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James Joyce (1882-1941) - Works, General Features and Themes, Dubliners, Style, Epiphany

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James Joyce


Joyce was an Irishman of a very large middle-class Catholic family, the Jesuits being responsible for his education. Joyce's schooldays under the Jesuits provide much of the material for the earlier chapters of his autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At school he won scholarship after scholarship, thus alleviating his family's deteriorating finances. At the same time his opposition to the social and religious conventions was growing into open rebellion. He eventually rejected Catholicism and embraced an aesthetic philosophy. He came under the influence of Ibsen. Joyce's admired both Ibsen's intellectual honesty and his choice of exile; and just as Ibsen's work was being attacked as 'subversive', so Joyce's writing was to meet with similar hostility. Joyce studied modern languages and proved to be a brilliant linguist (a quality which is apparent in the polyglot puns of his later works). After his degree, Joyce went to Paris, where he met expatriate Irish nationalists as well as various literary ures. He met Nora Barnacle, a simple country girl who was to be his lifelong companion, and with her left Ireland for voluntary exile on the Continent. They settled first in Croatia, and then moved to Trieste. Here he taught and worked on his early books. He made friends with Ettore Schmitz (Italo Svevo), at that time an unknown author whose two early novels (Una Vita and Senilità) had been ignored by the critics.

In 1914, Dubliners was published. It was not very successful in commercial terms, but it attracted the interest of intelligent critics, notably Ezra Pound, who eventually became Joyce's most helpful friend and critic. Ezra Pound publicized and financed Joyce's works. In Zurich he worked on his new novel, Ulysses, which was to take him seven years to write. In the stimulating intellectual atmosphere of Paris, Joyce felt able to push his technical experimentation to the limit in his last work, Finnegans Wake. With the outbreak of war, Joyce returned to Zurich, where he died.


Joyce's life and works are in a sense the same thing, since his entire development as a personality is also the development of his works as style and form.


* Dubliners (1914), a collection of 15 short stories dealing with life in Dublin, linked by their common theme of the decay and stagnation of the city's life.

* A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), deals with the growth to maturity of a young Irishman and his dedication to art; it is largely autobiographical, but the style is less 'realistic' than in Dubliners.  

* Ulysses (1922), generally regarded as Joyce's masterpiece.

* Finnegans Wake (1939) is Joyce's last work, even more complex than Ulysses. It is about one night in the life of a Dublin publican, H.C. Earwicker, whose life story turns out to be that of all mankind. By making use of Giambattista Vico's cyclical view of history as a repetition of the same essential experiences, he provides a philosophical justification of his presentation of one man - H.C. Earwicker - as all men (as the initials of his name suggest: H.C.E. = Here Comes Everybody).

* Stephen Hero (1944), an abandoned fragment of Joyce's earliest attempt at a novel, was published after his death, in 1944.


* Chamber Music (1907), contains lyrics in the Pre-Raphaelite style.

* Pomes Penyeach (1927), a second collection of lyrics, also in a curiously traditional style.


* Exiles (1918), Joyce's only attempt at drama, was a play in the realistic style of Ibsen.

Joyce's conception of the artist

Joyce thought that the artist ought to be 'invisible' in his works, in the sense that he must not express his own viewpoint. He should instead try to express the thoughts and experiences of other men. He advocated the total objectivity of the artist and his independence from all moral, religious or political pressures.

General Features and Themes

* Apart from rejecting Irish nationalism, Joyce rejected Irish life 'in toto'. Yet at the same time he set all his novels in Dublin, the capital of the country he had grown up in and rejected. 'I'm sick of my own country, sick of it'. This sentence characterizes Joyce's attitude to Ireland and specifically Dublin, which he saw as repressive and dominated by the Church.

* Exile: He spent nearly all his adult life abroad, choosing voluntary exile in Trieste, Zurich and Paris, and becoming the most cosmopolitan of Irish writers in his openness to the influence of other intellectual traditions. Joyce chose 'Silence', 'Exile', and 'Cunning' as an alternative to the life of a patriotic writer. For Joyce the artist had to be an outsider, an exile, in order to see the world and to write about it. Like Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce escapes from his country in order to find intellectual, spiritual, and even sexual freedom.

