James Joyce (1882-1941)

James Joyce, one of the best-known and most influential novelists of the twentieth century, was a prominent contributor to the modernist movement. He showed remarkable artistry in his use of language, adapting his style to suit his purpose of going beyond traditional realism to explore the subjective reality of his characters. Although he did not invent the stream of consciousness technique, he developed its use as a means of presenting the inner workings of characters' minds in his novel Ulysses, and in the extraordinary Finnegan's Wake he took it a stage further by using it to explore the unconscious mind through the dreams of a sleeping protagonist.

James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was born in Dublin and educated at Jesuit schools and University College, where he took an interest in the plays of Henryk Ibsen - even learning Norwegian in order to understand them better. His first publication was a study of Ibsen's play When We Dead Awaken which was accepted by a literary review in 1900, and his own play, Exiles (1918) showed the influence of Ibsen.

His novels and short stories are set in Dublin, but Joyce lived outside Ireland for most of his life and regarded himself as a European. He left Ireland in 1902 and returned to Dublin only for short spells. After working in Paris he came home to visit his dying mother then set off again in 1904 together with Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid, whom he eventually married. They lived precariously in Pola and Trieste, which at the time was part of Austria-Hungary but is now in Italy, and had a son and a daughter. Most of the time he was poverty-stricken and made ends meet by working as a teacher, journalist and translator.

Joyce's first volume of poetry, Chamber Music, was published in 1907. The 36 poems owed something to the style of Elizabethan lyricists, and in keeping with his sensitivity to the musicality of language, which is apparent in all of his writing, Joyce wrote them with the intention that they should be sung.

Dubliners, a collection of short stories, was published in 1914. In the 15 connected stories Joyce captured what he felt to be significant and revealing moments in the lives of Dublin people, one of the important themes being moral paralysis.

In Trieste, Joyce reworked an early autobiographical story Stephen Hero, written in 1904-06, and turned it into A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, which was published, with the help of Ezra Pound, in the USA in 1916. A fictionalised autobiography, it concerns the education and intellectual development of Stephen Dedalus (who reappears in Ulysses.) Stephen's education is deeply Catholic. He contemplates becoming a Jesuit and entering a seminary but is troubled by sensual desires. One powerful passage in the book is a priest's depiction of hell during a religious retreat, which causes Stephen to experience agonies of guilt and fear.

The material from Stephen Hero was used mainly in the final chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the preceding four chapters presenting stages in Stephen's development from infancy to young manhood. In keeping with Joyce's liking for embedding layers of meaning in his work, many of the images, words, and names in the novel have symbolic significance, making points about the church, and the Irish mentality, which would not be apparent to the casual reader.

At key points in the story Stephen experiences 'epiphanies' (moments of heightened awareness and insight) which help him decide on his course of action. At the end of the novel Stephen rejects the claims of nationality and religion. He adopts the ambition of becoming an artist, and leaves Ireland for Paris in order to live more freely and fully.

The First World War disrupted Joyce's life in Trieste, which lay on the border between two belligerent powers. When Italy claimed the city, Joyce moved to Zurich in neutral Switzerland. Here he worked on the first draft of Ulysses, a part of which he wrote as a stream of consciousness - a technique influenced by the French writer Edouard Dujardin (1861-1949), and used by the English novelists Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf. The aim of the stream of consciousness technique is to reproduce as accurately as possible the moment-to-moment flow of an individual's thoughts.

Other exiles had come to Zurich, including the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, known as Lenin, and the Rumanian poet Tristan Tzara. Together with a group of like-minded exiles, Tzara opened a café, The Cabaret Voltaire, in 1916, which became known as the birthplace of Dadaism. Lenin was a regular visitor, and Joyce met him in the café – a meeting which provided Tom Stoppard with the theme for his play Travesties (1974), the three protagonists of which are Tzara, Lenin, and Joyce.

Joyce was at ease in this polyglot environment, speaking German, Italian, and French, and picking up some Russian, Turkish and Arabic. He was a cosmopolitan exile and a lifelong student. The language of Finnegan's Wake reflects this multicultural aspect of Joyce's mind, with its welter of linguistic associations creating an effect like a vast pun or puzzle or cipher.

Joyce had trouble finding a publisher for both Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. Leonard Woolf accepted Ulysses for publication in London but printers refused to set the type because the Molly Bloom soliloquy was considered obscene. Joyce managed to publish the work in Paris in February 1922 through Shakespeare & Co., the famous English bookshop owned by Sylvia Beach. Copies were burned by the U.S. Customs, and the book was condemned at the seventh Communist International of 1935 as inimical to Socialist Realism. East and West abominated Joyce who could not be labelled as Capitalist, Communist or Fascist but merely as a writer of obscene books.

Ulysses is set in Dublin and the action takes place on 16th June 1904, a date celebrated as 'Bloomsday' by Joyce enthusiasts. It describes the day as spent by Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly, and Stephen Dedalus. Bloom works for a Dublin newspaper, Dedalus is a young intellectual whose thoughts are carried away by abstruse philosophy, and Molly Bloom is a bored housewife. Incidents in the novel correspond to incidents in Homer’s Odyssey, and the principal characters can be seen as modern counterparts of Ulysses, Telemachus and Penelope. Joyce uses an extensive variety of literary styles, and includes frequent quotations and esoteric allusions; yet these are less remote than those incorporated into Finnegan's Wake.

At the end of World War I Joyce moved to Paris, and began Finnegan's Wake in 1923. The first section appeared in Ford Madox Ford’s Transatlantic Review the following year entitled Work In Progress, but the final part of the book was not completed until 1938 and the first proof copy was given to Joyce on his 57th birthday in 1939. By this time Joyce could no longer see clearly enough to correct the proofs himself. The words were read aloud to him.

In Finnegan's Wake Joyce pushed his experimentation with language, and with burying hidden layers of significance within his writing, even further, to the extent that to many the novel is incomprehensible. Literary critics and ordinary readers alike struggle to unravel the nuances of meaning in this extraordinarily ambitious work, but whether comprehensible or not, few could deny the musicality of the language, or the sense of joy with which Joyce has imbued it.

Selected Works:
Chamber Music (1907), Gas from a Burner (1912), Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Exiles (1918), Ulysses (1922), Poems Penyeach (1927), Collected Poems (1936), Finnegan’s Wake (1939).

Authors: Stephen Colbourn, Ian Mackean

James Joyce Links
Other essays on this site
Portrait of the Artist: Rebellion and Release
Portrait of the Artist: Stephen Dedalus - Rebel Without a Cause
Portrait of the Artist: Flying by the Nets
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