illustrated portrait of Irish author James Joyce

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James Joyce Long Fiction Analysis

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The leaders of the Irish Literary Revival were born of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Very few were Catholics, and none was from the urban middle class, except James Joyce. The emphasis of the Revival in its early stages on legendary or peasant themes and its subsequent espousal of a vaguely nationalistic and unorthodox religious spirit kept it at a certain distance from popular pieties. It did no more than gesture toward Europe, and it registered very little of the atrophied state of middle- and lower-class city life.

The first to deal with this latter theme realistically, Joyce made a bold show as a “Europeanizer” and openly criticized “patriotic” art. Despite his disdain for contemporary political and literary enthusiasms, his dismissal of Celtic myths as “broken lights,” his characterization of the folk imagination as “senile,” and his relative ignorance of the Gaelic language, however, his imaginative works are as thoroughly and distinctively Irish as those of William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, or Lady Augusta Gregory.

From his earliest childhood, Joyce was aware of the political controversies of the day, observing the conflict between the idealized Charles Stuart Parnell and the ultramontane Church that permanently marked his outlook on Irish public affairs. His faith in Irish nationalist politics and in Catholicism was broken even as it was formed, and soon he launched himself beyond the pales of both, by exile and apostasy, proclaiming that each had betrayed his trust. The supersaturation of his consciousness with the language, attitudes, and myths of Church and State was formative, however, as all of his work documents: Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake are unparalleled as a record of the “felt history” of Edwardian Dublin, or indeed of any city in modern literature.

From the beginning, Joyce’s scrupulous naturalism belied his symbolist tendencies. The revisions of his early stories, and the transformation of Stephen Hero into the impressionistic bildungsroman of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, indicate that he recognized among his own powers of observation and language a special capacity to decode the socialization process—an aptitude, as he put it, for “epiphany.” At certain moments in an otherwise continuous state of paralysis, the truth reveals itself and the spirit is liberated from a conditioned servility. The repeated use of carefully selected words can, without neglecting the obligation to realistic fidelity, have the harmonious and radiant effect of a symbol.

As Joyce’s technical skills grew, he extended this principle so that in Ulysses the structural symbols become one, while at the same time the demands of realism were superseded. The tendencies implied in this shift have their apotheosis in Finnegans Wake. From 1922 to 1939, Joyce was very long removed from the Dublin he had known, and he had come to understand his own genius for language (“I find that I can do anything I like with it”). Drawing on an encyclopedic range of materials, he wrote this final, most challenging work, in which the world of the unconscious, or the sleeping mind, is represented not by realism but by multivalent language and the timeless action of archetypal characters.

In eschewing the narrow confines set by the Irish revival, Joyce turned to the masters of classical and modern European literature for his models: to Homer for his Odysseus, the hero to set against the Christian Savior and the Irish Cuchulain; to Dante for his multiplex realization of Catholic phantasmagoria; to William Shakespeare for his language and his treatment of family relations; and to Henrik Ibsen for his disciplined criticism of...

(This entire section contains 4272 words.)

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modern bourgeois life. Under these influences, Joyce’s art developed along highly formalist lines, and mythological antecedents stalk his modern lower-middle-class characters. The effects of such comparisons are, to various ends, ironic; the ordinary Dublin characters lack the remove, heroism, and familiarity with gods or demons of their classic counterparts. Instead, they exhibit various neurotic symptoms associated with modern urban life—repression, anxiety, fetishism, and the confusion of great and small virtue. In these four respects then—in the predilection for formalism, mythologization, irony, and the subject of individual consciousness—Joyce establishes the methods and the subject of literary modernism.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a semiautobiographical bildungsroman describing the development of the sensibility of Stephen Dedalus from his earliest childhood recollections to the beginnings of manhood. The work evolved from the narrative essay “A Portrait of the Artist” (January, 1904), and its expansion into Stephen Hero, an undisguised autobiographical novel in the naturalist tradition. The result of this evolution was a startlingly original composition: a highly structured, symbolic, impressionistic, and ironic treatment of the spiritual formation and reformation of an acutely sensitive young man. Stephen’s conscience absorbs the values of his Irish Catholic family; by a progressively more complex use of language and technique through the five chapters of the novel, Joyce portrays that conscience undergoing a process of simultaneous severance and refinement. The conclusion of the process, however, is paradoxical, for as Stephen declares his determination to free himself of the claims of the formative establishments of his family, nation, and religion by setting against them the proud and defiant slogan “silence, exile, and cunning,” the terms by which that defiance is made have already been set. Like his language, Stephen’s conflicts with the virtues advocated by the three establishments are not different in kind but more profound than those of his fellows. It is one of Joyce’s many ironies in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that Stephen mistakes these conflicts for a radical independence of spirit. Like Icarus, his mythological antecedent, his destiny is not to escape from the paternal labyrinths, but to fall from the heights of supercilious pride.

