illustrated portrait of Irish author James Joyce

James Joyce

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James Joyce Biography

James Joyce, one of the greatest writers of the early twentieth century, suffered from an incurable case of wanderlust. During his 58 years, he lived in many different parts of the world. He began his life in Dublin, Ireland, which was the setting for most of his great fiction. In 1903, he moved to Paris, but returned to Dublin a year later when his mother was dying. While in Dublin he met his life partner, and later wife (they did not marry until 1931) Nora Barnacle, a maid at a Dublin hotel. Shortly thereafter, Joyce and Barnacle moved to Zurich and then on to Trieste where he stayed for a decade teaching English and writing.

Joyce’s life was a troubled one with bouts of alcoholism, depression, and poverty. Despite his problems, he managed to write many influential pieces of literature: Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, the short story collection Dubliners, and a somewhat autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Facts and Trivia

  • Joyce was attacked by a dog as a young boy and ended up with a severe canine phobia that persisted throughout his life. He was also afraid of thunderstorms because his grandmother once told him storms were a sign of God’s wrath.
  • Dedham, Massachusetts, hosts an annual James Joyce Ramble, which is a 10K race. Each mile is dedicated to one of Joyce’s works, and actors in period costumes line the streets and read from his novels as the runners pass.
  • The last story in Joyce’s Dubliners collection, “The Dead,” was made into a film in 1987 by director John Huston. It was Huston’s last major film before he died.
  • Joyce’s grandson, Stephen, has supposedly destroyed many letters written by his grandfather. He has also blocked what he considers “inappropriate” adaptations of his grandfather’s work.
  • The library at the University College in Dublin is named after James Joyce.
  • Upon his death, a Catholic priest offered a religious service for Joyce, a fallen-away Catholic. Nora declined the offer saying, "I couldn't do that to him."


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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.

Early Life

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...

(This entire section contains 2540 words.)

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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 intoUlysses (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.

Life’s Work

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 right of artists to treat material which in some contexts might be deemed obscene.

The recognition of Joyce as a significant writer can be dated to 1913, the beginning of a valuable, if not always smooth, friendship with the American poet Ezra Pound. Instrumental in furthering Joyce’s career both aesthetically and financially, Pound initiated a correspondence and shortly thereafter established contacts between Joyce and Egoist editor Dora Marsden, who accepted A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for serial publication, and Harriet Weaver, who provided Joyce with an extraordinary amount of financial patronage and intellectual support over nearly four decades. By the time his family was relocated to Zurich, where they would remain throughout World War I, Joyce was on the verge of his first real literary success. Dubliners had finally been published; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was received favorably when it was published in late 1916. When the first chapters of Ulysses began appearing in reviews in 1918, Joyce was widely recognized as something more than an interesting experimental writer on the fringes of a diffuse literary movement.

His celebrity increasing even before the appearance of Ulysses in book form, Joyce moved to Paris in 1920. In addition to fighting the charges of obscenity which again delayed publication, Joyce expanded his literary contacts in a milieu which brought together disaffected artists from throughout Europe and the Americas. Bolstered by the positive responses of French writers such as Valéry Larbaud, who delivered one of the first public lectures on his work, Joyce actively encouraged detailed critical examination of his work. Over the next two decades, he would encourage, and at times direct, Stuart Gilbert, Frank Budgen, and Herbert Gorman in the writing of books which established the “Joyce mystique” in its early form. Sometime in 1923, Joyce also began work on Finnegans Wake (known prior to publication as “Work in Progress”), a project which would command his attention for the next fifteen years and would finally be published in 1939.

Despite his literary celebrity and a degree of financial security derived primarily from Weaver’s patronage, the years following the publication of Ulysses were on the whole difficult for the Joyce family. Plagued from childhood by poor eyesight, Joyce’s health problems worsened steadily. In Zurich, he had undergone the first of a continuing sequence of operations to protect his remaining sight and relieve the pain which would sometimes render him incapable of working for extended periods. In addition, Joyce’s literary career did not develop smoothly. Responding to the widespread perception that Finnegans Wake was little more than a literary curiosity unworthy of the author of Ulysses, Joyce quarreled with Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and others. His growing sense of isolation was exacerbated by the severe mental problems of his daughter Lucia, who was ultimately institutionalized for schizophrenia. Intensely devoted to his daughter, and apparently seeing her difficulties as a reflection of his own genius, Joyce refused to acknowledge the severity of her problem and quarreled with friends who refused to endorse his interpretation of events. Ultimately, Joyce broke even with Weaver, whom he accused without justification of having withheld support from Lucia and from his work. Taking place under the gathering shadows of World War II, which diverted attention from aesthetic events in 1939, the long-awaited publication of Finnegans Wake was something of an anticlimactic event for Joyce. Despite his general disdain for political issues, Joyce was inevitably affected by political events. Having aided several Jews, including the novelist Hermann Broch, in their escape from Nazi territory, Joyce finally succeeded in relocating his family to Zurich shortly after the fall of Paris in 1940. There, Joyce died unexpectedly of a perforated ulcer early in 1941.


