James Joyce. Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos.
James Joyce.
Reproduced by permission of
AP/Wide World Photos

James Joyce

Born: February 2, 1882
Rathgar, Ireland
Died: January 13, 1941
Zurich, Switzerland

Irish author

James Joyce was an Irish author who experimented with ways to use language, symbolism (having one thing to stand for another), interior monologue (characters talking to themselves), and stream of consciousness (the uninterrupted, continuous flow of a character's thoughts).

Early years

James Joyce was born on February 2, 1882, in Rathgar, Ireland, a suburb of Dublin, Ireland. His father had several jobs including a position as tax collector for the city of Dublin. His mother, Mary Jane Murray Joyce, was a gifted piano player. James's father was not very successful, and the family had to move fourteen times from the time James was born until he left Ireland.

Joyce was educated entirely in Jesuit (a Catholic religious order) schools in Ireland. He did very well in the study of philosophy (the study of humans and their relationship to the universe) and languages. After his graduation in 1902, he left Ireland for the rest of his life. After that he lived in Trieste, Italy; Zurich, Switzerland; and Paris, France, with his wife and two children.

Early fiction

Most of Joyce's fiction is autobiographical, that is, it is based on his own life experiences. Even though he left his native country, his work is based mainly on Ireland, family, and Roman Catholicism.

Joyce's Dubliners is a collection of fifteen short stories. He finished writing the work in 1904, but it could not be published until ten years later because the British government thought it contained things that offended the king. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916, is a semi-autobiographical (based on the author's own life) novel of adolescence (the teenage years). It is the story of Stephen Dedalus, a young writer who rebels against the surroundings of his youth. He rejects his father, family, and religion, and, like Joyce, decides at the novel's close to leave Ireland. His name comes from Greek mythology (stories that tell of gods or explain natural occurrences). In the myth Dedalus made a maze to hold the Minotaur (a monster that was half man and half bull). He was jailed in the labyrinth with his son, Icarus. In order to escape, he made wings of feathers and wax, but Icarus flew too near the sun, which melted the wax causing him to die when he plunged into the sea. For Joyce and others after him, Stephen Dedalus became a symbol for all artists. Stephen appears again in Ulysses, perhaps Joyce's most respected novel.


Joyce published Ulysses in 1922. Many consider it Joyce's most mature work. It is patterned after Homer's Odyssey. Homer was a Greek poet who produced his works around 850 B.C.E. Each of the eighteen chapters is related to a part of the original Greek epic (long poem that tells a heroic story), but there are other sources, too. The action takes place in a single day, June 16, 1904. It tells the story of Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly, and Stephen Dedalus, and how the actions of each person touches the others during that day. Ulysses is considered one of the most important books in the development of the modern novel. To tell this story, Joyce used what he called the stream of consciousness. Using this technique Joyce permits the reader to enter the consciousness (thoughts) of his characters, listen to parts of conversations, experience what the characters feel, and relive their memories.

Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake is the most difficult of all of Joyce's works to understand. It was published in 1939. The novel has no real plot. Instead, it relies upon sound, rhythm of language, and puns (word jokes). These parts create a surface and the meanings are under that surface. Most people consider Finnegans Wake to be a novel, but others have called it a poem. The novel was not well-received, and Joyce relied on the help of friends for financial assistance after it was published.

Late life

Joyce knew his family was not safe in France when it was taken over by the Germans during World War II (1939–45; a war in which Germany, Japan, and Italy fought against France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States). He borrowed money and fled to Switzerland with his family. Joyce died in Zurich, Switzerland, on January 13, 1941. He is considered one of the most important novelists of the twentieth century.

The modern novel owes much to James Joyce. His understanding of philosophy, theology (religious studies), and foreign languages enabled him to use the English language in exciting new ways. His novel Ulysses was brought to trial on charges of obscenity (being offensive) in the United States, but Joyce was found innocent. This marked a breakthrough on how subject matter and language could be used in the modern English novel.

For More Information

Anderson, Chester G. James Joyce and His World. London: Thames & Hudson, 1967.

Beja, Morris. James Joyce: A Literary Life. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992.

Burgess, Anthony. Re Joyce. New York: Norton, 1965.

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

O'Brien, Edna. James Joyce. New York: Viking Penguin, 1999.

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