illustrated portrait of Irish author James Joyce

James Joyce

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James Joyce World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4087

Joyce is a master of style, and readers can find a different one for each of his major works. In Dubliners, he adopts a narrow and (for Joyce) conventional realistic approach. In addition, each story is told in the style of the protagonist; the narrator does not impose a style. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, however, uses a much richer and more romantic style, since it is told through the consciousness of an emerging artist. Stephen Dedalus meditates on words and finds that he is attracted not by their meaning but by their sound and rhythm. In such scenes as Stephen discovering his vocation upon the beach and his declaration of his artistic purpose, the style is raised to a very lofty plane. When Stephen creates his villanelle, both the poem and the commentary are in the vein of high Romanticism. Ulysses is much more varied; there is the intellectual style of Stephen and the plain style of Bloom, but readers find midway into the book that stylistic experimentation dominates the book. There is, for example, a chapter, “Sirens,” done in musical prose rhythms and filled with allusions to music. There is the parody style of “Cyclops” and the history of English prose style from Anglo-Saxon to the twentieth century in “Oxen of the Sun.” It seems as if plot and character are subordinated to style as the end of the book approaches.

There are a few important themes evident in the major works. One is women’s betrayal. Joyce was fascinated by betrayal and returned to it many times. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example, he uses the betrayal of Stephen’s beloved as a necessary prelude to his flight from Ireland in order to become an artist. Women help him find his vocation and are the subject of his art, but their betrayal is necessary for his freedom. In Ulysses, women are once more unfaithful. Molly Bloom betrays her husband and Stephen discusses Anne Shakespeare’s betrayal of her husband, William. In addition, Stephen’s mother is haunting him and preventing his growth.

Another important theme in Joyce is Dublin (or Ireland in general); it is a place that is described as a net, a trap that imprisons or restrains the characters. Nearly all of them long for some escape but none really succeeds in finding it. Even Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter ego, is forced to return to the Dublin he had left behind to become an artist. Others dream about a fuller life, but all such dreams are dashed. If there is a spiritual liberation of the country, it can come only through the artist, who alone has the vision to renew the people.

Joyce is unusual in that he never repeats himself. He works on a genre until he exhausts the possibilities for his art. He undertakes the genre of the short story and perfects the mode. Indeed, much of modern story technique is based on Joyce’s “epiphany,” a depiction of the essence of the character and the situation, and his objective narration. He then tries the novel of education and perfects the study of a sensitive individual consciousness. The growth of that consciousness from baby talk and mere sound to the villanelle and poetic prose is dazzling. Joyce then turns to a novel based on a Greek myth and re-creates that novel. Now the novel can break the plot or subordinate it to style; it also becomes a truly encyclopedic work containing theology, social commentary, and fantasy, as well as the more usual novelistic interests...

(This entire section contains 4087 words.)

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of plot and character.


First published: 1914

Type of work: Short stories

This collection comprises satiric pictures of life in Dublin that expose the paralysis of will of each of the protagonists in the collection.

Dubliners is not a collection of short stories that were written at various periods and with various themes. It is clearly meant to be a unified work of art. Joyce said that he chose Dublin as the setting because it was “the center of paralysis.” Yet he also stated that his purpose was to depict “the eventual spiritual liberation of my country.” Such a “liberation” could occur only if the Dubliners were to shed the myths about Ireland and face their true situation.

The stories of Dubliners are cunningly arranged. The first three stories clearly constitute a unit; they portray the life of a child in Dublin and are filled with disillusionment and a recognition of failure. “Araby” describes a failed quest as a nameless boy promises to go to a bazaar called Araby to buy a gift for a young girl. The boy is a dreamer who ignores daily life to dwell upon his beloved. It is significant that he invests her with religious imagery when he speaks of a “chalice” he is protecting. He also does not see her clearly; she is always a brown shape to him, and he worships his idea of her rather than her true self.

On the day of his planned visit to Araby, his uncle is late, and it seems that the boy will not be able to go. Finally, the uncle enters, drunk, and gives him money. It is late when the boy arrives at the bazaar, and he finds not the magic and mystery of his dreams but a woman flirting with two men at a counter. He hears a voice announce that the light is out—a metaphor for the extinguishing of his quest. The epiphany is very harsh: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” The boy feels ashamed of his earlier dreams; he, like the other Dubliners, is incomplete. His dreams have been smashed and he is filled with self-loathing.

