JAMES JOYCE  (1882 – 1941)

 LIFE: Joyce belonged to the novelists referred to as Modernists because they experimented with new techniques of narration at the beginning of the 20th century. He was an innovator both in style and in contents.

He lived during a period of great changes in the European culture and nowadays he is considered one of the greatest novelists in the English literature.

He was born in Dublin, Ireland, on February 2nd, 1882 of a middle-class Irish catholic family. He was educated at catholic institutions run by the Jesuit order. At school he was a very good student and won scholarship after scholarship, but he early showed signs of unease with catholic religion and he gradually turned from a devout catholic into a fierce anti-catholic. He took a degree in modern languages, including Italian, atUniversityCollege, a catholic institution.

A turning point in his life was his mother’s death. When she died, Joyce spent a very dissolute life, drinking too much, looking for prostitutes and living by borrowing from friends and strangers. He became a rebel against his native country, his family and the Catholic Church. In 1904 he left Ireland and lived as on exile mostly inParis,Trieste and Zurich with his companion, Nora Barnacle, he had met at a hotel in Dublin where she worked as a waitress. To support his family he had to work hard for many years. He never went back to Ireland till he died in Zurich in 1941.

FEATURES: The trends which greatly influenced his works are: his Irish origin, his conception on the role of art and of the artist, religion and Catholicism in particular.

Ireland and Dublin: They are his preferred settings: all his works are set in Dublin. Joyce loved Dublin very much and even if he lived abroad, he was always in touch with Dubliners who informed him about everything that happened there. He said that if  Dublin were destroyed they could reconstruct it from his books. He wanted to become a European writer going beyond the narrow limits of the Irish culture, that is why he left Ireland. During his university career, he had become aware of the various traps presented by the Irish situation to a man that wanted to become an artist and rejected the Irish excessive nationalism and Dublin provincialism. Some of these traps came from the Catholic Church that had imposed, according to Joyce, a stupid and hard provincial way of living in Ireland.

Ireshness: Even if he loved Ireland and Dublin, Joyce was not involved very much in the Irish Question and criticised the so-called Irish Revival. In a pamphlet (The Day of the Robblement) he complained about the Irish Literary Theatre because in his own opinion it had forgotten the artistic aim to privilege the interests of Nationalism. In the Portrait he had Stephen to declare that ‘loyalty to Art was a higher duty than loyalty to one’s country’. He had chosen Art and his exile was necessary to safeguard his independence as an artist and to avoid falling into the trap of a narrow provincialism and an excessive patriotism.

The role of the artist: Joyce’s ideas on the role of the artist were rooted in the Aesthetic Movement. The artist is an isolated figure in his own contemporary society because he is bound to reject the values and tastes of the man in the street, and, if necessary, he must alienate himself from the life around him. His emotional self must be submitted to his intellect. He must be outside society, outside conventions because he needs to be objective; he mustn’t express his own point of view: “Art is true to itself when it deals with truth” .   When art is submitted to the demands of religion, politics and morality it becomes false to itself. To this purpose he wrote in a letter to Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepil : “The artist must also alienate from the language of common people; he must be in his work like a God in his creation: invisible and powerful, felt everywhere but not visible”.

The stream of consciousness: As said before, Joyce experimented in some of his works a new technique of narration: the stream of consciousness and the interior monologue. Using symbolism, allegory, a new language and rejecting logical sequences and conventional syntax, he tried to reproduce the ordinary working of the mind, the constant flow of the sense-impressions involuntarily registered in it.

He was a master in using this technique even if it is wrong to maintain that he had invented it. John Donne, the famous metaphysical poet had already defined something like that in the 17th century. Donne had complained that his prayers were always disturbed by “a memory of yesterday’s pleasure, a fear of tomorrow’s dangers, a straw under my knees, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my brain”. As we can see these words may explain well the stream of consciousness.

The epiphany: Joyce developed his idea on the epiphany from Freud’s psychoanalytic theories: there are always hidden motivations in man’s behaviour.   The original meaning of this term is the showing of the Christ Child to the Magi, and it is used by Christian philosophers to signify a manifestation of the presence of God in the world.

