James Joyce – was an influential modernist writer who was famed for his short stories and novels, in particular, Ulysees (1922) which recounted aspects of the Odyssey in modern terms. Joyce developed a unique, innovative style that included writing with wit, humour and a stream of consciousness. This avant-garde style enabled Joyce to develop unique characterisations and touch on the inmost parts of human emotions and thoughts. He grew up in Dublin, Ireland, but spent his later life in Europe.
James Joyce was born on 2 February 1882, in Rathgar, Dublin. His parents were middle-class Catholics and his father was employed as a rent collector. Joyce grew up in a time when there were strong calls for Irish home rule and a new sense of national identity was being created. He appeared to be politically aware from a young age. Aged only nine years old he wrote a poem about the Irish republican leader Charles Stewart Parnell. His father was delighted his young son and praised Parnell because, like many Irishmen, his father was unhappy at Parnell’s treatment by the British and Catholic Church and the refusal to grant home rule.
Despite being one of ten children, James Joyce was sent to a prestigious Jesuit boarding school called Clongowes Wood College. However, although receiving good income, his father was disorganised and dissolute – frittering away money on alcohol. Joyce was removed from that school and began to study at home with his mother. However, he later received a scholarship to the Jesuit, Belvedere College. Joyce did well academically and was twice elected to be president of the Marian Society. However, Joyce was a free thinker and spent his time reading books not approved of by the Jesuits; increasingly he became sceptical of the Catholic Church and the Irish establishment. He still retained an interest in religion and was strongly influenced by rationalist Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas.
In 1898, Joyce entered University College Dublin to study English, French and Italian. He also learnt Norwegian to be able to read Henrik Ibsen’s works in their original language. Despite mixing with the leading cultural and political figures of the day, Joyce felt Ireland suffered from too much social conformity and he hoped that moving to Europe would broaden his horizons. In 1902, he left for Paris with an intention to study medicine. However, in Paris, he struggled both with the study of medicine and financially. He soon dropped the idea of becoming a doctor, and when his mother fell fatally ill, he rushed back to Dublin to pay his last respects. But, much to his mother’s disappointment, he wouldn’t take the Catholic rites of confession and Holy communion – indicating outwardly he had left his Catholic faith. However, he later regretted not kneeling in prayer for his mother and denying her one of her last wishes.
Back in Ireland, he gained work teaching, singing and reviewing books. But, it was a precarious existence, with limited income stretched by his fondness for drinking copious amounts of alcohol. In 1904, he met Nora Barnacle a young chambermaid and they became romantically involved. Joyce then took Nora to Zurich, Trieste and finally Pola (then part of Austria-Hungary Empire modern-day Croatia), where he found work as a teacher. In Pola, his partner Nora gave birth to their first child, and they were joined by Joyce’s brother. They had a daughter Lucia in 1907. Joyce’s personal life was somewhat turbulent. His heavy drinking created friction with Nora and his brother.
In between teaching Joyce worked on writing short stories. These included a collection of stories related to his own experiences growing up in Dublin.
“I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” conversation with Frank Budgen, Zurich, 1918
On a couple of occasions, he returned to Dublin to try and get his collection of short stories “The Dubliners” published. But he struggled to convince his publisher to make it available. It was finally published in 1914 by the London publishing house of Grant Richards – nine years after he had completed it and after 17 rejections. The book considered themes of Irish nationalism and identity and was critical of the conservatism he felt Dublin represented at the time.
Short of money, Joyce conceived a plan to open a chain of cinemas in Dublin (then a new technology). He also considered exporting Irish tweed to the continent. But, despite making considerable plans, both fell through and he often relied on borrowing from friends and family to get by.
During the First World War, many of his students were conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian empire, but Joyce was given an exit visa for Switzerland and he spent the war in Zurich. After the war, Joyce’s reputation as an innovative writer led to rich benefactors supporting him with grants to focus on writing. Joyce was very pleased and took the opportunity – moving to Paris and working very hard on finishing his first novel he started back in 1914.
“Ulysses”, was a groundbreaking, stream of consciousness writing which focused on three main characters and an exploration of their inmost thoughts, emotions and reactions. Joyce claimed he had the idea of stream of consciousness writing from an obscure French writer. But, no one had made it such an integral part of the book. Speaking about the structure of the book, Joyce said
“There is not past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present. There is not past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present.”
When the book came out, it was praised for its depth of characterisation and insight into the human character. The book was also controversial when released, it was criticised for ‘obscene’ passages where characters mused on images of a sexual nature. It was temporarily banned in US and UK. (It was not published in US until 1934) Copies were destroyed by customs authorities. However, the partial ban only served to act as a means for improving awareness of the book. With good reviews from people like Ezra Pound, it gained good sales. Joyce’s innovative techniques, such as humour, parody and a stream of consciousness thought became a key element of modernist literature.
