The Life and Work of James Joyce
James Joyce was born in 1882 in a suburb of Dublin, Ireland in a large, Catholic family, and received a private education in Jesuit schools; thereafter, he attended University College, Dublin, on scholarship. His family life, though warm, was immersed in the turbulent Irish politics of the time and the early arguments Joyce overheard about various Irish leaders filtered their way into Joyce’s fiction.
When Joyce was nine, the family’s finances began to dwindle when his father was forced into early retirement (never finding steady work again). The family moved several times, each resulting in a less respectable address. With poverty looming, however, Joyce’s father arranged for the boys to attend a prestigious Jesuit prep school on scholarship. Despite the boys’ promising education, the Joyce’s family life was fractious because of financial worries and the father’s drinking; James was the only son to have a close relationship with the elder Joyce.
Entering University College, Dublin, on scholarship in 1898, Joyce studied English literature and foreign languages. At university, Joyce began to formulate his feelings towards family, church, and homeland that would be played and replayed in his fiction. Like his hero Stephen Dedalus (who appears in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses), Joyce chose not to remain a member of the Catholic church; nevertheless, he disapproved of religious hypocrisy and retained the benefits of his liberal and intellectual Jesuit training. Unlike Stephen, Joyce had a terrific sense of humor, as much of his fiction and many of his letters make clear. Even as a youth, he loved puns, word games, titillating malapropisms, etc. This fascination makes itself evident in Portrait, Ulysses and especially Finnegans Wake.
Another strong influence on Joyce’s work was his love for and ability in music. He studied voice and piano, briefly considering a career as an Irish tenor (he befriended the great John McCormack) as a young man. His earliest collection of poems, Chamber Music (1907), is based mostly on ballad form, and music’s importance is stressed throughout his work. However, Joyce’s increasingly deteriorating eyesight forced him to rely more on hearing music than seeing it. As a result, accurate representations of sounds, accents, voices, street noises, folksongs, etc., bring color and naturalism to his writing.
In college, Joyce was drawn to study drama, particularly Henrik Ibsen, who was a lifelong influence. After publishing an early article on Ibsen in a drama journal in 1900, the 18 year-old critic received a (translated) note of thanks from the Norwegian dramatist. Recognition from a famous founder of the modern dramatic movement enabled Joyce to view himself as a budding European intellectual/writer rather than a mere Irish college boy. In effect, it was a turning point in his early artistic life.
Joyce toyed with medical school after college, while simultaneously trying to establish himself in Dublin literary circles. Moving to Paris in 1902, ostensibly to study medicine, Joyce found there a liberated society completely opposite that of his native city. Joyce felt he could be intellectually freer as an exile in Paris. In fact, the theme of the exile appears throughout his fiction and is the title of his play. As Ellmann states, Joyce realized that the trip to Paris transcended a faint desire to study medicine or escape from his family’s financial misery. “To measure himself and his country,” Ellmann states, “he needed to take the measure of a more alien world.” (Ellman, James Joyce, 110)
For the rest of his life, with the exception of a few intermittent stays in Dublin, Joyce made Trieste, Paris, and Zurich his most frequent homes, although his writing always focussed on the Irish capital.
Having moved back to Dublin from Paris in 1903 to comfort his dying mother, Joyce felt stultified in his native city but lacked the means to travel. Occasionally, he worked with ambition, beginning preliminary work that would evolve into Portrait in a single day. In 1904, he met his future wife, Nora Barnacle, an unsophisticated country girl from the west coast of Ireland, and was almost instantaneously smitten with her. Though not nearly his equal intellectually, Nora provided the source and inspiration for much of Joyce’s ground-breaking portrayals of women in his fiction, most notably for Ulysses’ Molly Bloom. That same year, the unmarried couple departed for Paris together (a scandalous act at the time) and remained together—despite Joyce’s temperament, his extreme jealousy, and numerous financial troubles—for the rest of their lives.
In 1914, the year Dubliners finally reached publication, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was also published in magazine installments, and published as a novel in 1916. Portrait is mainly, though not entirely, autobiographical, taking place (like all of Joyce’s work) in Dublin. Using the technique of stream-of-consciousness narration, Joyce attempts to show the evolution of a young artist as he frees himself from the restrictions of religious parochialism and a clinging, suffering family. His hero, Stephen Dedalus, the renegade ex-Catholic, reflects Joyce’s own early conflicts between his devotion to art and traditional spiritual duty. Like Stephen, Joyce believed that art was his religion and literature the definitive affirmation of the human spirit.
Stephen Dedalus appears again in Joyce’s most famous work, Ulysses, the chronicling of the events of a single summer’s day in Dublin, 1904. Using the Greek Ulysses myth as a basis for its structure, the novel studies the experience of moment-to-moment events through the eyes of several key characters. Heavily reliant on the stream-of-consciousness method, Ulysses also employs the technique of free indirect discourse, in which the author’s narrative style mimics the tone and language use of the character perceiving the events described.
Serialized in a Paris journal, Ulysses, like Dubliners, faced obstacles in publishing because of its sexual content, its publication temporarily halted in France due to obscenity charges. Published finally in French in 1922, the novel was smuggled out of Paris by curious readers and intellectuals for several years before the English edition was finally cleared of obscenity charges in the United States in 1934.
Visiting a family friend in the midst of the obscenity hearings, Joyce was told by his mother that the novel “was not fit to read.” If such was the case, Joyce responded, “life isn’t fit to live.” (Ellmann, James Joyce, 537). This clarifies Joyce’s stance (shared by D. H. Lawrence, Jean Rhys, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, among others) that literature was an appropriate arena for discussions about and explorations of sexual issues. Joyce believed that Ulysses reflected real life among working-class Dubliners; all aspects of such life were worthy of examination.
Over the course of many years and despite many costly operations, Joyce’s eyesight, always weak, grew increasingly worse. The editing process of Ulysses (first in French, then in English) was grueling for him, and as he began writing his last major work, Finnegans Wake, his eyesight was almost completely lost. The prose poem, begun in 1923, has been described as a “labyrinth” of literary devices and complex, sometimes arcane, references. Though Joyce considered it his masterwork and its difficulty has made it a challenge to Joyce scholars, it remains less accessible to most readers, who are only somewhat familiar with it.
While Joyce’s literary achievements and obsessive devotion to his art have made him a pillar of Modernist literature, they also made life difficult for himself and his family. He secured a loyal English patron to subsidize his writing, but—in light of his lifelong inability to manage money—his wife and two children rarely enjoyed the material comforts of his success. Although his work earned him admirers throughout the world, Joyce’s sense of suspicion and imperious ego often alienated supporters when he needed them most. In addition, his terrible eyesight made writing and editing, the mainstays of his life, agony.
When Finnegans Wake was finally published in 1939, Joyce’s health was failing and his daughter, having suffered a severe nervous breakdown, was confined to a Swiss institution. While Finnegan’s Wake failed to receive the reception that Joyce felt it deserved, his reputation among the writers of the period was certain. When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, James and Nora left Paris for neutral Switzerland, where Joyce died in 1941.