingly accurate prediction of the future

Dubliners, written by James Joyce, is an anthology published in 1914. Dubliners, consisting of 15 seemingly unrelated short stories, is about the typical life of an Irish middle-class person living in Dublin (as the name suggests) in the early 20th century. Although it was published more than a hundred years ago, Dubliners is one of the most influential books of all time and is more relevant than ever to modern life. The stories revolve around the concepts of detachment from society, the feeling of paralysis and the alienation of people, that plague society.

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Alienation is not as obvious as it seems, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist

Mr Duffy, of A Painful Case, is a prime example of the fragmentation that plagues society today. The reclusive life he lived is mirrored in today’s millennials and Gen Z, who I daresay are infamously renowned for the extensive hours they spend on the Internet and social media, with barely any social interaction. The “mind forg’d manacles” (London, William Blake) that divided and alienated people from their communities a century ago have progressively evolved into the self-inflicted barriers we have today, including the Internet and technology. It’s a bit like Plato’s cave.

A visual representation of Plato’s cave allegory.
A visual representation of Plato’s cave allegory.
A visual representation of Plato’s cave allegory.

The prisoners (Gen Z) are deluded by the idea of the existence of a blooming virtual community on the Internet, and it is with difficulty that they can be convinced otherwise, or rather, broken free of the chains and allowed to see the world. The same way that Mr Duffy does not realise the loneliness he wallows in until he loses the one person that meant anything to him (Mrs. Sinico), people today, especially teenagers, thrive off the illusions of connectivity and community that is social media, and only once they see the wonders of social interaction face-to-face do they understand the value and importance of social cohesion.

A Painful Case shows how love, or rather a lack of it, can lead to loneliness, isolation, and desperation. Mrs Sinico’s husband, being the “captain of a mercantile boat” naturally spent a lot of time away from home. This would have, logically, weakened the emotional bonds Mr and Mrs Sinico shared, and have caused an early and premature form of fragmentation and dysfunctionality within their family. Cue Mr Duffy. A lone man himself, Mr Duffy never once saw and felt the wonders of love. Therefore, we would think that his interactions with Mrs Sinico would lead him to realise the importance of love and affection. However, the lack of a love that was once present drives Mrs Sinico to speed up the relationship process, and everything is “[broken] off”, where they agree that “every bond […] is a bond to sorrow”. Mrs Sinico and Mr Duffy return to their solitary lives. A Painful Case, therefore, suggests that love is almost a destructive force that can ruin lives if not ‘applied’ correctly. Similar to A Painful Case, recent studies conducted by the University of Manchester seem to indicate that the lack of love is the reason behind fragmentation, as the number of single people and private renting have increased considerably. The impact fragmentation has on mental health discussed in this article is also shown in A Painful Case, with Mrs Sinico turning to alcohol and “[being] rather intemperate” with her husband, both of which are new characteristics of the depressed Mrs Sinico.

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Mrs Sinico finds temporary refuge in the sinister hands of alcohol.

Another theme that is consistent throughout the book is paralysis, and some stories that exclusively incorporate this into the plot include Araby and The Boarding House, but perhaps the most obvious would be A Mother. A key influencer of success in life in 20th century Dublin was social-climbing, despite it resulting in failure for the characters in Dubliners. A Mother discusses the limitations that are forced onto people by society, and how they restrict growth and development in character and personality. These “rules” of society paralyse the people of Dubliners as they are stripped of their opportunities, and end up with no will, no heart, and no soul. Mrs Kearney’s failed attempts to gain/maintain reputation within the community leads to the destruction of her daughter’s bright musical future. This is similar to, but not exactly, commodification, because, whilst there is no money or financial value involved, the relationship between Mrs Kearney and her daughter’s musical ability is extrinsically motivated because Mrs Kearney values her status and reputation above the relationship between her daughter and music. George Monbiot's Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis talks about the possible consequences of being extrinsically motivated, including “higher levels of stress, anxiety, anger, envy, dissatisfaction and depression” (page 8) than those who value compassion, connectedness and kindness (intrinsic values). Monbiot maintains that whilst extrinsic values may be necessary to develop confidence and self-esteem, that:

“If our purpose is to create a kinder world, we should embed within the political story we tell the intrinsic values that promote this aim […]” (page 9)

The Dead also revolves around the concepts of fragmentation and paralysis. Being the final story in the book, The Dead completes the book by tying together the stories. The Dead shows how the problems that society poses, such as social fragmentation, paralysis and alienation are not just applicable to Dubliners, but everyone in general. One of the ways that The Dead concludes the stories can be seen when Dubliners starts with a child struggling to understand and accept death in The Sisters and finishes with a grown matured man (Gabriel) still facing the same struggles of coping with death. Gabriel’s engagement in philosophical contemplation of the inevitable death that awaits us all indicates a sense of paralysis, as he feels he is powerless against the unstoppable force of time that will push us all into our dooms. While he believes he is successful, he feels like he will “fade away” an insignificant, forgotten person, not knowing anything about even those closest to him, such as his wife, whose ex-lover he recalls loved her with much more passion. Perhaps a more interesting connection to this appears in The Sisters, where the child narrator says:

“The word paralysis … It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.”

These self-destructive behaviours of the child are explained in detail here, but in summary, whilst Gabriel flees from his fear of paralysis, the child’s counterphobic behaviours bring him closer to that which he fears. Whilst the child is aware of the gloom and depression that the feeling of emotional paralysis can bring, he decides that it is easier to handle than accept the priest’s death.

Dubliners will continue to hold its special place in this world as a reminder, and a warning, as to what can happen to our society very soon if we do nothing about this pressing social issue. Until we have eradicated social fragmentation, spiritual and emotional paralysis and the like, Dubliners will continue to remain relevant to society. The fact that almost nothing has changed for a hundred years in terms of solving the issues listed above suggests that action is not being taken quick enough and we must put the broken shards of the community picture back together before the shards are lost forever.

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