Arneisha McDermott
Stuck in Paralysis
James Joyce was a very influential writer of the twentieth century whose works have had
a huge impact on literature. Dubliners is one of his famous writings and is unique because it is a
book composed of several short stories. While all the stories have different plots and characters
there are several universal themes seen throughout every one. The setting for all the stories is
Dublin, a city in Ireland. Joyce uses this text to critique several aspects of Dublin such as
religion and society. All the stories in the book are connected through the central theme of
paralysis. Paralysis, and related aspects of paralysis such as epiphanies and death, can be found
in all the stories and impacts the characters as well as the real life society of Dublin during the
twentieth century.
In order to read Dubliners and fully understand each short story within it, it is essential
that readers understand what paralysis means. This is a word that is used by James several times
throughout the book and is one of the overarching themes of the book. Paralysis, in the context
that James uses, is the state of over-analyzing a situation so that a decision or action is never
taken. Many characters in Dubliners suffer from paralysis that affects their ability to change
their lives and break there circle of routine that defer their dreams. One example of a character in
a state of paralysis is the main character in “The Sisters”.
The death of Father Flynn lingers with the young boy causing him to slip in a state of
paralysis. Like many of the stories, this story is rather ambiguous and the author leaves out
many details which results in several things being left unexplained. When the young boy’s aunts
and uncles give their accounts of Father Flynn, a different picture is painted in our heads than
when the young boy describes him. We see that there was a relationship between them that the
adults felt was very odd. The more the boy thinks about Father Flynn, the more he realizes that
indeed there was something awkward about him. His overthinking ultimately leads him into not
being able to speak when he and his aunt visit the sisters. This story is important because it is
Joyce’s critic on society and religion. The narrator suggests that Father Flynn himself died of
paralysis. The city is plagued with the strict tedious routines of religion that controls the city and
its people. We see another critic on religion in the next story in Dubliners called “An
Encounter”.
There are references to the tensions between Catholic and Protestant religions in this
story when Father Butler scolds the young boys for reading cowboy and Indian stories. He says
that Catholic boys do not read stories like that, only Protestants. This is an example of how one
religion is placed as the more superior religion and they is a certain way one should live their life
in order to be faithful to their religion. In “An Encounter”, the readers can also recognize the
theme of paralysis within the characters. The characters in this story yearn for an escape outside
of their boring routine ridden lives. They seek new adventures and when they try to leave their
routines behind they end up turning their back on their new adventure instead. Young school
boys in the story skip school one day to go on an adventure n effort to create excitement in their
life. This is a concept that James writes about often and can be seen as a critic of the society he
lived in. Many of the characters in the stories often lose their selves or remain in isolation for the
rest of their lives because they never change their circle of routine. They often miss out on new
opportunities, love or fulfilling their dreams because they are paralyzed with the overthinking
they do. This is no exception for the boys in “An Encounter”. The day they skip school to seek
a more adventurous day, they head into Dublin to visit “The Pigeon House”.
Their day is going well until they are confronted with a weird old man. He engages in a
conversation with the boys that gives him creepy presences amongst the boys. He asks them are
they have any “sweethearts” and talks about what he likes about girls. Right away the boys feel
uneasy and even give out fake names in order to protect their identity when talking to the man.
The conversation becomes even more odd when he tells Mahony that he fantasizes being able to
whip him. The narrator of the story is in a state of paralysis as a result of the conversation with
the man. His speech is literally paralyzed and he does not know what to make of the
conversation. This shows that going to Dublin and meeting the stranger was a disruption of
routine in a negative way and caused the narrator to yearn for his old routine again. This one
encounter ruined the narrators want for change in his life. He realized that maybe it is best for
him to keep his life the same. This is James’ way of telling the readers that we will encounter
situations that make us uncomfortable but every situation should not affect our decisions for
change in our lives. This is something that many characters face in the book. They all have
desires but they do not pursue their desires because of the fear disrupting routine brings.
