Vanity Fea

James Joyce

From the Norton Anthology of English Literature 

James Joyce was born in Dublin, son of a talented but feckless father who is accurately described by Stephen
joyceDedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man as a man who had in his time been "a medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a tax-gatherer, a bankrupt, and at present a praiser of his own past." The elder Joyce drifted steadily down the financial and social scale, his family moving from house to house, each one less genteel and more shabby than the previous. James Joyce’s whole education was Catholic, from the age of six to the age of nine at Clongowes Wood College and from eleven to sixteen at Belvedere College, Dublin. Both were Jesuit institutions and were norJoymal roads to the priesthood. He then studied modern languages at University College, Dublin.

From a comparatively early age Joyce regarded himself as a rebel against the shabbiness and Philistinism of Dublin. In his early youth he was very religious, but in his last year at Belvedere he began to reject his Catholic faith in favor of a literary mission that he saw as involving rebellion and exile. He refused to play any part in the nationalist or other popular activities of his fellow students, and he created some stir by his outspoken articles, one of which, on the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, appeared in the Fortnightly Review for April 1900. He taught himself Norwegian to be able to read Ibsen and to write to him. When an article by Joyce, significantlytitled The Day of the Rabblement, was refused, on instructions of the faculty adviser, by the student magazine that had commissioned it, he had it printed privately. By 1902, when he received his A.B. degree, he was already committed to a career as an exile and writer. For Joyce, as for his character Stephen Dedalus, the latter implied the former. To preserve his integrity, to avoid involvement in popular sentimentalities and dishonesties, and above all to be able to re-create with both total understanding and total objectivity the Dublin life he knew so well, he felt that he had to go abroad.

Joyce was sent to Paris after graduation, was recalled to Dublin by his mother’s fatal illness, had a short spell there as a schoolteacher, then returned to the Continent in 1904 to teach English at Trieste and then at Zurich. He took with him Nora Barnacle, an uneducated Galway girl with no interest in literature; her native vivacity and peasant wit charmed Joyce, and the two lived in devoted companionship until Joyce’s death, although they were not married until 1931. In 1920 Joyce settled in Paris, where he lived until December 1940, when the war forced him to take refuge in Switzerland; he died in Zurich a few weeks later.

Proud, obstinate, absolutely convinced of his genius, given to fits of sudden gaiety and of sudden silence, Joyce was not always an easy person to get along with, yet he never lacked friends, and throughout his thirty-six years on the Continent he was always the center of a literary circle. Life was hard at first. At Trieste he had very little money, and he did not improve matters by drinking heavily, a habit checked somewhat by his brother Stanislaus, who came out from Dublin to act (as Stanislaus put it much later) as his "brother’s keeper." His finantial position was much improved by the patronage of Mrs. Harold McCormick (Edith Rockefeller), who provided him with a monthly stipend from March 1917 until September 1919, when they quarreled, apparently because Joyce refused to submit to psychoanalysis by Carl Jung, who had been heavily endowed by her. The New York lawyer and art patron John Quinn, steered in Joyce’s direction by Ezra Pound, also helped Joyce financially in 1917. A more permanent benefactor was the English feminist and editor Harriet Shaw Weaver, who not only subsidized Joyce generously from 1917 to the end of his life but occupied herself indefatigably with arrangements for publishing his work.

Joyce’s almost lifelong exile from his native Ireland had something paradoxical about it. No writer has ever been more soaked in Dublin, its atmosphere, its history, its topography; in spite of doing most of his writing from Trieste, Zurich, and Paris, he wrote only and always about Dublin. He devised ways of expanding his accounts of Dublin, however, so that they became microcosmos, small-scale models, of all human life, of all history, and of all geography. Indeed that was his life’s work: to write about Dublin in such a way that he was writing about all of human experience.

Joyce began his career by writing a series of stories etching with extraordinary clarity aspects of Dublin life. But these stories—published as Dubliners in 1914—are more than sharp realistic sketches. In each, the detail is so chosen and organized that carefully interacting symbolic meanings are set up, and as a result, Dubliners is a book about human fate as well as a series of sketches of Dublin. Furthermore, the stories are presented in a particular order so that new meanings arise from the relation between them.

