1882 - 1941
His Ulysses baffled readers and challenged aspiring writers; it
also revolutionized 20th century fiction
By PAUL GRAY for Time Magazine
James Joyce once told a friend, "One of the things I could never
get accustomed to in my youth was the difference I found between
life and literature." All serious young readers notice this
difference. Joyce dedicated his career to erasing it and in the
process revolutionized 20th century fiction.
The life he would put into his literature was chiefly his own.
Born near Dublin in 1882, James Augustine Aloysius was the
eldest of the 10 surviving children of John and Mary Jane Joyce.
His father was irascible, witty, hard drinking and ruinously
improvident; his mother, a devout Roman Catholic, helplessly
watched her husband and family slide into near poverty and hoped
for a happier life in the hereafter. James' entire education
came at the hands of the Jesuits, who did a better job with him
than they may have intended. By the time the young Joyce
graduated from University College, Dublin, in 1902, he decided
he had learned enough to reject his religion and all his
obligations to family, homeland and the British who ruled there.
Literature would be his vocation and his bid for immortality.
He fled Ireland into self-imposed exile late in 1904, taking
with him Nora Barnacle, a young woman from Galway who was
working as a hotel chambermaid in Dublin when Joyce met her
earlier that year. (On hearing that his son had run off with a
girl named Barnacle, John Joyce remarked, playing on her last
name, "She'll never leave him." And, proving puns can be
prophetic, she never did.)
Joyce departed Dublin with nearly all the narratives he would
ever write already stored in his memory. What remained for him
to do was transform this cache into an art that could measure up
to his own expectations.
As he and Nora and then their two children moved among and
around European cities — Pola, Trieste, Zurich, Rome, Paris —
Joyce found clerical and teaching jobs that provided subsistence
to his family and his writing. His first published book of
fiction, Dubliners (1914), contained 15 stories short on
conventional plots but long on evocative atmosphere and
language. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
provided a remarkably objective and linguistically complex
account of Stephen Dedalus, i.e. James Joyce, from his birth to
his decision to leave Dublin in pursuit of his art.
Portrait did not sell well enough to relieve Joyce's chronic
financial worries, but his work by then had attracted the
attention of a number of influential avant-gardists, most
notably the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound, who believed a
new century demanded new art, poetry, fiction, music —
everything. Such supporters rallied to promote Joyce and his
experimental writings, and he did not disappoint them.
He began Ulysses in 1914; portions of it in progress appeared in
the Egoist in England and the Little Review in the U.S., until
the Post Office, on grounds of alleged obscenity, confiscated
three issues containing Joyce's excerpts and fined the editors
$100. The censorship flap only heightened curiosity about
Joyce's forthcoming book. Even before Ulysses was published,
critics were comparing Joyce's breakthroughs to those of
Einstein and Freud.
With so many traditional methods of narrative abandoned, what
was left? Perhaps the clearest and most concise description of
Joyce's technique came from the critic Edmund Wilson: "Joyce has
attempted in Ulysses to render as exhaustively, as precisely and
as directly as it is possible in words to do, what our
participation in life is like — or rather, what it seems to us
like as from moment to moment we live."
A first reading of Ulysses can thus be a baffling experience,
although no book more generously rewards patience and fortitude.
Stephen Dedalus reappears, still stuck in Dublin, dreaming of
escape. Then we meet Leopold Bloom, or rather we meet his
thoughts as he prepares breakfast for his wife Molly. (We
experience her thoughts as she drifts off to sleep at the end of
Ulysses is the account of one day in Dublin — June 16, 1904,
Joyce's private tribute to Nora, since that was the date on
which they first went out together. The book follows the
movements of not only Stephen and Bloom but also hundreds of
other Dubliners as they walk the streets, meet and talk, then
talk some more in restaurants and pubs. All this activity seems
random, a record of urban happenstance.
