From the beginning of his literary career, James Joyce was the most distinctive figure in the renaissance that occurred in Irish cultural life after the death of Charles Stewart Parnell. Despite his early quarrels with Yeats, John Millington Synge, and other leaders of the Irish Literary Revival, and his subsequent permanent exile, he is clearly, with Yeats, its presiding genius. From the first, he set himself to liberate Ireland, not by returning to Celtic myths or the Gaelic language and folklore, but by Europeanizing its cultural institutions. His early stories are an exorcism of the spirit of paralysis he felt about himself in the Dublin of his youth. As he gained detachment from these obstacles and knowledge of his own capacities as a writer of prose fiction, he produced two of the undisputed masterworks of modern literature, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, as well as a final work that is perhaps beyond criticism, Finnegans Wake.
Throughout this development, Joyce’s themes and subjects remain the same, yet his means become more overtly complex: the fabulous comedy, the multivalent language, and the vast design of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are strands in the reverse side of the sedulously restrained tapestry of Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Joyce’s cast of characters is small, his Dublin settings barely change from work to work, he observes repeatedly certain archetypal conflicts beneath the appearances of daily life, and his fiction is marked by certain obsessions of his class, religion, and nationality. Yet his single-mindedness, his wide learning in European literature, his comprehensive grasp of the intellectual currents of the age, his broad comic vision, his vast technical skills, and above all, his unequaled mastery of language, make him at once a Europeanizer of Irish literature, a Hibernicizer of European literature, and a modernizer of world literature.