- Rethinking Joyce's "Dubliners" eds. by Claire A. Culleton and Ellen Scheible
This collection demonstrates, at times wonderfully, that there is still much to be said about Dubliners—though I am not convinced that it represents a "rethinking" any more than would any other critical volume. Nor am I convinced that the collection meaningfully escapes the trap its editors bemoan or that Dubliners criticism needs the liberation for which they call. But it does hint at what more radical rethinking might look like.
The premise for Rethinking Joyce's "Dubliners" is that an excessive focus on the trope of paralysis has effectively paralyzed criticism about the stories. That claim, however, seems sometimes to depend on a self-congratulatory stacking of the deck; and the proposed alternatives to paralysis do not always seem so different from the ostensibly rejected trope. That is most apparent in the first essay, by Claire A. Culleton, which argues that "insisting only on treating the paralysis in the stories discourages readers from seeing the incredible movement that was alive and moving about Dublin as Joyce wrote these stories" (11). That "only" seems to me suspect. As I have looked back at the readings that are supposed to illustrate an exclusive focus on paralysis, I find plenty else—for instance, references to Joyce's wish, amidst the same famous exchange in which he refers to "paralysis," to foster the "spiritual liberation" of Ireland (SL 88). Jack Dudley, one of the contributors who most closely follows Culleton's lead in challenging "'the simple paralysis reading'" (a phrase Dudley takes from Dominic Head1), builds his essay on the sound point that we have not taken "the idea of particularly 'spiritual liberation'" seriously enough. It is good that he does so, in relation to "Grace" here, but to say that the idea is "seldom considered" (173), as he also does, is something else again and is belied by my own review of some critical texts that invoke paralysis as a central theme of Dubliners.
Does one really generate fresh insights by taking stories long associated with paralysis and associating them instead with fruitless, [End Page 437] foredoomed movement, as the editors recommend? To insist on the importance of the distinction requires Culleton to treat as absolute and literal—"It is different from not moving: one cannot move. In Dubliners, there is no loss of muscle function" (19)—what the "entrenched" criticism has treated mainly, outside of "The Sisters," as metaphor. Culleton's co-editor, Ellen Scheible, begins her excellent piece by making a more subtle distinction, characterizing paralysis in Dubliners as a condition in which "the struggle to identify … progressive movement … occurs inside the mental space of its characters and is impeded, consistently, by the trappings of the body" (94). Scheible needs no critical strawmen to set up her deft deployment of "The Dead" to get at the way that "postcolonial subjectivity must undergo a mirror stage where it recognizes the impossibility of unified nationhood implicit in its development and recognition of a nation" (108).
The essays that follow Culleton's lead in positioning themselves mainly as rejecting or rethinking previous critics' ostensibly narrow commitment to the idea of paralysis seem to me a little hamstrung by that insistence. But other essays, beginning with Scheible's, turn fruitfully towards a different set of struggles. Indeed, the collection stages what I think is a really interesting critical debate about the status in Dubliners of colonial Ireland's women and the poor. It begins with Jim LeBlanc's extending Culleton's comment on "Eveline" to claim that the story depicts "the self-imposed rejection of the possibility of escape from Dublin" (55). Indeed, LeBlanc claims that, in Dubliners,"limits to personal freedom are usually self-imposed or intentionally unchallenged" (56); LeBlanc's assignment of an unappreciated Sartrean "existential freedom" to Joyce's characters results in a rather shockingly (at least I was shocked) neoliberal reading according to which Dubliners are actually free, and just unwilling, to overcome poverty, addiction, misogyny, and colonial oppression. But the collection effectively counters...