A Reflection on Joyce and His Works

James Joyce, Genius and Literary Pirate Extraordinaire

James Joyce, Genius and Literary Pirate Extraordinaire

James Joyce is one of the few writers who I can stand to re-read, ranking up there with the likes of Shakespeare and Tolkien. I didn’t read him until my senior year of college, which is a shame, I suppose, but the cliche rings true here: better late than never. In fact on second thought, in my case, it’s probably better late than sooner since Joyce is such a complex and esoteric writer that a strong background in literary analysis and literature studies in general prove to be invaluable tools when digging into his texts (well, until Finnegans Wake).  His life was riddled with passion, pain, heartache, betrayal, political angst, blindness, and a whole spectrum of other human experiences, and it is for this reason that his works are at once so life-affirming for some and so outright infuriating for others. Some people love brutally honest depictions of life; others would rather not think about it. But Joyce is relentless–he forces us to think about it.

Below are some thoughts on Joyce’s four most famous works: the short story anthology Dubliners, the novel-cum-lecture, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the massive (and massively influential) novel Ulysses, and the mysterious, seemingly insoluble conundrum that is Finnegans Wake.


Dubliners, an unyielding portrayal of hopes and paralysis

'Dubliners', an unyielding portrayal of hopes and paralysis

Dubliners is probably Joyce’s most accessible work. Utilizing the impressionistic style of writing that was so popular with Joyce’s contemporaries such as Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad, Jim set out to depict the people and the city that he paradoxically loved and loathed. What he ended up with was a series of stories that all portray a menacing, ubiquitous paralysis: all of the principle characters encounter some type of obstacle that they seem more than capable of overcoming but ultimately do not. Why? Because they second-guess themselves, give into guilt, give into their low self-esteems, allow themselves to be conquered by a vice; the list goes on. So, while Dubliners isn’t exactly a love letter to Dublin and her people, it does give us a pretty clear idea of what a society looks like in the midst of a cultural and societal depression. Why are Joyce’s Dubliners so depressed and thus paralyzed? Imperialist oppression. It doesn’t just affect the politicians or the people who keep up with current events, but instead it affects everyone in that society, if only indirectly. The city Joyce depicts for us in each of Dubliners‘ short stories is packed with good intentions but too rife with negative feelings for these good intentions to ever amount to anything.

Dubliners includes several short stories that have since come to be enormously popular in their own right, though perhaps none more so than “The Dead”. Superficially, this story depicts the experiences of Gabriel Conroy at a party his aging old maid aunts throw on the Feast of the Epiphany. But beneath its surface, the story subtly illustrates the many ways in which real-life Dubliners–indeed, everybody–become broken and paralyzed. At the end of the story, for instance, after Gabriel’s wife has imparted to him an intensely romantic and tragic love story from her youth, he realizes that their relationship is in fact without love, at least without passionate love. But rather than going to console his crying wife as she confronts her bitter memories, Gabriel walks over to the window and watches the snow fall on the distant gravestones. He sees the problem (lack of love in his marriage), sees the solution (consoling his wife), but remains paralyzed, choosing instead to fixate, not coincidentally, on graves–markers of death. This is quite deservedly one of the most popular moments in the history of short fiction and is a powerfully poignant conclusion to an anthology that depicts the overarching depression and paralysis that pervaded the streets of Joyce’s Dublin.


The cover features a picture of Joyce as a young man; fitting since Stephen Dedalus is his literary alter-ego

The cover features a picture of Joyce as a young man; fitting since Stephen Dedalus is his literary alter-ego

Ah, Jim. You were maybe a little too ambitious with your first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ideas are effective in a narrative, but lectures are not.

From the outset, you can tell that this novel is not like many others you’ve read:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

This is not, in fact, utter gibberish, but instead an early memory of the main character’s, Stephen Dedalus: it is the beginning to a story his father used to tell him. So from the first sentence, we’re thrust into the mind of the protagonist. I’m not sure that we can safely say that Joyce was the first author to psychologize his characters, but he was definitely one of the first authors to employ the stream-of-consciousness writing technique. In this way, we don’t just get Stephen’s memories, but we also get a steady flow of his thoughts, though these thoughts may at times be broken or confusing. But then again, do we actually think in complete sentences? No, and to argue otherwise is silly. Proper syntax and grammar are merely conventions that we humans place on our writing and speaking in order to achieve a more sound cognitive understand of the expressed thoughts and ideas. No one thinks, “What will I do today? Ah yes, I’ll go to the store and get an oil change before returning home and making dinner.” Rather, it would look in writing something like this: “What to do today? Store. Oil change. Then home. Make dinner.” By making use of this technique, we get a much more realistic depiction of Stephen than we would have if the narrative had .