The defining aspect of James Joyce’s immense influence on the development of twentieth century literature is its diffuse nature. Particularly in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Joyce provided sufficient material to fuel passionate attacks and defenses from nearly every position on the aesthetic and/or political spectrum. Rather than attempt to communicate a specific determinate vision of “reality,” Joyce shifted attention to the complexity of aesthetic processes. Anticipating central concerns of a wide range of later experimental expression—Joyce has fascinated composers and visual artists as well as writers—Joyce contributed directly to a far-reaching redefinition of the relationship between audience, artist, and the work of art.

Joyce’s personal example both complements and contradicts the contents of his books. Grounded in the semiautobiographical portraits in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, Joyce’s personal mystique has been cited as inspiration by many later writers, particularly in their phases of youthful rebellion. As a result, the image of the writer as a distinctly aloof, frequently arrogant “priest of the eternal imagination” has attached itself strongly to the public perception of Joyce. Combined with the stylistic complexity of his work, this image reinforces the common perception of avant-garde art as irrelevant and/or indifferent to daily life.

The irony of this image emerges when it is juxtaposed to the content of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, both of which celebrate aspects of reality—including physiological processes such as eating and defecating—which, prior to Joyce, had been dismissed as too trivial to command the attention of the serious artist. The story of a single day in Dublin, Ulysses focuses on the external wanderings and internal thoughts of three central characters, none of whom emerges as more important or valuable than the others: the “Joycean” artist Stephen Dedalus; the outwardly undistinguished middle-class Dubliner Leopold Bloom; and his wife, Molly, who is committing adultery, probably for the first time. Joyce’s exhaustive treatment of the Dublin landscape—almost every location can be verified—and internal consciousness pushed preexisting literary tendencies to extremes, establishing an imposing point of reference for later writers. Of equal importance was Joyce’s use of what T. S. Eliot called the “mythic method.” Suggesting an underlying parallel between the lives of his characters and those of the classical heroes, Joyce was the most important early exemplar of a technique which has been employed widely in both “serious and “popular” culture. Again blending extreme erudition and “trivial” ephemera, Joyce intended Finnegans Wake as a “night book” dealing with the subconscious dream life subordinated in his “day book,” Ulysses. Noteworthy for its multilingual puns—any inventive style of speech is still likely to be labeled “Joycean”—Finnegans Wake has been viewed both as an incomprehensible nightmare of self-indulgence and as a liberating, and hilarious, statement of human unity. Just as Ulysses provided a central reference for the “symbolic” approach to literary studies which dominated the 1960’s, Finnegans Wake has emerged as a central text in the continental theoretical movements which seek to “deconstruct”—to reveal the limitations and arbitrariness of—“normal” modes of interpretation or expression. It is part of the paradoxical nature of Joyce’s achievement that his books have repeatedly been summoned as evidence by both sides in a continuing sequence of heated cultural battles over the nature and heritage of modernism.


Bowen, Zack, and James F. Carens, eds. A Companion to Joyce Studies. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. A collection of essays by a range of established critics summarizing various aspects of Joyce studies. Since Joyce has attracted a vast amount of critical attention, this volume provides a valuable starting place for work on specific topics.

Brown, Malcolm. The Politics of Irish Literature: From Thomas Davis to W. B. Yeats. London: Allen and Unwin, 1972. Provides a clear overview of the Irish context of Joyce’s writing. More important for its comments on Joyce’s contemporaries and on the Irish political tradition than for its direct commentary on his writing.

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959, 1982. One of the great literary biographies. Ellmann provides an exhaustive record of the events of Joyce’s life, which provides the groundwork for all serious scholarship concerning his major works. Particularly valuable for its insights into Joyce’s relationship with Ireland and with his literary contemporaries.

Gilbert, Stuart. James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: A Study. Rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1952. Written under Joyce’s personal supervision, this idiosyncratic study provides much of the raw material on which later interpretations have been based. Notable for the detailed development of the “scheme” of correspondences underlying the surface details.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. The best overall presentation of the dynamics of the part of the modernist movement with which Joyce was most closely associated. A respected critic who has written several books specifically on Joyce, Kenner highlights the subtle differences, as well as the general connections, between Joyce and his contemporaries.

Levin, Harry. James Joyce. Rev. ed. New York: New Directions, 1960. The first comprehensive scholarly study of Joyce’s career, Levin’s book remains the best overall introduction. Stresses the polarity between the artist and the city as the crucial tension explored in diverse ways in Joyce’s four works of fiction.

Peake, Charles H. James Joyce: The Citizen and the Artist. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1977. A balanced overview of the tension between Joyce’s sense of artistic autonomy and his sense of civic responsibility. A good contemporary synthesis of previous critical insights.

Riquleme, John Paul. Teller and Tale in Joyce’s Fiction: Oscillating Perspectives. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. An intelligent and reasonably accessible application of contemporary critical theory to Joyce’s work. Examines the implications of the narrative devices employed in each of the major works.


Critical Essays