Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish-Jewish political activist, once said that ‘Those who do not move, do not notice their chains’. Like most brilliant, revolutionary personalities who have greatly inspired and deeply changed our world, some through literature, some through art, some through politics or science, modernist writer James Joyce understood that leaving is the answer key to fight moral and physical paralysis and to analyze life’s complexity from a different point of view. His self-imposed exile was the event that really made the difference in his work, not only because he became a cosmopolite, able to put together in his writing all different cultures encountered throughout his life, but also because he needed a basis for comparison to criticize his own nation, a vantage point from which to look back on his fellow citizens.
From Ugo Foscolo to Ernest Hemingway, from Pablo Neruda to Sigmund Freud, the idea of self-imposed exile has always been widespread among the most creative minds, for a number of reasons: love failures, diverging political opinions or simply the natural human need to find oneself. For Joyce, exile was a necessary condition to write the way he wanted to and to gain the absolute freedom all artists need, even going against his own home, fatherland and church, as his alter-ego states in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Born in Dublin in 1882, he experienced the drastic conditions that affected Ireland at that time, the country being politically oppressed by the British Empire that wouldn’t recognize its independence, and morally oppressed by the Catholic Church that had imposed conservative policies, such as the banning of abortion and the censoring of many books and films. He believed that the Church with its strict principles was depriving people of their individuality and discouraging them from seeking progress, therefore it was to blame for Ireland’s inability to gain freedom. Emigration was also an integral part of Ireland’s culture, as in the Nineteenth century millions of Irish left their homeland, after life in the country had become unbearable.
Before he left in 1904 with his future wife Nora Barnacle, Joyce wrote most of the stories for Dubliners in Dublin, depicted as a paralyzed city from the very first page: “Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being” (Dubliners, The Sisters). The red thread of the novel is the arrested development of the characters, which is evident especially in Eveline, for the protagonist can’t seem to decide whether to follow her new love Frank in Argentina or whether to stay and take care of her family as she had promised to her dead mother: Eveline is very unhappy and although she’s not in love with Frank, he represents an excuse to run away from ordinary life. Ultimately, she can’t find the courage to leave because she feels she would disappoint her family and people’s expectations, thus betraying her ‘savior’ and her own desires: “It was hard work – a hard life – but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life” (Dubliners, Eveline).