Perhaps the most influential and significant novelist of the 20th century, Joyce was a master of the English language, exploiting all of its resources. His novel Ulysses, which is among the great works of world literature, utilizes many radical literary techniques and forms.
Life and Works
The eldest of ten children born in a Dublin suburb, Joyce was educated at Jesuit schools—Clongowes Wood College in Clane (1888–91) and Belvedere College in Dublin (1893–99)—and then attended University College in Dublin (1899–1902). Although a brilliant student, he was only sporadically interested in the official curriculum. In 1902 he lived briefly in Paris and returned to the Continent in 1904 with Nora Barnacle, the woman who would eventually become his wife. For the next 25 years Joyce, Nora, and their children (Giorgio, b. 1905, and Lucia Anna, b. 1907) lived at various times in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris.
Joyce returned to Ireland only twice: in 1909 in a futile attempt to start a chain of motion picture theaters in Dublin, and in 1912 in an unsuccessful attempt to arrange for the publication of Dubliners, which had to be abandoned due to fears of prosecution for obscenity and libel. Although the plates were destroyed, Dubliners was finally published in England in 1914. A short volume of poetry, Chamber Music, was his first published volume; it appeared in 1907. He wrote two subsequent volumes of poetry, Pomes Pennyeach (1927) and Collected Poems (1937).
Joyce and his family spent the years of World War I in Zurich, where he finished his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It first appeared in The Egoist, a periodical edited by Harriet Shaw Weaver, and was published in book form in 1916. In 1917, Joyce contracted glaucoma; for the rest of his life he would endure pain, periods of near blindness, and many operations. At this time he also wrote his only play, the Ibsenesque Exiles (1918).
Ulysses, written between 1914 and 1921, was published in parts in The Little Review and The Egoist, but Joyce encountered the same opposition to publishing the novel in book form that he had confronted with Dubliners. It was published in Paris in 1922 by Shakespeare & Company, a bookstore owned by Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate. Its publication was banned in the United States until 1933. For many years he lived mainly on money donated by patrons, notably Harriet Shaw Weaver.
From 1922 until 1939 Joyce worked on Finnegans Wake (1939), a complex novel that attempts to connect multiple cycles of Irish and human history into the framework of a single night's events in the family of a Dublin publican. In 1931 Joyce finally married Nora. Her practical, sometimes cynical response to Joyce's work provided a needed complement to his own self-absorption. Joyce and Nora had a turbulent relationship; both were profoundly affected by the progressive insanity of their daughter. Joyce died in Zurich in 1941 after an operation for a perforated duodenal ulcer.
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.
Joyce's works have acquired a small army of scholars, patiently unraveling their numerous textual obscurities. Many of their articles appear in the James Joyce Quarterly. See his letters (Vol. I ed. by Stuart Gilbert, 1957; Vol. II and III ed. by Richard Ellman, 1966); biography by Richard Ellman (1959, rev. 1982); studies by A. Burgess (1968), A. W. Litz (1964, 1972), R. Ellman (1977), H. Kenner (1978, 1987), and D. Attridge (1990); see also the bibliographies by J. J. Slocum and H. Cohoon (1953, repr. 1972) and T. F. Staley (1989).
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