I wrote the other day about rereading James Joyce’s “The Dead;” and this seems to have triggered my looking into the cycle of the Dubliners stories as a whole. As Harry Levin’s introduction, in The Portable James Joyce observes, these stories are actually an integrated cycle running from early childhood to that point in our maturity when we start to think seriously about the coming of death. Thus, there is a certain logical consistency to the significant role played by memory in “The Dead.”
There is also some consistency to Joyce’s device of linking memory of the past to the presence of music. Actually, this is just a specific subcategory of his more general concept of the epiphany, based on the idea that any stimulus can serve as such a trigger for both memory and insight. Nevertheless, music was particularly important to Joyce, who, after all, once had a sound tenor voice. Ulysses, for example, is suffused with “background music” from the very dawn of July 16, 1904 to the midnight musings of Molly Bloom.
From this point of view, it is interesting that music really does not make an appearance in Dubliners until “Eveline.” In the overall cycle this is the point of transition from childhood to adolescence. The children in the earlier stories have memories; but Eveline is the first to have memories linked to music by way of The Bohemian Girl, an operetta that used to serve any number of narratives, usually in conjunction with romanticized memories (particularly those of “marble halls”). Eveline is the first character whose inner thoughts dwell on romance; and the music of Michael William Balfe (who was, after all, Irish) is about as good a source of background music for those thoughts as any.
The most important integrating factor of Dubliners is probably its complete lack of sentimentality. Joyce was in Trieste when he wrote most of the text in 1904, and the memories behind each of his tales were anything but fond. Nevertheless, if there are any signs on sentiment in his writing, they surface when he writes about music. Perhaps, when music was concerned, he could write with the more positive perspective of a performing musician, rather than the cynicism of an embittered expatriate.