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James Joyce

Technique and Vision

Joyce's career displays a consistent development. In each of his four major works there is an increase in the profundity of his vision and the complexity of his literary technique, particularly his experiments with language. Dubliners is a linked collection of 15 short stories treating the sometimes squalid, sometimes sentimental lives of various Dublin residents. The stories portray a city in moral and political paralysis, an insight that the reader is intended to achieve through a succession of revelatory moments, which Joyce called epiphanies. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an autobiographical account of the adolescence and youth of Stephen Dedalus, who comes to realize that before he can be a true artist he must rid himself of the stultifying effects of the religion, politics, and essential bigotry of Ireland.

Ulysses recreates the events of one day in Dublin—June 16, 1904; widely known as "Bloomsday"—centering on the activities of a Jewish advertising-space salesman, Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly, and the aforementioned Stephen Dedalus, now a teacher. The fundamental design of Ulysses is based on Homer's Odyssey ; each chapter in the novel parallels one in the epic and is also associated with an hour of the day, color, symbol, and part of the body. Attempting to recreate the total life of his characters—the surface life and the inner life—Joyce mingles realistic descriptions with verbal representations of his characters' most intimate and random thoughts, using techniques of interior narration.

Interspersed throughout the work are historical, literary, religious, and geographical allusions, evocative patterns of words, word games, and many-sided puns, all of which imbue the ordinary events of the novel with the copious significance of those in an epic. Despite its complexities, Ulysses is an extraordinarily satisfying book, a celebration of life unparalleled in its humor, characterization, and tragic irony. A new edition of Ulysses, edited by H. Gabler, appeared in 1986, claiming to correct more than 5,000 errors that had been discovered in previous editions; it was itself flawed, and the publisher has subsequently reissued the 1961 edition in tandem with Gabler's.

Joyce's last work, Finnegans Wake, presents the dark counterpart of "Bloomsday" of Ulysses. Framed by the dream-induced experiences of a Dublin publican, the novel recapitulates the cycles of Irish history, and in its multiple allusions almost reveals a universal consciousness. In order to present this new reality Joyce manipulated and distorted language that pushed the work to the furthest limits of comprehensibility.

Because of its complexity Finnegans Wake is perhaps more talked about than read, and despite the publication of the manuscripts and drafts of the novel in 1978, probably will never be completely understood. Other posthumous publications include part of an early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man called Stephen Hero (1944). In June, 1962, a Joyce museum, containing pictures, papers, and first editions of Joyce's books, was opened in Dublin.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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