James Joyce Biography


Early Childhood

James Augustine (incorrectly registered as "Augusta") Joyce was born on February 2, 1882, in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar, Ireland. Son of a dutiful mother and a charming but improvident father, Joyce was the oldest of ten surviving children; five others died in infancy. One critic has remarked, in jest, that the large number of children in the Joyce household was surpassed only by the enormous number of debts which Joyce's father incurred. Despite the family's continuous financial instability, however, Joyce's father was aware of his son's exceptional talents, and he arranged for Joyce to attend two of Ireland's most prestigious educational institutions, thereby providing his son with a solid, impressive education.


In September of 1888, Joyce began his studies at a Jesuit boarding school for boys, Clongowes Wood College. At first, he suffered from vague maladies; he felt tormented and isolated from the other boys. After a period of adjustment, both his health and his attitude improved, and soon, in spite of an occasional need of discipline by his Jesuit teachers, Joyce began to impress the Clongowes faculty with his keen memory, musical talent, and athletic ability.

Joyce returned home for his first Christmas vacation from Clongowes and found his family in turmoil because of the death of Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Nationalist Party. Parnell, formerly an indomitable and respected politician, had recently suffered the decline of his career as a result of his romantic involvement with a married woman, Kitty O'Shea; this highly publicized, scandalous affair resulted in his political downfall, and a year later, fervently attempting to build up a new independent party, he died of exhaustion. He was only forty-five years old.

Parnell's downfall and his subsequent death were important in Joyce's life not only because they made him aware of the disparity between Church and State in Ireland, but also because they created within the mind of a boy who had admired Parnell's heroism a fear that Ireland would always destroy its own prophets. The effect of this revelation on nine-year-old Joyce is clearly evident in "Et Tu, Healy," a poem he wrote and distributed to friends, denouncing the man who was partly responsible for Parnell's undoing.

The fall of Parnell seemed to herald yet another decline in the Joyce family fortune, and it was not long until financial reversals and a series of domestic moves made it impossible for Joyce to return to Clongowes Wood. Nonetheless, in 1893, through his father's contacts, Joyce was able to enroll in an equally prestigious day school, Belvedere College. Joyce attended school there until he was sixteen, distinguishing himself as a school leader, thespian, and award-winning essayist, whose poems and essays were published in the school magazine.

For the most part, Joyce's school years seem idyllic, but two significant events occurred when he was fourteen which helped shape the boy's spiritual and creative future. First, Joyce was admitted to, and later became the prefect of, the school's Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and second, he had his first sexual experience — with a Dublin prostitute; this paradoxical turn of events occurred within just a few weeks of each other. (Joyce's attempts to reconcile the trinity of women, sex, and creativity are woven throughout his works.) Two years later, Joyce entered University College in Dublin.

Advanced Education

Although University College was known as a Jesuit institution, the emphasis on religious instruction had recently been deemphasized in order to please the emerging taste for the classics. This emphasis on humanistic studies, coupled with Joyce's mature changes in temperament, enabled him to depart from religious study almost entirely; he preferred to pursue a growing interest in the myths which Wagner used for his operas. He was also fascinated by the dramas of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.

This latter interest was not shared by the conservative members of the faculty. In fact, Joyce received considerable criticism for an essay which he delivered before the college's Literary and Historical Society, denouncing Greek and Shakespearean drama in favor of the works of more modern playwrights, such as Ibsen. Undaunted by the attacks on his aesthetic opinions, Joyce further asserted himself by revising his presentation into an essay entitled "Ibsen's New Drama," which appeared in the Fortnightly Review in 1900.

Throughout the remainder of Joyce's university years, he continued to take issue with popular artistic tastes. Intolerant of the emerging Irish Theater Movement, which he believed was producing offensive provincial dramas, he wrote a scathing article, "The Day of the Rabblement," in which he encouraged people to reject the paltry works of Irish dramatists and explore the works of great beauty and truth which were being produced by new European writers.

