James Joyce 1882-1941
Irish novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, and critic.
The following entry provides criticism on Joyce's works from 1990 through 2001. See also James Joyce Poetry Criticism, James Joyce Short Story Criticism, Exiles Criticism, The Dead Criticism, and Araby Criticism.
A towering figure in the modernist literary period, James Joyce is considered the most prominent English-speaking writer of the first half of the twentieth century. While he wrote in a number of genres, including drama and lyric poetry, Joyce's reputation rests primarily on his prose works. Joyce's novels, including A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922), are widely considered ground-breaking works of fiction which not only fundamentally redefined the novel as a genre, but pushed the limits of the English language itself. Joyce is among the most widely-read and studied figures in the history of English literature, and is often considered as significant a talent as John Milton and William Shakespeare.
Joyce was born on February 2, 1882, in Dublin. While his family was initially middle-class, their fortunes declined quickly. Despite economic difficulties, however, Joyce was afforded an excellent Jesuit education, some of which is portrayed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. After graduating from University College in 1902, Joyce left Ireland for the continent. In 1903 his mother's serious illness brought Joyce back to Ireland. Following her death in 1904, Joyce renounced his Catholic faith and permanently relocated to the continent with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. Joyce supported his family by serving as a language instructor in France, Italy, and Zurich, Switzerland, where he wrote most of Ulysses. Following the international renown accorded Ulysses, Joyce gained the financial support of Harriet Shaw and was finally able to devote himself exclusively to writing. He spent nearly all of his remaining years composing his final work, Finnegans Wake (1939). After the publication of Finnegans Wake, Joyce fled Paris and the approaching turmoil of World War II. He died in Zurich of a perforated ulcer on January 13, 1941.
Though so disgusted by the narrowness and provincialism of Ireland that he spent most of his life in self-imposed exile, Joyce nevertheless made Ireland and the Irish the subject of all his fiction. Dubliners, a group of naturalistic stories concerned with the intellectual and spiritual torpor of Ireland, is the first product of his lifelong preoccupation with Dublin life. These stories are also important as examples of his theory of epiphany in fiction; each is concerned with the sudden revelation of truth about life inspired by a seemingly trivial incident. His first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is often considered a portrayal of the author's early life. The novel is at once a portrayal of the maturation of the artist, a study of the vanity of rebelliousness, and an examination of the self-deception of adolescent ego. Originally entitled Stephen Hero and conceived as an epic of autobiography, Portrait was thoroughly rewritten to provide an objective account of Stephen Dedalus's consciousness. To heighten sensitivity to the stages of Stephen's maturation, each episode unfolds in a style that approximates the intellectual level of the protagonist at the time. The narrative thus presents an evolving perspective parallel to but independent from Stephen's own nature. Joyce depicts the events of a single day in Dublin—June 16, 1904—in Ulysses. Using the Odyssey of Homer as a basis for the narrative, Joyce focuses on the actions of three characters: Stephen Dedalus, older and more disillusioned than he appeared in Portrait; Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged Jewish advertising canvasser for a Dublin newspaper; and Molly Bloom, the wife of Leopold and the only one of the three not to spend her day crisscrossing Dublin. Joyce overlays this frame with a masterful depiction of minor characters, taking a delight in the seedy details of urban living. While Ulysses serves as a chronicle of everyday events, Finnegans Wake is meant to be a record of the subconscious thoughts of H. C. Earwicker, a character both real and allegorical. Finnegans Wake is literally a recreation of the English language. In this masterpiece of allusions, puns, foreign languages, and word combinations, Joyce attempted to compress all of human history into one night's dream. Admittedly a dense, complex work, it has inspired a mass of critical exegesis. Joyce's body of work spans the extremes of naturalism and symbolism, from the spare style of Dubliners to the richness of Finnegans Wake.
Joyce is one of the most thoroughly read and analyzed authors in English literature. Numerous and varied interpretations of his work abound; critics have provided religious, feminist, sociopolitical, historical, sexual, and autobiographical perspectives on his fiction. His brilliant and innovative utilization of language remains a recurring interest of literary critics, as is Joyce's use of humor. Literary critics note that his life has come to symbolize the spiritual alienation of the modern artist, and his work has spawned numerous imitations. A complicated artistic genius, he created a body of work worthy of comparison with the masterpieces of English literature. His literary influence is considered profound, and such writers as Samuel Beckett, William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, and John Irving are regarded as his literary descendants.