James Joyce’s writing embodies this overarching theme of paralysis and can be seen in
the story “Eveline”. This story really illustrates the negative aspects of holding onto the past and
how holding onto the past stops you from enjoying your future. The main character Eveline is
faced with a dilemma to either stay at home and be an obedient daughter, or leave and get
married to the man she loves, Frank. She secretly agrees to marry him and live in Buenos Aires
but she feels uneasy about her decision. Throughout the story she reflects on her life and begins
thinking about what decision would be best. Her father is abusive and living a domestic life like
her mother did does not sound anything but sad and uneventful. She yearns for an escape from
the boring life she feels is her destiny but when the moment arrives for her to get on the boat
with Frank and move toward a better life, she is unsurprisingly motionless from paralysis. This
is another example of how Joyce is critiquing his home town’s values and traditions. Many
women of his century became trapped within a domestic life and never got to experience life to
the fullest. Eveline’s life is determined by her daily routine like the other characters.
Routine overrides any of her desires and in the act of over analyzing the situation she
makes no decision at all leaving her a victim to paralysis like everyone else. Like the others she
has an epiphany and realizes that the life she currently lives in undesirable and she must make a
change if she wants something different for her life. But the routine is too powerful as it is for
the other characters. All the characters have some sort of desire for an escape out of their
predictable lives, but are trapped within the circle of routine. Paralysis traps them and prevents
them from experiencing new things and happiness. How is it that all the characters realize this
but are too afraid to be in control of their own happiness? This is something that Joyce must have
felt that the real life people of Dublin in his time suffered from.
One thing that Joyce felt is that in order for one to be successful they must leave Dublin.
Perhaps he wanted to be a demonstration of that himself because he left the country after a selfimposed exile. This is interesting because some of the characters in his book long for getting out
of Dublin as well. For example Little Chandler in “A Little Cloud” has a desire to travel outside
of the country to pursue his writing dreams. Another example is how Eveline considers running
off to marry Frank and move to Buenos Aires. Moving away from Dublin symbolizes freedom,
a fresh start and happiness. While all of the stories have a rather somber, negative tone, Joyce
displays the hope and confidence he has in his society of Dublin to change their conservative
traditional ways of life.
After reading each story closely, it is apparent that Joyce has faith in the Irish people he
had been critiquing throughout Dubliners. He believes that it is possible for individuals to
change and we see that this change did not happen in 1910 like Woolf argues. Even though the
characters in Joyce’s book do not break the cycle of paralysis and do what they aspire to do in
their dreams, Joyce carefully gives each character epiphanies. This reoccurring idea of the
characters coming to sudden realizations about their lives, even though they fail to change,
shows that Joyce has faith in the Irish people as a whole being able to get rid of the paralysis they
are stuck in.
While reading Dubliners I noticed that not only was paralysis a major theme throughout
the book, but also this idea of death. There were several instances of death for example in “The
Sisters” the death of Father Flynn, the death of Mrs. Sinico is “A Painful Case” and reminiscing
loved ones who have passed away in “The Dead”. It is interesting and no coincidence that the
book beginnings with a story about death and ends with a story about death. There is a reason
the author chose to embed the rest of the short stories in between two stories about death. It is a
way to foreshadow the deaths that occur in the other stories as well as a way to serve as a symbol
for paralysis. Paralysis or this idea of over analyzing a situation resulting in no decision being
made and no change is death within itself. The characters that are affected by paralysis are still
alive, literally speaking, but they are actually dead. Their lives are dark and miserable. They are
alive but they might as well be dead. Paralysis has taken over their lives and affected the
decisions they make leaving their lives uneventful and depressing. In some cases paralysis
actually drives people to death like in “A Painful Case”.
The characters in the book all appear to be different but they are similar and connected
when looked through a perspective focused on paralysis. This is reveals something about the
society Joyce lived in and I believe that was his sole purpose of writing Dubliners. Like many of
his other novels, he wanted to paint a clear picture of Dublin for the people outside of Dublin or
unfamiliar with it. His books show us as readers what problems existed in society and how
destructive they were and still can be today. Joyce shares with us his thoughts and critiques on
society and the individuals from all different perspective but with the same plague.
We are introduced to children, men, and women of all ages. Like I stated before, the
characters all look different but the unchanging, uneventful routine ridden lives they live are the
same. This symbolizes how not only one individual in society is affected by paralysis. If only
one person out of a society was affected it would not make much of a difference and Joyce
would probably not even care. However since every character in his book is affected by it, this is
a problem that is worthy of attention since it affects everyone. He is stressing the point that
something is going on in the Irish society that needs to be changed. After reading the Dubliners
we see that the characters in the book are all stuck in a city of paralysis.
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Final Paper - Michigan State University