illustrated portrait of Irish author James Joyce

James Joyce

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James Joyce’s name is synonymous with twentieth century fiction, to a revolution in which he devoted himself with remarkable single-mindedness. The results are to be found in three extremely influential works of fiction—A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915, serial; 1916, book), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939). Though his work in other genres is of much less significance, Joyce also wrote two books of poetry, as well as one play. His youthful critical essays, crucial to an understanding of his artistic origins, were collected posthumously and edited by Richard Ellmann and Ellsworth Mason as The Critical Writings of James Joyce (1959). The raw material for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, edited by Theodore Spencer, was also published posthumously as Stephen Hero (1944).


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James Joyce is acknowledged by many as the twentieth century’s greatest prose artist and is also, arguably, that century’s most famous author. Despite his small output and the increasing difficulty of his works, Joyce’s name stands as a monument to commitment and artistic integrity. Since the end of World War II, there has hardly been a novelist in the West who has not felt Joyce’s influence. Continuing interest in his complex mind and work is sustained by a vast array of academic commentators.

The reasons for Joyce’s eminence are not hard to find. Each of his works, beginning with the short stories of Dubliners, is notable for its startling originality of language and conception. His fiction, moreover, placed his native city, Dublin, indelibly on the map of the world’s culture. His life, a continual struggle against ill health, exile, and the almost total neglect of publishers, has come to be perceived as an eloquent expression of self-determination in an age of totalitarian conformity.

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James Joyce commenced his literary career as a poet, essayist, and dramatist, under the influences of William Butler Yeats and Henrik Ibsen, respectively. His Collected Poems (1936) contains Chamber Music (1907), thirty-six lyrics written before 1904, and Pomes Penyeach (1927), eleven poems written after he had made his commitment to prose fiction. His first published essay, “Ibsen’s New Drama” (1900), announced his admiration for the Norwegian dramatist; the same attitude is implied in his only original surviving play, Exiles (pb. 1918).

Miscellaneous literary essays, program and lecture notes, reviews, journalism, and two broadsides are collected in The Critical Writings of James Joyce (1959). Joyce’s correspondence is contained in Letters of James Joyce (1957-1966), with some additions in Selected Letters of James Joyce (1975).

Through the compilation of fifteen short stories in Dubliners (1914), written between 1904 and 1907, Joyce discerned his métier. This apparently random, realistic series was the first announcement of its author’s singular genius. While the volume retains a “scrupulously mean” accuracy in regard to naturalistic detail, it also incorporates a multiplicity of complex symbolic patterns. An ephemeral story, “Giacomo Joyce” (1918), was written as he completed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and began Ulysses in 1914. The collaboration of several editors has produced in facsimile almost the entire Joyce “workshop”—notes, drafts, manuscripts, typescripts, and proofs—in sixty-four volumes (The James Joyce Archives, 1977-1979), a project of unprecedented magnitude for any twentieth century author.


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From the beginning of his literary career, James Joyce was the most distinctive figure in the renaissance that occurred in Irish cultural life after the death of Charles Stewart Parnell. Despite his early quarrels with Yeats, John Millington Synge, and other leaders of the Irish Literary Revival, and his subsequent permanent exile, he is clearly, with Yeats, its presiding genius. From the first, he set himself to liberate Ireland, not by returning...

(This entire section contains 314 words.)

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to Celtic myths or the Gaelic language and folklore, but by Europeanizing its cultural institutions. His early stories are an exorcism of the spirit of paralysis he felt about himself in the Dublin of his youth. As he gained detachment from these obstacles and knowledge of his own capacities as a writer of prose fiction, he produced two of the undisputed masterworks of modern literature,A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, as well as a final work that is perhaps beyond criticism, Finnegans Wake.

Throughout this development, Joyce’s themes and subjects remain the same, yet his means become more overtly complex: the fabulous comedy, the multivalent language, and the vast design of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are strands in the reverse side of the sedulously restrained tapestry of Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Joyce’s cast of characters is small, his Dublin settings barely change from work to work, he observes repeatedly certain archetypal conflicts beneath the appearances of daily life, and his fiction is marked by certain obsessions of his class, religion, and nationality. Yet his single-mindedness, his wide learning in European literature, his comprehensive grasp of the intellectual currents of the age, his broad comic vision, his vast technical skills, and above all, his unequaled mastery of language, make him at once a Europeanizer of Irish literature, a Hibernicizer of European literature, and a modernizer of world literature.

