James Joyce’s Dubliners explores the lives of the middle-class society of the people living in Dublin during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This collection of stories starts with tales of youthful individuals and moves to stories of older Dublin citizens and their relation to culture and society. Through the course of this book, Joyce addresses religious, ethical, social, economic, and political situations. Dubliners offers a comprehensive picture of what Dublin was like over a century ago.
In this work, Joyce presents an especially accurate depiction of women in relation to their employment, and other work they did in their lives. Joyce emphasizes the role of women in several of his short stories, including The Sisters, The Boarding House, and A Mother. Each of these stories presents women in different situations, and implies different points. However, they all address the roles of women in Irish society. Women were not respected as workers during the time Dubliners was written.
Women who did take jobs during this time were forced to accept extremely low wages as Mary Daly points out in an excerpt from Women in the Irish Workforce From Pre-Industrial to Modern Times (Daly, 195). By accepting meager payments, they set themselves up for exploitation by their employers. Daly says that, “women’s work was generally classified as unskilled or semi-skilled, even though many of the tasks which they carried out in linen mills or with the sewing machine required considerable expertise” (Daly, 195).
At this time, more and more women began to work in factories, but Florence Walzl says the more prominent occupations for women were “(1) operators of businesses that make women’s and children’s clothes and of shops that sell them; (2) owners of neighborhood food stores (dairies, butcher shops, groceries, bakeries, and fruit stores); (3) lodging-house keepers and tavern owners; (4) teachers; and (5) musicians” (Walzl, 75). The stories in Dubliners depict women from these more common jobs.
Walzl writes that the various stories include women “shopkeepers and shop assistants, office clerks and typists, the operator of a lodging house and the housekeeper of an institution, school teachers, and especially musicians – pianists, vocalists, and music teachers” (Walzl, 74). In the story entitled The Sisters, Joyce presents us with a story including two elderly spinsters, Eliza and Nannie Flynn. These women are unmarried and have no children. Eliza and Nannie, like many other women of their time, are shopowners. They run a small store that sells children’s shoes.
They most likely acquired this shop through what Walzl has identified as a common practice in Irish society involving, the “internal dynamics of the Irish family;” this practice consists of shopkeeping fathers helping their unmarried daughters to establish their own small businesses so that they have something to live off of. Joyce in this story “is presenting the two sisters as typal figures of one segment of Irish society,” and that segment is shopkeepers. Eliza and Nannie are unmarried, which at this time was a common thing as Walzl points out. When Dubliners was written, Ireland had the lowest marriage rates in the world (Walzl, 68).
Marriage was not considered to be a romantic union in early twentieth century Ireland; it was a deliberate business union with a dowry going to the groom and presumed life security going to the bride (Walzl, 69). With the sisters’ unmarried status, they fit in perfectly with the statistics of shopowners for the early twentieth century. In Ireland, “of women shopowners approximately 20 percent were married, 35 percent widowed, and 44 percent unmarried” (Walzl, 77). As was said earlier, they most likely inherited the shop when their father died or he helped them establish it for their own security (Walzl, 75).
Joyce does an excellent job of accurately portraying Eliza and Nanny of elderly spinsters in early twentieth century Ireland. In The Boarding House, Joyce introduces Mrs. Mooney. She is a woman who married a keeper of a butcher shop who later turned into an alcoholic as Walzl points out. He spent all of their money, and got their family deep into debt. However, because she is such a “determined” and strong woman, she left her husband and started a very successful boarding house of her own in central Dublin.
Walzl points out that owning and running boarding houses and lodging houses in the early twentieth century was a very common job at the time. In 1904 Thom’s Directory provides information that “women operated all the boarding houses listed and 75 percent of lodging houses” (Walzl, 75). In the story A Mother, Joyce tells the story of Mrs. Kearney and her daughter, Kathleen Kearney. Mrs. Kearny, in her youth, was a promising artist; however, her dreams of being a successful pianist vanished when she settled into a dull marriage for fear of ending up alone. Because of Mrs.
Kearney’s frustration and failure to succeed as an artist, she lives vicariously through Kathleen by sending her to the Academy to be educated in French and in music to prepare her for a career as a singer and pianist. This opportunity to begin a career as an artist is a great chance for Kathleen. Through her education she has the chance to break her way into what Walzl points out as one of the few professions open to women during this time period. However, the greedy Mrs. Kearny makes a scene and pulls the girl out of a string of concerts rather than risking her not being paid for them.
This incident, in effect, reflects badly on Kathleen, and ruins her budding career. Walzl tells us that “In 1900, apparently, no career was as promising for a young woman or as secure for a mature woman as music” (Walzl, 76). He also points out that in 1904 Thom’s Directory provided the information that women “made up a majority of all professional musicians” (Walzl, 75). Walzl explains that in this story, A Mother, Mrs. Kearney knows that the “Irish Revival” is very appealing to the public at the time, so to increase Kathleen’s popularity, she brings a teacher to their house to teach Kathleen Gaelic, the Irish language (Walzl, 76).
The story implies that pursuing a concert career like Kathleen was doing is a cut-throat competition, not only with other singers and musicians but when dealing with the people paying for the performances. Thus, if Kathleen knows how to speak Gaelic, and sings it as well, she will be popular with the public. However, like so many other stories in this book, Kathleen is doomed to follow in her mothers’ footsteps. Mrs. Kearney was afraid to take chances in her own music career, causing it to end prematurely; and she does the same thing with Kathleen.
Mrs. Kearney takes no chances when dealing with being paid and therefore ruins Kathleen’s career. Joyce seems to use mothers as a theme in many of his stories. As Walzl tells us, “Mothers in Dubliners tend either to use their daughters or to vent their own frustrations through them,” and it appears that Mrs. Kearney is venting her frustrations of her music career through Kathleen by pushing her into a career of playing and singing (Walzl, 80). Walzl also says that “mothers so influence or manipulate their daughters that, in effect, the young women relive their mothers’ lives,” this also seems to reflect the lives of Kathleen and Mrs.
Kearney (Walzl, 81). Kathleen will most likely end up marrying a man and settling into a dull life just like her mother because her career was ended early, just like her mother’s. James Joyce meant for Dubliners to portray the real lives and society of early twentieth century Ireland. Through my research I have found that Joyce’s depiction of women and their occupations is real and accurate. Joyce does an excellent job of portraying Dublin as it really was.