* Psychology: Like other European writers of the time and most Modernists, in fact, he was deeply interested in all aspects of modern culture, including Freudian psychoanalysis, and the experimentation that was affecting all fields of art (e.g. Picasso in painting). He was particularly interested in ideas of sexual repression, taboo and hypocritical moral values.

* Like other writers, he found himself involved in the controversy over the two most influential literary currents of the time, realism and symbolism (which had produced such side-currents as naturalism on one side and futurism, impressionism and surrealism on the other). Joyce always refused to be classified in either movement, since realism and symbolism often combined in his works.

* As a result of his interest in experimentation, he created a new kind of dream language, a mixture of existing words, inventive word combinations, and non-existent words, to provide a dense multi-layered prose that can be read on endless levels of significance. Syntax is disordered, punctuation non-existent, in this immense river of words.

* Catholicism: Joyce was educated by the Jesuits. This experience dominates his literary and philosophical position. Buck Mulligan, the character who opens Ulysses sets the tone of half serious, half ironic reflections on Catholicism that dominates the novel. Religion and the relationship with guilt, that comes from the fact of being a sinner, are Joyce's most important themes, not only in Ulysses, but in all his works. Joyce was influenced by Giordano Bruno, whom he recognized as a symbol of the triumph of science and the questioning of authority over religion.  

* Modernism. There are various Modernist themes that recur in Joyce's works:

* MYTH. Joyce's use of myth is typically Modernist. He projects an ancient story onto a modern landscape. In Ulysses Ulysses the mythical search for a father is the theme that holds the narrative together. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Stephen Dedalus is both Telemachus, the lost son, and Dedalus, the artist-craftsman. Stephen is searching for a spiritual father whom he finds, perhaps, in Ulysses in the ure of Bloom. Myth is mixed with naturalism in Dubliners and Portrait.

* SYMBOLISM. Joyce was influenced by the French Symbolists. His prose resembles poetry, particularly in his use of symbols. In Portrait the symbols of flying, birds, nets and escape recur.

* THE CITY. Baudelaire introduced the City as a centre of the modern universe. Eliot developed this theme in his 'unreal city', and Joyce presents Dublin as the city of Modernism. Dublin is both the centre of life and a negation of life. It is both dream and nightmare. It is the central paradox of fulfillment and negation. Joyce loves Dublin and presents it in a very realistic way, while hating it at the same time.

For the sake of convenience, Joyce's literary production is usually split into two periods, the turning point coinciding with the writing of Ulysses.

First period

The first period of his work is marked by a realistic technique. The plot is quite linear in its development and rich in detail; the syntax is logical and the language, far from being cerebral and distorted, reflects everyday speech.


One of the most significant works of this period is Dubliners. The work is a collection of 15 short stories and an acute analysis of Dublin's life. Joyce himself wrote of it: 'I wanted to write a chapter on the moral history of my country, and I chose Dublin for the scene because the city seemed to me the centre of paralysis.'

The stories are arranged in thematic sequence, divided into four sections, each of which represents one stage in life: 1. childhood ; 2. adolescence; 3. maturity; 4. public life; 5. an epilogue (The Dead)


The short story form, dating back to the middle years of the 19th century, is used by Joyce in this collection of tales that unite together to give a series of the insights and reflections into the lives and experiences of people in Dublin. In Joyce's stories there is rhythm and cadence, rarely found in other short stories. Joyce took inspiration for his short stories from Anton Chekhov, the Russian writer.

The collection is more than a random choice of stories. There is a structural movement. It starts with Eveline, a story of adolescence, and finishes with The Dead, the title of which signifies the conclusion both of life and of the book.

Each story presents a moment of self realization in the life of one person from Dublin. Joyce also changes his narrative style in the collection: from the First Person narrative to the Third Person narrative, from realism to lyricism. The collection, representing Joyce's early style, is strongly naturalistic with little symbolism. The author's naturalism is seen as an analysis of the background - family, social, and cultural - and as a presentation of facts without authorial comment.

( Commento di 'Eveline ) In Eveline Joyce presents various themes of interest to him.

