James Joyce

Writer and poet James Joyce lived from 1882 to 1941. Joyce is well-known for his literary works which pioneered a modernist style of writing that uses strategies such as the stream-of-consciousness. Most of Joyce’s works centred on the themes of Irish politics and Roman-Catholicism, alongside his own life experiences. 

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Table of contents

    While Joyce didn’t receive many literary awards during his life, he is now recognised as one of the greatest, most influential writers of the twentieth century.

    Modernist fiction: modernist literature emerged in the post-war world. It shifted away from the traditions of Romantic literature, which focused on the natural world and instead focused on the decline of civilisation and the inner-self.

    James Joyce’s Biography

    Joyce was born on 2 February 1882 in Dublin. He had an unpredictable childhood due to his fathers’ changing financial situation: initially, Joyce attended Clongowes Wood College, but his family withdrew him from this school as they could no longer afford the tuition fees. Between 1893 and 1898 Joyce studied at Belvedere College. At age nine, Joyce wrote the poemEt Tu, Healy’ which was printed by his father, John Joyce, and given to family and friends. In 1898 he began studying at University College Dublin, from where he graduated with a degree in modern languages in 1902.

    After graduating, Joyce started studying medicine, first attending the Catholic University Medical School in Dublin, followed by the École de Médecine in Paris. By 1903, he changed his mind and returned to Dublin after learning that his mother was dying.

    In 1904 he met Nora Barnacle, who became his lifelong companion. That year, Joyce moved to Trieste in Austria-Hungary, where he worked as an English teacher. In 1915 he moved to Switzerland and in 1916 he published his first novel: A portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

    In 1918 he started publishing chapters of Ulysses in The Little Review, an American journal. Those chapters were deemed obscene in an American court due to their depiction of sexual scenes including one where the character of Leopold Bloom masturbates on a beach after a young woman shows him her underwear. For that reason, Uylesses was not published in the United States until 1934. However, the novel was published by independent publisher Sylvia Beach in Paris in 1922.

    James Joyce, James Joyce in 1918 in Zurich, StudySmarterFig. 1 - James Joyce in 1918.

    In 1920, Joyce moved to Paris where he lived until 1940 when he returned to Zurich. In 1939, his final novel, Finnegans Wake, was published.

    In January 1941, less than one month before his 59th birthday, Joyce died following surgery for a perforated ulcer.

    Did you know? James Joyce had a total of 12 eye surgeries over his lifetime as a result of anterior uveitis, an inflammatory condition that affects the front of the eye.

    James Joyce's Contribution to Literature

    Joyce was a key contributor to the modernist avant-garde literary movement.

    Modernist avant-garde movement: a movement in modernist literature that pushed the boundaries of traditional prose and took an experimental approach to writing.

    One of Joyce’s well-known contributions to this genre is Finnegans Wake (1939). The novel is famous for being challenging to understand due to its incohesive narrative structure, use of nonce words, and sesquipedalian writing.

    Nonce words: a 'nonsense' word that is used for a single occasion.

    Sesquipedalian writing: writing which uses excessively long words that have a lot of syllables.

    Following the publication (and banning) of Ulysses (1922), Joyce achieved global fame. He even appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in January 1934. Despite his global fame, Joyce didn’t receive much recognition for his work in the form of awards. For instance, he never received a nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    We still feel Joyce’s influence today. His writing influenced other famous writers like William Faulkner (1897-1962) and Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). In 1999, the Modern Library named two of Joyce’s novels in their ranking of the 100 most notable novels of the century - Ulysses was named the most notable novel, while A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) was placed at third place.

    William Faulkner was an American novelist known for his Southern Gothic novels, including The Sound and the Fury (1929). He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1955 and 1963.

    Ernest Hemingway was an American novelist and short-story writer, most famous for his novel The Old Man and the Sea (1952). He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

    Joyce’s Writing Style

    If you read each of the books listed in this explanation in order, you’ll notice that they get more challenging to read as Joyce employs more complex narrative techniques such as mimetic narrative and stream-of-consciousness. This is because his prose is experimental; he aims to encapsulate the internal human experience of the world.