The next stories deal with young and mature people in Dublin. They suffer from a paralysis of the will as well as a failure to fulfill plans or complete escapes or projects. In “Eveline” the main character has found a beau, Frank, who wishes to take her to Buenos Aires against the opposition of her father. She sits in a dusty room and weighs the claims of both sides. Most of her meditation deals with her father and her home. It is a familiar if grim place; the father is a drunk who makes Eveline give him all the money she earns at her job. She can recall only a few positive images of her father. In contrast, Frank is “very kind, manly, open-hearted.” He loves music and will give Eveline an honorable place as his wife. Eveline seems to decide between the two when she thinks of the fate of her mother: “that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.” In panic, she chooses Frank; he will save her. At the end of the story, however, she cannot answer the call of Frank to join him on the ship. She remains in a state of paralysis between Frank and her home. Her fears of being drowned and her obligations to her family overcome the freedom promised by Frank. She cannot escape Dublin and is described as being “passive, like a helpless animal.” “Eveline” is a quintessential Dubliners story. The dream of a fuller life is betrayed by fear and paralysis of the will.

The last group of stories deals with institutions: “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” with politics, “A Mother” with the musical world of Dublin, and “Grace” with religion.

The last story in the collection, “The Dead,” seems to stand alone as a kind of coda. The story itself is very detailed in its presentation of a middle-class and educated world. The protagonist, Gabriel, is Gabriel Conroy. The reader hears Gabriel’s inner thoughts as he meditates on Ireland and his place in it. He is an inner exile in Dublin who takes his vacations on the Continent, writes a review of a British poet, Browning, and has little use for the Irish Literary Revival of language and culture. The structure of the story is the destruction of his aloofness and egotism.

The first of the assaults on Gabriel’s egotism is with the servant Lily. Gabriel makes social conversation with Lily primarily, it seems, to enhance his own image. He pretends to be genuinely interested in Lily and manages to offend her. “’O, then,’ said Gabriel gaily, ’I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?’ ” Lily is angered and complains of men who fail to meet their commitments. Gabriel is embarrassed at this outburst and later feels that he has used the wrong tone with her.

The next assault on Gabriel is made by Miss Ivors. Miss Ivors is a nationalist and criticizes Gabriel for writing his review in a pro-British journal. She also criticizes him for going to the Continent to learn foreign languages when he has his own language to learn. “O, to tell you the truth,” Gabriel suddenly responds, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” Gabriel is especially upset because Miss Ivors has criticized him in front of other people.

The last confrontation is the most important and is with his wife, Gretta. After the party is over, Gabriel has romantic feelings about his wife. She, however, seems to be distant and tired. He draws her to him, but she resists his advances. Finally, she reveals that she was thinking not of Gabriel but of a young man she knew in Galway. Gabriel tries to belittle this relationship but does not succeed. Instead, he suddenly begins to realize who he is and what his relationship with his wife has been. He now sees himself as a “ludicrous figure” who has idealized his “clownish lusts.” When Gretta reveals that the young man, Michael Furey, died for her, Gabriel’s egotism and his world are destroyed. He feels that some “impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him.” Gabriel then passes through stages to reach his final state. He becomes a prophet who announces the death of his aunt, Julia Morkan. He begins to shed “generous tears” as he thinks of the death of Michael Furey. Furey had died for love, and although Gabriel has never felt love before, “he knew that such a feeling must be love.”

The last movement of the story is very difficult to interpret. Gabriel recognizes that it is time “to set out on his journey westward.” That journey can be interpreted as either toward life or toward death. A journey to the west is traditionally associated with death, but all of the positive characters—Gretta, Furey—come from the west. In addition, Gabriel feels his own identity and all of Ireland “fading out into a grey impalpable world.” The last sentence speaks of the snow falling “like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” The ending of the story is seen in positive terms by some critics as a figurative rebirth for Gabriel. Others see it as the destruction of Gabriel and the world of Dublin, literally a last judgment. Still others see it as ambiguous, making it impossible for the reader to decide whether the ending is positive or negative. Yet another interpretation is that Gabriel is a prophet who points the way to the eventual “spiritual liberation” of Dublin through the love that he, Gabriel, recognizes but cannot feel. Thus, the ending signifies a cleansing of society in order to rebuild it on new principles.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

First published: 1914-1915 (serial), 1916 (book)

Type of work: Novel

This novel examines the growth, development, and emergence of the artist in detail.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a bildungsroman, a novel of education; in this case, it is the growth of the artist from his earliest childhood to his declaration of his proper role as an artist, a “priest of the eternal imagination.” The novel begins with the earliest experience of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus. His world is a world of sensations, especially of touch and smell. Later those sensations will be connected to words, and by the end of the book he recognizes that words have an independent existence. He also recognizes the demands that he submit, to “apologize,” as his father and Aunt Dante demand. Throughout the novel, Stephen is continually evading most of the demands that are placed on him. An artist must be free.