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Although James Joyce published poetry throughout his career (Chamber Music, a group of thirty-six related poems, was in fact his first published book), it is for his novels and short stories that he is primarily known. These works include Dubliners (1914), a volume of short stories describing what Joyce saw as the moral paralysis of his countrymen; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), a heavily autobiographical account of the growing up of a writer in Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth; Ulysses (1922), a novel set in Dublin in 1904, recounting the day-long adventures of Leopold Bloom, a modern-day Odysseus who is both advertising man and cuckold, Stephen Dedalus, the young artist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man now grown somewhat older, and Molly Bloom, Leopold’s earthy wife; and Finnegans Wake (1939), Joyce’s last published work, not a novel at all in the conventional sense, but a world in itself, built of many languages and inhabited by the paradigmatic Earwicker family.


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James Joyce’s prose works established his reputation as the most influential writer of fiction of his generation and led English prose fiction from Victorianism into modernism and beyond. To this body of work, Joyce’s poetry is an addendum of less interest in itself than it is in relationship to the other, more important, work. At the same time, in the analysis of Joyce’s achievement, it is impossible to ignore anything that he wrote, and the poetry, for which Joyce reserved some of his most personal utterances, has its place along with the play Exiles (pb. 1918)—now seen as more important than it once was—and the essays, letters, and notebooks.

Discussion Topics

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Why is it unwise to make generalizations about James Joyce’s style?

“Epiphany” is one of a number of religious terms that Joyce appropriated. Discuss how he adapted it to his literary needs.

Which of Joyce’s ideas and depictions of Dublin would you expect the Irish to favor and which to resist?

What is your interpretation of Stephen’s intention to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”?

What does Ulysses gain by being based on Homer’s Odyssey?

Do the difficulties of Finnegans Wake make it inaccessible to anyone who is not a literary scholar?


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Alter, Robert. Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. A lucid argument for the complex influence that the Bible has exerted on three important and diverse authors: Franz Kafka, Hayyim Hahman Bialik, and James Joyce. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Attridge, Derek, ed. The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A collection of eleven essays by eminent contemporary Joyce scholars. Surveys the Joyce phenomenon from cultural, textual, and critical standpoints, with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake each given a separate essay. A valuable aid and stimulus, containing a chronology of Joyce’s life and annotated bibliography.

Beck, Warren. Joyce’s “Dubliners”: Substance, Vision, Art. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1969. An extremely comprehensive study of Dubliners. After a lengthy introduction, each of Joyce’s stories is examined in turn. The author’s approach is essentially that of the New Critics. The texts are combed thoroughly for their verbal possibilities, resulting in both exhaustive and dutiful readings.

Benstock, Bernard. Narrative Con/Texts in “Dubliners.” Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Includes analyses of narrative principles, symbolic systems, theological contexts, and a variety of themes and techniques in Dubliners.

Blades, John. How to Study James Joyce. Houndmills, England: Macmillan, 1996. An excellent study guide for students of Joyce. Includes bibliographical reference, outlines, and syllabi.

Bosinelli, Rosa M. Bollettieri, and Harold F. Mosher, Jr., eds. ReJoycing: New Readings of “Dubliners. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998. Fourteen new essays on Dubliners that argue Joyce questioned literary, cultural, and political developments of his time. The essays examine themes, style, intertexuality, politics, linguistics, and gender conflicts in Joyce’s stories.

Brunsdale, Mitzi M. James Joyce: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. A general introduction to Joyce’s stories, focusing on the five most familiar stories from Dubliners. Also includes excerpts from Joyce’s own nonfiction criticism and from other critics.

Cheng, Vincent J. Joyce, Race, and Empire. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A study of race and imperialism, ethnicity and political power, in Joyce’s works. Argues that the religious, patriarchal, and racist metaphors in Dubliners represent Ireland’s colonial relationship with England. Discusses stories as dramatizations of how the colonized yearn to replicate the colonizers; scolds Gabriel in “The Dead” for his patriarchal alliance with the British.

