Biography of James Joyce, Influential Irish Novelist

Eccentric Author of Ulysses Changed Literature Forever

An undated photo of Irishman James Joyce
An undated photo of Irishman James Joyce, author of one of Dublin's most famous literary masterpieces 'Ulysses'.

FRAN CAFFREY / Getty Images

James Joyce (February 2, 1882 - January 13, 1941) was an Irish novelist who is widely considered to be one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. His novel Ulysses was controversial when published in 1922 and was banned in many locations, yet it has become one of the most discussed and studied books over the past century.

Born in Dublin, Joyce grew up in Ireland and is considered the quintessential Irish writer, yet he often rejected his homeland. He spent most of his adult life living on the European continent, obsessing over Ireland while creating in Ulysses a portrait of Irish life as experienced by Dublin's residents during one particular day, June 16, 1904.

Fast Facts: James Joyce

  • Full Name: James Augustine Aloysius Joyce
  • Known For: Innovative and highly influential Irish writer. Author of novels, short stories, and poetry
  • Born: February 2, 1882 in Rathgar, Dublin, Ireland
  • Parents: John Stanislaus Joyce and Mary Jane Murray
  • Died: January 13, 1941 in Zurich, Switzerland
  • Education: University College Dublin
  • Movement: Modernism
  • Selected Works: Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake.
  • Spouse: Nora Barnacle Joyce
  • Children: son Giorgio and daughter Lucia
  • Notable Quote: "When the Irishman is found outside of Ireland in another environment, he very often becomes a respected man. The economic and intellectual conditions that prevail in his own country do not permit the development of individuality. No one who has any self-respect stays in Ireland but flees afar as though from a country that has undergone the visitation of an angered Jove." (Lecture Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages)

Early Life

James Joyce was born February 2, 1882, in Rathgar, a Dublin suburb. His parents, John and Mary Jane Murray Joyce, were both musically talented, a trait which was passed along to their son. The family was large, with James the oldest of ten children who survived childhood.

The Joyces were part of an emerging Irish nationalist middle class of the late 1800s, Catholics who identified with the politics of Charles Stewart Parnell and expected the eventual home rule of Ireland. Joyce's father had a job as a tax collector, and the family was secure until the early 1890s, when his father lost his job, possibly because of a drinking problem. The family began to slide into financial insecurity.

As a child, Joyce was educated by Irish Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College in Kildare, Ireland, and later at Belvedere College in Dublin (through some family connections he was able to attend at reduced tuition). He eventually attended University College Dublin, focusing on philosophy and languages. Following his graduation in 1902 he traveled to Paris, intent on pursuing medical studies.

Joyce found he could not afford the fees for the schooling he sought, but he stayed in Paris and subsisted on money earned teaching English, writing articles, and with money occasionally sent to him by relatives back in Ireland. After a few months in Paris, he received an urgent telegram in May 1903 calling him back to Dublin as his mother was ill and dying.

Joyce had rejected Catholicism, but his mother asked him to go to confession and take Holy Communion. He refused. After she slipped into a coma, his mother's brother asked Joyce and his brother Stanislaus to kneel and pray at her bedside. They both refused. Joyce later used the facts surrounding his mother's death in his fiction. The character Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man refused his dying mother's wish and feels tremendous guilt for it.

photograph of young James Joyce
James Joyce in Dublin, 1904. C. P. Curran/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Meeting Nora Barnacle

Joyce remained in Dublin following his mother's death and managed to make a modest living teaching and writing book reviews. The most important meeting of Joyce's life occurred when he saw a young woman with reddish-brown hair on the street in Dublin. She was Nora Barnacle, a native of Galway, in the west of Ireland, who was working in Dublin as a hotel maid. Joyce was struck by her and asked her for a date.

Joyce and Nora Barnacle agreed to meet in a few days and walk about the city. They fell in love, and would go on to live together and eventually marry.

Their first date occurred on June 16, 1904, the same day during which the action in Ulysses takes place. By selecting that particular date as the setting of his novel, Joyce was memorializing what he considered a momentous day in his life. As a practical matter, as that day stood out so clearly in his mind, he could remember specific details while writing Ulysses more than a decade later.