But nothing in Ulysses is truly random. Beneath the surface
realism of the novel, its apparently artless transcription of
life's flow, lurks a complicated plan. Friends who were in on
the secret of Ulysses urged Joyce to share it, to make things
easier for his readers. He resisted at first: "I've put in so
many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy
for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way
of ensuring one's immortality."
Joyce later relented, and so the world learned that Ulysses was,
among many other things, a modern retelling of Homer's Odyssey,
with Bloom as the wandering hero, Stephen as Telemachus and
Molly as a Penelope decidedly less faithful than the original.
T.S. Eliot, who recognized the novel's underpinnings, wrote that
Joyce's use of classical myth as a method of ordering modern
experience had "the importance of a scientific discovery."
Ulysses made Joyce famous, although not always in a manner to
his liking. When a fan approached him and asked, "May I kiss the
hand that wrote Ulysses?" Joyce said, "No, it did lots of other
things too." But more important, Ulysses became a source book
for 20th century literature. It expanded the domain of
permissible subjects in fiction, following Bloom not only into
his secret erotic fantasies but his outdoor privy as well.
Its multiple narrative voices and extravagant wordplay made
Ulysses a virtual thesaurus of styles for writers wrestling with
the problem of rendering contemporary life. Aspects of Joyce's
accomplishment in Ulysses can be seen in the works of William
Faulkner, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Gabriel
Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, all of whom, unlike Joyce, won
the Nobel Prize for Literature.
But the only author who tried to surpass the encyclopedic scope
of Ulysses was Joyce himself. He spent 17 years working on
Finnegans Wake, a book intended to portray Dublin's sleeping
life as thoroughly as Ulysses had explored the wide-awake city.
This task, Joyce decided, required the invention of a new
language that would mime the experience of dreaming. As excerpts
from the new work, crammed with multilingual puns and
Jabberwocky-like sentences, began appearing in print, even
Joyce's champions expressed doubts. To Pound's complaint about
obscurity, Joyce replied, "The action of my new work takes place
at night. It's natural things should not be so clear at night,
isn't it now?" Today, only dedicated Joyceans regularly attend
the Wake. A century from now, his readers may catch up with him.
The fiction of the Irish author James Joyce (1882-1941) is
characterized by experiments with language, symbolism, and use
of the narrative techniques of interior monologue and stream of
The modern symbolic novel owes much of its complexity to James
Joyce. His intellectualism and his grasp of a wide range of
philosophy, theology, and foreign languages enabled him to
stretch the English language to its limits (and, some critics
believe, beyond them in Finnegans Wake). The trial of his novel
Ulysses on charges of obscenity and its subsequent exoneration
marked a breakthrough in the limitations previously placed by
social convention upon the subject matter and language of the
modern English novel.
James Joyce was born on Feb. 2, 1882, in Rathgar, a suburb of
Dublin. His father, John, an amateur actor and popular tenor,
was employed first in a Dublin distillery, then as tax collector
for the city of Dublin. His mother, Mary Jane Murray Joyce, was
a gifted pianist. Endowed with a fine tenor voice and a love for
music (he once entered a singing competition against the noted
Irish tenor John McCormack), James Joyce was described by his
brother Stanislaus as tall, thin, and loose-jointed, with "a
distinguished appearance and bearing." In spite of 10 major
operations to save his sight, he was almost blind at the time of
his death. He often wore a black patch over his left eye and
dressed in somber colors, although his friends remember him as
witty and gay in company.
Joyce was educated entirely in Jesuit schools in Ireland:
Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare, Belvedere College in
Dublin, and University College, where he excelled in philosophy
and languages (he mastered Norwegian in order to read Henrik
Ibsen's plays in the original). After his graduation in 1902, he
left Ireland in a self-imposed exile that lasted for the rest of
his life. He returned briefly in 1903 for his mother's last
illness but left for Paris in 1904 after her death, taking with
him Nora Barnacle, his future wife. Until 1915 he taught English
in Trieste, then moved to Zurich with his wife and two children.