Costello, Peter. James Joyce: The Years of Growth, 1882-1915. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. 1959. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. The definitive biography, generally regarded as the last word on its subject’s life and widely considered as the greatest literary biography of the twentieth century. Copiously annotated and well illustrated, particularly in the 1984 edition. Contains a considerable amount of informative background on the characters of Dubliners and their contexts. Of particular interest is the chapter entitled “The Backgrounds of ‘The Dead.’ ”

Fargnoli, Nicholas, and Michael P. Gillespie. James Joyce A to Z: The Essential Reference to the Life and Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A dictionary-type reference book with approximately eight hundred entries on characters, concepts, locales, terminology, and critics of Joyce.

Gillespie, Michael Patrick, and Paula F. Gillespie. Recent Criticism of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: An Analytical Review. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000. A survey of, with commentary on, Ulysses scholarship, especially since 1970.

Hart, Clive, ed. James Joyce’s “Dubliners”: Critical Essays. New York: Viking, 1969. Arguably the single most helpful full-length work on Dubliners. It consists of essays on each of the stories, each by a different author. The authors are frequently well-known Joyce scholars, such as A. Walton Litz and the editor. Inevitably, the manner of critical approach in the case of a number of the essays is somewhat outdated.

Jones, Ellen Carol, and Morris Beja, eds. Twenty-first Joyce. Gainseville: University Press of Florida, 2004. This useful reference work collects 13 scholarly essays written by Joyce experts. Part of the Florida James Joyce Series.

Leonard, Garry M. Reading “Dubliners” Again: A Lacanian Perspective. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993. Using Lacan’s Freudian approach to language’s role in creating our experience of reality, Leonard examines the stories in Dubliners, urging readers to explore their kinship with the moral paralysis of the characters.

McCourt, John. James Joyce: A Passionate Exile. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. Photos and sketches embellish this account of the life, times, relationships, and works of Joyce. Excellent introductory text, particularly for its illustrations.

McHugh, Roland. The Sigla of “Finnegans Wake.” Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976. A brief introduction to the compositional character of Finnegans Wake, with an informal, refreshing, and valuable guide to approaching Joyce’s final work.

Potts, Willard. Joyce and the Two Irelands. Austin: University of Texas, 2001. Potts aligns Joyce with Catholic nativists, arguing that, while the novelist rejected Catholicism, his treatment of independence and industrialization betray a sympathy for Irish nationalism.

Salgado, César Augusto. From Modernism to Neobaroque: Joyce and Lezama Lima. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2001. A comparison of the two writers, chiefly for the purpose of giving the uninitiated an opening to the peculiar work of Lezama Lima. Salgado seeks to introduce Lezama Lima to new readers, without his historical reputation as a polemical oddity of the tropics.

Schwaber, Paul. The Cast of Characters: A Reading of Ulysses. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 1999. A literature professor and a psychoanalyst, Schwaber uses knowledge from both fields in an analysis of characterization in Ulysses. Illuminates the psychological depths of Joyce’s characters.

Schwarz, Daniel R., ed. “The Dead” by James Joyce. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. A casebook of essays on “The Dead,” from such critical perspectives as reader-response theory, new historicism, feminism, deconstruction, and psychoanalysis.

Studies in Short Fiction 32 (Summer, 1995). A collection of sixteen new essays on Dubliners, along with eleven reviews of new books on Joyce. Includes general essays on techniques and themes of Dubliners as well as analyses of “Araby,” “The Sisters,” “Grace,” “The Dead,” and discussions comparing Joyce’s stories with those of William Trevor and Edna O’Brien.

Theall, Donald F. James Joyce’s Techno-Poetics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Representative of a new wing of Joyce studies, Theall’s work examines Joyce as a progenitor of today’s cyberculture. Includes bibliography and index.

Thornton, Weldon. Voices and Values in Joyce’s “Ulysses.” University Press of Florida, 2000. An anti-relativistic study of the novel.

Tymoczko, Maria. The Irish Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. A groundbreaking work revealing the hitherto overlooked Irish mythological underpinning of Joyce’s novel.


Critical Essays