Tha last story in Dubliners, The Dead, was not part of the original draft of the book but was added later, at a time when Joyce was preoccupied with the nature of artistic objectivity.  A series of jolting events frees the protagonist, Gabriel, from his possessiveness and egotism; the view he attains at the end is the mood of supreme neutrality that Joyce saw as the beginning of artistic awareness. It is the view of art developed by Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Dubliners represents Joyce’s first phase: he had come directly to terms with the meaning of his own developement as a man dedicated to writing. He did this by weaving his autobiography into a novel so finely chiseled and carefully organized, so stripped of everything superfluous, that each word contributes to the presentation of the theme: the parallel movement toward art and toward exile. A part of Joyce’s first draft has been posthumously published under the original title of Stephen Hero (1944); a comparison between it and the final version that Joyce gave to the world, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), will show how carefully Joyce reworked and compressed his material for maximum effect. The Portrait is not literally true as autobiography, although it has many autobiographical elements, but it is representatively true not only of Joyce but of the relation between the artist and society in the early twentieth century.

In the Portrait Stephen worked out a theory of art that considers that art moves from the lyrical form—which is the simplest, the personal expression of an instant of emotion—through the narrative form—no longer purely personal—to the dramatic—the highest and most nearly perfect form, where "the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." This view of art, which invokes the objectivity, even the exile, of the artist (even though the artist uses only the materials provided for him or her by his or her own life), is related to that held by the poets of the 1890s. More widely, it is related to the rejection by the artist of the ordinary world of middle-class values and activities that we see equally, tough in different ways, in Matthew Arnold’s war against the Philistines and in the concept (very un-Arnoldian) of the artist as bohemian. Joyce’s career belongs to that long chapter in the history of the arts in Western civilization that begins with the artist’s declaring independence and ends with his or her feeling inevitable alienation. But if Joyce was alienated, as in certain ways he clearly was, he made his alienation serve his art: the kinds of writing represented by Ulysses and Finnegans Wake represent the most consummate craftsmanship put at the service of a humanely comic vision of all life. Some of Joyce’s innovations in organization and style have been imitated by other writers, but these books are, and will probably remain, unique in our literature.

From the beginning, Joyce had trouble with the Philistines. Publication of Dubliners was held up for many years while he fougth with both English and Irish publishers about certain words and phrases that they wished to eliminate. (It was one of the former who finally published the book). His masterpiece Ulysses was banned in both Britain and America on its first appearance in 1922; its earlier serialization in an American magazine, The Little Review (March 1918-December 1920) had had to stop abruptly when the U.S. Post Office brought a charge of obscenity against it. Fortunately, Judge Woolsey’s history-making decision in favour of Ulysses in a U.S. district court on December 6, 1933, resulted in the lifting of the ban and the free circulation of the work first in America and soon afterward in Britain.


Ulysses is an account of one day in the lives of citizens of Dublin in the year 1904; it is thus the description of a limited number of events involving a limited number of people in a limited environment. Yet Joyce’s ambition—which took him seven years to realize—is to make his action into a microcosm of all human experience. The events are not, therefore, told on a single level; the story is presented in such a manner that depth and implication are given to them and they become symbolic of the activity of the individual in the World. The most obvious of the devices that Joyce employs to make clear the microcosmic aspect of his story is the parallel with Homer’s Odyssey: every episode in Ulysses corresponds in some way to an episode in the Odyssey. Joyce regarded Homer’s Ulysses as the most "complete" man in literature, a man who is shown in all his aspects—both coward and hero, cautious and reckless, weak and strong, husband and philanderer, father and son, dignified and ridiculous; so he makes his hero, Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew, into a modern Ulysses and by so doing helps make him Everyman and make Dublin the world.

