Authors: James Joyce

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Irish-born modernist, experimental novelist

February 2, 1882

Dublin, Ireland

January 13, 1941

Zurich, Switzerland


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



(Library of Congress)

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 b.c.e.), with Stephen cast as Telemachus, Bloom as Odysseus, and Molly as Penelope. Each chapter is also organized around a pattern of symbolic references to colors, arts, organs of the body, and other themes and objects. This adaptation of classical myths for the structuring of contemporary works had an influence on the work of other writers, perhaps most notably Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). The novel had begun serial publication in the Little Review in 1918 but was soon banned in England and the United States on the grounds that it was obscene, and the book eventually had to be published in Paris. Ulysses was finally permitted publication in the United States in 1933, following one of the most famous legal battles ever fought over censorship.

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.

Author Works Long Fiction: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1914–15 (serial), 1916 (book) Ulysses, 1922 Finnegans Wake, 1939 Stephen Hero, 1944 Ulysses: The Corrected Text, 1986 (Hans Walter Gabler, Wolfhard Steppe, and Claus Melchior, editors) The Restored Finnegans Wake, 2012 (Danis Rose, editor) The Dublin Ulysses Papers, 2012 (Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon, editors) Short Fiction: Dubliners, 1914 Drama: Exiles, pb. 1918 Poetry: Chamber Music, 1907 Pomes Penyeach, 1927 “Ecce Puer,” 1932 Collected Poems, 1936 Nonfiction: The Early Joyce: The Book Reviews, 1902-1903, 1955 (Stanislaus Joyce and Ellsworth Mason, editors) Letters, 1957–66 (3 volumes; Stuart Gilbert, editor) The Epiphanies, 1956 Critical Writings, 1959 (Ellsworth Mason and Richard Ellmann, editors) The Critical Writings of James Joyce, 1959 Notes for Joyce: Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man., 1967 (Don Gifford, editor) Pound/Joyce: The Letters of Ezra Pound to James Joyce, with Pound's essays on Joyce, 1968 (Forrest Read, editor) Conversations with James Joyce, 1974 (Clive Hart, editor) Selected Letters of James Joyce, 1975 (Richard Ellmann, editor) The James Joyce Archives, 1977–79 (64 volumes) James Joyce's Letters to Sylvia Beach, 1921-1940, 1987 (Melissa Banta and Oscar A. Silverman, editors) The Lost Notebook: New Evidence on the Genesis of Ulysses, 1989 (Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon, editors) On Ibsen, 1999 Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, 2000 Children's/Young Adult Literature: The Cat and the Devil, 1981 The Cats of Copenhagen, 2012 The Ondt and The Gracehoper, 2012 Anthology: The Portable James Joyce, 1967 Joycechoyce: The Poems in Verse and Prose of James Joyce, 1992 (A. Norman Jeffares and Brendan Kennelly, editors) Bibliography Alter, Robert. Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. A lucid argument for the complex influence that the Bible has exerted on three important and diverse authors: Franz Kafka, Hayyim Hahman Bialik, and James Joyce. Attridge, Derek, ed. The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A collection of eleven essays by eminent contemporary Joyce scholars. Surveys the Joyce phenomenon from cultural, textual, and critical standpoints, with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake each given a separate essay. A valuable aid and stimulus, containing a chronology of Joyce’s life and annotated bibliography. Beck, Warren. Joyce’s “Dubliners”: Substance, Vision, Art. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1969. An extremely comprehensive study of Dubliners. After a lengthy introduction, each of Joyce’s stories is examined in turn. The author’s approach is essentially that of the New Critics. The texts are combed thoroughly for their verbal possibilities, resulting in both exhaustive and dutiful readings. Benstock, Bernard. Narrative Con/Texts in “Dubliners.” Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Includes analyses of narrative principles, symbolic systems, theological contexts, and a variety of themes and techniques in Dubliners. Blades, John. How to Study James Joyce. Houndmills, England: Macmillan, 1996. An excellent study guide for students of Joyce. Includes bibliographical reference, outlines, and syllabi. Bosinelli, Rosa M. Bollettieri, and Harold F. Mosher, Jr., eds. ReJoycing: New Readings of “Dubliners. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998. Fourteen new essays on Dubliners that argue Joyce questioned literary, cultural, and political developments of his time. The essays examine themes, style, intertexuality, politics, linguistics, and gender conflicts in Joyce’s stories. Brunsdale, Mitzi M. James Joyce: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. A general introduction to Joyce’s stories, focusing on the five most familiar stories from Dubliners. Also includes excerpts from Joyce’s own nonfiction criticism and from other critics. Cheng, Vincent J. Joyce, Race, and Empire. