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Reviewed by:
Donald T. Torchiana. Backgrounds for Joyce's "Dubliners."Winchester: Allen, 1986. 283 pp. $29.95.

The title of Torchiana's study of Dubliners is slightly misleading: it is in fact a deliberately new reading of each story, systematically extending the range and depth of the background material necessary for a full understanding of Joyce's manifold meanings. The explicit assumption is that Joyce deliberately appealed to the furthest reaches of the Irish imagination by using paradigms from religion, myth, legend, history, literature—even place-names. The one constant, Torchiana maintains, is the theme of paralysis—a peculiarly Irish affliction.

The subject of "Sisters" is, according to this book, the awakening of imagination and its inevitable demise after the example of the priest, who here serves as an ironic inversion of the figure of Father Rosencrux, Yeats's symbol for the imagination. Thus religion, literature, and paralysis are all invoked for their specially Irish meanings. One can find extraordinary significance in Dublin locales, sites of historic encounters between the native Irish and the Romans, Vikings, and the English (the Irish invariably lose), as in "An Encounter"; religious, literary, social, and historical details supporting the narrator's disillusionment with the discovery of self in "Araby"; mythic, legendary, and religious patterns in "Eveline," even the significance of the name of the title character; outlines of the fates of Niall of the Nine Hostages and his son, Laoghaire, plus apt details of the Castlebar races, and traditional Irish racial weaknesses, all underpinning "After the Race." If reading at this rate is sometimes strained, and often fatiguing, it is nonetheless to Torchiana's credit that he has systematically undertaken a very daunting task: offering new readings of what, we thought, were already thoroughly understood stories. If he sometimes presses too hard, or if at times the marshalling of evidence appears too intricate, his brilliant grasp of nuance and his thorough grounding in the full range of Irish history make the outcome of his strenuous engagement with the method of Dubliners well worth the effort required to follow. "Counterparts," "Two Gallants," and "Clay" seem likely to carry Torchiana's stamp in future readings, and his demonstration of the relevance of the Tristan and Isolde story to "A Painful Case" via place names [End Page 660] and associations is likely to become firmly established, for it makes the pervasive irony of that story almost palpable.

K. E. Marre
University of Dayton


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