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Though written very nearly in tandem, Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man have very different agendas, and represent very different reading experiences, as well. We might, for purposes of illustration, think of Joyce’s first two works of fiction as representing critiques of two rather different literary genres: Dubliners, a critique of the short story as Joyce had inherited it, in which complicated psychological struggles are simplified and resolved in the course of three thousand words; and Portrait, a critique of the deeply romantic legacy of the Bildungsroman (novel of education and maturation) and its close relative the Kunstlerroman (which focuses on the development of the artist), forms that perpetuated a notion of heroism wholly unsuited to the realities of life and art in the twentieth century.
If early readers and critics of Dubliners were taken aback by Joyce’s unflinching reportage of the sordid details of modern urban life, contemporary readers are more often struck by the stories’ very abrupt endings: Time and again they seem merely to stop, dead in their tracks, rather than properly ending. The first three stories, in this regard, are representative. “The Sisters” ends while one of the eponymous sisters is in mid-conversation, mid-sentence: “So then, of course, when they saw that, that made them think that there was something gone wrong with him. . . .” The ellipsis that closes the story is justone of twenty sets in this very elliptical three-thousand-word story, in which meaning seems to lie just behind the words, in between the words, peeking out at us but ultimately eluding us. At the close of the second story, “An Encounter,” our narrator calls for help to his friend Mahoney, but this message is relayed along with confession of a sin we cannot understand, or even guess at: “And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little.” Hence, rather than the sort of closure a short story is supposed to provide, “An Encounter” opens up, vertiginously, on a host of other issues just when it should be shutting down new possibilities. The beautifully lyrical ending of “Araby” has been much analyzed, and to read the criticism, one would think that there’s nothing at all out of the way about the narrator’s sudden outburst in his closing sentence: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” What—? Revelation, it seems, arrives from out of the blue (or black), but we readers can neither see it coming nor figure out with any certainty whither it will lead our protagonist.
These three stories—and many others in the collection besides, including “Eveline,” “Two Gallants,” “The Boarding House,” “Clay,” “A Painful Case,” “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” and “The Dead”—focus on the moment of sudden revelation that Joyce called, after the traditions of the Catholic Church, an “epiphany.” A full description of the epiphany is one of the elements that Joyce stripped out of Stephen Hero in making Portrait; if we turn back to that earlier text, however, we discover the following explanation of the place of the epiphany in Stephen Dedalus’s evolving aesthetic philosophy:
This triviality [of a banal conversation he has overheard] made him think of collecting many such moments together in a book of epiphanies. 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. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments (James Joyce, Stephen Hero, edited by John J. Slocum and Herbert Cahoon, second edition, New York: New Directions, 1963, p. 211).
This insistence on the importance of the trivial plays throughout both Dubliners and Portrait; and a great deal of scholarly attention has been paid over the years to the concept of the epiphany. Without rehearsing in detail that voluminous scholarship, we might pause here to note that the terse description given in Stephen Hero describes a locus for the epiphany (in “everyday life”) and an agent of the epiphany (the writer); if much of public life consists of playing some kind of role, wearing a mask, an epiphany is one of those rare moments when the mask slips, and we see past convention, past language, and glimpse some fundamental truth about human nature. But the question of for whom the timeless human truth of the situation is suddenly made manifest, apart from the writer who records it, is left somewhat ambiguous.