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A study of race and imperialism, ethnicity and political power, in Joyce’s works. Argues that the religious, patriarchal, and racist metaphors in Dubliners represent Ireland’s colonial relationship with England. Discusses stories as dramatizations of how the colonized yearn to replicate the colonizers; scolds Gabriel in “The Dead” for his patriarchal alliance with the British. Costello, Peter. James Joyce: The Years of Growth, 1882-1915. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993. Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. 1959. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. The definitive biography, generally regarded as the last word on its subject’s life and widely considered as the greatest literary biography of the twentieth century. Copiously annotated and well illustrated, particularly in the 1984 edition. Contains a considerable amount of informative background on the characters of Dubliners and their contexts. Of particular interest is the chapter entitled “The Backgrounds of ‘The Dead.’ ” Fargnoli, Nicholas, and Michael P. Gillespie. James Joyce A to Z: The Essential Reference to the Life and Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A dictionary-type reference book with approximately eight hundred entries on characters, concepts, locales, terminology, and critics of Joyce. Gillespie, Michael Patrick, and Paula F. Gillespie. Recent Criticism of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: An Analytical Review. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000. A survey of, with commentary on, Ulysses scholarship, especially since 1970. Hart, Clive, ed. James Joyce’s “Dubliners”: Critical Essays. New York: Viking, 1969. Arguably the single most helpful full-length work on Dubliners. It consists of essays on each of the stories, each by a different author. The authors are frequently well-known Joyce scholars, such as A. Walton Litz and the editor. Inevitably, the manner of critical approach in the case of a number of the essays is somewhat outdated. Jones, Ellen Carol, and Morris Beja, eds. Twenty-first Joyce. Gainseville: University Press of Florida, 2004. This useful reference work collects 13 scholarly essays written by Joyce experts. Part of the Florida James Joyce Series. Leonard, Garry M. Reading “Dubliners” Again: A Lacanian Perspective. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993. Using Lacan’s Freudian approach to language’s role in creating our experience of reality, Leonard examines the stories in Dubliners, urging readers to explore their kinship with the moral paralysis of the characters. McCourt, John. James Joyce: A Passionate Exile. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. Photos and sketches embellish this account of the life, times, relationships, and works of Joyce. Excellent introductory text, particularly for its illustrations. McHugh, Roland. The Sigla of “Finnegans Wake.” Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976. A brief introduction to the compositional character of Finnegans Wake, with an informal, refreshing, and valuable guide to approaching Joyce’s final work. Menard, Louis. "Silence, Exile, Punning." The New Yorker, 2 July 2012, pp. 70–75. Literary Reference Center Plus, Accessed 31 Mar. 2017. Provides brief biographical overview of Joyce's life and compares biographies of him. Potts, Willard. Joyce and the Two Irelands. Austin: University of Texas, 2001. Potts aligns Joyce with Catholic nativists, arguing that, while the novelist rejected Catholicism, his treatment of independence and industrialization betray a sympathy for Irish nationalism. Salgado, César Augusto. From Modernism to Neobaroque: Joyce and Lezama Lima. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2001. A comparison of the two writers, chiefly for the purpose of giving the uninitiated an opening to the peculiar work of Lezama Lima. Salgado seeks to introduce Lezama Lima to new readers, without his historical reputation as a polemical oddity of the tropics. Schwaber, Paul. The Cast of Characters: A Reading of Ulysses. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 1999. A literature professor and a psychoanalyst, Schwaber uses knowledge from both fields in an analysis of characterization in Ulysses. Illuminates the psychological depths of Joyce’s characters. Schwarz, Daniel R., ed. “The Dead” by James Joyce. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. A casebook of essays on “The Dead,” from such critical perspectives as reader-response theory, new historicism, feminism, deconstruction, and psychoanalysis. Studies in Short Fiction 32 (Summer, 1995). A collection of sixteen new essays on Dubliners, along with eleven reviews of new books on Joyce. Includes general essays on techniques and themes of Dubliners as well as analyses of “Araby,” “The Sisters,” “Grace,” “The Dead,” and discussions comparing Joyce’s stories with those of William Trevor and Edna O’Brien. Theall, Donald F. James Joyce’s Techno-Poetics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Representative of a new wing of Joyce studies, Theall’s work examines Joyce as a progenitor of today’s cyberculture. Includes bibliography and index. Thornton, Weldon. Voices and Values in Joyce’s “Ulysses.” University Press of Florida, 2000. An anti-relativistic study of the novel. Tymoczko, Maria. The Irish Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. A groundbreaking work revealing the hitherto overlooked Irish mythological underpinning of Joyce’s novel.

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