In Joyce the moment of the epiphany is a central lightning moment of an action he describes in a page or novel; it is an instant of self-realization, of insight, of recognition given by an incident or an object, in itself unimportant, through which the protagonist understands that he is not behaving in a right way; it is the discovery of intuitive truths in casual   moments of people’s lives.

The epiphany represents the climax of the novel and the turning point in the character’s life. In A Portrait  the moment of the epiphany is when Stephen, who is walking by the sea thinking of his future, sees a naked beautiful girl walking on the sand: “all was light around him; he had found his way: Art. Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy”.

Works: Joyce’s literary activity may be divided into two periods: a first period marked by a naturalistic technique, that is linear plot, logical syntax and a simple everyday language, and a second one in which he experimented with the Stream of Consciousness technique of narration. To the first period belong The Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; to the second Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.


It is a collection of 15 short stories mostly written during his exile. It deals with Dublin seen as the prototype of a modern city. Even if each story is complete in itself, they are all linked by the common theme of the decay and stagnation of the city  life and by the unifying theme of the Irish Paralyses. In one of his letters, Joyce said that his aim was to present the story of Dublin through four aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life.

He wrote of Dublin: “My intention 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 centre of paralysis”. Paralysis is one of the key-words of the book; it means intellectual, moral and physical paralyses which affects most of the characters who are unable to move out of their social milieu. Each story has got its climax, its epiphany. A second theme is “escape”. It is related to the theme of paralyses, even though apparently opposed: almost all the Dubliners aspire to escape but no one of them is destined to succeed; they all live as on exile at home, unable to cut the bounds that tie them to Dublin.


The Dead is the most important and beautiful story in Dubliners. The main character is Gabriel Conroy, a school teacher and critic, married to a beautiful woman, Gretta. All the events are viewed through Gabriel’s eyes. He is a proud, selfish and insensible man,who thinks of being an intellectual admired by everybody, a person who is always right.But it isn’t like that because in the story there are some events that witness his failure. The most important of them is at the end of the story.  This character helps us to understand Joyce’s choice for “exile”.For some critics Gabriel is Joyce’s alter ego and may be identified with what Joyce thinks he would have become if he had not left his country. The story starts with Gabriel and Gretta at a Christmas party organized by The Misses Morkans, Gabriel’s elderly unmarried aunts. During the party he sees his wife on the stairs,in the shadow,still in rapture listening to an old song. Her cheeks are perturbed with red colour and he is sure that Gretta is thinking of him. He is attracted by her and he is impatient to be alone with her because the wine he had drunk makes him feel desire for her. When they go back to their hotel room, Gretta is still upset by the song.She tells Gabriel that the song had recalled to her mind a boy, Michael Furey. In a first thought Gabriel believes that Michael is a living person, a rival, and he tries to be ironical about him. Gretta tells him that Michael is not alive. He had died when he was still young. He had loved her in a pure and sincere way and she thinks that he had died for her love: he had stayed outside her house one cold winter night and he had contracted pneumonia. This revelation of his wife’s far love is an epiphany for Gabriel: he realizes how poor a part he had played in her life,he understands that he had never loved her as Michael had done;he also understands that he had always behaved as a selfish man, having given Gretta nothing while Michael had given her his life. His illusion  of being at the centre of her life falls and he understands his own failure. He doesn’t feel desire any more and “tears of true generosity fill for the first time his eyes”. As an effect of the epiphany,he becomes a new man, he goes beyond his individual experience and does not believe himself different or superior but equal to the others. Joyce symbolizes Gabriel transformation through the snow falling all over Ireland . Ireland is symbolically turned into a white vast cemetery under the snow falling alike upon all the living and dead.

The Dead may refer not so much to Michael, as to Gabriel, to his aunts, to all the guests at the party, to all the people of Ireland, spiritually dead and unable to make a shift in their ordinary life.

