1914 was not, overall, a great year. This year sees the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War, a sombre and reflective anniversary that fills most with feelings of melancholy. However, a candle in the darkness of all this is that 2014 also marks 100 years since the publication of James Joyce’s first work: Dubliners. Dubliners, rather unfortunately, isn’t as well known as many of Joyce’s other works, but this occasion allows to ponder its considerable significance.
The work is a collection of 15 short stories, each set in and around Dublin at the turn of the century, a time of great political turmoil in Ireland. Each story captures a different perspective of competing nationalist ideologies, religious discord and the struggle for identity, all of which fit together to provide a comprehensive sweep of contemporary feeling.
The work is so thoroughly ingrained in Ireland and Irish culture: the language and landscape of the novel are so precise, so accurate, that Joyce manages to create one of the most staggeringly realistic portraits of a nation in literature.
However, Dubliners is so much more than that. It is evidence of an emerging style and of a developing artist, one who is tenacious, intelligent and revolutionary. It took Joyce nine years to find somebody willing to publish the novel, predominantly because he refused to compromise on the removal of any crudity or profanity from the piece, an admirable dedication to his craft for a fledgling artist. And within this act we see the beginnings of Joyce’s modernist ideals: it evidences the unwillingness to conform to traditional values. Further evidence can be found in the stories themselves, as Joyce manipulates his prose towards the consciousness and idiom of his protagonists, and leaves his stories morally unresolved in many instances, a stark contrast to the ever grandiloquent and often didactic works of Victorian authors.
The 100th anniversary of Dubliners will receive no public ceremony, nor will it humble a nation into reflection, and this is not a bad thing. It does not require such grandiose recognition. Hopefully it will pass by almost unnoticed, with a subtlety befitting Joyce’s style, quietly reminding us that tradition is no guarantee of righteousness, and that authority is no guarantee of wisdom.