James Joyce

James Joyce
Portrait of James Joyce


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James Joyce (Born 1882 in Dublin, Ireland - Died 1941 in Zurich, Switzerland) is probably history’s most well-known Irish author and his works provide some of the best examples of Modernist writing. (Some would argue his works provide some of the best examples of any writing.) Oddly enough for someone so famous, Joyce has only four major works:


Dubliners is a collection of 15 short stories. The stories were first published in book form in 1914; they were published serially from 1904 to 1907. The texts follow a progression that mirrors a life span: the first three are tales of youth, the next four are tales of adolescence, the next four are tales of maturity, and the next three are stories of what Joyce calls "public life." The last story, "The Dead," stands on its own.

For the most part, the Dubliners stories have very simple plots. In fact, here are accurate summaries of all 15 Dubliners stories:

  1. “The Sisters”: Father Flynn, friend of narrator, dies after his third stroke.
  2. “An Encounter”: Two boys skip school, travel into the city, encounter an elderly gentleman.
  3. “Araby”: Narrator becomes infatuated with his friend’s sister, tries to buy her a gift.
  4. “Eveline”: Young woman decides whether or not to leave her dysfunctional family for a suitor.
  5. “After the Race”: Particpants in an automobile race party all night.
  6. “Two Gallants”: Lenehan and Corley try to scam money.
  7. “The Boarding House”:Bob Doran fools around with Polly Mooney; Mrs. Mooney responds.
  8. “A Little Cloud”: Little Chandler meets his old friend Ignatius Gallaher and they discuss their very different lives.
  9. “Counterparts”: Farrington, a law-clerk who hates his job, gets drunk.
  10. “Clay”: Maria celebrates Halloween with Joe Donnelly and his family.
  11. “A Painful Case”: James Duffy almost becomes intimate with a married woman. Four years later, she dies.
  12. “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”: A group of employees for a political candidate drink together and talk politics.
  13. “A Mother”: Mrs. Kearney aggressively pursues payment to her daughter for her musical performances.
  14. “Grace”: Mr. Kernan falls down a flight of stairs. Later, he and several friends attend a church service and plan to participate in a Catholic retreat.
  15. “The Dead”: Gabriel Conroy attends his Aunts’ annual dance with his wife. Then they leave.

One of the reasons the plots are so simple is that Joyce eschewed the standard narrative structure for short stories (rising action --> climax --> dénouement). Instead, characters (or readers) experience epiphanies, which in this case refers to "moments in which things or people in the world [reveal] their true character or their essence" (Scholes 247). In explaining the collection's title, Joyce wrote, "I call the collection Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city" (Joyce Letters I 55)In general, the paralysis is metaphorical (though it is also physical and literal in the case of Father Flynn in "The Sisters") and is generally used as a way of portraying the social ills of the city. These concepts of epiphany and paralysis are the driving forces behind the stories, thus replacing the more traditional conflict and resolution.



Historical Marker on the building in Paris where Ulysses was first published.

Ulysses is generally considered Joyce's masterpiece. It follows Leopold Bloom through one day (June 16th, 1904) of his life. From 10:00 am until 3:00 am (June 17th), Bloom eats a kidney for breakfast, attends a funeral, attempts to get an ad placed in a newspaper, eats lunch, masterbates, and contemplates his wife's infidelity admist memories of their dead son.

What happens in Ulysses, of course, extends far beyond the events of June 16th, 1904. Throughout much of the text (especially the last half), Joyce experiments with unusual narrative techniques, so much so many of the chapters seem to take on a life of their own. Taken collectively, the episodes of Ulysses greatly expand the scope of what is possible in fiction.

Finnegans Wake

The title refers to a 19th century street ballad entitled Finnegan's Wake, telling the story of the laborer Tim Finnegan. Tim Finnegan dies (?) after drinking a little too much whiskey and falling off a ladder at work (apparently, Tim fits a certain stereotype). At his wake, his friends and family become a little rowdy and someone inadvertently spills whiskey on Tim's corpse, at which point he is revived. Whiskey is thus the cause both of Tim's death and his resurrection. This story is, in part, a play on the word whiskey, which is derived an Irish Gaelic phrase meaning "water-of-life."

Joyce's text is by no means a simple retelling of this story. Rather, his book plays on the cyclical nature of life-and-death implied by the story of Tim Finnegan, and also a play on the title. Note that the title of Joyce's book removes the apostrophe, making the word "Finnegans" plural, and the word "wake" thus makes more sense a verb: Finnegans (i.e. all people) awaken from death/sleep/etc.

The concept of cyclical natures also plays a prominent role in the text. Not just the cycle of life-and-death, but also the annual cycle of months and seasons, the daily cycle of sunrise and sunset, and historical cycles of human civilization. One way of approaching the text is through the historical theory of Giambattista Vico. Vico held that history is a repetition of four stages: the age of gods, the age of heroes, the age of man, and finally an age of chaos, which acts as a return to the age of gods. The four sections of Finnegans Wake roughly correspond to these four historical ages.

Tim Finnegan's fall from his ladder also takes on additional meanings. It is not only the fall of Finnegan, but also the fall of Lucifer, of Adam, of empires and civilzations. Virtually everything within the text similarly contains multiple meanings.