JAMES JOYCE (1882-1941)


“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
James Joyce, Ulysses    


James Joyce was born in Dublin, on 2 February 1882 – as was quite typical of Irish catholic families in those times his too was a large family – and died in Switzerland in 1941. He attained his education, first in a Jesuit school and then, at University College where he graduated in modern languages, in 1902, studying French, Italian and German languages and literatures and English literature.

Soon after achieving his degree Joyce moved on the continent. He lived in Trieste (Italy) for quite some time with Nora Barnacle (they had two children, Giorgio and Lucia, and eventually married in 1931), here he met Italo Svevo and lived on private tutoring students in English and by executing translations, this was a time of great financial difficulties and disappointments about his literary work, in fact he had several controversies with publishers and printers because his works were thought to be obscene and inappropriate, in many cases they were censored and his first publication came out only in 1907. In 1915, during World War I, he was forced to leave Trieste that had been occupied by the Austrian army and clearly became dangerous for him and all British nationals. At first, he and his family went to live in Zurich, later they moved to Paris and again to Zurich, at the break of World War II, where he died on 13 January 1941.


James Joyce brought Virginia Woolf’s implementation of stream of consciousness one step further as he firmly believed in the theory, he also shared with T.S. Eliot, of the impersonality of the author. Therefore if the reader learns about Mrs Dalloway through her dialogues with other characters or through her mainstream of thoughts while she is doing ordinary things and, at the same time, while she is interacting with other characters within the narration through which, at times, the reader also perceives the veiled discreet presence of Mrs. Woolf; James Joyce instead strives for absolute absence from his own narration. According to Joyce the artist was not meant to convey his idea or interpretation of life, on the contrary he believed that the artist was to portray life as it really was, as objectively as possible and he tried to accomplish this by showing even the most ordinary, seemingly irrelevant actions, gestures, of any ordinary day in any person’s life. Joyce believed that the artist should maintain as much detachment as possible from his or her work and, in a certain sense he felt that the artist was to isolate him or herself from society, as he actually was, isolated from society. Joyce was not concerned about portraying the society of his time but rather about showing the inner being of the individual in the twentieth century with its inner isolation and inner turmoil.


Writing  Techniques

In order to attain to the impersonality of the author Joyce employed several writing techniques, as already pointed out, he fully mastered, for instance, the stream of consciousness that spurs from the interior monologue, but alongside it he used a second level of narration. Therefore in his literary works there is an outside narration describing and showing the character’s surroundings, his or her external interactions, and an inner narration that relates all that happens within the mind of the characters in a constant flowing of thoughts, feelings, association of ideas, as it actually is in real life. These thoughts and feelings and perceptions flow without interruptions and often without any punctuation as well to underline the lack of control. Yet, there is still much more, perhaps one of the most intriguing is his adaptation of the cinematic technique to literary purposes, it is through the masterful use of words that he reproduces the camera movements in films creating the idea of close-ups, flash-backs, tracking shots, the holding back of breath in the suspension of speech, the dramatic dialogue and even the overlapping of events, conferring thus, to the apparent aimless disarray of circumstances, a structure and meaning that allow the reader to make out the inner essence of Joyce’s characters through what, in Cubist art, was referred to as the collage technique, in other words the taking apart and reassembling of images so as to show different perspectives in order to emphasize the absence of a simple, clear-cut and single truth.

Joyce’s use of Language, different registers and plentyful references

Needless to say that none of this could have been possible if Joyce hadn’t used language brilliantly as well. As a matter of fact his language is skilful and rich in innuendoes, images; he plays with ambiguities and enigmas, with opposites, juxtapositions, interruptions, false clues, and symbols. The vocabulary and registers too are used with incredible richness and switching easily from slang to more elevated levels as needed by circumstances and characters’ nature or social background, he even makes plenty of use of catchphrases from advertisements in order to voice the silent thoughts that crowd the character’s mind.

In addition to all this Joyce doesn’t neglect another important linguistic feature that of using quotations and references to other literary works and writers together with foreign words.


Dublin in Joyce’s Imagery and as Universal Paradigm

Unlike many of his Irish contemporaries he believed that Ireland could conquer its cultural and political independence from Britain only if it looked at the world from a European and cosmopolitan standpoint rather than focusing on its ancient heritage as was the case, for instance, for Yeats and his Celtic Revival movement. This is one of the reasons that brought Joyce to leave his homeland right after the completion of his studies to live abroad and settle in what was, at that time considered as the heart of Europe, a multicultural and poliglot city, Trieste where he wrote most of the stories collected in the Dubliners and where he began Ulysses, outlining there its main characters.