The next section takes place at a Jesuit boarding school, Clongowes; the concluding incident in the chapter also takes place there. Stephen had lost his glasses and was, therefore, unable to do his lesson. Father Dolan, however, refuses to accept his explanation. Stephen goes to the rector, Father Conmee, to seek redress. Conmee at first suggests that Father Dolan did not know of the lost glasses, but Stephen insists that he did know. Finally, Conmee reluctantly agrees to order Dolan not to punish Stephen the next day. The chapter ends with Stephen declared a hero by his classmates; he now feels “happy and free.” Each chapter of the book ends in some kind of triumph for Stephen. The beginning of the following chapters, however, shows a decline.

The second chapter continues the development of Stephen as he experiences a change in his situation. His father’s finances decline and he leaves Clongowes and becomes a day student at another Jesuit school, Belvedere. He also begins to be interested in women. He is involved with the young Ellen and dreams about the fictional Mercedes, who will initiate and transform him. He imagines an encounter with Mercedes when “weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him.” Stephen’s initiation, however, is more sordid. He feels lust rather than love and wishes to fall into sin with a real woman and not an idealized figure from fiction. He goes to the red-light district of Dublin to seek that encounter. The chapter ends with Stephen and a prostitute. She embraces him, and he feels “joy and relief.” He will not, however, kiss her; he wishes to retain his aloof independence but finally surrenders and submits. It is, however, a necessary fall; Joyce’s artist must fall in order to create “life out of life.”

The beginning of the chapter is a decided decline. Stephen does not feel transformed but degraded by his sexual encounter. He feels like a beast instead of a man. Then a retreat is announced at school; Stephen is to hear powerful sermons by a Jesuit. He is immediately affected; he feels that the words are aimed directly at him. He also thinks of a way out; the Virgin will take his hand and that of an innocent young girl, Emma, and lead him to forgiveness and an innocent love. It will not, however, be that easy for Stephen; he is forced to confront his sin and his fate by the Jesuit preacher. The preacher speaks of hell and its terrible punishments. He cites the condemnation of Lucifer, who, like Stephen, will not serve or submit. His description of hell sounds remarkably like Clongowes. The smells and companions of the preacher’s hell are exactly like Stephen’s memories of his first school. The effect on Stephen is immediate. He calls for help that evening in his bedroom and vomits in disgust at what he has done. He believes that he has lost his innocence and turned himself into a beast. He confesses his sin and once more submits, although this time it is to the Church rather than a prostitute. The last scene of the chapter parallels the earlier one; he takes the host as he had taken the kiss. Yet the Church is not to be Stephen’s final choice; it is only a stage in his development.

There is a marked change in the beginning of the next chapter. Stephen has become religious, but his life afterward tends to be dry and mechanical. He imagines himself as a spiritual accountant adding up his devotions. He is then approached by the rector to see if he aspires to the priesthood, particularly for the Jesuit order. At first, he is attracted to the image of himself as a Jesuit, but he quickly dismisses it when he imagines himself back in the cold and smells of Clongowes. In addition, he discovers that his place is “wandering among the snares of the world.”

The novel then brings Stephen back to the disorder of his home. He begins to recall a beautiful phrase he has memorized and realizes that it is not the meaning or the “colors” of the words that please him but their sound pattern or rhythm. Stephen as a developing artist has developed his relationship with words from the identification of sound and meaning to a love of syntactic patterns for their own sake.

At the end of the chapter, Stephen comes upon a young girl on the beach. She is described as “a strange and beautiful seabird.” His response is one of “profane joy.” Her image passes into him, and he announces his vocation. “To life, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!” It is the most important of the many triumphant chapter endings. Stephen realizes that his place is in the fallen world rather than that of the priesthood. He now knows what his vocation is but has not yet actually created a work of art to certify his role as an artist. At this point, he is a potential artist, and a very young one.

The first part of chapter 6 is devoted to Stephen’s discussion of the aesthetic he has developed; it is a prelude to the actual creation of a poem in the second part of the chapter. Stephen’s aesthetic is rather sophisticated and can be related to many of Joyce’s own works. He speaks of the stages of an artist’s work: from lyric to epic to dramatic. The artist begins, as Stephen does, with self-expression and continues to “refine himself out of existence.” The aim is an impersonal art that Joyce develops in Ulysses. He also spells out the three elements needed in a work of art: “wholeness, harmony, and radiance.”

The poem that Stephen writes is a villanelle, a highly artificial form; many critics have condemned it and see Stephen as the type of artist that Joyce would reject. They see a considerable amount of distance between Joyce and his protagonist. Others, however, see Stephen as a young but genuine artist.