In 1920 they settled in Paris, living in virtual poverty even
after the successful publication of Ulysses in 1922. The
intervention of literary friends such as Ezra Pound secured for
Joyce some much-needed financial assistance from the British
Although his fame rests upon his fiction, Joyce's first
published work was a volume of 36 lyric poems, Chamber Music
(1907). His Collected Poems (including Poems Penyeach and Ecce
Puer) appeared in 1938. Much of his fiction is lyrical and
autobiographical in nature and shows the influence of his
musical studies, his discipline as a poet, and his Jesuit
training. Even though he cut himself off from his country, his
family, and his Church, these three (Ireland, father, and Roman
Catholicism) are the basis upon which he structured his art. The
city of Dublin, in particular, provided Joyce with a universal
symbol; for him the heart of Dublin was "the heart of all the
cities of the world," a means of showing that "in the particular
is contained the universal."
Dubliners (1914) is a collection of 15 short stories completed
in 1904 but delayed in publication because of censorship
problems, which arose from a suspected slur against the reigning
monarch, Edward VII. Joyce himself described their style as one
of "scrupulous meanness" and said they were written "to betray
the soul of that… paralysis which many consider a city." His
characters are drawn in naturalistic detail, which at first
aroused the anger of many readers. Among various devices such as
symbolism, motifs (paralysis, death, isolation, failure of
love), mythic journeys, and quests for a symbolic grail which is
never there, Joyce employs his literary invention, the epiphany;
this is a religious term he used to describe the symbolic
dimension of common things - fragments of conversation or bits
of music - moments of sudden spiritual manifestation in which
the "soul" of the thing or the experience "leaps to us from the
vestment of its appearance."
In the final story, considered one of Joyce's best, "The Dead,"
Gabriel Conroy, a careful and studious man surrounded by doting
aunts and material comforts, discovers to his surprise that his
wife has had a romantic love affair with a passionate young man
who died for love of her. The story ends with snow falling
softly over Ireland and the universe, an ambiguous symbol which
could mean either life-giving moisture and preservation or the
coldness of moral and spiritual death.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) is a
semi-autobiographical novel of adolescence, or Bildungsroman
(development novel). A sensitive and artistic young man, Stephen
Dedalus is shaped by his environment but at the same time rebels
against it. He rejects his father, family, and religion, and,
like Joyce, decides at the novel's close to leave Ireland. He
states as the reason for his exile his mission "to forge in the
smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." The
hero's symbolic name is drawn from Ovid's Dedalus, the artificer
who made wings on which his son flew too near the sun, melting
their wax and causing him to plunge into the sea.
For Joyce and others after him, Dedalus became a symbol for the
artist, and the hero, Stephen, appears again in Ulysses (1922).
Joyce's portrait of the artist in adolescence is like a
painting, showing the hero in his immaturity, still seeking his
identity. His major flaw, the failure to love, is shown by
Stephen's isolation, his inability to immerse himself in life.
The hero's declaration, "I will not serve," links him with
another soaring figure, Lucifer, whose sin of pride also
precluded the possibility of love, which for Joyce (always
doctrinally orthodox) represented the greatest of all the
Christian virtues and the most humanizing.
Ulysses (1922), generally considered Joyce's most mature work,
is patterned on Homer's Odyssey. Each of the 18 chapters
corresponds loosely with an episode in the Greek epic, but there
are echoes of Joyce's other models, Dante's Inferno and Goethe's
Faust, among other sources. The action takes place in a single
day, June 16, 1904 (still observed as "Bloomsday" in many
countries), on which the Irish Jew, Leopold Bloom (Ulysses),
walks or rides through the streets of Dublin after leaving his
wife, Molly (Penelope), at home in bed.
