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Irish Literature 102: James Joyce and Reconstruction of Irish Literature


Irish literature revolves around a rich culture and extensive history. In the Irish Literature 101 series, the focus was on the general outline of the literary eras in Ireland. However, to better understand this literary tradition, Irish Literature 102 dives deeper into the key literary figures that influenced the literary movements. Additionally, this series constitutes a wide-ranging study on works that are examined in the context of documented events and critical cultural movements.

Irish Literature 102 is divided into the following chapters:

The Life and Works of James Joyce, the Dubliner Who Broke the Rules of Writing

James Joyce, painted by Esoterica Art Agency and uploaded on May 28th, 2018.

Born on February 2, 1882, James Joyce was the eldest child of a middle class family who lived in the suburbs of Dublin. His father, under the spells of alcohol dependency, led the family to a state of poverty. And the young boy, who was destined to change the course of storytelling in English Literature, was forced to drop out of primary school because of financial issues. Fortunately, Joyce and his younger brother could receive scholarships at the Dublin Jesuit school, Belvedere College, where they completed primary and secondary schools.

Joyce’s childhood was riddled with turbulence both in his private family life and historical context. Social movements escalated year after year at the end of the Victorian Era. His literary genius was evident even in his earliest writings during his school days, reinforced by the ability to express and articulate his ideas. These themes are an inseparable part of Joyce’s stories and poetry, especially those regarding catholic religion, Dubliners’ lifestyle and characters, and the opposition between the modern and postmodern ideologies in Ireland at the time.

The Rise of an Artists

The young Joyce graduated from University College Dublin in 1902, after which he transferred to Paris, pursuing his studies in medical college. Instead, he followed his yearning towards reading and writing, experiencing life’s bohemian facade, and connecting with the flourishing artistic community and fellow writers in Paris. A year after he returned to Dublin, his newly articulated vision brought a fresh perspective on Dublin and the eminent Catholic conservation, as well as the colonial influences on the society.

Identifying these social components after returning from the continent and the intimate understanding that he had earned through his years of adolescence and maturity, affected his writings on two different levels; his independent sensibility, and detached observation of both Dublin and Dubliners, which is a shared medium to recount in most of his stories.

A year after, in 1904, Joyce departed from the shores of Ireland once more, following a self-imposed exile with his beloved companion, the young Nora Barnacle.

Stepping over the boundaries of the morals and rules imposed by the Catholic Church, the couple settled in Trieste, Italy, where Joyce could find a job as an English teacher. They were forced to travel to Switzerland, after the unification of the greater Germany during the WWI. Hungarian borders were no longer a safe place for the British Passport holders, and the writer and his small family traveled to Zurich. This was the birthplace of the first draft of the Ulysses, one of the most magnificent and complex works in English Literature.

Joyce, Pound, Ford & Quinn, in Paris.

Joyce moved to Paris on an invitation from Ezra Pound, the American writer and critic. The cost of living was considerably lower in Paris, making it easier for him to support his large family. Upon the outbreak of WWII and after the invasions imposed on the French capital, he was forced to travel back to the safety of neutral Zurich once again.

The Final Years

Through his travels, Joyce produced a wholesome series of plays, collections of poems, criticism and reviews, short stories, essays and fiction. Far from his homeland and with a sentimental attachment that never weakened throughout his life, James Joyce wrote a collection of short stories during the last years of his life which were published under the name of the book, the Dubliners.

After his return to Zurich in 1940, Joyce’s health deteriorated and soon after became severely ill. He was admitted to hospital on January 10, 1941 and died, three days after an unsuccessful surgery to treat his chronic stomach ulcer.

Joyce’s Style & Unique Writing Experiments

Joyce is notorious for his experiments in a number of genres, the epitome of which is presented by Ulysses, the only book in the history of English Literature in which each chapter has a different writing style and genre.

Joyce’s stylistic notions were greatly influenced by the French authors Flaubert and Baudelaire. To implement his artistic vision, he was required to look at life objectively and provide a lifelike image of events to the readers.

