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James Joyce was born on February 2, 1882, in Dublin, Ireland, into a Catholic middle-class family that would soon become poverty-stricken. Joyce went to Jesuit schools, followed by University College, Dublin, where he began publishing essays. After graduating in 1902, Joyce went to Paris with the intention of attending medical school. Soon afterward, however, he abandoned medical studies and devoted all of his time to writing poetry, stories, and theories of aesthetics. Joyce returned to Dublin the following year when his mother died. He stayed in Dublin for another year, during which time he met his future wife, Nora Barnacle. At this time, Joyce also began work on an autobiographical novel called Stephen Hero. Joyce eventually gave up on Stephen Hero, but reworked much of the material into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which features the same autobiographical protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and tells the story of Joyce’s youth up to his 1902 departure for Paris.
Nora and Joyce left Dublin again in 1904, this time for good. They spent most of the next eleven years living in Rome and Trieste, Italy, where Joyce taught English and he and Nora had two children, Giorgio and Lucia. In 1907 Joyce’s first book of poems, Chamber Music, was published in London. He published his book of short stories, Dubliners, in 1914, the same year he published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in serial installments in the London journal The Egoist.
Joyce began writing Ulysses in 1914, and when World War I broke out he moved his family to Zurich, Switzerland, where he continued work on the novel. In Zurich, Joyce’s fortunes finally improved as his talent attracted several wealthy patrons, including Harriet Shaw Weaver. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published in book form in 1916, and Joyce’s play, Exiles, in 1918. Also in 1918, the first episodes of Ulysses were published in serial form in The Little Review. In 1919, the Joyces moved to Paris, where Ulysses was published in book form in 1922. In 1923, with his eyesight quickly diminishing, Joyce began working on what became Finnegans Wake, published in 1939. Joyce died in 1941.
Joyce first conceived of Ulysses as a short story to be included in Dubliners, but decided instead to publish it as a long novel, situated as a sort of sequel to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ulysses picks up Stephen Dedalus’s life more than a year after where A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man leaves off. The novel introduces two new main characters, Leopold and Molly Bloom, and takes place on a single day, June 16, 1904, in Dublin.
Ulysses strives to achieve a kind of realism unlike that of any novel before it by rendering the thoughts and actions of its main characters— both trivial and significant—in a scattered and fragmented form similar to the way thoughts, perceptions, and memories actually appear in our minds. In Dubliners, Joyce had tried to give his stories a heightened sense of realism by incorporating real people and places into them, and he pursues the same strategy on a massive scale in Ulysses. At the same time that Ulysses presents itself as a realistic novel, it also works on a mythic level, by way of a series of parallels with Homer’s The Odyssey. Stephen, Bloom, and Molly correspond respectively to Telemachus, Ulysses, and Penelope, and each of the eighteen episodes of the novel corresponds to an adventure from the The Odyssey.
Ulysses has become particularly famous for Joyce’s stylistic innovations. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce first attempted the technique of interior monologue, or stream-of-consciousness. He also experimented with shifting style—the narrative voice of Portrait changes stylistically as Stephen matures. In Ulysses, Joyce uses interior monologue extensively, and instead of employing one narrative voice, Joyce radically shifts narrative style with each new episode of the novel.
Joyce’s early work reveals the stylistic influence of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Joyce began reading Ibsen as a young man; his first publication was an article about a play of Ibsen’s, which earned him a letter of appreciation from Ibsen himself. Ibsen’s plays provided the young Joyce with a model of the realistic depiction of individuals stifled by conventional moral values. Joyce imitated Ibsen’s naturalistic brand of realism in Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and especially in his play Exiles. Ulysses maintains Joyce’s concern with realism but also introduces stylistic innovations similar to those of his Modernist contemporaries. Ulysses’s multivoiced narration, textual self-consciousness, mythic framework, and thematic focus on life in a modern metropolis situate it close to other main texts of the Modernist movement, such as T. S. Eliot’s mythic poem The Waste Land (also published in 1922) or Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925).
Though never working in collaboration, Joyce maintained correspondences with other Modernist writers, including Samuel Beckett, and Ezra Pound, who helped find him a patron and an income. Joyce’s final work, Finnegans Wake, is often seen as bridging the gap between Modernism and postmodernism. A novel only in the loosest sense, Finnegans Wake looks forward to postmodern texts in its playful celebration (rather than lamentation) of the fragmentation of experience and the decentered nature of identity, as well as its attention to the nontransparent qualities of language.
Like Eliot and many other Modernist writers, Joyce wrote in self-imposed exile in cosmopolitan Europe. In spite of this fact, all of his work is strongly tied to Irish political and cultural history, and Ulysses must also be seen in an Irish context. Joyce’s novel was written during the years of the Irish bid for independence from Britain. After a bloody civil war, the Irish Free State was officially formed—during the same year that Ulysses was published. Even in 1904, Ireland had experienced the failure of several home rule bills that would have granted the island a measure of political independence within Great Britain. The failure of these bills is linked to the downfall of the Irish member of Parliament, Charles Stewart Parnell, who was once referred to as “Ireland’s Uncrowned King,” and was publicly persecuted by the Irish church and people in 1889 for conducting a long-term affair with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea. Joyce saw this persecution as an hypocritical betrayal by the Irish that ruined Ireland’s chances for a peaceful independence.
Accordingly, Ulysses depicts the Irish citizens of 1904, especially Stephen Dedalus, as involved in tangled conceptions of their own Irishness, and complex relationships with various authorities and institutions specific to their time and place: the British Empire, Irish Nationalism, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Irish Literary Revival.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Ulysses!