Through the stream-of-consciousness technique, Joyce permits the
reader to enter the consciousness of Bloom and perceive the
chaos of fragmentary conversations, physical sensations, and
memories which register there. Underlying the surface action is
the mythic quest of Leopold for a son to replace the child he
and Molly have lost. He finds instead Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus),
who, having rejected his family and faith, is in need of a
father. At each of their chance encounters during the day, the
mythic quest becomes more evident. The two are finally united
when Bloom rescues the drunken Stephen from unsavory companions
and the police; they share a symbolic communion over cups of hot
chocolate in Bloom's home, a promise of future involvement for
Stephen with Leopold, his spiritual "father," and Molly, the
earth mother, who, with her paramours, represents fleshly
involvement in the experience of life. Joyce's technical
innovations (particularly his extensive use of stream of
consciousness), his experiments with form, and his unusually
frank subject matter and language made Ulysses an important
milestone in the development of the modern novel.
Finnegans Wake (1939) is the most difficult of all Joyce's
works. The novel has no evident narrative or plot and relies
upon sound, rhythm of language, and verbal puns to present a
surface beneath which meanings lurk. Considered a novel by most
critics, it has been called a poem by some, a nightmare by
others. Joyce called his final book a "nightmaze." It concerns
the events of a Dublin night, in contrast to Ulysses, which
deals with a Dublin day.
The submerged plot centers upon a male character, H. C.
Earwicker, the genial host of a Dublin pub, his wife, and their
children, particularly the twins, Kevin and Jerry. Joyce once
again employs myth in a more complex pattern than ever before,
associating Dublin with the fallen paradise and the hero with a
long sÚries of heroes beginning with Adam; he associates him
also with a geographic landmark in Dublin, the Hill of Howth.
His wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle, is associated with the river
Liffey and with various female figures from history and legend.
Snatches of Irish and universal history are blended with
realistic details of world history and geography.
Working in the metamorphic tradition of Ovid, Joyce causes his
characters to undergo a dazzling series of transformations. The
hero, H. C. E. (his nickname, "Here Comes Everybody," indicates
an Everyman figure), becomes successively Adam, Humpty Dumpty,
Ibsen's Master Builder (all of whom underwent a fall of some
kind in literature), Christ, King Arthur, the Duke of Wellington
(all of whom are associated with rising). Mrs. Earwicker becomes
Eve, the Virgin Mary, Queen Guinevere, Napoleon's Josephine, and
other feminine characters (her initials, A. L. P., designate her
as the alpha figure, the feminine principle and initiator of
life). The twins become rival principles, Shem and Shaun,
extrovert and introvert, representing opposing facets of their
father's character; they merge into all the rival "brothers" of
literature and history - Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Peter
and Paul, Michael and Lucifer - and their quarreling gives rise
to the famous battles of myth and cyclic history.
Geographic places around Dublin also take on symbolic
significance; for example, the noted Dublin garden, Phoenix
Park, becomes the Garden of Eden. The difficulties arising from
the complicated symbolism and linguistic structure of verbal
puns and double meanings become more complex with Joyce's
introduction of unfamiliar foreign words which may have two,
three, or more meanings in the various languages with which he
was familiar (including Danish and Eskimo). Examples may be seen
in the compression of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the writers
of the New Testament Gospels, into "Mamalujo" the Garden of Eden
appears in one of its many doubles in modern Ireland as "Edenberry,
Beneath the puzzling verbal surface of Finnegans Wake lie themes
which have been the concern of traditional writers and
philosophers of all ages - the process of renewal through
division of opposites, rising and falling, the one in the many,
permanence and change, and the dialectic emergence of truth from
the opposition of antithetical ideas. Not unexpectedly,
Finnegans Wake was not well received by the reading public, and
Joyce was forced to seek financial help from friends after its
publication. With the outbreak of World War II, he and his
family fled, on borrowed money, from France to Switzerland,
leaving a daughter in a sanatorium in occupied France. Joyce
died in Zurich on Jan. 13, 1941.
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