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How Does James Joyce Portray Women in Dubliners?

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James Joyce’s Dubliners, published in 1914, is a collection of fifteen short stories. In each tale there lies an undercurrent of sadness that becomes evident by the end. This sadness is certainly exemplified by Joyce’s portrayal of the plight of women in early twentieth century Dublin. The Women in the stories are portrayed as victims, weak slaves in a male dominated world, but is there more to these women than their empty, lonely and depressed lives? How does James Joyce Portray Women in Dubliners?

In answering this question we will consider a range of different characters from a selection of the Dubliners stories, including “The Sisters”, “A Painful Case” and “Eveline”. We will direct our attention to the effects of male dominance, maintaining the focus on the states of the women as opposed to the actions of men. We will examine how Joyce portrays the suffering of his women in what can almost be described as progressive stages: from muted powerlessness to desperation, to tragedy, then to sacrifice and martyrdom, and finally rising to hope and optimism. The women in Dubliners, although unrelated, travel full-circle together in depicting Joyce’s political message on behalf of his beloved Ireland. No matter how trodden-down a spirit is, and no matter how desperate the situation, there is always hope- if not necessarily for Eveline, the Flynn sisters, or Mrs Sinico, but for those women who follow them. Ireland was forced to struggle to achieve any good. With this political context in mind, we will be able to effectively grasp the true nature of Joyce’s portrayal of women.

Joyce portrays his women as powerless in society. For example, they are unable to make a decision without male authority, just as Ireland was forced to answer to the British Government for so many years. Consequently, just as Ireland’s native language was hushed, Joyce describes how the voices of his women are muted too, and simultaneously their actions are subject to their male superiors’ dictations. The position of women under masculine dominance in Joyce’s stories runs in direct parallel to the political position of Ireland under British dominance. No blatant reference is made but the connection is poignantly felt.

Female subordination in a man’s world is Joyce’s theme- an incident in “The Sisters” highlights this. When James’ uncle informs his aunt that “Mr Cotter might take a pick of that leg of mutton”, and old Cotter replies “no, no, not for me”, the aunt brings the dish from the safe and lays it on the table anyway, because she must follow her husband’s orders. Women are like slaves, they are the property of their husbands, and so cannot have minds of their own.

Joyce’s women live for the men in their lives, and so their own emotions and thoughts are forfeit. In “The Sisters”, Nannie and Eliza have dedicated their lives to looking after Father Flynn. They have never married or moved away and the only respect they have ever received has been due to their brother’s position as a Priest, however despite their unfaltering loyalty and duty, now that he has passed away they will be regarded disdainfully as two old spinsters. They have dedicated their lives to an ungrateful cause.

Marriage is the only way that a woman can improve her plight. For example, when Nannie and Eliza are speaking with James’s aunt they refer to her as “Ma’am”, whereas she refers to them merely as “Miss Flynn”. During their time of grieving the sisters still uphold the required etiquette. When James’s aunt asks Eliza “Did he … Peacefully?”, Eliza replies “O, quite peacefully, Ma’am”. For example, Eliza does not forget her social position whereas James’ aunt is considered of higher status simply because she is married. Yet whilst we may pity the sisters for this lowly status, Joyce portrays them as still possessing a truly admirable sense of respect.

Loneliness and desperation is common among Joyce’s women. One of the most severe examples of this is depicted in “A Painful Case”. Mrs Emily Sinico and Mr James Duffy embark on a friendship based on their exchanging of ideas. During their meetings she urges him to let his nature open to the full, “she became his confessor”. However after a while the voice in Mr Duffy’s head urges that they are growing too close,

Insisting on the soul’s incurable loneliness. We cannot give ourselves, it said: we are on our own.

When Mrs Sinico misinterprets his intentions, showing “every sign of unusual excitement”, catching “up his hand passionately”, and pressing it “against her cheek”, Mr Duffy is overcome with such shock he does not visit her for a week. He then writes, asking her to meet him. They wander and talk for nearly three hours, agreeing to cease their intercourse: “every bond, he said is a bond of sorrow”. After four years, when Mr Duffy has returned to his even way of life, upon reading the evening paper he notices the headline, “DEATH OF A LADY AT SYDNEY PARADE”. He realises that the deceased is none other than Mrs Emily Sinico, killed crossing the lines of the slow train. He learns that she had a habit of crossing the lines late at night. He discovers from evidence given by her husband that until two years ago they seemed to have lived happily together, until she became “intemperate in her habits”. Mrs Sinico had been in the habit of going out at night to buy spirits, she was obviously unable to deal with the loss of her relationship with Mr Duffy; she could not deal with the bitter loneliness, and in desperation turned to alcohol. Ultimately her feeling of loss leads to her death, she had had a taste of happiness with Mr Duffy and could not help but fall in love. When he broke it off, she could not deal with going back to her old lonely life.