Unfortunately, Joyce at times uses Portrait as a soap-box to stand on and lecture to us–via Stephen, of course–about aesthetics. Passages drone on about Joyce’s views on art, specifically poetry. He does make an interesting note on epiphanies and their relationship to artists, but this is a boon we receive only after having gone through the laborious process of listening to the incessant and wholly out-of-place rambling. What Joyce forgets is that Portrait is a novel, not an essay. The “novel aspects” of the narrative are superb and inventive; the diatribe on aesthetics is not.

It’s funny that I should criticize so harshly the “lecture” parts of this novel, for Joyce actually reduced them profoundly from his first draft, a seemingly different book altogether called Stephen Hero. This first draft you can buy, and I actually have, but only as a collector of Joycean texts and not as an admirer of the lectures. Sorry, Jim, but I like my novels to depict ideas and philosophies only when it’s relevant to the story, not whenever you get on a kick. Fortunately for us, someone must have told Joyce this about Portrait, for his next novel–his masterwork–is a dense and wonderfully complex tome that does nothing more than depict humanity, leaving the lectures by the wayside. Gloria in excelsis Deo.

[Incidentally, I wrote a paper in college on how Portrait is a hybrid memoir-novel in that Joyce uses several people and experiences from his own life in his depiction of Stephen’s life; in this way, we can see Stephen as Joyce’s literary alter-ego. Along with the novel’s usage of stream-of-consciousness, this aspect owes much to Joyce’s literary legacy.]


Notice the Joycean spectacles and fedora atop the sideways title

Notice the Joycean spectacles and fedora atop the sideways title

You can always tell a book will be timeless when it’s got a story all of its own:

Joyce first tried shopping the colossal Ulysses manuscript around Paris in 1920, but was turned down by nearly everybody. Then 1922 came along and an adventurous young entrepreneur named Sylvia Beach–who owned a little bookshop called Shakespeare and Co., which attracted the likes of young Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald and even our anti-Semitic poet-at-large, Ezra Pound–managed to have it published by taking the manuscript to some printers in Dijon, “the capital of the French printing press,” according to Joyce.

The book was exported to Britain and the U.S., but was seized by customs at New York and Folkestone. Thence all copies were literally burned due to its ostensible obscenity–after all, when “Part 11” of the novel was published in the Little Review in 1920, two writers were prosecuted and even fingerprinted just for writing favorable reviews of the excerpt. From that point on, Ulysses was considered obscene and therefore unfit for American readers.

It wasn’t until 1933, when the Honorable John M. Woolsey, a U.S. District Judge, managed to pick up a copy of Ulysses and actually read it (something the American censors before him had failed to do–they were only going on hear-say), that the ban was officially overturned and Joyce’s masterpiece was allowed to be published in the U.S.

This actually plays a big part in the history of U.S. law since it was the first “liberalization” of the censorship law. Were it not for Judge Woolsey’s decision, we might not have Henry Miller‘s Tropic of Cancer or Tropic of Capricorn (and we would therefore also not have that great episode of Seinfeld, “The Library”), or much of anything from D.H. Lawrence.

And that’s just the story of the novel’s publishing.

Perhaps the reason censors have always had such a hard time with Ulysses is the fact that it is a no-holds-barred depiction of life, complete with hunger (both stomached and sexual), eating, being jealous of just about everybody, the plethora of feelings on both sides of an extramarital affair, an extramarital affair, and–perhaps most damning–the depiction of how and why we alienate one another.

There is young Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s literary alter-ego and the hero from A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man , who is gloomy, angry with the British rule of his country, who feels both indifference and hate for himself at the death of his mother (who supposedly died after he refused to kneel and pray by her bedside), who is alienated by his boisterous and spend-thrift father (and who is therefore looking for a worthy father-figure) and also his jovial but uber-aggressive friend and roommate, Malachi “Buck” Mulligan, and by just about everyone else he comes in contact with. He spends a lot of his time in the novel thinking about his existence, existence in general, his family, his attempts to be a poet, and the servile state of Ireland. Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness technique was definitely perfected by the time he got to writing Stephen’s part of the novel.

