At the heart of this artistic vision is a belief in "the significance of trivial things". In a letter to his brother, Joyce wrote of "a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass" and his own artistic endeavour, which he saw as being "to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent life of his own". Joyce was not religious in the sectarian sense of the word, but he certainly believed in the reality of the spirit. However, his sense of the existence of the spirit was what is called "essentialist" as opposed to "transcendentalist", and takes its form from the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, whom Joyce had studied closely. In reference to his art, this means that he believed that the essential form, or reality, could be penetrated by the imagination only in the physical world and not in an abstract way, divorced from the physical world.

It is in this context that we can understand exactly what Joyce meant by the idea of an epiphany: a momentary manifestation of reality in an environment where reality has been largely distorted. In Stephen Hero, he writes: "By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself." For example, in An Encounter, it is the increasingly clear manifestation of the stranger's repressed perversions that awakens the two boys to apprehend his nature correctly. In A Mother, Mrs. Kearney's vulgar behaviour towards her husband, Kathleen and Mr. Holohan, reveals the reality of her character that lies beneath her façade of decorum and propriety. In The Dead, the epiphany is internalised. It is Gabriel himself who honestly apprehends his own being, just as Mr. Duffy does in A Painful Case and it is on these grounds that the author seems to treat these characters more sympathetically.

In the main, Joyce is severe with his characters in Dubliners. For this reason, the book has been criticised for its coldness and lack of feeling for humanity. This does no justice to the depth of Joyce's passion. The satirical tone of much of the collection is the product of a genuine anger, which is itself borne out of the same sympathetic anguish that Joyce shows for Gabriel at the end of "The Dead". Joyce wrote of his desire to create an art for the "mental, moral and spiritual uplift of the people". In a letter to his publisher, Grant Richards, Joyce wrote that his "intention was to write a chapter of the moral history" of his country. The idea of a "moral history" is evidence that Joyce's art has a moral purpose; namely to create a conscience with which to stir humanity from its state of paralysis.

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