There is no certain point of view in Joyce’s writings. Instead, he used unique narrative techniques to engulf an idea with contrasting viewpoints. This way, the reader could scrutinize the same subject or character in a single plot from various angles. These characteristics classify his writing under the realism genre; although traces of impressionism, romanticism and other styles are observed in his writings, and often blended in a delightful arrangement.

The Notable Masterworks by James Joyce

While Dubliners holds an international fame, most probably for the smooth storytelling, his other works such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegan's Wake showcase the true essence and artistic climax of Joyce’s writings. These stories challenge the limits of language, and break the rules of grammar to provide deep psychological projection and resonance to the human’s thought process, and the inherent characteristics of everyday life.

Dubliners: the collection is a work of art and offers an accurate window into the lives of the contemporary Dubliners. Michael Patrick Gillespie writes about Dubliners:

By and large, the stories examine in detail the foibles, frustrations, and self - deceptions that beset middle - and lower - middle - class Catholic Dubliners around the turn of the nineteenth century. The realistic detail was so striking that printers (at that time vulnerable by English law to lawsuits for whatever they brought into print) feared local shopkeepers would object to being mentioned by name in the work.

There is a realistic approach to each story, embedded in psychological evaluation of the city and its residents. Joyce uses religion, political influence, residues of a pre-existing culture in the identity of the citizens, colonization and economy as tools to render an accurate image and symbolism in this short story collection. His use of grandiose life matters takes the reader’s imagination to the depth of Dublin’s society, the so-called exiled Dubliners in their own hometown, and through the Dublin’s street. These themes are brought to life vividly with the help of narrated monologues in each piece.

James Joyce, holding a newspaper with his image and the exact date of the Ulysses story

Ulysses: the entire novel takes place in a single day; on Thursday, June 16, 1904. While there are a handful of side characters, the story twirls around the three main personifications. Bloom, a religious outcast, a canvasser, and anti-hero as the central character, who is also Joyce’s symbol of Every Man in this book. Bloom’s unfaithful wife, a beautiful singer named Molly, who is planning an afternoon of infidelity. And lastly Stephen Dedalus, symbolizing the alienated artist who Bloom has mentally adopted as a son he so wished to have.

The story is inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, with impetuous differences. First, the events take place in the modern and morally in arrears society. Second major difference is the main characters’ wives; Odyssey is constantly trying to go back to his faithful wife, while Bloom seeks unconscious ways to avoid going back home to his unfaithful spouse.

“If Socrates leaves his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend.’ Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-law. But always meeting ourselves.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

In Ulysses, each chapter runs through a different hour and a unique setting, and is projected through the mental facility of a different character. The frequent changes in the story’s perspective paints a dramatic imagery of different psychological layers and provide multi dimensional information of characters and situations to the reader. Besides the people, everything in the book turns into a character, including the identity of the church as a whole and the Dublin city itself.

Similar to the collection of Dubliners, the main character of Ulysses is in exile, considering himself a part of a nation that rejects him and regards him unfit. The story includes themes such as suffering in human life, social values and rejection, anxiety and religious creeds, woven together in blunt and occasionally humorous tones. Moreover, each element is transparent, yet planted ever so masterfully within the complex layers of the plot.

The entire book is encyclopedia, with countless historic, religious and literary references. Ulysses is one of the most difficult stories in modern literary history to read both for its complex structure and the wealth of information. It has been acknowledged as a new form of realism that changed the aspects of storytelling and English literature forever.

Image Source:

PX Pixels, James Joyce, Literary Legend is a painting by Esoterica Art Agency which was uploaded on May 28th, 2018

Auralcrave, Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s untranslatable dream, 2017

Barbadillo, Cultura. Le lettere di Ezra Pound a James Joyce e l’Ulisse come “sorgente di vita”, 2019


A Companion to Irish Literature. Edited by Julia M. Wright. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.


Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

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