Then there is the ostensible hero of the novel, Leopold Bloom, the son of a deceased but still guilt-inducing Jewish father, the husband of a beautiful–and apparently oversexed (and not by him)–wife, and the father to a young but distant daughter and a dead son, who died while still a young boy. At the point of the novel (which takes place on one day, 16 June 1904), Bloom is no longer a Jew, having converted to Catholicism in order to marry his wife, Molly. His marriage is in fact something of a joke about Dublin since he is so quiet, neat, mild-mannered and a little effeminate and she is a social and probably adulterous  singer who is popular with all sorts of men (and women, it seems) throughout Ireland. But his Jewish ancestry (in an excruciatingly anti-Semitic country) and laughable marriage are just the start of Bloom’s alienation: he always seems to be the odd-man-out, and his peers make no efforts to prevent this. Perhaps this is why, when seeing how negligent and insensitive young Stephen’s father is, that he decides to step in and look after the young man for a while (which nicely fulfills one of Stephen’s needs, too). As he goes about Dublin that day, thinking about life, having an affair of his own (albeit literarily–he only conducts the affair through letters, and freaks out when his recipient suggests a meeting; and the nom-de-plum for our quiet, mild-mannered, and slightly effeminate hero? Henry Flower), he shows us who and what we humans really are–how we think about things, how we do things, and why. I think this is what most gets under the skin of those who have problems with this novel.

The novel takes its title from Homer‘s ancient epic hero, who is by all means forward, aggressive, and uber-masculine–all the things that Leopold Bloom aka Henry Flower is not. And yet, while Bloom lacks the personality of Ulysses aka Odysseus, he most definitely shares the epic hero’s status as an “everyman.” Ulysses/Odysseus is everything men aspire to be; Leopold Bloom/Henry Flower is everything we actually are, whether we’d like to believe it or not.

And women? How do they fit into Ulysses? On the one hand, you could just say that they are depicted negatively, as many have before, since the main female character conducts an extramarital affair behind her husband’s back and the majority of other women in the novel are badgering old shrews. But Joyce does something at the end of his masterpiece that frankly throws a monkey wrench into the works of that line of thinking: he concludes the novel with a 45-page stream-of-conscious rant conducted not by Bloom or even Stephen but Molly, Bloom’s supposedly unfaithful wife. In this extremely dense section of the novel (there is absolutely no expository narrative here telling us what is going on outside Molly’s head–we only get her reactions), we come to understand that Molly sought out her affair only because she suspected her husband of having an affair first, or at least of falling out of love with her (the real reason, we learn from Bloom, is his fear of making–and losing–another child like his deceased young son, Rudy). We also see how vulnerable she is, how much she hates having to deal with the aforementioned old shrews and all of the drooling, salacious men who can’t look her in the face because they’re too busy looking about ten inches south. And as Molly’s thoughts come to their climax–just as she’s falling asleep–she remembers how and why she fell in love with Leopold, how he proposed, and how sensitive and romantic he is and always has been.

So in a sense, by giving us the varying perspectives of young Stephen, middle-aged Bloom, and on-the-cusp-of-middle-aged Molly, Joyce gives us not so much a depiction of just an “everyman,” but of an “everyhuman.” We see the inner-workings of our minds and the reasons for our motives.

Honestly–what more could we ever possibly ask from a novel?


'Finngegans Wake': Get your Guinness out before starting to read

'Finngegans Wake': Get your Guinness out before starting to read

And at last we come to Finnegans Wake–and no, that lack of an apostrophe in Finnegans is not a typo. Go ahead and take a look at this etext version of the book. Go ahead–just humor me.

Welcome back. Take some tylenol or drink a Guinness to help calm your nerves.