After Ulysses, Joyce was so exhausted that he did not write for a year. But, when he felt recovered he started work on a second novel, which he called “A work in Progress” – later published as “Finnegan’s Wake”. This took the stream of consciousness of Ulysees and pushed it to the limit, so much that the plot was obscure and language sometimes hard to decipher. When it came out, reviews were mixed with some reviewers feeling Joyce had tried too hard to be innovative and contrarian. Joyce was hard hit by the negative reviews and organised a supportive list of authors, such as Williams Carlos Williams who wrote positive comments.
Joyce suffered from poor health, through much of his life. In particular, his eyesight deteriorated and despite frequent eye surgery struggled to stem his loss of eyesight. He had over 30 eye operations in the 1920s and ended up wearing an eye patch. His daughter Lucia also suffered from schizophrenia and he was increasingly worried about her mental health. He took her to see Carl Jung, the famous psychologist. Jung remarked that he felt both Joyce and his daughter were schizophrenics, but Joyce was OK, because of his genius, he remarked they were
“like two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.”
Jung said he could not treat Lucia and she was committed to a mental asylum. In 1940, Joyce was in Paris, when the imminent Nazi invasion forced him to flee to the south of France. He then made his way to Zurich, Switzerland. He passed away on 13 January 1941, after falling sick from a tumour. He was 58 years old. His last words were reported as: “Does nobody understand?”
In the 1900s, Joyce became interested in democratic socialism. He supported the broad ideals of a more egalitarian society and a chance to change the rigid orthodoxies of the establishment. His political activism was short-lived as he became disillusioned with the infighting of the socialist parties and movements. But, he remained sympathetic to socialist ideals.
Despite not living in Ireland for much of his adult life, he felt a close kinship to the country of his birth. His novels and writings focus on the settings of Ireland and Dublin in particular. He said that through writing about his home city of Dublin, he could touch on universal themes.
“For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”
Was Joyce an Irish nationalist?
Joyce did express support for Home Rule and the aspirations of Parnell. He was not an unwavering supporter because he felt Ireland was ruled by the Catholic Church. He once said
“I confess that I do not see what good it does to fulminate against the English tyranny while the Roman tyranny occupies the palace of the soul.”
Also, Joyce was critical at what he saw as the narrow-mindedness and zealotry of some nationalists.
His biographer Richard Ellmann suggests he had an initial enthusiasm for the 1916 Easter rising, but it soon wore off and he rejected an opportunity to write an article on the uprising. When asked whether he looked forward to the Irish Republic, he rather ironically replied “Why? So that I might declare myself its first enemy?'” (1) – The censorship of his Dublin based stories rankled with Joyce throughout his life. In Ulysees, he touches on violent upheaval and Joyce’s distaste for war and conflict are evident.
“—But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
—What? says Alf.
—Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.” (Ulysees)
Joyce both loved Dublin and Ireland but felt a need to escape and write about Dublin from a geographical distance. Explaining his decision to live away from Ireland, he explains how the country held back a man’s development.
“The economic and intellectual conditions of his homeland do not permit the individual to develop. The spirit of the country has been weakened by centuries of useless struggle and broken treaties. Individual initiative has been paralyzed by the influence and admonitions of the church, while the body has been shackled by peelers, duty officers and soldiers. No self-respecting person wants to stay in Ireland.” “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages,” lecture, (27 April 1907
He never set foot in Ireland after 1912. Spending time in Paris, he became acquainted with many of the leading European intellectuals such as Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot. He loved their company, but intriguingly if he met an Irish ex-pat, he would invite them to talk about the streets of Dublin to reminisce about his old town.
The religious views of Joyce have gained considerable interest. The role of the Catholic Church in Ireland was very powerful during Joyce’s childhood and lifetime. He rejected formal membership of the church arguing that it went against his instinctive ideals. He wrote to his partner Nora Barnacle
” My mind rejects the whole present social order and Christianity—home, the recognised virtues, classes of life and religious doctrines. … Six years ago I left the Catholic church, hating it most fervently. I found it impossible for me to remain in it on account of the impulses of my nature. I made secret war upon it when I was a student and declined to accept the positions it offered me. By doing this I made myself a beggar but I retained my pride. Now I make open war upon it by what I write and say and do.” – Letter 1904. Selected Letters of James Joyce.
Yet, despite this, Joyce attended Church services later in his life – even though he stated it was more for aesthetic reasons than religious ones. Joyce held a mixture of mutually inconsistent views and reviewers see Catholic themes embedded in his writings. In “A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man” Joyce explains his own intellectual development and explains an ‘epiphany’ where he realised you could experience life through art and not just religion. He also retained a great faith in the human soul and a spiritual view of the world.
“All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light, but though I seem to be driven out of my country as a misbeliever I have found no man yet with a faith like mine.” Letter to Augusta Gregory (22 November 1902),
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of James Joyce”, Oxford, UK www.biographyonline.net, Published 4 April 2020.
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