    Mimetic narrative: a narrative that 'shows' rather than 'tells'.

    Stream-of-consciousness narrative: an internal monologue that attempts to present the thought process of a character in a realistic way.

    This is particularly evident through Joyce's use of the literary device of Epiphany. The device is associated with modernist fiction and is a non-narrative genre.

    Epiphany: a moment when a sudden realisation changes a characters’ understanding of themself and the world.

    Non-narrative genre: writing which does not give an account of events.

    James Joyce, a bust of James Joyce in Dublin, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A bust of James Joyce in Dublin.

    James Joyce's Books

    Let’s study briefly Joyce’s works to discuss his writing style and the main topics of his writing.

    Dubliners (1914)

    Dubliners is a short story collection published in 1914. Joyce signed the contract for the publication of this work in 1909. While the stories don’t use the stream-of-consciousness narrative, they act as the foundation for his later work.

    These are the fifteen short stories that make up Dubliners:

    • The Sisters
    • An Encounter
    • Araby
    • Eveline
    • After the Race
    • Two Gallants
    • The Boarding House
    • A Little Cloud
    • Counterparts
    • Clay
    • A Painful Case
    • Ivy Day in the Committee Room
    • A Mother
    • Grace
    • The Dead

    The first threeThe Sisters, An Encounter, and Araby are written in the first person from the perspective of children. The rest of the stories are written in the third person and focus on the experiences of progressively older generations.

    Each of the short stories is set in Dublin following the Potato Famine which occurred in the late 1840s. The stories were written and published at a time when Irish nationalism was prominent in politics. Therefore, themes such as Irish politics, history, and culture feature heavily in them. These themes not only appear in Dubliners but can be seen across Joyce’s work.

    Elements of Joyce’s own life and his political views often appear in his work. In Dubliners, for instance, the characters of Captain and Emily Sinico in the story A Painful Case are derived from Francesco Ricardo Sinico, who was Joyce’s singing teacher for a time when he lived in Trieste.

    A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

    A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was initially published in 1914 as a serial in ‘The Egotist’, an English magazine. The novel began as a story called Stephen Hero and is largely a piece of autofiction based on Joyce’s own life.

    Autofiction: an autobiography with fictional elements.

    The novel tells the story of Stephen. The narrative begins with him as an infant but the stream-of-consciousness structure causes the narrative to jump as Stephen grows up. As readers, we are left with flashes of memory and broken stories rather than a cohesive chronological set of events. The novel follows Stephen throughout his young adult life, ending in the form of diary entries while he is studying at university.

    Besides being autobiographical, A portrait of the artist as a young man features the theme of Catholicism, touching on the death of Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–91), Irish Home Rule leader and Irish nationalist. The death of Charles Parnell was heavily debated at the time: some viewed him as a hero and martyr, and others perceived him as a villain and thought the Church was right in condemning him.

    The death of Parnell was a key turning point in Joyce’s life and encapsulates the tension between Irish nationalism and the Irish Catholic church. An argument he once had during a Christmas dinner over Parnell’s death is featured in chapter one of the novel, with the character of Mr Casey crying out ‘poor Parnell!... My dead king!’ during a debate with the character of Dante.

    Ulysses (1922)

    Ulysses is considered a parallel of Homer’s Odyssey (8th of 7th century BCE). Not only is the name Ulysses (the Latin version of Odysseus) but the chapters in Joyce’s novel correspond with the events in the Odyssey.

    The novel’s action takes place in Dublin on 16 June 1904 and covers the ‘adventures’ of three main characters: Stephen, Bloom, and Molly. The novel explores the relationships between people and their everyday lives. It also involves the themes of Catholicism and Irish Nationalist politics.

    Did you know? 16 June 1904 is also the date Joyce went on his first date with Nora Barnacle, his future wife!

    James Joyce, Picture of the first edition of Ulysses, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Picture of the first edition of Ulysses.