Yet although Joyce left Dublin very early and hardly ever lived there after his departure, it is to Dublin that his imagery strognly clings to and it is to Dublin that he constantly returns to in his writings. In all his works his native city is the centre of narration to the point of becoming itself a character, the protagonist of his works which are all set there. His precise and clear description of the city, of its streets, shops, places and atmospheres are so true to life that they make the reader feel Dublin and they make this city a universal paradigm, a literary capital of the twentieth century vibrating with life. The city is also viewed from as many perspectives as many points of views the various characters Joyce creates may have.

Nevertheless if Dublin is Joyce’s ideal setting for his writings, Dubliners are of his utmost concern, so Joyce writes about Dublin and its people, from the beginning to the end of his intense writing career, and if places and people are somewhat and somehow recurrent so are his themes.


The Paralysis

The paralysis he sees in most Dubliners is one of these. Joyce believes that most of his fellow citizens, and especially those belonging to the lower middle-class, are overly burdened by the overwhelming influences that religion, culture, economy and politics play on their lives. These people, according to Joyce, are psychologically anguished to the point of paralysis, therefore even though they want, more than anything, to break loose and change their behaviours and state of minds they actually are unable to and are paralysed in their condition by their own fear of change. Ultimately he sees them as physically and morally weak, slaves to their fear that holds them chained to their family oriented lifestyle, to their moral and religious attitudes that prevent them from questioning their own condition but merely bound them to themselves even more. This is fully shown in the short story of Eveline that belongs to the collection of the Dubliners.

The narration begins with the description of what Eveline, the protagonist, observes while watching outside the window, the street and the field where she used to play when she was little, a field that no longer exists as it has been replaced by other buildings, then she begins to look around the room she is in, each object that fills it has a story and yet it doesn’t, giving the reader the idea of a house lacking any identity, objects from the past, without a past, that seem to be always full of dust, despite her cleaning them all the time. The static appearance of the room seems to reflect her own static condition as she is pulled, on the one side by the inner desire to move on, to go her own way, and at the time there is that lack of courage that holds her tight to what she feels as familiar though displeasing, overbearing.

 “I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.”
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man    


The Epiphany

Yet Joyce does not stop only in front of this characteristic that he sees in Dubliners, this lack of awareness or lack of courage, he also strives to show his characters where they are going wrong, he shows them the way to awareness which can come by them through an insignificant event, gesture; a casual occurrence and once awareness is acquired, regardless of the outcome, regardless of their announced failure, as it is in Eveline, again, since she never goes away as she thought to have planned, despite all this the mere fact of being aware, finally, is what Joyce defines as epiphany. The other recurrent theme of his writing. A “sudden spiritual manifestation”, an eye-opener that allows the character to reach that deep insight that was, till then escaping him or her, an enlightenment that doesn’t regard only his or her own personal inner growth but that concerns their surrounding reality as well, or rather the way they finally are able to see what is happening outside of them and around them, an unveiled reality. It doesn’t quite matter if Joyce’s characters are still entrapped in their everyday life, tied down to the everlasting moral duties of their world, what does matter to Joyce is the further knowledge that his characters have seized and made their own.

 “You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.”
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

All that has been said then gives a clear idea that it is not the “narrative” that really counts, what’s more important is the achievement of the universal through the particular and the portrayal of the realistic inner development and life of the characters without any mediation on the part of the author, so that the reader’s involvement is that of active participation without any consoling outcome, no happy ending.

Joyce’s Literary Controversies and Censorship

As said above James Joyce’s literary production was, for some time, quite disappointing for him and caused him great financial sufferings, most of his works had to undergo censorship, legal controversies and even public trials. This is why his first book was published only in 1907, it was a collection of short poems, Chamber Music, in 1905 he had finished a collection of short stories about Dublin, Dubliners, but was published only in 1914. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was published in 1916, this is a semi-autobiographical novel. Exiles, was published in 1914, a naturalistic drama. Ulysses, was published in Paris in 1922. The public scandal that derived from it gave way to a court action in the U.S. where it was to settle whether the novel was pornographic or not. The trial ended successfully for our writer and the book was published in the United States in 1934 and in Britain in 1936. his last work, Finnegans Wake, was published in 1939.

© L. R. Capuana

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