Early Publications

  • Chamber Music (collection of poems, 1907)
  • Giacomo Joyce (collection of poems, 1907)
  • Dubliners (collection of short stories, 1914)
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (novel, 1916)
  • Exiles (play, 1918)

Joyce was determined to leave Ireland, and on October 8, 1904, he and Nora left together to live on the European continent. They would remain fiercely devoted to each other, and in some ways Nora was Joyce's great artistic muse. They would not legally marry until 1931. Living together outside of marriage would have been an enormous scandal in Ireland. In Trieste, Italy, where they eventually settled, no one seemed to care.

In the summer of 1904, while still living in Dublin, Joyce began publishing a series of short stories in a newspaper, the Irish Homestead. The stories would eventually grow into a collection titled Dubliners. On their first publication, readers wrote to the newspaper to complain about the puzzling stories, but today Dubliners is considered an influential collection of short fiction.

In Trieste, Joyce rewrote a piece of autobiographical fiction he had first attempted back in Dublin. But he also worked on a volume of poetry. His first published book was thus his poetry collection, Chamber Music, which was published in 1907.

It ultimately took Joyce ten years to get his short story collection into print. Joyce's realistic portrayal of city dwellers was considered immoral by a number of publishers and printers. Dubliners finally appeared in 1914.

Joyce's experimental fiction proceeded with his next work, an autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The book follows the development of Stephen Dedalus, a character much like Joyce himself, a sensitive and artistically inclined young man determined to rebel against society's strictures. The book was published in 1916, and was reviewed widely by literary publications. Critics seemed impressed by the author's obvious skill, but were often offended or simply puzzled by his portrayal of life in Dublin at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1918 Joyce wrote a play, Exiles. The plot concerns an Irish writer and his wife who have lived in Europe and return to Ireland. The husband, as he believes in spiritual freedom, encourages a romantic relationship between his wife and his best friend (which is never consummated). The play is considered a minor work of Joyce's, but some of the ideas in it appeared later in Ulysses.

photo of James Joyce in Paris
James Joyce in Paris, with friend and patron Sylvia Beach.  Bettmann/Getty Images

Ulysses and Controversy

  • Ulysses (novel, 1922)
  • Pomes Penyeach (collection of poems, 1927)

As Joyce was struggling to publish his earlier work, he began an undertaking that would make his reputation as a literary giant. The novel Ulysses, which he began writing in 1914, is loosely based on the epic poem by Homer, The Odyssey. In the Greek classic, the protagonist Odysseus is a king and a great hero who is wandering homeward following the Trojan War. In Ulysses (the Latin name for Odysseus), a Dublin advertising salesman named Leopold Bloom, spends a typical day traveling about the city. Other characters in the book include Bloom's wife, Molly, and Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's fictitious alter ego who had been the protagonist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Ulysses is structured in 18 untitled chapters, each of which correspond to particular episodes of The Odyssey. Part of the innovation of Ulysses is that each chapter (or episode) is written in a different style (as the chapters were not only unmarked but unnamed, the change in presentation is what would alert the reader that a new chapter had begun).

It would be difficult to overstate the complexity of Ulysses, or the amount of detail and care that Joyce put into it. Ulysses has become known for Joyce's use of stream of consciousness and interior monologues. The novel is also remarkable for Joyce's use of music throughout and for his sense of humor, as wordplay and parody are employed throughout the text.

On Joyce's 40th birthday, February 2, 1922, Ulysses was published in Paris (some excerpts had been published earlier in literary journals). The book was immediately controversial, with some writers and critics, including novelist Ernest Hemingway, declaring it a masterpiece. But the book was also considered obscene and was banned in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States. After a court battle, the book was finally ruled by an American judge to be a work of literary merit and not obscene, and it was legally published in America in 1934.

Ulysses remained controversial, even after it was ruled to be legal. Critics battled over its worth, and while it is considered to be a classic work, it has had detractors who found it baffling. In recent decades the book has become controversial because of battles over which particular edition constitute the genuine book. As Joyce made so many changes to his manuscript, and it is believed printers (some of whom could not understand English) made mistaken changes, various versions of the novel exist. A version published in the 1980s sought to correct many mistakes, but some Joyce scholars objected to the "corrected" edition, claiming it injected more mistakes and was itself a faulty edition.