    Ulysses is most famous for its use of a first-person, stream-of-consciousness narrative, intended to represent human thought. This narrative choice makes Ulysses an expressionist drama, as it places emphasis on the subjective emotional experiences of the characters instead of objective events in the external world.

    Finnegans Wake (1939)

    Joyce began this work in 1923, 16 years before its publication. Extracts of the novel were published between 1928 and 1937. The novel is highly experimental, beginning and ending with the first half of the novel’s first sentence - yes, the novel ends at its beginning! This experimental style underpins the modernist style of Joyce’s work.

    In this novel, real-world events blend with a fantastical dream world, making the plot challenging to follow. While the same characters feature in the real world and dreamworld, their names change.

    Mr and Mrs Porter are introduced at the novel's beginning, alongside their children Isobel, Kevin, and Jerry. However, in the dream world all of their names other than 'Isobel' change. For instance, Mrs Porter becomes Anna Livia Plurabelle. This blending of fantasy and reality highlights the theme of the unconscious sublime in the novel.

    While at first, the book may appear random and baffling, Joyce carefully constructed a piece that encapsulates the world of our subconsciousness.

    The themes of familial relationships and religion (Christianism and Hinduism) feature heavily in this work. For example, at the opening, the character of Finnegan, a dead man, resurrects just as Jesus Christ does in the Bible. And at the closing, the mother (Anna Livia Plurabelle) turns into a river (rivers are important symbols in Hinduism. The majority of rivers in India have the names of Hindu deities such as the rivers Saraswathi, Ganga and Krishna).

    James Joyce’s Poems

    Alongside his novels, James Joyce also wrote a number of poems on several themes. During his lifetime, Joyce published two poetry collections: Chamber Music (1907) and Pomes Penyeach (1927).

    One theme which appears in his poetry is familial and paternal love. For example, On the Beach at Fontana (1917) centres on Joyce's paternal love for his son Giorgic, and the need to protect him from the dangers of life. A Flower Given To My Daughter(1931) touches on Joyce’s relationship with his eldest child, Lucia, and his need to also protect her from the world.

    Joyce also touches upon his own life experiences in his poetry.

    In ‘Gas from a Burner’ (1912) Joyce targets John Falcone, who destroyed the printed sheets of his short story collection Dubliners after Maunsel & Co. rejected the collection.

    Key themes in James Joyce’s works

    Let’s discuss in more depth some of the main themes in Joyce’s works.

    The Church and Religion

    Joyce had a complicated relationship with Catholicism, which is clearly displayed in his work. Early in his life, he moved away from the Roman Catholic church. During his mother's final days she tried to get him to take communion and confess, which he refused to do.

    Joyce’s work was heavily influenced by the Catholic faith. For instance, Stephen, the protagonist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses’, chooses to exile himself from his home of Ireland after becoming disenchanted with Irish society and the dominance of Catholic values.

    Religion influences both the structure and the content of Joyce’s writing. For example, Ulysses employs catechism in the ‘Ithaca’ episode.

    Catechism: a type of religious instruction which summarises the doctrine of the religion for new members.

    While the use of catechism in Ulysses doesn’t relate directly to the Church in the context of the novel, it highlights how Joyce’s religious upbringing influenced his work. Joyce not only directly addresses religious debates in his writing, but he also employs techniques that relate to religious institutions.

    Dublin and Irish Politics

    Even though James Joyce wrote most of his work while living outside of Ireland, the majority of his work and its fictional settings centre around Dublin, its history, and its culture.

    Dubliners, as noted, is a set of short stories centring on Irish history and culture, particularly in the context of the Potato famine. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man touches on aspects of Joyce’s own life and personal experiences with the sectarian conflict in early twentieth-century Ireland, and Irish national politics, particularly the effect of British colonial rule over Ireland.

    For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal. 1

    Some facts about James Joyce

    • In 1909 Joyce opened the first movie theatre in Dublin, with the help of European investors. It was called Cinematograph Volta.

    • Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill (1874-1965) were two of the first people to buy Joyce’s Ulysses when it was published in the UK.

