James Joyce Joyce, James (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Chamber Music (poetry) 1907

Dubliners (short stories) 1914

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (novel) 1916

Exiles (play) 1918

Ulysses (novel) 1922

Pomes Penyeach (poetry) 1927

Collected Poems (poetry) 1936

Finnegans Wake (novel) 1939

Critical Writings of James Joyce (criticism) 1959

John Paul Riquelme (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Riquelme, John Paul. “Stephen Hero, Dubliners, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Styles of Realism and Fantasy.” In The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, edited by Derek Attridge, pp. 103-30. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Riquelme traces the development of Stephen Daedalus as an artist in Joyce's novels.]


Near the end of what has survived of Joyce's unfinished draft of an autobiographical novel, Stephen Hero [SH] (written in 1904-5), the central character, Stephen Daedalus, claims...

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Vicki Mahaffey (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mahaffey, Vicki. “Joyce's Shorter Works.” In The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, edited by Derek Attridge, pp. 185-211. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the essay that follows, Mahaffey discusses the defining characteristics of Joyce's shorter works and examines the relationship between his longer and shorter compositions.]

At first glance, Joyce's shorter works—his poems and epiphanies, Giacomo Joyce, and Exiles—seem to bear only the most tenuous relationship to the books for which Joyce has become famous. It is only by an exercise of the imagination that the epiphanies and Giacomo Joyce can even be called...

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Marilyn Reizbaum (essay date winter 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Reizbaum, Marilyn. “The Minor Work of James Joyce.” James Joyce Quarterly 30, no. 2 (winter 1993): 177-89.

[In this essay, Reizbaum regards Joyce as a minor writer in the sense that his work is resistant to easy classification and interpretation.]

In a way we've been saying it for years—Joyce is a minor writer. Perhaps it is presumptuous to implicate anyone but myself in this provocative claim—provocative, at the very least, because the work seems demoted or devalued through what could be read simply as a traditional association with the idea of minor; but though I may be among only a few prepared to use the terminology, many of the, in particular,...

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Mamta Chaudhry-Fryer (essay date summer 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chaudhry-Fryer, Mamta. “Power Play: Games in Joyce's Dubliners.Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 3 (summer 1995): 319-27.

[In the following essay, Chaudhry-Fryer examines the games played by children and adults in Dubliners.]

In one of Dubliners' most arresting observations, the boy in “Araby” says he has “hardly any patience with the serious work of life which seemed to me child's play” (26-27). Reading this stunning paradox in reverse offers a way of approaching the stories through Michel Foucault's theories about power and knowledge, as well as Mikhail Bakhtin's analysis of comedy: embodying both subversion and inversion, child's...

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Kevin J. H. Dettmar (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dettmar, Kevin J. H. “The Dubliners Epiphony: (Mis)Reading the Book of Ourselves.” In The Illicit Joyce of Postmodernism: Reading Against the Grain, pp. 76-105. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

[In the essay below, Dettmar contends the textual clues in the stories of The Dubliners are “Joyce's means of reinforcing the story's hermeneutics, and pulling us, kicking and screaming, into a text with which we would prefer to keep a purely professional relationship.”]

One of Joyce's strategies for unsettling our reading habits in “The Sisters” is the liberal use of that detective fiction stock-in-trade, the red herring....

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Robert Alter (essay date summer 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Alter, Robert. “James Joyce's Comic Messiah.” American Scholar 66, no. 3 (summer 1997): 452-61.

[In the following essay, Alter perceives the character of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses as a version of the Greek epic hero.]

The reasons that drew Joyce to cast his modern Everyman in the mold of the classical Ulysses have been broadly evident to readers since the first publication of the novel. Of all the epic heroes of antiquity, Ulysses is the one who most fully engages the alluring multiplicity of human experience (“many sided” is one of his Homeric epithets), moving from seductress to sorceress to monster to welcoming princess, flung from proud...

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Marian Eide (essay date summer 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eide, Marian. “The Language of Flows: Fluidity, Virology, and Finnegans Wake.James Joyce Quarterly 34, no 4 (summer 1997): 473-88.

[In this essay, Eide explores Joyce's “fluidity of language” in Finnegans Wake and asserts that the book “performs an exploration of the interactive relationship between oppositional entities.”]

Walking along the edge of the Irish Sea on Sandymount Strand, Stephen Dedalus reflects on the relation between the water's movement and language: “These heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here” (U [Ulysses] 3.288-89). In “Proteus,” Stephen envisions language as a heavy...

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Joseph Valente (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Valente, Joseph. “Thrilled by His Touch: The Aestheticizing of Homosexual Panic in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” In Quare Joyce, edited by Joseph Valente, pp. 47-75. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Valente explores homoerotic elements in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.]

In his letters and essays, Joyce alludes repeatedly to the homoerotic activities supposedly rife in English or Anglo-Saxon boarding schools and implicit in their representative social and athletic customs (see especially SL [Selected Letters of James Joyce] 74, 136; CW [Critical Writings of James...

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Joshua Jacobs (essay date spring 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobs, Joshua. “Joyce's Epiphanic Mode: Material Language and the Representation of Sexuality in Stephen Hero and Portrait.Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 1 (spring 2000): 20-33.

[In the essay below, Jacobs investigates the ways in which Joyce's shorter works, especially his manuscript fragments known as the Epiphanies, influence his later, more mature fiction.]

James Joyce's transformations of themes, language, and characters from one of his own works to another have long been among the signal preoccupations of Joyce's readers. The manuscript fragments known as epiphanies, written in the years 1900 to 1903, are the earliest...

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Sean Latham (essay date 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Latham, Sean. “A Portrait of the Snob: James Joyce and the Anxieties of Cultural Capital.” Modern Fiction Studies 47, no. 4 (2001): 774-99.

[In the following essay, Latham contemplates the “inveterate snobbery” of Ulysses, contending that the book “no longer holds the powerful allure it once did.”]

From the very moment of its publication, Ulysses has been a source of scandal. The novel's blunt treatment of sexuality, its formal affront to the conventions of realism, and its minute recording of bodily functions all evoked an outrage that won for Joyce the succès d'exécration (prize of revulsion) the nineteenth-century dandies...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Attridge, Derek. Joyce Effects: On Language, Theory, and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 226 p.

Offers in-depth analysis of Joyce's fiction.

Beckman, Richard. “Jove's Word: Finnegans Wake, 80.20-81.13.” Journal of Modern Literature XXII, no. 2 (winter 1998-99): 373-84.

Provides an interpretation of two paragraphs from Finnegans Wake.

Brunsdale, Mitzi M. James Joyce: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993, 264 p.

Explores the main thematic concerns of Joyce's short fiction.


(The entire section is 839 words.)