                          A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN

It is an autobiographical novel which deals with the development of a character, Stephen Dedalus, from youth to maturity in his dedication to art. It is based on an earlier work, Stephen Hero, which Joyce decides to expand. It is written in a descriptive language full of symbols. The book narrates in the third person singular the life of Stephan Dedalus, Joyce’s fictional name, from his childhood to when he decides not to become a Jesuit but to become a writer instead. It is divided into five chapters, each chapter corresponding to the five phases of Stephen growth. The first and second chapters deal respectively with the parting from the family to enter a college and his forced leaving school for family economic reasons. In the meanwhile the young boy starts to live his first erotic day-dreaming and the kiss of a whore brings him burning obsessions. The third is the chapter of doubts: Stephen is torn between The Good and The Evil, practises the spiritual exercises and is upset by the sensation of the eternal punishment. In the fourth chapter, while he is about to enter the Jesuit order, he finds out his true vocation: Art. Stephen has got his epiphany meeting a naked girl on a beach. The last chapter deals with Stephen meditations on Art and with the working out of his Aesthetic Theory. Starting from San Tommaso D’Aquino he arrives to the conclusion that Art eventually wins over religion and instinct.  According to some critics, the name of the protagonist has got a symbolic meaning: Stephen is Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr who was stoned at death for preaching a new religion; like the modern artist he was misunderstood and rejected. Dedalus is the mythological architect who had built the Labyrinth, after being imprisoned there, by creating two wax wings. Joyce was Stephen because he considered himself a victim of Ireland and religion and a martyr of his own religion, art, which he wanted to change. He was also Dedalus because he escaped the labyrinth of Ireland on the wings of his art to become a free artist. In the classical allusion to King Minos, Joyce would mean that a writer must not become trapped in the labyrinth other people and institutions, both political and religious, could impose on him, but he must use his art as an instrument of freedom.


When he wrote A Portrait, Joyce had already prevented to write a masterpiece that “would have astonished the readers” and that would have given evidence that there was nobody like him: it was Ulysses.

 Joyce met some difficulties when he wanted to publish it.The book was banned as obscene in England and in America and only later the ban was lifted.

Ulysses is a very long and difficult novel dealing with the rather common and even trivial experiences of three main characters during a single day, June 16th, 1904(the day when Joyce dated Nora Barnacle out for the first time) in Dublin: Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly and Stephen Dedalus (the same protagonist of A Portrait seen in his maturity age.

The novel is conceived as a parallel to Homer’s The Odyssey: Bloom corresponds to Ulysses, Molly to Penelope and Stephen to Telemacus. The theme is the same: the son in search of the father and the father in search of the son. It is divided into three sections following Odyssey: Telemachia dealing with Stephen. Odyssey dealing with Leopold and Nostos or Homecoming divided into three parts, the last   of which is called Penelope, dealing with Molly. These likenesses between Ulysses and Odyssey have been deliberately chosen by Joyce to stress the   sordid meanness of modern life compared with the splendour of a heroic age and to suggest the decline from the mythic and heroic to the human and mediocre.Like Vico,Joyce saw history represented by three great stages: the divine, the heroic and the human. We are now living in the human phase and the sordid and mediocre society of today is the prelude to the anarchy to come. The contrast between the squalid present and the glorious past is called “mythical method” and it was largely used by T.S.Eliot,too.

The narration alternates between straight narration and interior monologues using the stream of consciousness technique. Joyce changes conventional grammar and syntax alternating the third person narrative with interior monologues without the presence of a narrator, without punctuation and without verbs like “ to say, to  think, to answer, to reply, etc. “.

In Ulysses many pages are like puzzles and are very difficult to understand immediately without stopping in analysing them.

                                           FINNEGAN’S WAKE

Joyce’s experiment with language and form culminates in Finnegan’s Wake, in which he sets forth the life of a Dublin innkeeper and his family as a model of all existence.

While Ulysses is a fusion of realism and symbolism, Finnegan’s   Wake is purely symbolic. Much of the language is invented and Joyce maintained that in a few years he himself wouldn’t have been able to explain what he intended to say,

Then it is an extremely complex and difficult book in which the reader feels at loss and is not able to read it to the very end.

Its plot, if there is any, is the story of one night, in which words and images dissolve and recompose as in a dream.


About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

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