Author Profile: James Joyce (1842-1941)

Joyce 1915
James Joyce, 1915.

Much like Charles Dickens, James Joyce’s early life was shaped by his family’s gradual descent from relative middle-class prosperity into poverty, exacerbated by his father’s drinking and financial irresponsibility, a pattern which Joyce himself would repeat in his early adulthood. But in spite of this, Joyce would become one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, and in particular in the modernist stream-of-consciousness style.

He was born in Dublin in 1882, the eldest of ten surviving children, with two other siblings who died of typhoid. In spite of the family’s straitened circumstances, he was educated in excellent Jesuit schools and went on to attend University College Dublin, where he studied English, French and Italian, graduating in 1902. He then went on to attend medical school in Paris, but subsequently dropped out, citing his health, and returned to Dublin. In 1904 he met Nora Barnacle, who would become his life partner and the mother of his children, although they would not marry until 1931. They spent much of the rest of their lives on the continent, living in Zurich (Switzerland), Trieste (originally part of Austria-Hungary, but part of Italy since WWI), and Paris. In spite of this, all Joyce’s novels are set in Dublin, and reflect an intimate knowledge of, and love for, that city. Joyce died in Zurich in 1941.

Although he was not the first to adopt stream-of-consciousness as a literary device, Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is one of most famous examples of the form. The terms ‘interior monologue’ and ‘stream-of-consciousness’ are often used interchangeably, but can also be interpreted as two slightly different things. While both endeavour to portray the constant inner thoughts of a character, the former is somewhat more structured while the latter really does throw everything together, often without care for grammar, punctuation, or overall meaning, in a kaleidoscope of thoughts, feelings and impressions. Needless to say, it can make for challenging, though worthwhile, reading.

Joyce wrote a number of plays and poems but he is best known for his three novels and the short story collection ‘Dubliners’.

‘Dubliners’ was written in 1905, although a couple of stories were added later, but not published until 1914, by which time ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ was already being serialised. It consists of fifteen short stories portraying the lives and experiences of ordinary people in turn-of-the-century Dublin.

‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, published in its complete form in 1916, is the semi-autobiographical story of Stephen Dedalus, a young man educated in Jesuit schools and at University College Dublin as his family sinks further and further into poverty.

‘Ulysses’, published in 1922, continues the story of Stephen Dedalus, and introduces the characters of Leopold and Molly Bloom. It parallels Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, and recounts the events of a single day in Dublin (16th June 1904, the day James Joyce first ‘stepped out’ with Nora Barnacle), and was the first of Joyce’s novels to fully utilise the steam-of-consciousness device.

‘Finnegan’s Wake’ is the last of Joyce’s novels. He worked on it for years, beginning in 1923, and it was finally published in 1939. Described by the now-largely-forgotten doctor and author Hervey Cleckley as “a 628-page collection of erudite gibberish indistinguishable to most people from the familiar word salad produced by hebephrenic patients on the back wards of any state hospital” I’m told it relies heavily on multi-lingual word-play, but that avid readers have more or less reached a consensus on the characters and plot.

statue joyce dublin
Statue of James Joyce in Dublin.

Starting-points with James Joyce: Of his three interior monologue/stream-of-consciousness novels, ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ is both the shortest and most approachable. ‘Ulysses’ is on my reading list for 2016, although I really need to read Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ first. I’m told ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ is challenging in the extreme.

Have you read anything by Joyce? What stood out to you about it?

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7 thoughts on “Author Profile: James Joyce (1842-1941)

  1. I read “A Portrait…” about 6 or 7 years ago, as part of a university course on modern classics. It was a little tough to get through, being in such an unfamiliar style, but I’m glad I’ve read it. I also have Ulysses tucked away somewhere, with plans to read it one day!

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    1. Thank you. Would that be ‘Dubliners’? He wasn’t the world’s most prolific writer. I’d be interested to know what you think – I preferred ‘Portrait’, because of the different style.

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