One of the signal achievements of the novel is Joyce’s management of the distance between reader andprotagonist: As Stephen grows older, he becomes less amiable. This distance is achieved by a multiplicity of devices: the subtle weighing of names, the acute selection of sensuous detail, the exaggeration of language, the ironic structure, the counterpointing of incidents, and the elaborate systematizing of all devices. The endearing sensitivity and naïveté of the child slowly yield to the self-absorbed priggishness of the young man.

Chapter 1 is composed of four sections: random sensations of early childhood, Stephen’s illness (at approximately seven years) at Clongowes Wood College, the Christmas dinner scene, and Stephen’s first victory over injustice—Father Dolan’s punishment. Each section gathers materials that dramatize the mysterious interplay of private sensation, communal constraint, and language. Each section culminates in an “epiphany,” a metatheological term for “a sudden spiritual manifestation” when a response betrays its socially conditioned origin, and the true feeling or idea radiates forth with the force of a symbol.

The opening section in the language of a preschool child is the kernel out of which the entire work develops. It distinguishes in a rudimentary, purely sensory manner the symbols and themes that will preoccupy Stephen: women, road, rose, paternity, flight, creation, the relationship between experience and the representation of it, his own distinctness, guilt, and the demands of home, religion, and nation.

Stephen’s illness at Clongowes Wood College causes him to meditate on the repugnance of physical life and his attraction to mysterious realms of religion and language, an association that is later to prove axial. The Christmas dinner scene, on the other hand, is a brilliant dramatization of the tension between the three establishments and the threats they pose to Parnell and Stephen, heroes alike. In the final section, Stephen successfully protests an unjust school punishment.

Chapter 2 is composed of a series of some dozen epiphanies developing the themes of Stephen’s gradual estrangement from his family, particularly his father, and his perception of sexual identification, leading to his liberation from innocence in the embrace of a prostitute. Among the revelations in this chapter is the news of the Rector’s real attitude toward Father Dolan’s treatment of Stephen; the jocosity of this attitude deflates the climax of chapter 1. When, in chapter 3, Stephen repents of his sin with the prostitute, the pattern of reversal repeats itself, and the structural irony in the novel is revealed. This chapter falls into three sections—the states of sin, repentance, and grace mediated by the memorable sermon on hell. This terrifying exposition (based on the procedures for spiritual meditation propounded by the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola) leads Stephen to contrition, confession, and communion, each treated with a certain degree of irony. Not the least of the ironies here is Stephen’s dissociated sensibility, as implied in the final page of chapter 3 and expanded in the opening section of chapter 4. The true state of his feelings is elucidated in the course of the succeeding two sections: his consideration and rejection of the priestly vocation and his ecstatic response to the call to the priesthood of the imagination. He rejects the priesthood because of its orderliness and uniformity; the life of community is removed from the risks inherent in secular life, and it denies individual freedom. His response to the muse is, however, heavily overlaid with images of the mysteries of the service of the altar. In this climactic epiphany, Stephen risks loneliness and error to transform in freedom the stuff of ordinary experience into the permanent forms of secular art. In response to the messenger, girl-bird-angel, he accepts a vocation that in the cause of self-expression will set him apart from all institutions.

In the final chapter, Stephen attempts an exorcism of each aspect of the culture that would possess his soul. To this end, he engages in a dialogue with a series of companions who advance three claims: McCann and Davin (international and national politics); Father Darlington and Lynch (servile, practical, or kinetic arts); and Cranly (conventional morality and religion). In the course of the perambulations accompanying apologia pro futura sua, Stephen sets forth his aesthetic theory, which in its refusal to grant overt moral purpose to art owes more to Walter Pater than to Aquinas. The pallid “Villanelle of the Temptress” comes as an anticlimax on the heels of such brilliant theorizing and raises the question of Stephen’s capacities as a creative artist as opposed to those of an aesthete or poseur. The concluding section, comprising the diary entries from the five weeks preceding Stephen’s departure, at once recapitulates the themes of the entire novel and anticipates Stephen’s commitment to the proud and lonely life of the committed artist. The impression that this sequence of startling entries makes is of an irony of another kind: Stephen has unknowingly stumbled upon a technique that takes him closer to his creator and to the tenor of twentieth century literature than his self-absorbed and self-conscious villanelle. Thus, at the conclusion of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen has yet to acquire a moral awareness, develop human sympathies, or discern his own voice.