Christie's Auctions Part of Ulysse's Manuscript
A newly discovered, 27-page manuscript of the 'Circe' chapter of James Joyce's 'Ulysses' offered at auction at Christie's Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts sale in New York in 2000. Lorenzo Ciniglio / Getty Images

Joyce and Nora, their son Giorgio, and daughter Lucia had moved to Paris while he was writing Ulysses. After the book's publication they remained in Paris. Joyce was respected by other writers and at times would socialize with people like Hemingway or Ezra Pound. But he mostly devoted himself to a new written work which consumed the rest of his life.

Finnegans Wake

  • Collected Poems (collection of previously published poems and works, 1936)
  • Finnegans Wake (novel, 1939)

Joyce's final book, Finnegans Wake, published in 1939, is puzzling, and it was no doubt intended to be. The book seems to be written in several languages at once, and the bizarre prose on the page seems to represent a dream-like state. It has often been noted that if Ulysses was the story of a day, Finnegans Wake is the story of a night.

The title of the book is based on an Irish-American vaudeville song in which an Irish worker, Tim Finnegan, dies in an accident. At his wake, liquor is spilled on his corpse and he rises from the dead. Joyce deliberately removed the apostrophe from the title, as he intended a pun. In Joyce's joke, the mythical Irish hero Finn MacCool is waking, therefore Finn again wakes. Such wordplay and complicated allusions are rampant through more than 600 pages of the book.

As might be expected, Finnegans Wake is Joyce's least-read book. Yet it has its defenders, and literary scholars have debated its merits for decades.

photo of James Joyce and family
James Joyce, his wife Nora, daughter Lucia, and son Giorgio. Archive Photos/Getty Images 

Literary Style and Themes

Joyce's writing style evolved over time, and each of his major works can be said to have its own distinct style. But, in general, his writings are marked with a remarkable attention to language, an innovative use of symbolism, and the use of interior monologue to portray the thoughts and feelings of a character.

Joyce's work is also defined by its complexity. Joyce exercised great care in his writing, and readers and critics have noticed layers and layers of meaning in his prose. In his fiction, Joyce made references to a wide variety of subjects, from classical literature to modern psychology. And his experiments with language involved the use of formal elegant prose, Dublin slang, and, especially in Finnegans Wake, the use of foreign terms, often as elaborate puns holding multiple meanings.

Death and Legacy

Joyce had been suffering from various health problems for many years by the time of the publication of Finnegans Wake. He had undergone many surgeries for eye problems, and was nearly blind.

When World War II broke out, the Joyce family fled from France to neutral Switzerland to escape the Nazis. Joyce died in Zurich, Switzerland, on January 13, 1941, after surgery for a stomach ulcer.

It is virtually impossible to overstate the importance of James Joyce on modern literature. Joyce's new methods of composition had a profound impact, and writers who followed him were often influenced and inspired by his work. Another great Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, considered Joyce an influence, as did the American novelist William Faulkner.

In 2014, the New York Times Book Review published an article headlined "Who Are James Joyce's Modern Heirs?" In the opening of the article, a writer notes, "Joyce’s work is so canonical that in some sense we are all inescapably his heirs." It is true that many critics have noted nearly all serious writers of fiction in the modern era have, directly or indirectly, been influenced by Joyce's work.

Stories from Dubliners have often been collected in anthologies, and Joyce's first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, has often been used in high school and college classes.

Ulysses changed what a novel could be, and literary scholars continue to obsess over it. The book is also widely read and loved by ordinary readers, and every year on June 16th, "Bloomsday" celebrations (named for the main character, Leopold Bloom) are held in locations around the globe, including Dublin (of course), New York, and even Shanghai, China.

Sources:

  • "Joyce, James." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature, vol. 2, Gale, 2009, pp. 859-863.
  • "James Joyce." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 8, Gale, 2004, pp. 365-367.
  • Dempsey, Peter. "Joyce, James (1882—1941)." British Writers, Retrospective Supplement 3, edited by Jay Parini, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2010, pp. 165-180.