Article abstract: Author of the germinal modernist novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Joyce played a central role in the development of the mystique of the inaccessible artist and helped define the course of twentieth century culture.
Although James Joyce spent his adult life in self-imposed exile, his sensibility and writing remained firmly grounded in Ireland. Born in Dublin on February 2, 1882, Joyce experienced the tensions of Irish culture and politics in his immediate family. In addition to a politically motivated distrust of the clergy, John Joyce imparted to his son a gift for storytelling, a tendency toward excessive drinking, and an inability to cope with financial matters. In contrast, Mary Murray Joyce, a devout Catholic, provided the oldest of her ten children with a consistent source of love which was particularly important given the decline in family finances, accompanied by frequent changes of residence, which was to continue throughout his childhood. The tensions within the Joyce family came to a head over the Home Rule movement headed by Charles Stewart Parnell, who was denounced from the pulpit after being accused of adultery. What both father and son saw as Parnell’s betrayal—Joyce was to identify strongly with the fallen leader throughout his life—inspired Joyce’s first literary production, a political satire which his father distributed to friends.
With the exception of a brief stay at the Christian Brothers’ School, Joyce was educated almost entirely by Jesuits, at Clongowes Wood College, at Belvedere College, and finally at University College, Dublin, from which he was graduated in 1902. Although he was to reject most of the specific teachings of his Jesuit masters, Joyce maintained a respect for their intellectual rigor. The broad-based knowledge of classical authors—particularly the aesthetic speculations of Saint Thomas Aquinas—and the knowledge of languages which Joyce first developed under the Jesuits were to prove essential to his literary development. Of equal importance were the long walks which provided the encyclopedic knowledge of Dublin geography, and social life, so important to his later works.
During Joyce’s youth, Dublin had developed an important literary community revolving around slightly older writers including William Butler Yeats, George Moore, Æ (George Russell), and Lady Augusta Gregory. Joyce was both interested in and aloof from what came to be known as the Irish Literary Renaissance. Following the riots over Yeats’s play The Countess Cathleen (1892) in 1899, Joyce defended Yeats against the widespread Catholic and nationalist outrage. Nevertheless, distancing himself from what he saw as the mysticism and the provincialism of the Irish Literary Renaissance, Joyce chose to model his own early work after the example of Continental realism, particularly the work of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Although the dialogue may be apocryphal, Joyce was widely believed to have told Yeats on their first meeting (which Joyce instigated) in 1904, “You are too old for me to help you.” A similar confidence emerges in a letter to Ibsen on his seventy-third birthday in which Joyce cryptically announces himself as a new presence waiting to assume the master’s role in European letters.
Beginning in 1902, Joyce began to prepare for the physical exile he found essential to a clear vision of his native country. Both photographs and descriptions dating from this period portray a tall, thin young man who maintains a somewhat distant and aloof expression. His first trip to Paris, where he was ostensibly studying medicine, was brought to an end by his mother’s terminal illness. Asserting his artistic independence from strictures of religion, nation, and family, Joyce refused to honor his mother’s deathbed wish that he take communion. Remaining in Dublin through most of 1904, Joyce began work on his first published literary works. The year was marked by several personal events of immense importance to his later development. A brief residence at the Martello Tower with his friend and rival Oliver St. John Gogarty—the Buck Mulligan of Joyce’s fiction—provided a substantial amount of the material incorporated into Ulysses (1922). The story of a single day, Ulysses takes place on June 16, 1904, the day of Joyce’s first extended meeting with Nora Barnacle, who was to be his lifelong companion and the mother of his two children. Armed with his chosen weapons of “silence, exile, and cunning” and accompanied by Nora (whom he was not to marry legally until 1931), Joyce set off in late 1904 to pursue his literary destiny on the Continent.
Two interrelated themes—one aesthetic, the other financial—dominate Joyce’s career. Even as he wrote the books that established him as a major modernist author, he struggled with only intermittent success to provide a comfortable level of support for his family. With the exception of brief stays in Pola (1904-1905) and Rome (1906-1907), Joyce spent the first decade of his exile in Trieste, an Austrian port city with Italian traditions and sympathies. There, Joyce taught English both privately and in association with the Berlitz School. With the aid of his brother Stanislaus, Joyce managed to maintain his growing family; a son Giorgio was born in 1905, a daughter Lucia in 1907. Stanislaus also served as an underappreciated, but invaluable, intellectual foil and critic for the drafts of Dubliners (1914) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), which were written primarily in Trieste. An essentially realistic portrayal of Dublin life, Dubliners was accepted for publication in 1906, but objections from editors and printers delayed publication until 1914. Although there is little in any of Joyce’s books likely to outrage late twentieth century taste, Joyce expended a large amount of energy throughout his life resisting attempts to censor his writing. The skirmishes over Dubliners anticipate the landmark American trial of Ulysses, which John M. Woolsey cleared of charges of obscenity in 1933, thus supporting...
(The entire section is 2540 words.)