Eveline, a young girl who lives in Dublin with her father and her brother, dreams of escaping from the prison that has become her home, with her lover Frank. Frank is a sailor, his profession symbolizes free movement and travel. Escape, exile and self realization are, therefore, important themes. Eveline's o father is transformed after the death of her mother into a cruel ure. For Joyce, the relationship between child and parent is central. Eveline's memories of her father are always negative. As she sits in her house, she remembers the promise to her mother 'to keep her home together as long as she could'. In the final scene Eveline goes to the port with 'cheek pale, and cold' to meet Frank and to escape with him to Buenos Ayres. 'But her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer'. When she arrives she realizes that she cannot leave with him and is unable to renounce her past, however bad, for the future.

The religious aspect is strong. Eveline's sacrifice to renounce Frank, freedom and an independent life is a sacrifice to her sense of guilt and fear. In this moment of crisis, she prays. The techniques of focalization and the point of view can be recognized. Eveline wants to escape from her everyday life in Dublin by going abroad with her boyfriend Frank and starting a new life with him. At the end of the story we know that she will not be able to go away and leave her family or her country.


The style of the book is essentially realistic, with a scrupulous cataloguing of detail, the ability to create a sense of place - the Dublin which provides the setting for the stories - and remarkable moments of sudden insight, which are one of the characteristics of Joyce's art.

He called these moments of insight 'epiphanies'.

The original meaning of the term 'epiphany' is, of course, the showing of the Christ child to the Magi; but Joyce adopts this expression to signify a sudden revelation, the moment in a novel or story when a sudden spiritual awakening is experienced, in which all the details, thoughts, gestures, objects, feelings, etc., come together to produce a new sudden awareness. In other words, there is an epiphany when details, or 'moments', buried for years in one's memory, suddenly surface in one's mind and, like old photos, start a long, often painful mental labour.

One of the best examples of 'epiphany' can be found in The Dead. This is the last of the stories in Dubliners. It forms the climax to the theme of decay and stagnation that runs through all the stories, intended to show the spiritual paralysis of Dublin, the heart of modern Ireland. But it also goes beyond the earlier stories by developing a more compassionate view of the lives of its characters, as well as moving away from the realistic and objective presentation of their lives, which is the dominant approach in the rest of the book.

Here we see Joyce moving towards a more intimate study of his characters' inner lives, in a way that was to be far more fully developed in the 'stream of consciousness' technique of his later novels. It is also much longer, more complex, and richer in characters than any of the other stories.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.


In this novel themes are mixed with character and plot. The hero of the novel, Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's fictional projection of himself, is the subject and the object of the novel, and plot presents a series of significant moments in his personal growth.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY. As the title suggests, the novel represents an autobiographical account of the artist's early life. However, Joyce mixes facts with fantasy, real events with imaginary situations. It is a Modernist Bildungsroman ( un romanzo che descrive l'iniziazione alla vita di un giovane). The novel finishes with an artistic and spiritual beginning or birth, that is continued later in Ulysses.

RELIGION. Joyce's Catholic education is examined, criticized and finally rejected in the fictional story of Stephen Dedalus. Guilt is the overriding doctrine of Catholicism for Joyce, this and the concept of sin are discussed ironically. For Stephen, Ireland's Catholic tradition is responsible for political and social restriction. Stephen's intention to become a priest becomes more and more difficult for him as he develops physically, spiritually and artistically. As an artist Stephen must reject not only his country, but also his religion and his history. 'History is a nightmare from which we must escape' - Stephen asserts, offering a personal and essentially modern view of the destructive influence of the past on the present.

SYMBOLISM. In a typically modern way, Joyce introduces many symbolic elements into his narrative. The holy symbolism of the church is contrasted with symbols of freedom, escape and sexuality. The image of a bird, of flying and of restrictive nets that cover Ireland recur throughout the book. Stephen's name assumes a symbolic significance deriving from Saint Stephen, the Early Christian martyr and church father, stoned to death for preaching the new religion (Stephen-Joyce thinks of himself as a victim of incomprehension in his own land). 'Dedalus' echoes the mythical story of Icarus and Dedalus, the father and son who escaped from the labyrinth of the Minotaur by building wings of wax. Dedalus is the 'fabulous artificer', who escaped by flying above the waves (Dedalus-Joyce decides to leave Ireland, his prison island, on the 'wings' of his art). Stephen becomes a symbol of the artist. The union of the two names, however, can also evoke other associations, for example with Dedalus' son, Icarus.

