James Joyce 1882–-1941
(Full name James Augustine Aloysius Joyce) Irish novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, and critic.
The following entry presents criticism on Joyce's short fiction from 1992 to 2002. For criticism prior to 1992, see SSC, Volume 3; for discussion of the short story “The Dead,” see SSC, Volume 26; and for discussion of the short story “Araby,” see SSC, Volume 44.
Joyce is considered one of the most influential literary figures of the first half of the twentieth century. Through experimental, symbolic prose, he redefined the limits of language and reinvented the form of the modern novel. Joyce's only short story collection, Dubliners (1914), is considered a master achievement in the genre.
Joyce was born into a middle-class home in a suburb of Dublin. His family moved frequently to a variety of neighborhoods throughout the city of Dublin; their periodic relocation reflected a progressive financial decline that took them from comfort to virtual poverty. The economic hardships that necessitated the family's many moves served to bring Joyce into close contact with many aspects of city life that would later appear in his fiction. During his childhood, Joyce attended Jesuit schools as a scholarship entrant and was considered a talented student. His church-based education did not lead to the priesthood, as his parents had hoped, and he eventually rejected Catholicism, in part for its role in creating the parochial, narrow-minded society from which he later sought escape.
Following his graduation from University College in Dublin in 1902, Joyce left Ireland to live in Paris, deliberately abandoning the life he knew and would later depict in harsh detail in Dubliners. He returned to Ireland the next year when his mother became seriously ill, and when she died in 1904, Joyce moved permanently to the European continent with Nora Barnacle, a chamber maid from Galway whom he did not marry until 1931. Living in Trieste, Italy, the couple had two children, and Joyce made a living as a language instructor while struggling to find publishers for his short fiction, the full collection of which was deemed too controversial to print. Dubliners appeared first as a handful of stories published in an Irish periodical and was eventually published as a volume of fifteen stories in 1914. This was followed by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in New York in 1916 and in London the following year. By 1922, with the publication of the novel Ulysses, Joyce had secured for himself an international reputation as a leading modernist. During the writing of the novel, however, Joyce endured the first of eleven surgeries to address progressive vision problems due to glaucoma. His final novel, Finnegans Wake, appeared in 1939 to negative critical response. At the outbreak of World War II, Joyce was living in Paris, where he stayed as long as he could. He eventually settled in Switzerland, where he died of a stomach ulcer in January 1941.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Despite his self-imposed exile from the country of his birth, Joyce nonetheless made Ireland and its people the subject of his writing. His first published volume of fiction was Dubliners, a collection of fifteen short stories all set in Dublin and dramatizing ordinary urban lives of the day. Three of the stories, “The Sisters,” “Eveline,” and “After the Race,” first appeared in the journal Irish Homestead at the end of 1904. Joyce revised and expanded these three and added eleven further stories for a volume that was planned for publication in 1906 by English publisher Grant Richards. Richards's printer refused to produce the work, however, alleging that the stories were indecent. Joyce, preferring that the works remain unpublished rather than amended to suit the tastes of others, explained in a May 5, 1906, letter to Richards that his intention in writing Dubliners “was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the center of paralysis. … I have written it for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness and with the conviction that he is a very bold man who dares to alter in the presentment, still more to deform, whatever he has seen and heard.” The Irish publisher Maunsel and Company accepted and printed the collection, including a fifteenth story, “The Dead,” in 1912. However, due to concern about potential libel charges stemming from Joyce's use of the names of well-known people and businesses, all copies of the book were destroyed before they could be distributed. In 1914 the book was finally published by Grant Richards, nearly a decade after the first of the stories had been written.
Dubliners is considered the first literary product of Joyce's lifelong preoccupation with the city and the people of Dublin. The stories are also important as examples of Joyce's aesthetic theory of epiphany in fiction: each is built around a sudden revelation of truth about life inspired by a seemingly trivial incident. In his short fiction, Joyce selected and recorded the often invisible moments of everyday life during which a word, a gesture, a thought, or an observed behavior can suddenly trigger a flash of recognition, discovery, or understanding in one's mind. The characters in Joyce's depiction of Dublin are all Catholic and middle class, although they represent a broad spectrum of ages and occupations. Whether they are young schoolboys or aging priests, innocent young women or aged spinsters, the trait they share is their entrapment in the urban society of Dublin as a consequence of their own choices or inaction. Joyce arranged the stories to present what he saw as the physical, moral, and social paralysis of Irish life in four distinct stages: three stories from the point of view of childhood; four stories describing the pivotal decisions of adolescence; four stories of maturity, in which the characters come to understand the consequences of past choices; and three stories of public life, which address issues such as politics, music, and the Catholic Church within the confines of Irish society. The longest and last story of the collection, “The Dead,” is considered by critics to be an epilogue to the volume, in that it resolves and integrates themes, problems, and symbols introduced in the previous fourteen stories.
Once he was able to get Dubliners published, Joyce generally enjoyed favorable response from literary reviewers. It was clear from the start of his literary career that Joyce was a leader in reshaping modern fiction and reinventing the use of literary language. Until well past the middle of the twentieth century, however, critics and scholars tended to lavish attention on Joyce's longer works of fiction, overlooking Dubliners as not much more than a collection of vignettes depicting the provinciality of the author's boyhood hometown. His short stories are considered the most traditional and easily understood examples of Joyce's fiction, which in itself may have rendered them less interesting to scholars, who were eager to respond to the challenge of explicating A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. In recent decades, however, critical interest in Dubliners has increased as subsequent explications of the stories, both as individual settings and as elements of the total work, have revealed that in the collection Joyce first introduced the subjects and themes that would become the focus of his later work. Scholars today also note that the collection is significant because even before his more experimental works appeared, Joyce introduced, in Dubliners, a multidimensional narrative method that began revolutionizing modern literature.