James Joyce

James Joyce book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download James Joyce Study Guide

Subscribe Now

James Joyce Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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 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...

(The entire section is 4,272 words.)