Writing “dear dirty Dublin”: Joyce's ethnography and the problems of culture and nation

William Christopher Mottolese, Fordham University


This dissertation argues that James Joyce's fiction is ethnographic. In Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, Joyce constructs careful, detailed, and holistic portraits of Dublin life. In presenting such depictions, Joyce's fiction takes its place in a hundred-year-old Irish autoethnographic—or self-ethnographic—literary tradition stretching from Maria Edgeworth through William Carleton to the writers of the Revival at the turn of the century. As if mandated by England's steady denigrating gaze across the Irish Sea, Irish writers after 1800 unwaveringly found their subjects in Ireland and things Irish. An anthropological way of seeing Ireland, cultivated by colonial writers, scientists, and historians from the “outside” begot an autoanthropological response from the “inside”: a tradition in which organic intellectuals with ties to both margin and metropole took some control of the process of defining, representing, and preserving their own identity within and against the terms of the colonizer. Joyce's fiction both takes its place within this tradition and overturns it. Dubliners, a diagnostic but hopeful text, offers sketches of Joyce's own Catholic middle-class way of life. It owes its shape and purpose both to an Irish autoethnographic tradition and to cosmopolitan (and largely evolutionist) anthropological discourse of the turn of the century, especially that of Italian social scientists, Gugliemo Ferrero, Enrico Ferri, and Cesare Lombroso. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man presents Stephen's own emerging autoethnographic awareness as, in part, an Arnoldian quest for critical remove. Ulysses precisely and holistically charts a Catholic middle-class “Dubliner” way of life. In the first half, Joyce's depiction of these Dubliners resembles the constructions of “culture” found in such seminal ethnographic works as Bronislaw Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Joyce constructs this way of life as a holistic “culture” of carefully selected parts that are meaningful only within the cultural whole. In the second half of Ulysses, he ultimately dismantles his cultural construction, showing the inadequacy of all ethnographic representation and moving away from the terms and ideas of the colonizer in offering a national and anti-colonial art. In his fiction from Dubliners to Ulysses, Joyce, a native “corner boy,” depicts his local culture as part of a more diverse city of Dublin in order to explore Irishness and Irish national identity at a time when Ireland was struggling towards its emergence as a Free State in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Cultural anthropology|Literature

Recommended Citation

Mottolese, William Christopher, "Writing “dear dirty Dublin”: Joyce's ethnography and the problems of culture and nation" (1999). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9955969.