Last reviewed: June 2017
Irish-born modernist, experimental novelist
February 2, 1882
January 13, 1941
James Joyce became an international symbol of the modern experimental writer during his lifetime, and since then his reputation as one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century has been securely established. Despite the great range and almost universal significance of his works, which became larger in scope and more experimental in language and structure as his career progressed, all are deeply rooted in the city of Dublin, where Joyce was born, in 1882, yet from which he exiled himself for his entire adult life.
Joyce was educated in Jesuit day schools and then University College, Dublin, where he studied modern languages. In 1904 he went to Europe with Nora Barnacle; they had two children and later married. After this departure, he returned to Ireland for only three brief visits in 1909 and 1921, spending the rest of his life in Trieste, Rome, Zurich, and Paris, eventually dying of complications from surgery in Zurich on January 13, 1941. Toward the end of his life, Joyce suffered from an eye disease, which caused near-total vision loss. Although he lived in a self-imposed exile from his native land, Ireland provided the setting for all of his work, and much of his early work in particular reveals strong nationalistic feeling. James Joyce
His first important book, the collection of short stories titled Dubliners, is a series of meticulously realistic analyses of fictional representatives of the city of Dublin. The stories are designed to give a complete picture of Irish life. They are grouped into studies of childhood, youth, maturity, and public life, and the book ends with the novella titled The Dead, Joyce’s extended depiction of the state of spiritual death he believed to represent the contemporary condition of the Irish. The realistic surface of the studies has been found by later criticism to conceal profound symbolic depth, and the imagery of moral paralysis and decay Joyce worked into his naturalistic treatments of the people of Dublin anticipated the more complex uses of symbolism in his later masterpieces. Dubliners had been completed by 1907. The long delays in its publication—the result of editorial apprehension about his uses of obscene expressions and real people and places in the interest of a greater realism—were to prove an obstacle in the publication histories of his later works. During this period he had also written his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (an early version was published posthumously as Stephen Hero), which came to the attention of Ezra Pound, who immediately agreed to publish it in serial form in the review The Egoist beginning in 1914. The publication of these two works made Joyce’s reputation virtually overnight as the great modernist in fiction, the peer of such modernist poets as Pound and T. S. Eliot.
His next work, Ulysses, is generally considered his masterpiece. This long novel, on which Joyce worked from 1914 until its publication in 1922, succeeds in the apparently paradoxical goal of fusing an extreme realism with complex experimentation with point of view and symbolic and mythological structures. At the level of realistic narrative, the novel presents the events of a single day in Dublin (June 16, 1904) as viewed through the eyes of two characters, Stephen Dedalus, who had been the protagonist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Leopold Bloom. The story follows each man throughout the day in such close detail that critics have been able to map their paths virtually step by step, and it comes to its dramatic climax when the two men meet at the end of the day. The novel not only tells the reader exactly what each man sees and hears but also follows their thoughts for the entire day, through Joyce’s elaborate techniques for the representation of interior monologue. His stream-of-consciousness narration was to influence such writers as Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. The novel closes with a long interior monologue by Bloom’s wife, Molly, which remains a classic example of the device.
The scrupulously realistic surface of the novel is built around an equally complex pattern of symbol and myth. The chapters of the book have been shown by critics (aided to some extent by Joyce’s own notes and hints) to reflect the structure of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800
Joyce’s last work, Finnegans Wake, has defied classification and remains the only example of its genre. The book contains a mixture of many different foreign languages as well as nonsense words created by Joyce, among them several one-hundred-letter expressions to denote thunderclaps. The structure of the work is similarly unusual, for the book begins in the middle of a sentence, the beginning of which ends the book. Elements are included from the whole of human history, literature, and mythology in Joyce’s attempt to write a comprehensive summary of all human experience. Clearly, such an experiment can never be entirely successful, and large sections of Finnegans Wake are more or less incomprehensible to anyone but a handful of specialists. Nevertheless, its originality and uniqueness of conception have given it a secure, if not central, place in literary history. It has been said that readers and critics are still trying to become Joyce’s contemporaries. Despite the relatively small volume of his writing, its importance for literary study, as well as for all subsequent writers, is profound. No other writer of the twentieth century broke so much ground technically or succeeded so well in combining interesting characters and stories with his innovations.
Interest in Joyce has grown over the decades. Several volumes of Joyce's literary criticism and correspondence were published following his death. Blooms of Dublin, a musical adaptation of Ulysses, was written in 1971 and finally debuted in 1982 in the United Kingdom. In 2001, The Dead was adapted into a Tony Award–winning musical. Nearly a dozen years later, in 2012, Joyce's children's book The Cats of Copenhagen, a story written for his grandson, was first published, as was a picture book adaptation of “The Ondt & the Gracehoper,” originally published in Finnegans Wake.