This is certainly a bitter end to the life of a troubled soul, whom Joyce portrays so tragically. Mrs Sinico may be perceived as the author’s physical representation of the tragic political oppression of his own nation. Woman is the embodiment of Ireland, a state quashed by the oppressing masculine Britain. Mrs Sinico’s long and quiet suffering reflects Ireland’s own subordination to its powerful superior. Joyce portrays her strong defiance as a parallel to that of his country. Mrs Sinico chooses to end her life in order to avoid continuous suffering. Perhaps Joyce is attempting to highlight, as a political message to the rest of the world, the extent of Ireland’s tragic suffering at the hands of the tyrannous Britain.

The women of the Dubliners are depicted as lower class citizens to men, only worthy of respect when they get married or if they are related to someone of high status in the community. In the story “Eveline”, the character named in the title, is considering abandoning her home and family to start a new life in Buenos Ayres with Frank. She reflects upon the way in which she merits no respect and dreams about her new impending life with her love:

In her new home, in a distant unknown country it wound not be like that. Then she would be married, she Eveline. People would treat her with respect then.

Women are seen merely as cooks, cleaners and mothers. Eveline endures this fate as she is regarded as a mother figure even though she has no children of her own:

She had to work hard to keep the house together and to see that the two young children who had been left in her charge went to school regularly and got their meals regularly.

The women have a kind of mental paralysis that brings on feelings of worthlessness and fear. Eveline worries about her physical worth in this world, and is almost threatened by her own ideas (that take on the form of her dead mother) when desire strikes.

As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother’s life laid its spell on the very quick of her being – that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness. She trembled as she heard again her mother’s voice saying constantly with foolish insistence:

‘Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!’

She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy? She had a right to happiness. Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her.

Even though she longs to escape with Frank, the very thought of the promise to her dead mother compels her to stay. In the end she sacrifices her life because of a promise made to her deceased mother as well as her sense of duty towards her home and father.

A lot of the women are portrayed as stoic, they don’t object or ask questions they just get on with their duties as they are told. They seem defeated and deflated, with almost no hint of life or spark in their physical beings.

According to Dan Schneider of Hack Writers magazine, “Eveline” is

A weak, and rather transparent tale, awash in melancholy. There are some nice moments, but little sympathy is held for Eveline, as she is not the brightest bulb on the tree, and easily manipulated. Her mother wasted her own life and then urged Eveline to do the same. The girl is haunted by her mother’s pseudo-Gaelic gibberish, ‘Derevaun Seraun!’ nonsense that symbolizes her and her daughter’s lives. Eveline is, ultimately, a coward, and rightfully damned. (Dan Schnieder, March 2005)

This review is valid to an extent. It can be argued that yes, Joyce portrays Eveline as fairly unintelligent. He allows her to be manipulated by a promise to her dead mother and a duty to her unloving father. However, one might suggest that Eveline’s sacrifice of her one chance at happiness be read as admirable. Although her reasons for not leaving with Frank may reside in ignorance and fear, Joyce still depicts her selflessness as a sort of martyrdom as she self-destructs with what may be described as a quiet dignity.

To conclude, the women depicted in these stories are victims of the time in history, a time when male dominance was so instinctively accepted that the female would never consider objecting. The roles of Joyce’s women reflect this very sad state of affairs. They are lonely, desperate and depressed with their abysmal lives. Whilst Joyce portrays the unfortunate sex so tragically, he does so without disdain. Rather, whilst the Dubliners reflects the true, gritty reality of early twentieth century Dublin, and in doing so depicts accurately the depressing truth of feminine subordination, it must be read as a truly sympathetic portrayal. Joyce is highlighting the sufferings women must endure, and in doing so he describes how they may falter and surrender; Eveline gives up her dream of escape, Mrs Sinico ultimately loses her will to live, and the Flynn sisters with the death of their brother might as well be dead too.

Yet still, where there is dark, Joyce presents a spark of hope in the very fact that the women are aware of their sad positions, and still long for more. Joyce uses his women to project a political message of his nationalist sympathies. He portrays them as beaten-down and oppressed but urges that they have the dignity, resilience and strength to go on- just as Ireland strived for Home Rule and continued to push for independence. Joyce is reminding us that where there is spirit and strength, there is always hope. For example Eveline, despite her unintelligence, desires respect, and Mrs Emily Sinico recognises that she is in a loveless marriage and so longs for the companionship that she so rightfully deserves.

At first glance modern readers may despise Joyce’s early twentieth century Irish women, for their lack of courage and willing servitude to a world so cruel and domineering. However, upon closer inspection it becomes evident through Joyce’s tender and sympathetic portrayal that in each trodden-down woman there resides a quiet dignity and sense of hope, which bestows upon her certain strength unlike any other- a strength which is also embodied by Ireland, a country he loved so much.

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