In the myth, Icarus, the son, flies too close to the sun and as the wings melt, he falls into the sea and dies. He is a young and unable to listen to the advice of his father; he aspires too high.

Stephen Dedalus rejects religion and embraces an aesthetic creed as his own. As the artificer, it is art, the creative process and the Imagination that will free him from the 'nets' of history, culture and religion.

AESTHETIC PHILOSOPHY. Stephen embraces the aesthetic philosophy of Aquinas characterized by the assertion 'beauty is the apprehension of that which pleases'. Stephen also says that beauty is the splendour of truth. The novel presents a discussion of the connection between beauty and truth, beauty and imagination and a moral discussion of aesthetics (parallelismo con Keats, se te lo chiede la Ciccarese). When Stephen rejects religion he accepts aesthetics as a new religion and as an obligation that he must respect.

EPIPHANY. The novel includes several moments of intense self-realization. These moments form key scenes in the structure of the novel and are called 'epiphanies' (vedi sopra). Stephen experiences an epiphany while looking at a girl who is standing in the water on the beach. The girl assumes a symbolic significance; she is described as a bird that can fly and escape. When Stephen looks at her, he realizes his future lies outside Ireland, over the sea. It is a moment in which he realizes his maturity and accepts his new mission in life.

TRANSITION. Joyce lived in a very important period of transition, from the old to the new, and this is seen in his works, which reflect both Realist traditions and a radical experimentation with form and subject. He was influenced by the French literature, particularly the works of Flaubert, with his important novel Madame Bovary, Zola and his Naturalist literary production and the French symbolism of Mallarmé, Rimbaud and Baudelaire whom he admired greatly.

In conclusion, he was also influenced by Ibsen, about whom he wrote an essay, and by the Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. In all these writers, moral values, religion, nationalism, love, and the relationship that exists between sexual negation and adultery are of great importance. These writers stated that the environment was important in the growth of an individual. We can recognize all these influences in Joyce.


In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Joyce uses different literary techniques and styles: stream of consciousness, realistic descriptions, dialogues and naturalistic passages. The voice of the author disappears from the text. Unlike 19th century novels, in which the author comments, judges, suggests and reflects, in this novel the author's voice is not separated from that of the protagonist.

The stream of consciousness, sometimes indistinguishable from the interior monologue, is the technique whereby the writer imitates the thoughts, patterns, memories, sensations and reflections of an individual's consciousness. Linguistically, it is characterized by a new punctuation, most notably by absence of inverted commas.

Second period

The second period of Joyce's writing sees the transition from a traditional approach to a stage of experimentation, rich in symbolism and allegory. It is the logical consequence of the previous phase, since the themes and the setting of the new works are the same. What changes, however, is the language, which increasingly rejects logical sequences and conventional syntax.


The best-known work of the second period is Ulysses. This great novel, an important example of Modernist literature, effectively changed the literary standards.

Ulysses is an immense, multi-layered, complex work, and here it is only possible to suggest some of its themes and modes of expression. Ulysses has no real adventure or romantic interest. It takes place in Dublin, 'Bloomsday', as it has subsequently been called, on a single day, June 16, 1904, and concerns the life of three Dubliners (two men and one woman), thus it is divided into three corresponding parts.

The central character in the first part is Stephen Dedalus, the Joycean alter ego, whom we have mentioned already in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is a young man with intellectual ambitions, the enemy of his own country and a martyr to art. He represents Telemachus of the Odyssey, a writer and an aesthete.

The second part of Ulysses is dominated by the ure of Leopold Bloom, the Ulysses of the title, a Dublin Jew in his middle age: a middle-aged married man, who wanders around Dublin as Ulysses wandered around the Mediterranean, encountering adventures which roughly parallel those of the Homeric hero. He represents sensual man.