The Stephen Dedalus of Ulysses has returned to Ireland after a brief sojourn in Paris. He has acquired a few new affectations from that experience, is intensely guilt-ridden over his mother’s suffering and death, teaches ineffectually at a Dublin boys’ school, lives with some companions in a Martello tower, makes desultory efforts at writing poetry, speculates sensitively on a variety of epistemological, theological, and metaphysical questions, theorizes ostentatiously on Shakespeare’s psychobiography, delivers himself of cryptic remarks and oblique anecdotes, and wastes his salary on prostitutes and drink. Despite his dissolution and moodiness, however, the Stephen of Ulysses is considerably more receptive to the world of ordinary experience that whirls around him than the protagonist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Leopold Bloom is the personification of that world.

Bloom is a thirty-eight-year-old Irish Jew of Hungarian extraction. A family man, he has a wife, Molly, four years his junior, and a daughter Milly, age fifteen; a son, Rudy, died in infancy. Bloom is observant and intelligent despite his lack of higher education. He lives in Eccles Street and works as an advertising salesman for a daily newspaper. The key event of the day on which the action of Ulysses takes place—June 16, 1904—is Molly’s infidelity (of which Bloom is aware) with an impresario named Blazes Boylan. During the course of the day, between 8 a.m. and approximately 3 a.m. on June 17, the reader follows Bloom’s thoughts and movements as he manages to retain an equilibrium between many demands and disappointments.

Bloom serves his wife breakfast in bed, takes a bath, corresponds with an epistolary lover, attends a funeral, attempts to secure an ad from a firm by the name of Keyes, has lunch, is misunderstood over a horse race, is insulted and almost attacked in a bar, becomes sexually aroused by an exhibitionist girl on the beach, and inquires about a friend at a maternity hospital, where he encounters Stephen Dedalus carousing with sundry dissolutes. Feeling protective of Stephen, he pursues him to a brothel and subsequently rescues him from brawlers and police, taking him home for a hot drink. Bloom retires, noting the signs of Blazes Boylan’s recent occupation of the marital bed. Throughout these physical events, Bloom’s consciousness plays with myriad impressions and ideas serious and trivial, from his wife’s infidelity to imperfectly remembered incidents from his childhood. He also proves himself to be a resilient, considerate, humorous, prudent, and even-tempered man. As the novel progresses, Bloom, certainly one of the most completely realized characters in fiction, grows in the reader’s affections and estimation.

Molly, as revealed to the reader in the famous soliloquy of the final chapter, is a substantial embodiment of the anima. Born in Gibraltar of a Spanish mother and an English military father who later took her to Dublin, Molly is a superstitious Catholic, a plainspoken, amoral, fertile, sensual, passive beauty. She is a singer of sentimental concert-stage favorites who, despite her adultery with Boylan, loves and admires her own husband. Throughout Ulysses, she is offstage, yet constantly on Leopold’s mind.

Each of these three main figures in Ulysses is characterized by a distinctly individuated stream of consciousness. Stephen’s bespeaks a cultivated sensibility, abounds with intellectual energy, and moves with a varying pace between considerations of language, history, literature, and theology in a private language that is learned, lyrical, morose, and laden throughout with multidirectional allusions. Bloom’s stream of consciousness, on the other hand, drifts bemusedly, effortlessly, and with occasional melancholia through a catalog of received ideas, its direction easily swayed by sensual suggestion or opportunities for naïve scientific speculation, yet sometimes revealing a remarkable perspicacity. Molly’s, finally, is the least ratiocinative and most fluent and even-paced, an unpunctuated mélange of nostalgia, acidity, and pragmatism.

These three fictional characters share a city with a large cast of figures, some of whom are historical, some based on actual people, and some purely imaginary. All move through the most minutely realized setting in literature. Joyce plotted the action of Ulysses so as to conform with the details of the day’s news, the typical comings and goings in the city’s various institutions, the weather report, and the precise elements of Dublin’s “street furniture” on June 16, 1904: the tram schedules, addresses, advertising slogans, theatrical notices, smells and sounds of the city, topics and tone of casual conversation, and so on. At this level, the work is a virtuoso exhibition of realism that challenges the most searching literary sleuths.

