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Suspicious Readings of Joyce's "Dubliners"

By Margot Norris

Publication Year: 2003

Because the stories in James Joyce's Dubliners seem to function as models of fiction, they are able to stand in for fiction in general in their ability to make the operation of texts explicit and visible. Joyce's stories do this by provoking skepticism in the face of their storytelling. Their narrative unreliabilities—produced by strange gaps, omitted scenes, and misleading narrative prompts—arouse suspicion and oblige the reader to distrust how and why the story is told.

As a result, one is prompted to look into what is concealed, omitted, or left unspoken, a quest that often produces interpretations in conflict with what the narrative surface suggests about characters and events. Margot Norris's strategy in her analysis of the stories in Dubliners is to refuse to take the narrative voice for granted and to assume that every authorial decision to include or exclude, or to represent in a particular way, may be read as motivated. Suspicious Readings of Joyce's Dubliners examines the text for counterindictions and draws on the social context of the writing in order to offer readings from diverse theoretical perspectives.

Suspicious Readings of Joyce's Dubliners devotes a chapter to each of the fifteen stories in Dubliners and shows how each confronts the reader with an interpretive challenge and an intellectual adventure. Its readings of "An Encounter," "Two Gallants," "A Painful Case," "A Mother," "The Boarding House," and "Grace" reconceive the stories in wholly novel ways—ways that reveal Joyce's writing to be even more brilliant, more exciting, and more seriously attuned to moral and political issues than we had thought.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. vii-viii

List of Abbreviations

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pp. ix

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pp. 1-15

Why do we remain enthralled, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, with Dubliners, James Joyce’s stories of ordinary people and ordinary life set in Dublin at the last century’s beginning? Those of us who call ourselves “modernists” or “twentieth-century” scholars have newly taken on the role once held by the Victorians, as critics of a previous century, a bygone era that passed from contemporaneity for the older among us into a time increasingly historical...

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1. The Gnomon of the Book: “The Sisters”

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pp. 16-29

Among the stories in Dubliners, the gaps, ellipses, and silences in “The Sisters” have engrossed critics for decades, and have received such illuminating attention that their dilation of the story’s interpretive possibilities has been extensively explored. This is clearly no accident, for I believe (along with other critics) that Joyce made the figure and function of the gap, the silence, and...

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2. A Walk on the Wild(e) Side: “An Encounter”

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pp. 30-44

Like many of the stories in Dubliners, Joyce’s “An Encounter” functions as an enigmatic provocation to problematized ethical reading. Consider the shift in ethical assumptions inscribed in the historical arc of the questions that were asked of the story when it was written (“Is this an immoral text?”) and those we might ask now (“Is this a homophobic text?”). Yet the puzzling and...

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3. Blind Streets and Seeing Houses: “Araby”

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pp. 45-54

Joyce’s “Araby” not only draws attention to its conspicuous poetic language; it offers the beauty of its art as compensation to the frustrations that are thematized in the story. The little boy whose heart is broken by a city “hostile to romance” transmutes his grief into a romance of language. Joyce, whose Dubliners stories tend to bear rhetorical titles, makes of “Araby” a rhetorical...

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4. The Perils of “Eveline”

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pp. 55-67

With a small aside tucked into his brilliant 1972 essay called “Molly’s Masterstroke,” Hugh Kenner turned the Dubliners story “Eveline” upside down by listening to a couple of commas. Kenner quotes the narration—" 'He had fallen on his feet in Buenos Ayres [comma] he said [comma] and had come over to the old country just for a holiday’ ” (20). Kenner goes on to say, “Great issues...

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5. Masculinity Games in “After the Race”

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pp. 68-79

Joyce’s story “After the Race” exhibits a curious paradox. As the Dubliners story representing the most powerful figures—economically and socially—the story itself has emerged as perhaps the weakest in the collection, and the one most vulnerable to critical disparagement. Emboldened by Joyce’s own judgment—“The two worst stories are After the Race and A Painful Case”...

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6. Gambling with Gambles in “Two Gallants”

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pp. 80-92

Like a number of other Dubliners stories, “Two Gallants” is uncertain on the level of significance because it is fundamentally uncertain on the level of narrative and plot. Some crucial information is strategically withheld from the reader that obliges us to construct a crude scenario of what we think is going on in this story. This scenario—that a repellent young man doubly...