Joyce departed from University College on December 1, 1902, and traveled to Paris, where he hoped to begin a medical career and continue his writing. He soon fell behind in his studies and fell even further behind in his finances. Luckily, some of these pressures were alleviated with the help of a recent acquaintance, Lady Augusta Gregory, and a fortuitous friendship with William Butler Yeats. Both Gregory and Yeats provided Joyce with encouragement and contacts which enabled him to write reviews for Dublin's Daily Express.

Originally, Joyce had hoped to stay in Paris for several years, but in April 1903, his father sent him an urgent cable concerning Joyce's mother's failing health. Joyce returned to Dublin and learned that his mother had been diagnosed as dying of cirrhosis of the liver; ironically, Joyce began spending most of his time drinking and carousing with medical students. His mother finally succumbed to cancer on August 13, 1903; she was forty-four.

The Creative Years

During the months following Mrs. Joyce's death, the household was in continuous turmoil. Joyce, however, withdrew from family problems, and on January 7, 1904, he sat down to write a piece for Dana, a new intellectual journal. He composed a lengthy autobiographical, satirical piece which, at his brother Stanislaus' suggestion, he entitled "A Portrait of the Artist."

A month later, the editors at Dana rejected the work because of its sexual content, but Joyce seized on this opportunity to develop the manuscript into a novel entitled Stephen Hero; the protagonist would be a Catholic artist who was both a hero and a martyr. The novel was published posthumously in 1944, and today, Stephen Hero is treasured because of the rich lode of autobiographical material which Joyce used for his later fictional masterpiece, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

In the spring of 1904, while Joyce was writing the early drafts of Stephen Hero, he was also writing verses for what would eventually become the collection (or suite) of thirty-six poems entitled Chamber Music, a work which was not published until 1907.

It was at this point in his life that Joyce met the woman whom he would love for the rest of his life, Nora Barnacle. They first met on June 10; six days later, on June 16, Joyce knew that he was in love. Thus June 16 became a special day for him, a day which he would use for the chronology of Ulysses. Today, Joyce fans throughout the world still celebrate June 16 as "Bloomsday."

In October 1904, Joyce and Nora moved to Zurich, where Joyce had been promised a teaching position at the Berlitz School. Arriving there, he learned that he could not be employed because the school administrators could not find a record of his application. Frustrated, Joyce decided to move to Trieste. He remained there for the next ten years and continued his writing. A son, Giorgio, was born in 1905, and a daughter, Lucia, was born in 1907.

In September 1907, Joyce began to transform Stephen Hero into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, retaining "Stephen Daedalus" for the protagonist's name. It was a name which Joyce himself had already used as a pen name, and it was also a name which linked the first Christian martyr (Stephen) and the mythic Greek maze-maker (Daedalus), a man known for his cunning and skill. In addition, because Daedalus was the father of Icarus (who attempted to fly with wings fashioned by his father), the surname provided Joyce with multiple variations on the flight theme, a motif which would pervade the novel. Later, Joyce changed the spelling of the hero's last name — ostensibly, in order to deemphasize the autobiographical nature of the book.

Joyce also began working again on Dubliners, a book of short stories that he hoped would be a "polished looking glass" of Dublin, a mirror in which he could lamentably reflect on the intellectual, spiritual, and cultural paralysis that he believed had infected the people of Ireland. He was unsuccessful in getting Dubliners published, and, in a sudden fit of rage, he threw the manuscript of A Portrait into the fire. Luckily, his sister Eileen was nearby and recovered it nearly intact.

Feeling that he needed to return to Ireland, Joyce took young Giorgio with him, leaving his wife and daughter behind in Trieste. He wanted to see for himself what had happened to his country of "betrayers."