On another level, Ulysses has an equally astounding system of mythological, historical, literary, and formal superstructures invoked by allusion and analogy. As the title implies, Leopold Bloom is a humble modern counterpart to Odysseus, the archetypal hero of Western civilization. Thus Molly corresponds to Odysseus’s faithful wife Penelope, and Stephen to his devoted comrade and son Telemachus. As Joyce first revealed to Stuart Gilbert, his design for Ulysses called for the alignment of each of the eighteen chapters of his novel with an episode in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), with a particular location in the city of Dublin, with a particular hour in the day of June 16, 1904, with an organ of the human body, an art or science, a color, and an archetypal symbol. Finally, each of these chapters was to be written in a distinctive style. Two generations of readers have discerned further schemata and elucidated hundreds of ingenious and delicious ironies woven into every chapter, so that critical appreciation of Joyce’s technical achievement in the writing of Ulysses continues to grow. Bloom’s peregrinations through Dublin, his temporary usurpation from his marriage bed, his difficulties with customers and sundry citizens, and his befriending of the fatherless Stephen, under such grand auspices, become objects of simultaneous amusement and admiration. Even the most trivial actions of unremarkable modern citizens gain stature, resonance, and dignity; at the same time, a classic work and its heroic virtues are reinterpreted for this age.

In its broadest sense, Ulysses deals with a husband’s usurpation from and repossession of his home: Rivals are routed and an ally—a son—found. From another perspective, the plot expounds the relationship of an intellectual abstraction (Stephen) and a sense experience (Bloom). This aspect has its technical analogue in the complex formal structure by which Joyce organizes the myriad material details of the novel. Joyce draws on an impressive range of masterworks from the Western cultural tradition to elaborate these themes and comparisons. Stephen’s preoccupation with Shakespeare’s Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601), especially as it is expounded in the ninth episode (“Scylla and Charybdis”), suggests the father-and-son theme in a manner that complements the Homeric. Similarly, the Blazes Boylan-Molly Bloom relationship is orchestrated by reference to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787). Among other major organizational devices are the Catholic Mass, Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), dialectical time-space progressions, Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle (1854-1874), and a progression of literary techniques. Thus, for example, as one moves from chapter to chapter under the guidance of a third-person omniscient narrator, one encounters a succession of literary procedures modeled on journalism, classical rhetoric, catechesis, popular romance, musical counterpoint, and expressionist drama.

The fourteenth chapter (“Oxen of the Sun”), for example, narrates Bloom’s visit at 10 p.m. to the maternity hospital at Holles Street, the revelry of the medical students and their departure for bar and brothel. The forty-five-page chapter broadly alludes to Ulysses’ visit to the Isle of the Sun (Odyssey, book 12) and his followers’ disobedience of his orders in killing the native oxen, which brings down retribution on them that only the hero survives. Joyce’s narrative around the theme of respect for the physical processes of conception, gestation, and childbirth develops as a nine-part episode tracing simultaneously the development of the human embryo and the historical growth of the English language. A complex motif of references to the successive differentiation of organs in the developing human embryo is paralleled by some two score parodies of successive English prose styles from preliteracy and Anglo-Saxon to contemporary slang and a style very like that of Finnegans Wake. These progressions are further enhanced by similar motifs alluding to formal evolution, the events of June 16, 1904, and symbolic identifications of Bloom, the hospital, nurse, and Stephen with the sperm, the womb, the ovum, and the embryo, respectively. The cumulative effect of this encyclopedia of procedures is paradoxical: One marvels at the grandeur, the energy, and the variety of the language and the magisterial control of the writer, while at the same time retaining skepticism about the claims of any single perspective.

On almost every aspect of this great novel, the critics are divided: the literary value of such vast systematization, the significance of Bloom’s meeting with Stephen, and the very spirit of the work. Nevertheless, its impact on modern literature is immense, from specific literary influences such as that on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) to all works that mythologize contemporary experience. The themes of Ulysses—the dignity of ordinary persons, the values of family and human brotherhood, the consolation of language and the literary tradition, the interrelationships of theological, psychological, and aesthetic language and ideas, the ambiguity of the most profound experiences and the impact of modern revolutions in politics, science, and linguistics on notions of identity—are approached in a manner of unequaled virtuosity.