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7. Narrative Bread Pudding: “The Boarding House”

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pp. 93-108

She made Mary collect the crusts and pieces of broken bread to help to make Tuesday’s bread-pudding” (64), we learn of Mrs. Mooney, the butcher’s daughter, in “The Boarding House.” The passage goes on to enact the servant’s gesture of boarding house thrift by serving us the twice-baked crusts, as it were, of the previous evening’s events. The form this narrative bread pudding...

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8. Men Under a Cloud in “A Little Cloud”

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pp. 109-121

If we imagine a first-time reading of “A Little Cloud”—rereading the story as though we had never read it before—we realize that for the first third of the story the narrator leaves us entirely adrift (like a ‘little cloud’?) as to certain significant issues of time and place. The opening paragraph strongly suggests that the protagonist has recently been reunited with an old friend he...

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9. Farrington, the Scrivener, Revisited: “Counterparts”

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pp. 122-139

When Joyce’s brother Stanislaus read his story “Counterparts,” he wrote to Joyce that the story showed “a Russian ability in taking the reader for an intracranial journey” (SL 73). In response to this critique Joyce asked himself precisely what is meant when people say that something is “Russian,” and he came up with two answers. He surmised that most people probably meant “a...

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10. Narration Under the Blindfold in “Clay”

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pp. 140-157

“Clay” is a deceptively simple little story by design: its narrative self-deception attempts, and fails, to mislead the reader. But as a special case of the blind leading the blind, “Clay” also offers the multiple revelations that come with the restoration of sight: it allows us to see the blind spots in Maria’s story and, in them, to see ourselves as their cause, if not their instrument. Joyce displays...

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11. Shocking the Reader in “A Painful Case”

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pp. 158-171

James Joyce’s story “A Painful Case” is about a story that is painful for a reader: a newspaper article of the same title that gives Mr. Duffy a disturbing shock when he reads of Mrs. Sinico’s death. This shocked reading produces a moment of classical anagnorisis when the man recognizes his implication in the woman’s fate. But is Joyce’s story, “A Painful Case,” painful for the reader as...

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12. Genres in Dispute: “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”

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pp. 172-184

Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” ends with a stirring poetic performance—Joe Hynes reciting his elegy on the occasion of the death of Parnell. This recitation is followed by an exercise in literary criticism. “What do you think of that, Crofton? cried Mr Henchy. Isn’t that fine? What?” (135). Given that Mr. Crofton is an Orangeman, a Conservative, and not a Nationalist, his...

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13. Critical Judgment and Gender Prejudice in “A Mother”

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pp. 185-196

Narration inevitably provides readers of fiction with a lens or filter that manipulates their perception of the virtues and vices, the strengths and weaknesses, the charms and vulgarities of fictional characters. Joyce’s story, “A Mother,” demonstrates how gender ideology can serve as a particularly powerful narrative filter capable of conditioning an entire critical reception. For many...

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14. Setting Critical Accounts Aright in “Grace”

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pp. 197-215

“Grace,” as is well known, was at one time intended to be the last of the Dubliners stories, the capstone of the collection. Critics have therefore tended to read it for its plenary function of completing and summing up the significance of the preceding tales. In that tradition, I would like to press the story’s significance beyond the book’s confines, and argue that “Grace” functions— perhaps less by design than by historical convergence—to dramatize what...

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15. The Politics of Gender and Art in “The Dead”

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pp. 216-236

Although the first sentence of “The Dead” tells us that “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet” (175), Lily does not complain about her lot. Indeed, that is why she gets on so well with her mistresses, as we learn a little later—“But Lily seldom made a mistake in the orders so that she got on well with her three mistresses. They were fussy, that was all. But the only...


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pp. 237-263

Works Cited

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pp. 265-273


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pp. 275-279

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pp. 281-292

Some of the chapters in this book were first written as conference papers and eventually published in volumes growing out of Joyce conferences or in special issues of journals devoted to Dubliners. Although I have expanded and revised everything in this book, I nonetheless wish to thank presses and journals that printed earlier versions of some of the pieces for permission to revise and use them in these pages....

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202984
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812237399

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2003