    • When given the choice in 1935, Joyce renewed his British passport rather than obtaining an Irish one. This was due to the travel benefits of a British passport more than Joyce’s own politics.

    Famous James Joyce Quotes

    Ulysses (1922), Episode Two: ‘Nestor’.

    History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

    This quote from Episode Two of Ulysses encapsulates the influence of history and politics on Joyce's work.

    In Episode Two, Stephen converses with Mr. Deasy, the headmaster of the school where he teaches. Stephen debates the history of Ireland with Deasy, evading Deasy's attempts to talk down to him, and persuade him to agree with his religious conception of history.

    During their debate, Deasy presents the anti-semitic view that ‘England is in the hands of the jews’ and that ‘jew merchants are already at their work of destruction’. Deasy attempts to justify or erase the violence and persecution faced by the Jewish people by highlighting how they are not of the Catholic faith. The bigoted nature of Deasy's argument is made clear in Stephen's response that ‘A merchant... is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?’.

    Stephen’s claim that ‘history is a nightmare’ later in the episode continues his earlier opposition to Deasy's attempts to exclude the Jewish people from the history of violence. Alongside it's role in the context of the episode this quote underpins the violent nature of Irish history and Stephen's own attempts on hopes to escape from his own history and upbringing.

    A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Chapter One.

    His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face. He was a baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

    O, the wild rose blossoms On the little green place.

    He sang that song. That was his song.

    Here we see an strong example of Joyce's stream-of-consciousness style of writing. At the opening of A Portrait of an Artist the character of Stephen is a child. The use of stream-of-consciousness narrative here portrays Stephen's infant consciousness, and the memories it has retained. The repetition of ‘his father’ followed by the recognition that his father ‘had a hairy face’, creates the idea that Stephen is slowly recognising and realising things about the world around him. Thus, at the opening of the novel, a stream-of-consciousness narrative provides the reader with a unique insight into the inner-mind of Stephen even before he is old enough to talk or write.

    Dubliners (1914), ‘An Encounter’.

    I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.

    In Dubliners, numerous characters steadily become disheartened by the pursuit of their aspirations. In ‘An Encounter’ the narrator longs for ‘real adventures’ outside the Catholic School which he feels under-stimulated by. The narrator's need to escape from his existence is evident in the reflection that he has to leave the home.

    James Joyce - Key Takeaways

    • James Joyce lived from 1882 to 1941.
    • Joyce's books centred on the themes of Irish politics and Roman Catholicism.
    • Joyce was a key contributor to the modernist avant-garde movement.
    • Many of Joyce's works are examples of autofiction, as his own life experiences influenced his writing.
    • Some of Joyce's most famous works are Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939).


    1 Fintan O'Toole, 'Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1922 – Ulysses, by James Joyce', The Irish Times, 2014.


    1. Fig. 2 - James Joyce's bust at St Stephen's Green in Dublin, Ireland (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_Joyce%27s_bust_at_St_Stephen%27s_Green_in_Dublin,_Ireland..JPG) by Osama Shukir Muhammad Amin (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Neuroforever) is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 3 - James Joyce Ulysses 1st Edition 1922 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_Joyce_Ulysses_1st_Edition_1922_GB.jpg) by Geoffrey Barker is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about James Joyce

    What styles and techniques does James Joyce use?

    Joyce is most known for his use of stream-of-consciousness style which uses techniques such as nonce words and sesquipedalian writing. This style can sometimes cause Joyce’s work to be challenging to understand as it's almost as if you’re seeing the world through the subconscious mind of someone else.

     What is James Joyce most famous for?

    Joyce achieved global fame following the banning of Ulysses (1922) in the United States due to obscene content. 

    How did James Joyce die?

    In January 1941, less than one month before his 59th birthday, Joyce died following surgery for a perforated ulcer.

    Why did James Joyce wear an eyepatch?

    As a result of his anterior uveitis, Joyce had many issues with vision which led to him having to wear an eye-patch for many years. 

    Where was James Joyce born?

    James Joyce was born in Dublin, Ireland

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which technique is James Joyce not famous for using?

    James Joyce won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    When was Dubliners published?


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