The book opens at eight o’clock on the morning of June 16, 1904. Stephen Dedalus (the same character we saw in the Portrait, but this is two years after our last glimpse of him there) had been summoned back to Dublin by his mother’s fatal illness and now lives in an old military tower on the shore with Buck Mulligan, a rollicking medical student, and and Englishman called Haines. In the first three episodes of Ulysses, which concentrate on Stephen, he is built up as an aloof, uncompromising artist, rejecting all advances by representatives of the normal world, the incomplete man, to be contrasted later with the complete Leopold Bloom, who is much more "normal" and conciliatory. After tracing Stephen through his early-morning activitites and learning the main currents of his mind, we go, in the fourth episode, to the home of Bloom. We follow closely his every activity: attending a funeral, transacting his business, eating his lunch, walking thorugh the Dublin streets, worrying about his wife’s infidelity with Blazes Boylan—and at each point the contents of his mind, including retrospect and anticipation, are presented to the reader, until all his past history is revealed. Finally, Bloom and Stephen, who have been just missing each other all day, get together. By this time it is late, and Stephen, who has been drinking with some medical students, is the worse for liquor. Bloom, moved by a paternal feeling toward Stephen (his own son had died in infancy and in a symbolic way Stephen takes his place), follows him during subsequent adventures in the role of protector. The climax of the book comes when Stephen, far gone in drink, and Bloom, worn out with fatigue, succumb to a series of hallucinations where their subconscious and unconscious come to the surface in dramatic form and their whole personalities are revealed with a completeness and a frankness unique in literature. Then Bloom takes the unresponsive Stephen home and gives him a meal. After Stephen’s departure Bloom retires to bed—it is now two in the morning on June 17—while his wife, Molly, representing the principles of sex and reproduction on which all human life is based, closes the book with a long monologue in which her experiences as woman are remembered.

On the level of realistic description, Ulysses pulses with life and can be enjoyed for its evocation of early twentieth-century Dublin. On the level of psychological exploration, it gives a profound and moving presentation of the personality and consciousness of Leopold Bloom and (to a lessere extent) Stephen Dedalus. On the level of style, it exhibits the most fascinating linguistic virtuosity. On a deeper symbolic level, the novel explores the paradoxes of human loneliness and sociability (for Bloom is both Jew and Dubliner, both exile and citizen, just as all of us are in a sense bothe exiles and citizens), and it explores the problems posed by the relations between parent and child, between the generations, and between the sexes. At the same time, through its use of themes from Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare and from literature, philosophy, and history, the book weaves a subtle pattern of allusion and suggestion that illuminates many aspects of human experience. The more one reads Ulysses, the more one finds in it, but at the same tiem one does not need to probe into the symbolic meaning to relish both its literary artistry and its human feeling. At the forefront stands Leopold Bloom, from one point of view, a frustrated and confused outsider in the society in which he moves, from another, a champion of kindness and justice whose humane curiosity about his fellows redeems him from mere vulgarity and gives the book its positive human foundation.

Readers who come to Ulysses with expectations about the way the story is to be presented derived from their reading of Victorian novels or even of such twentieth-century novelists as Conrad and Lawrence will find much that is at first puzzling. Joyce presents the consciousness of his characters directly, without any explanatory comment that tells the reader whose consciousness is being rendered (this is the stream of consciousness method). He may move, in the same paragraph and without any sign that he is making such a transition, from a description of a character’s action—e.g. Stephen walking along the shore or Bloom entering a restaurant—to an evocation of the character’s mental response to that action. That response is always multiple: it derives partly from the character’s immediate situation and partly fro the whole complex of attitudes that his past history has created in him. To suggest this multiplicity, Joyce may vary his style, from the flippant to the serious or from a realistic description to a suggestive set of images that indicate what might be called the general tone of the character’s consciousness. Past and present mingle in the texture of the prose because they mingle in the texture of consciousness, and this mingling can be indicated by puns, by sudden breaks into a new kind of style or a new kind of subject matter, or by some other device for keeping the reader constantly in sight of the shifting, kaleidoscopic nature of human awareness. With a little experience, the reader learns to follow the implications of Joyce’s shifts in manner and content—even to follow that at first sight bewildering passage in the "Proteus" episode in which Stephen does not go to visit his uncle and aunt but, passing the road that leads to their house, imagines the kind of conversation that would take place in his home if he had gone to visit his uncle and had then returned home and reported that he had done so. Ulysses must not be approached as though it were a novel written in a traditional manner; all preconceptions must be set aside and we must follow wherever the author leads us and let the language tell us what it has to say without our troubling whether language is being used "properly" or not.

