The stories were written when Irish nationalism was at its peak, and a search for a national identity and purpose was raging; at a crossroads of history and culture, Ireland was jolted by various converging ideas and influences. They centre on Joyce's idea of an epiphany: a moment where a character experiences self-understanding or illumination. Many of the characters in Dubliners later appear in minor roles in Joyce's novel Ulysses. The initial stories in the collection are narrated by child protagonists, and as the stories continue, they deal with the lives and concerns of progressively older people. This is in line with Joyce's tripartite division of the collection into childhood, adolescence, and maturity.
Between 1905, when Joyce first sent a manuscript to a publisher, and 1914, when the book was finally published, Joyce submitted the book 18 times to a total of 15 publishers. The book's publishing history is a harrowing tale of persistence in the face of frustration. The London house of Grant Richards agreed to publish it in 1905. However, their printer refused to set one of the stories (Two Gallants), and Richards then began to press Joyce to remove a number of other passages which he claimed the printer also refused to set. Joyce protested, but eventually did agree to some of the requested changes. However, Richards eventually backed out of the deal. Joyce thereupon resubmitted the manuscript to other publishers, and about three years later (1909) he found a willing candidate in Maunsel and Roberts of Dublin.
THERE was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: "I am not long for this world," and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true. 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. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.
Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came downstairs to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout he said, as if returning to some former remark of his:
"No, I wouldn't say he was exactly... but there was something queer... there was something uncanny about him. I'll tell you my opinion..."
He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first he used to be rather interesting, talking of faints and worms; but I soon grew tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery.