Style and Form

The tension between art and life is central to the richness of Joyce's writing. In the development of his prose style, he sought to represent simultaneously the monotonous reality of life with its wider and more compelling significance.

The aspect of realism in Joyce's art continued the tradition in which the novel had developed during the course of the nineteenth century. Like Flaubert, the author of Madame Bovary, Joyce aimed to write impersonally - that is to say, he does not allow himself as author to intervene directly in the narrative, but relies instead on the effects of structure, language, plot and allusion to communicate with the reader.

A strong aspect of the Flaubertian tradition that Joyce inherited was the use of irony. Unlike the novels of Balzac or Tolstoy, where the narrator can be assumed to be truthful, the narrator of Joyce or Flaubert is unreliable. In the case of the latter, the narrator speaks from a point of limited consciousness. For the earlier novelists, it was acceptable for the narrator to assume omniscience.

Flaubert's sense of realism is also reflected in Joyce's use of the indirect free style in his prose. This technique allows the author to reflect the consciousness of his characters in the register of the language that he uses. This effect displaces the author in the consciousness of the reader, drawing him, instead, closer to the character, so that an overall sense of realism is more powerfully achieved.

But Joyce was equally aware of the limitations of realism: namely that as an author, he could never entirely absent himself from his work; that he was always shaping and interpreting reality in his art through the aspects of reality that he chose either to reflect or omit; but most importantly, that language itself was an imperfect vehicle though which to register the reality of experience. In Dubliners, therefore, Joyce seeks less to extend the reach of realism than to extend the reach of the novel beyond the realms of realism and into those of symbolism.

Joyce's genius is his ability to create fiction which simultaneously satisfies all the criteria both of realism and symbolism. It is, essentially, the creation of a perfect harmony between life and art. At no point does he allow himself the self-indulgence of a detail that merits mention only for symbolic purposes. He never strays from the sensibility of verisimilitude. Yet the "scrupulous meanness" (his phrase) of his language, means that he gives his reader little that is not endowed with a wider significance. The most trivial seeming details take on a richness for the informed reader, resonating as symbols through history, language, art or myth. For example, in Eveline, the description of the photograph of the anonymous priest that hangs above the "broken harmonium" is at once a description of Eveline's observation, and also an indication to the reader of the absence of spirituality and the broken harmony of the household. In A Painful Case, Joyce chooses to locate Mr. Duffy in Chapelizod, the mythological setting of the adulterous romance between Tristan and Iseult. Here the association is deliberately ironic: the passion evoked by the myth serves to emphasise the emotional sterility of Mr. Duffy. Joyce's brother, Stanislaus, made explicit the fact that Joyce intended the movement of location in Grace from an underground toilet, to a stale bedroom, to a church, as a parody of Dante's The Divine Comedy.

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