I do not mean to sound as though I do not like this book. Quite to the contrary, I very much love this book, or at least I love the idea of loving this book. On the whole I’ve probably only read forty pages or so of its entirety, particularly the famous “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section, but the majority of it is completely incomprehensible to the lay reader, indeed, even to the educated reader. Unless you are fluent in a multitude of languages from around the globe, you are going to miss out on any “meaning”. And yet, I’m not sure that “meaning” in this case is restricted to what the words themselves signify, but rather what the usage of words signifies. Certainly, you can read the book and bend the text here and there to work out Joyce’s depiction of the cyclical nature of existence, but you get this same depiction when you look at the usage of the words. Take, for example, the first sentence of the novel:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

Now take a look at the book’s last sentences:

End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thous-endsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given ! A way a lone a last a loved a long the

The absence of the capital “R” in the opening sentence and period at the end of the last sentence was by no means a mistake. Joyce was, after all, a meticulous editor of his own work. Let’s take a look what happens when we rearrange the above quotes so that the first sentence is placed after the last sentence:

End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thous-endsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given ! A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

The first sentence of the novel is in fact the conclusion to its last sentence. It is, in short cyclical. Every beginning leads to an end and every end leads to a beginning. Just as water runs through the River Liffey, then out to the sea, is evaporated into the clouds, and rained back down into the Liffey, so is life itself cyclical: we are born, we live, we die, we decompose into the earth, the earth brings forth new plants, these plants are eaten by herbivores, humans eat herbivores, grow strong, and then give life to new humans. (Vegetarians are no exception to this chain, by the way, for they simply cut out the herbivore section and directly eat the plants.)

The frustrating thing for many readers of the Wake is that Joyce doesn’t come right out and give us this idea. Rather, he makes us work for it. We cannot even read the book coventionally, for if we were, we just come upon words that look as though they were spelled by a three year old. When you come upon these words (i.e., “mememormee”), pronounce them aloud. “Mememormee” starts to sound an awful lot like “Me memormy,” which itself sounds an awful lot like an Irishman with a heavy dialect might say, “My memory.” Take, even the real word “Liffey”: doesn’t that sound remarkably close to “Livia”, Anna Livia Plurabelle’s middle name, who is herself a physical embodiment of the river? These word puzzles are on every page, so Joyce (and Samuel Beckett, who was Joyce’s secretary and seeing-eye writer during the creation of the Wake since Joyce was nearly blind by the time it was finished) gives us plenty to look at, pronounce, and try to figure out.

The professor of the Joyce Honors Seminar I took in college instructed us to drink at least two Guinnesses before attempting to read the Wake, and honestly, you need to be a little relaxed in order to distance your mind from any conventional reading or analysis your non-Guinnessed brain would otherwise try to apply to the book. You need to forget everything that your English teachers told you about understanding literature because in the Wake, Joyce lays down an entirely new set of rules. There is no plot and no traditional character development, but there is meaning on every page, and humor, too, though these are cloaked with portmanteau words from an estimated sixty to seventy world languages (click here for more info) and with “re-spellings” of words to reflect more realistic dialectical pronunciations. And yet, we read Finnegans Wake for the same reasons we read all literature: to embark on a journey of understanding. The only difference is that Joyce makes us solve 628 pages of verbal conundrums along the way.

[A quick note on the lack of an apostrophe in the title: even though there is an apostrophe in the title of the song that gives the Wake its title, Joyce removed it so that instead of being one man’s wake, we have the constant wake of multiple Finnegans; in this way, Finnegans Wake is about an entire world of constantly dying and reviving Finnegans–that is, us.]


The reason why Joyce is such a pervasive part of literary history is not merely because his writing style and use of the stream-of-consciousness technique happened to influence generations of writers, nor is it because he gives us an unflinching depiction of the human condition. Certainly, he is guilty of these crimes against literary tradition, but above all else, Joyce forces us to think; he requires us to be alert at all times during our reading and eschew traditional methods of literary analysis when he sees fit. But once we’ve completed a Joycean journey of cognitive peril, we receive boons greater than any we’ll ever receive upon completing other works. We get understanding, we get honesty, we get love. In short, we get life.


3 thoughts on “A Reflection on Joyce and His Works

    • Because he can, my friend, because he can. And man, does he ROCK that eye patch.

      Actually, he struggled with blindness throughout his adult life and underwent several painful operations to attempt to cure his condition, though it ultimately did not pay off. He wore the eye patch at the time of this picture because he’d just come back from one of those surgeries.

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