The last section of the chapter is filled with images of flight as Stephen prepares to leave Ireland and its “nets” of patriotism and church. The true artist needs to be independent, which is impossible for Stephen in Ireland. One other ironic note is found at the close of the chapter. Stephen sees his beloved, to whom he had just written a poem, being caressed by his friend, Davin. Joyce, obsessed with the betrayal of friends and lovers, wrote about it in nearly every one of his major works.

The last part of the book is a series of journal entries by Stephen. The narrator has disappeared. The entries speak of Stephen’s beloved, the images of the road and his departure, and the type of art Stephen is to pursue. The last two entries speak of Stephen’s exalted role as an artist: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smith of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” The aim is not merely to create individual works but to bring about a “spiritual liberation.”


First published: 1922

Type of work: Novel

The novel re-creates the Odyssey in one day in the life of Dublin as the protagonists meet and complete an imperfect quest.

Ulysses is based on Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) but compresses the action of the earlier epic into one day. The basic narrative of the Odyssey is maintained: Leopold Bloom, the modern counterpart to Ulysses, returns home to his wife and son and then overcomes the suitors and reclaims his place. Stephen Dedalus, the counterpart to Telemachus, needs to grow into a man and be united with his absent father.

The first section of the book, the “Telemachiad,” deals with Stephen. Stephen has returned to Ireland from Paris to face the death of his mother and is haunted by the ghost of his mother and oppressed by the demands of his real father. He needs to purge his mother’s ghost and find a new father. Stephen is oppressed, as is Telemachus, by the usurpers in the tower where he lives. Stephen’s thoughts are abstruse, philosophical, and filled with guilt; he no longer seems to be a potential artist. He wanders around Dublin in search of some relief. One noteworthy episode takes place in the National Library, where Stephen expounds his theory of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), which is really a theory that is directly related to Joyce’s own life and work. Stephen also goes to visit a newspaper and tells two of the editors his short story “A Pisgah Prophecy,” which is similar to early stories in Dubliners. The proposing of a theory and creation of a literary work by Stephen is also found in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Perhaps Stephen is beginning to fulfill his claim to be a true artist.

Leopold Bloom is an ordinary man with an extraordinary curiosity about everything around him. He, like Stephen, has problems within his family. His wife, Molly, is unfaithful to him and today has received a note from the notorious Blazes Boylan telling her that he will visit her. In addition, Bloom’s son, Rudy, died fourteen years before, rendering Bloom impotent. If Stephen needs a father, Bloom needs a son. They will travel through Dublin and occasionally cross paths before their meeting and tenuous union in the last part of the book.

Bloom is a fairly complaisant husband; he never confronts Molly about Boylan and has his own deceits as a compensation. He has received a letter from Martha Clifford, with whom he is conducting an extended flirtation. On his travels, he observes and interacts with the Dubliners. The anti-Semitism and hostility against the Jewish Bloom is seen a number of times. The most important conflict he has about his Jewishness is depicted in the “Cyclops” episode, in which he defends himself forcefully against racial attacks.

The union between Bloom and Stephen begins in the “Circe” chapter. Bloom is humiliated and exalted in the chapter; he is abused by women for his weakness and oddities, while Stephen is drunk and is about to squander or lose his money. Bloom has followed him from a maternity hospital and acts like a father in saving Stephen’s money and defending him against charges by the police. He is going to bring him home, where Stephen will teach Molly Italian pronunciation and have a place to stay. Stephen, who seems to have purged his mother’s ghost by swinging his walking stick at it in “Circe,” is obviously meant to replace the dead Rudy and restore Bloom’s virility, but he seems unconvinced by Bloom’s offer. There is a wonderful scene between Bloom and Stephen in the next chapter, “Ithaca,” where they urinate together and share a cup of cocoa. Some union of father and son does take place. Stephen, however, declines Bloom’s offer. He has changed since the beginning of the novel, but not completely. Bloom has also changed, but not completely. He still has his problem with impotence and Molly’s adulteries. The book provides only provisional solutions for the complex problems of the two characters.

The last chapter, “Penelope,” is the famous monologue of Molly Bloom. Molly does speak of some of the changes in the book. Bloom has now ordered her to make him bacon and eggs in the morning. She speaks of the sexual encounter with Boylan but asserts that Bloom had more “spunk” in him. Above all, she recalls the first sexual experience with Bloom on Howth, where she gave her “Yes.” For all its incompleteness, the book ends with the affirmation by Molly and significant changes in the main characters.


James Joyce Poetry: British Analysis


Joyce, James (Poetry Criticism)