Search for Meaning in James Joyce's Dubliners
Throughout Dubliners James Joyce deliberately effaces the traditional markers of the short story: causality, closure, etc. In doing so, "the novel continually offers up texts which mark their own complexity by highlighting the very thing which traditional realism seeks to conceal: the artifice and insufficiency inherent in a writer's attempt to represent reality.(Seidel 31)" By refusing to take a reductive approach towards the world(s) he presents on the page - to offer up "meaning" or "ending" - Joyce moves the reader into complex and unsettling epistemological and ontological realms. Meaning is no longer unitary and prescriptive, the author will not reveal (read impose) what the story "means" at its close and therefore we can't definitively "know" anything about it. Instead, meaning, like modernism, engenders its own multiplicity in Joyce's works, diffuses into something necessarily plural: meanings. An ontological crisis is inextricable from this crisis of meaning and representation. In Joyce's stories the reader is displaced from her/his traditionally passive role as receptor of the knowledge an author seeks to impart, and "positioned as both reader and writer of text, in some ways playing as integral a part in constructing the work as the author does.(Benstock 17)"
In the novel's opening story, "The Sisters," Joyce elevates this concern with writing "reality" from sub-theme to theme: the story is an extended meditation on textuality just as much as it is the story of a boy and a priest. By beginning with a metatext Joyce brilliantly opens up the entire collection for a different kind of reading, one based on noticing rather than overlooking literature's limitations. With the overt emphasis "The Sisters" places on the crisis of representation Joyce sounds a note which will be repeated again and again in stories like "A Painful Case." By leading with "The Sisters" Joyce deftly urges and warns us to listen closely lest we miss it.
"The Sisters" exemplifies Butler's notion of modernism as the "allusive aesthetic." The title guides us toward one erroneous assumption - this must be a story of women, of family, etc. - while the story itself brings forth another - this, then, is the story of a priest's death, a boy's reaction. Neither is correct, as both are necessarily reductive. The inability of Joyce's story to be summarized, encapsulated, echoes the inability of words themselves to fix meaning, a central preoccupation of "The Sisters." From the first page words fail to contain meaning, they spill over with excess meanings in the form of multiplying allusions, misinterpretations, even betrayals: "He had often said to me: I am not long for this world, and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true." (Joyce 9) This opening passage is crucial in its implications, which pull against the story's overarching theme of the impossibility of "capturing some meaning or truth about...