Gender roles and sexual morality in James Joyce's 'Dubliners'

Term Paper 2005 13 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Historical background
2.1. Gender roles in the Victorian period
2.2. Gender roles in the society of Dublin at the turn of the 20th century

3. Gender roles in ‘ Dubliners

4. Marriage in ‘ Dubliners

5. Sexual morality in ‘ Dubliners

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

First of all, and before we proceed with the actual description and basic layout of the term paper, it would be quite interesting to cite an extract from a letter that James Joyce himself wrote to his lover and partner Nora Barnacle.

“How could I like the idea of home? … My mother was slowly killed, I think, by my father’s ill-treatment, by years of trouble, and by my cynical frankness of conduct. When I looked on her face as she lay in the coffin – a face grey and wasted with cancer- I understood that I was looking on the face of a victim and I cursed the system which had made her a victim.” (Letters, II, 48)[1]

This quotation roused my interest and became my first motivation concerning the study of gender roles and sexual morality in ‘ Dubliners ’, as it summarizes the cruel reality of the position of women at that period of time. In addition to that, it provides us with a general impression of what the situation in Dublin might have been, focusing on the rather inharmonic relations between the two sexes.

This small study and description of the gender roles in ‘Dubliners’ is organized in two main parts. As Joyce’s intention was “to write a chapter of the moral history of my [his] country” (D, xxxi), it is essential that the first part provides us with the general historical background of that age. The historical part may conveniently be divided into two sections. The first concerns the roles of both sexes in the Victorian era, whereas the second section brings us closer to the reality of men and women in Ireland, and to be more specific in Dublin. This second section is of great importance, because as already implied by the last quotation, this collection of fifteen short- stories, published in 1914, are expected to mirror the reality of the society of Dublin of that time, and to be more specific, this is done in a very representative way, as the stories involve nearly all stages and aspects of life.

After having a general impression of the roles of men and women living in the Irish capital, we will go on to check whether this is in fact true and representative of the people described in the stories of ‘ Dubliners ’. This will consist the main topic of the second part of the term paper, which is in turn divided into three sections. The first one puts the emphasis on the actual examples of situations and characters presented in the short stories, always as far as the gender roles are concerned. After the depiction of the reality in ‘ Dubliners ’, comes the second section of the second part. In order not to fall in the trap and be one-sided, describing more the difficult situation of women, it would be more objective to focus on the institution of marriage. Provided the fact that marriage requires the involvement of both sexes and is an every day situation of continuous battle, or peaceful co- existence of the sexes, it can be argued to be the ideal example of a situation showing us clearly the role of each gender in the society. Furthermore, it ought to be pointed out that this approach does not exclude the exact opposite, namely the unmarried people in ‘ Dubliners ’, as they are a great part of the stories, too. Finally, we will try to describe a theme that is very close and is connected to marriage, that is the sexual morality of the characters and how it is presented to us by the short stories of the people of Dublin at about 1900.

2. Historical background

2.1. Gender roles in the Victorian period

It is often claimed in the literature that the definition of gender has changed throughout the history and will always continue to change, because gender should not be confused with the physical attributes ascribed to each sex. Gender is associated with and is highly dependent on various factors, some of which are culture, historical location, geography, ethnicity, education, class and religious beliefs.[2] To simplify it we can say that gender roles can be considered to be synonymous with the expectations that each society and cultural environment poses on its participants, as well as the actual results of such expectations; in other words the functions that women and men have in the society.

The Victorian period is estimated to span from about 1840 to 1900. This period is often connoted with the Victorian ideals, which we will shortly report here. The most important characteristic for that period was the clear division of the roles of men and women. There was a very clear division between two spheres, namely the domestic and the public one. These two spheres were representative of the two sexes. One can easily figure out, that the domain of women of that age was restricted to the house, the family and the bringing up of the children, whereas the public life and all the events taking place in the society were exclusively the advantage of men. This division of two spheres led also to clear and insurmountable gender boundaries. In addition to that, “the particular qualities attributed to masculinity [were] authority, rationality, force, and to femininity domesticity, innocence [and] weakness.”[3]

The historical background provides the knowledge that at the turn of the nineteenth century very crucial changes regarding gender roles and gender boundaries were about to take place in Britain and in most of the western societies in Europe. This implies the fact that the old Victorian values and the traditional gender roles were changing probably due to new social standards. The same cannot be undoubtedly claimed for the Irish society of that age, probably of the great influence of the Catholic Church, which disapproved and as a result postponed such a development.[4]


[1] James Joyce, Dubliners (1914; London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000) ix. [Subsequent references are cited parenthetically by page number within the text].

[2] Cf. Vera Nünning, “Gender und Literaturwissenschaft: Theoretische Grundlagen, Fragestellungen Projekte für eine gender- orientierte Literaturwissenschaft.“ Literaturwissenschaft intermedial- interdisziplinär. Ed. Herbert Foltinek and Christoph Leitgeb. (Wien: Akademieverlag, 2002) 131ff.

[3] Susan Mendus / Jane Rendall (ed.), Sexuality and Subordination: Interdisciplinary studies of gender in the nineteenth century (London: Routledge, 1989) 3.

[4] Cf. Ibid., 2.


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Title: Gender roles and sexual morality in James Joyce's 'Dubliners'