Although Joyce was born into a well-to-do family, his father's drinking soon drove the family into poverty. As a result, poverty is one of the major thematic concerns in Dubliners. Although Joyce never refers to his characters as "poor," he shows us their status through details. For instance, in "Two Gallants," Lenehan's abject poverty can be observed by the meager meal he consumes. He hasn't eaten since breakfast and late at night while he waits for Corley to return with money, he orders a meal of peas and vinegar with a bottle of ginger beer for his dinner. He simply doesn't have the money for a proper meal. And, his future looks dismal: it will only get worse. By showing this detail, readers are not as quick to judge Joyce's character, and while we certainly can't like this leech, we can perhaps understand and view him in a sympathetic light. In "Clay," the older unmarried character Maria lives a life of diligent sacrifice for a pittance. Joyce never "tells" us of her poverty, he "shows" us by having her lose the plum cake she has purchased at great expense to bring joy to others. The nameless adolescent in "Araby" doesn't have the money to boy a simple gift for Mangan's sister, the girl he loves. Farrington in "Counterparts" takes to drink to quell his anger over the boring job he hates. Joyce portrays his poverty by having him sell his watch to buy the spirits that will provide temporary relief.
In all of this, Joyce illustrates how poverty motivates people to behave in aberrant ways. However, he never offers hope to the impoverished. He states their wretched lives cleanly and clearly. Their lives are awful. There's no romance about life being tough before it gets better. Simply put, it never gets better. That's his point. Dublin, rife with slums like those observed by the adventurous boys in "An Encounter," is an economically depressed and stagnant city where all live in danger of sliding quickly down the social ladder.
Joyce maintained that the colonization of Ireland by England resulted in making Ireland not just politically powerless, but made the people of Ireland psychologically paralyzed as well. Indeed, James Joyce wrote in 1906 to his publisher: "my intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis." It is significant that Joyce gave the title Dubliners and not Dublin to his book of short stories about the paralyzed people who inhabit a stagnant city. The word "paralysis" appears on the first page when every night the young nameless narrator gazes up at his window and repeats the word "paralysis" softly. The book ends in a vision of Ireland lying paralyzed under a deep blanket of snow that is "general all over Ireland" (1; 192). Over and over we see characters mentally paralyzed, simply unable to take chances or indeed unable to take action of any kind. Father Flynn in the opening story, "The Sisters," is physically paralyzed and unable even to talk; Mr. Duffy's emotional paralysis in "A Painful Case," forces him into a long life of loneliness. And, when characters do something, indeed anything, they are forced by social constraints back into powerlessness and submission. For instance, in "Counterpoints," Farrington experiences a moment of triumph over his boss, Mr. Alleyne, only to be reviled and forced to apologize on pain of losing his job. Similarly, Little Chandler in "A Little Cloud," finds himself quickly beaten back down by his domestic situation when he takes the first step toward writing poetry. Eveline, the young protagonist, in "Eveline," cannot move physically, or emotionally for that matter, when the door to her cage is thrown open by her fiance Frank. She cannot get on the ship to save her life but stands instead paralyzed on the dock.
Joyce maintained that all of Ireland's people are paralyzed, not just the dead lying in their graves, but the very people that still walk Dublin's streets. For instance, in "The Dead," it is not just those who lie frozen under the snow who are dead but, as we see in the last sentence of Dubliners, the snow falls upon "all the living and the dead (192). The only way to break loose of this paralysis, Joyce would have us believe, is to take flight and leave Ireland, like he did, never to return.