The third part is dominated by his wife, the adulterous Molly Bloom, who corresponds to Ulysses's wife Penelope, just as Stephen Dedalus represents Ulysses' son Telemachus.

Ulysses is the account of these three characters as they spend the day. The day finishes with the return home of the two men, and Molly's extraordinary monologue.

The novel begins with Stephen forced to wander the streets in search of a father and a home; in his wanderings he meets Bloom, who 'adopts' him by offering to take him home and give him shelter. At home, awaiting the wanderers, is Molly Bloom, like Penelope on Ithaca (although not so faithful). The book concludes with her ruminations as she lies awake in bed.

The novel is innovatory for its redefinition of the English language, the sustained use of a stream-of-consciousness technique, and the use of extended a mythical parallels that form a coherent unity in the events of the novel.


Ulysses represents the stream-of-consciousness style. However, Ulysses also contains aspects of symbolism and aestheticism. It is an evolution in Joyce's concept of a modern literature. It contains 18 chapters, that correspond to the episodes of the Odyssey.

The first chapter is called 'Telemachus', and corresponds to the first episode in Homer's classic story in which Ulysses's son is obliged to see his house invaded by his mother's suitors. Stephen's house represents the Palace of Telemachus. His friends 'invade' his house in the same way. The novel continues the parallel stories of Homer's Odyssey and Bloom's 'Odyssey'. The search for a father, Stephen's search, and the discovery of a son, Bloom's discovery, are the predominant themes in the novel. T.S. Eliot applauded the novel for its innovatory use of myth which orders the fragments of modern life into an eternal structure of meaning.

Molly's monologue, the most famous part of the long experimental novel Ulysses, represents the author's use of the stream-of-consciousness technique. Thoughts, memories, and reflections are freed from the restrictions of punctuation and grammar. The voice of Molly is unique, memorable and becomes the apotheosis of English modernism.

Parallel with the 'Odyssey'

The parallel with the Homeric poem is developed in more detail in each of the sections or chapters into which the book is divided. There are eighteen in all, each one corresponding to one of the episodes in the Odyssey, although not in the same order: the way in which these parallels function can be illustrated by reference to certain episodes.

For example, the first episode is called 'Telemachus', and it echoes the theme of the first book of the Odyssey, which describes the son of Ulysses forced to share his home with his mother's suitors, who maltreat him and deprive him of his rights. Discontented and neglected, he seeks for news of his father. In Joyce's Ulysses, Stephen is shown living in a tower on the Irish coast with companions who mock him and evict him from his home.

The second chapter is called 'Nestor', after the wise king in the Odyssey who gives Telemachus much good advice; in Ulysses the counterpart of Nestor is Mr. Deasy, the headmaster of the school where Stephen does some teaching.

In the chapter called 'Hades', Mr. Bloom attends a friend's funeral at the Glasnevin cemetery and meditates on death. In the Homeric episode, Ulysses visits the underworld and speaks with the souls of the dead - just as Bloom meditates about the dead people he has known.

Chapter 15 is called 'Circe', referring to the Homeric story of Ulysses' sailors turned into swine; Joyce's parallel is a visit to a brothel by Stephen and Bloom together and their narrow escape from total degradation.

The point of the parallel between the two works is that it enables Joyce to give his book a symbolic and permanent structure at the same time as it documents, with abundant detail, the miscellaneous events and impressions of a single day in the life of his characters. Joyce is also suggesting, by means of this parallelism, that Bloom is a modern Ulysses, an archetypal hero who can stand for humanity, for Everyman. The circumstances have changed, but the human quest continues unchanged.

Interior monologue

In his use of the 'stream of consciousness' technique and, in particular, of the interior monologue, Joyce availed himself of a variety of devices, such as lack of punctuation, puns, onomatopoeic words, etc., and of a variety of styles ranging from dialogue to interior monologues and unspoken soliloquies.

Developing and perfecting the technique already used by the 18th-century novelist, Sterne, Joyce was able to penetrate into the consciousness of his characters and express their thoughts and feelings through a method of which Molly's monologue provides a specimen.

Sono molto contento di poter contribuire alla formazione di altri studenti come me.Mi raccomando studiate bene ma non troppo.



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