Back in Dublin, not only did Joyce come to grips with the forces which had created his deep concern for Ireland, but a personal episode occurred which shaped his future works. During a meeting with an old friend and former rival for Nora's attentions, Vincent Cosgrave, Joyce became convinced that in the early days of his courting Nora, she would, after leaving Joyce for the evening, spend the rest of the evening with Cosgrave. Joyce's feelings of betrayal caused him to write a series of accusatory letters to Nora, who didn't respond at first. Later, Joyce learned from a friend that Cosgrave had lied about the incident. This revelation caused Joyce to become penitent and, in some ways, even worshipful of Nora. These letters to Nora, written during the Joyces' separation in 1909, have proven literarily significant. We know now that they provided the psychological spur, as well as the literary material, which Joyce needed to complete the final chapters of A Portrait and establish the essential themes for his novel Ulysses and his play, Exiles.

In 1915, after the outbreak of World War I, Joyce moved his family to Zurich, and there he finished A Portrait and received welcome assistance from such literary notables as William Butler Yeats and an American exile, Ezra Pound, both of whom were instrumental in A Portrait's being published in serial form in The Egoist. The first installment appeared in 1914, on Joyce's birthday, February 2. The publication of A Portrait as a single volume met with difficulties, and it was only with the help of two literary patronesses, Harriet Shaw Weaver and Edith Rockefeller McCormick, that it was finally published by B. W. Huebsch in New York in 1916, and later in England by Miss Weaver's newly formed Egoist Press, in 1917. Coincidentally, Dubliners was also published in 1914, by Grant Richards.

In August of 1917, Joyce began to undergo a series of eye operations, surgery which would continue throughout the next fifteen years. He sustained his creative enthusiasm, nonetheless, and the serial publication of his new work, Ulysses, appeared in the Little Review in 1918 and continued through 1920.

This enormous novel, loosely structured in episodes akin to Homer's Odyssey, takes place during the course of a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising canvasser, and a now-matured Stephen Dedalus. Ulysses revolutionized the notion of what a novel was; never before had a writer so challenged the elasticity of the English language. Immediately, critical debate raged regarding Ulysses' literary merit, and eventually the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice lodged an official complaint against the Little Review for publishing obscene material, which it identified with references to specific episodes. The result of this suit deemed Ulysses virtually unpublishable until Sylvia Beach, through her Shakespeare and Company bookstore, decided to undertake the production of the novel. It appeared on February 2, 1922.

The censorship of Joyce's epic whetted public interest in the work, and, at one time, one never traveled to Paris and returned home without attempting to smuggle in a copy of Ulysses. Until the famed Woolsey decision of 1933, Ulysses could not be legally admitted into the United States. In 1923, Joyce began working on Finnegans Wake, the enigmatic work that would consume him throughout the final years of his life. This novel, a dream-like vision of life's cycles, seems to be specifically about the past and future of man's "universal history." Essentially, the work seems to be a written revelation of the author's inner life, related in what Joyce called the "stages" of night language — with its "conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious" associations. Reflecting on the novel, Joyce said that the work represented a reality that was, to him, more real than everyday life. This perception of the work, however, was neither shared by his friends nor by his literary associates. The work appeared, in part, in several magazines from 1927 through 1938 and was finally published in its complete form in 1939.

The final days of Joyce's life were filled with frustration — beginning with the angry, critical reception of Finnegans Wake and continuing through the beginning of World War II, an event which once again necessitated Joyce's moving his family. In addition, Joyce's eyes and his general health had begun to steadily decline, and he was continually worried about the mental instability of his daughter, Lucia; she had suffered a severe mental breakdown in 1932 and was diagnosed as an incurable schizophrenic. In spite of the hopelessness of Lucia's condition, Joyce persisted in trying to find a cure for her; he felt that in some way he was responsible — that he had failed her as a father.

Joyce's own health continued to decline, and after succumbing to stomach cramps, he agreed to surgery for a previously undiagnosed duodenal ulcer; he never recovered and died on January 13, 1941. He was buried in the Fluntern Cemetery on a hill in Zurich, and his grave was decorated with only a green wreath woven in the shape of a lyre, a symbol and emblem of Ireland.