James Joyce (1882-1941), widely regarded as the most important novelist of the 20th century, was born in Dublin to a family of modest means and was educated at Belvedere College, Dublin. He began his writing career within the then-dominant mode of literary naturalism but soon outgrew those conventions and produced, over several decades, a remarkably original body of work that, for sheer inventiveness and virtuosity of prose style, gained him international acclaim. Joyce’s novels virtually defined modernism in literature, influenced several generations of writers, and continue to exert a fascination for serious readers.
The early work Dubliners, a collection of pen- etratingly observant short stories, was followed by the autobiographical novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which introduced experimental techniques that Joyce later explored fully in the radically innovative novel Ulysses. Finding the atmosphere of Ireland to be stiflingly parochial and repressive, Joyce resolved to live as an expatriate in order to maintain fidelity to his vocation as an artist. Composed in Paris, Trieste, and Zurich, where Joyce and his wife Nora had taken up successive residences after leaving Ireland, the novel Ulysses was completed in 1921. This book, Joyce’s masterpiece, focuses on the lives of several residents of Dublin whose paths intersect over the course of a single day. In planning Ulysses Joyce took enormous pains to follow a rigorous outline that, beneath the surface of the novel, incorporates detailed parallels between the day’s events and the major episodes of the Odyssey, a classical Greek epic work attributed to the poet Homer. Published in France, Joyce’s novel was immediately recognized for its masterful use of the technique that became known as stream of cons ciousness. This literary tool, afterward widely imitated, became a mainstay in modernist literature, using a constant flow of subjective observations, reactions to events, reflections, and ideas as they pass through a character’s mind, providing a uniquely intimate view of a character’s mentality. Most famously, the final chapter of Ulysses, commonly referred to as Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, is a lengthy, labyrinthine, richly associative interior monologue composed of only three sentences. As if to remind his readers that time presses on even at the close of a story, Joyce allows for the final lines of the novel to linger on a slight and momentary notion.
Owing to chronic poverty and the pressures of family, specifically the deteriorating mental health of his daughter, Lucia, Joyce found himself exhausted upon completing Ulysses. After a year’s hiatus he began writing again in 1923. A work in progress that would eventually become Finnegans Wake occupied Joyce for more than 6 years and involved the use of narrative techniques and multilingual word play that left even the highly inventive idiom of Ulysses far behind. A complex amalgam of myths and folktales, archetypal themes, and timeless stories told in a unique style of language filled with puns, wordplay, and allusions to events that span world history, the novel posits the idea that history is not linear but cyclical and is bound to repeat. In this Joyce echoes the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence; in this way the Wake opens onto a vista that embraces all of human endeavor, encompassing past, present, and future. The final passage of the book ends in midsentence, continuing with the first phrase on the first page, thereby manifesting the very cyclical nature that Joyce came to see as a fundamental not only to the act of storytelling but also to the universe itself.
In the last decade of his life, internationally famous and with his literary reputation secure, Joyce became nearly blind, undergoing a series of eye operations that were only partially successful and were complicated by alcoholism. He died in Zurich in 1941 following surgery for a stomach ulcer.
See also Homer; Mann, Thomas; Nietzsche, Friedrich;
Novels, Time in; Proust, Marcel
Ellmann, R. (1982). James Joyce: A biography (Rev. ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Joyce, J. (1967). A portrait of the artist as a young man. New York: Viking Compass. (Original work published 1917)
Joyce, J. (1976). Finnegans wake. New York: Viking Penguin. (Original work published 1939)
Joyce, J. (2003). Ulysses. Ann Arbor, MI: Borders Classics. (Original work published 1922)