Finnegans Wake

Joyce’s last work, Finnegans Wake, was published in 1939; it took more than fourteen years to write, and Joyce considered it his masterpiece. In Ulysses he had made the symbolic aspect of the novel at least as important as the realistic aspect, but in Finnegas Wake he gave up realism altogether. This vast story of a symbolic Irishman’s cosmic dream develops by enormous reverberating puns a continuous expansion of meaning, the elements in the puns deriving from every conceivable source in history, literature, mythology, and Joyce’s personal experience. The whole book being (on one level at least) a dream, Joyce invents his own dream language in which words are combined, distorted, created by fitting together bits of other words, used with several different meanings at once, often drawn from several different languages at once, and fused in all sorts of ways to achieve whole clusters of meaning simultaneously. In fact, so many echoing suggestions can be found in every word or phrase that a full annotation of even a few pages would require a large book. It has taken the cooperative work of a number of devoted readers to make clear the complex interactions of the multiple puns and pun clusters, through which the ideas are projected, and every rereading reveals new meanings. It is true that many readers find the efforts of explication demanded by Finnegans Wake too arduous; some, indeed, feel that the law of diminishing returns has now begun to operate, and that the effort of both author and reader is disproportionate. Nevertheless, the book has great beauty and fascination even for the casual reader. Students are advised to read aloud—or to listen to the record of Joyce reading aloud—the extract printed here to appreciate the degree to which the rhythms of the prose assist in conveying the meaning.

To an even greater extent than Ulysses, Finnegans Wake aims at embracing all of human history. The title is from an Irish-American ballad about Tom Finnegan,  a hod carrier who falls off a ladder when drunk and is apparently killed, but who revives when during the wake (the watch by the dead body) someone spills whiskey on him. The theme of death and resurrection, of cycles of change coming round in the course of history, is central to Finnegans Wake, which derives one of its main principles of organization from the cyclical theory of history put forward in 1725 by the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico. Vico held that history passes through four phases: the divine or theocratic, when people are governed by their awe of the supernatural; the aristocratic (the "heroic age" reflected in Homer and in Beowulf); the democratic and individualistic; and the final stage of chaos, a fall in into confusion startles humanity back into supernatural reverence and starts the process once again. Joyce, like Yeats, saw his own generation as the final stage awaiting the shock that will bring humans back to the first.

A mere account of the narrative line of Finnegans Wake cannot, of course, give any idea of the content of the work. If one explains that it opens with Finnegan’s fall, then introduces his successor Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, who is Everyman, and whose dream constitutes the neovel, that he is presented as having guilt feelings about an indecency he committed (or may have committed) at Phoenix Park, Dublin; that his wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle or ALP (who is also Eve, Iseult, Ireland, the river Liffey), changes her role just as he does; that he has two sons, Shem and Shaun (or Jerry and Kevin), who represent introvert and extrovert, artist and practical man, creator and popularizer, and symbolize this basic dichotomy in human nature by all kinds of metarmorphoses; and if one adds that, in the four books into which Finnegans Wake is divided (after Vico’s pattern), actions comic or grotesque or sad or tender or desperate or passionate or terribly ordinary (and very often several of these things at the same time) take place with all the shifting meanings of a dream, so that characters change into others or into inanimate objects and the setting keeps shifting—if we explain all this, we still have said very little about what makes Finnegans Wake what it is. The dreamer, whose initials HCE indicate his universality ("Here Comes Everybody"), is at the same time a particular person, who keeps a pub at Chapelizod, a Dublin suburb on the river Liffey near Phoenix Park. His mysterious misdemeanor in Phoenix Park is in a sense Original Sin: Earwicker is Adam as well as a primeval giant, the Hill of Howth, the Great Parent ("Haveth Childers Everywhere" is another expansion of HCE), and Man in History. Other characters who flit and change through the book, such as the Twelve Customers (who are also twelve jurymen and public opinion) and the Four Old Men (who are also judges, the authors of the four Gospels, and the four elements), help weave the texture of multiple significance so characteristic of the work. But always it is the punning language, extending significance downward—rather than the plot, developing it lengthwise—that bears the main load of meaning.


James Joyce: The Trials of ULYSSES:


The Internet Ulysses

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