Finnegans Wake

For all the virtuosity of Ulysses, Joyce considered its form inadequate to accommodate the depth and breadth of his vision of human history, experience, and aspiration. Thus, he spent sixteen years of his life composing Finnegans Wake, a baffling expedition into the dream of history for which he devised a “night language” composed of scores of languages superimposed on a Hiberno-English base.

Finnegans Wake sets out to express in appropriate form and language the collective unconscious. Thus, it encompasses all of human experience through the millennia in a cycle of recurring forms through a universal language, the language of dreams. The work has five primary dreamers, is divided into four books, and employs a language with simultaneous reference to multiple tongues, expressing the major theme of the cyclical nature of history.

The title derives from the Irish American comic ballad “Finnegan’s Wake,” in which Tim Finnegan, a hod carrier, has fallen to his apparent death, but under the effect of spilt whiskey, he leaps out of the bed to join the revelry. The fall of this lowly modern Irish laborer recalls previous falls—Lucifer’s, Adam’s, Newton’s, and Humpty Dumpty’s—while his resurrection suggests similar parallels, most notably with Christ and, by extension via the implied words fin (French for “end”), “again,” and “awake,” with the myth of the eternal return of all things.

The five primary dreamers are Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE), a Dublin pub keeper, his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), their twin sons Shem and Shaun, and their daughter Issy. HCE (Haveth Childers Everywhere/Here Comes Everybody) is the archetypal husband-father who is burdened with guilt over an obscure indiscretion in the Phoenix Park, an Original Sin, the source of all nightmares in this dreambook of history. News of this sin is carried about by rumors and documents, lectures and arguments, accusations and recriminations. Interrogators appear in fours, and there are twelve onlookers: various jurymen, apostles, mourners, drinkers, and so on. As HCE is identified with the Dublin landscape—from Chapelizod to “Howth Castle and Environs”—his wife is the personification of the River Liffey flowing through that landscape. She is the universal wife-mother, and like all the rivers of the world, constantly in flux. Joyce lavished special care on the section of Finnegans Wake (book 1, chapter 8) where she is featured, and he read its conclusion for a phonograph recording. Their warring twin sons, Shem and Shaun, represent the generally opposite character types of introvert and extrovert, subjective and objective, artist and man of affairs, as well as Joyce himself and various antagonists, such as his brother Stanislaus, Eamon de Valera, John McCormack, and Saint Patrick. Issy is the femme fatale, Iseult rediviva, the divisive ingenue of Finnegans Wake, in contrast with her mother, whose influence is unitive.

The four books of Finnegans Wake recount human history according to the four-phase cycle of Giambattista Vico’s Principi di scienza nuova intorno alla natura delle nazioni per la quale si ritruovano i principi di altro sistema del diritto naturale delle genti (1725; revised and enlarged as Principi di scienza nuova d’intorno alla comune natura delle nazioni, 1744; commonly known as Scienza nuova; The New Science, 1948): theocratic, aristocratic, democratic, anarchic, and thence via a ricorso to the theocratic once again and a new cycle. These four phases of history and the night comprehend the totality of individual and racial development by means of analogies with the four Evangelists of the New Testament, the four Masters of Irish history, the four compass points, and so on. Through a vast elaboration of such correspondences, the Joycean universe of Finnegans Wake is populated and structured.

Decades of attempts to explicate Finnegans Wake appear to confirm Joyce’s prediction that the work would keep the professors busy for centuries. A general opinion among those who take the novel seriously is that as a dreambook and a leading expression of the twentieth century worldview, it is indeterminate, untranslatable, irreducible. It is a work in which every single element has a function: It contains no nonsense yet is finally beyond explication. Critical analyses of Finnegans Wake have been either macrocosmic or microcosmic, emphasizing the work’s overall design or attempting to gloss particular passages. Since the critics began their attempts, however, neither procedure has progressed very far toward the other.

Finnegans Wake is Joyce’s most ambitious literary endeavor. He anticipated, yet underestimated, the difficulties his readers would encounter, and he was disappointed that so many of those who acclaimed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses as supreme expressions of modernity were unprepared to pursue his explorations to the limits of language in Finnegans Wake.

Like the great masters in every discipline, Joyce enlarged the possibilities of the forms he inherited. This is indisputably true of the short story, the bildungsroman, and the mythological-psychological novel. In none of these areas has his achievement been superseded, while in the case of Finnegans Wake, as Richard Ellmann puts it in the introduction to his classic biography, “we are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries, to understand our interpreter.”


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