Introduction to James Joyce: Life and Evolution of Style

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  • 0:25 Introduction to Joyce
  • 1:24 Stream of Consciousness
  • 2:28 Who is James Joyce?
  • 6:46 Survey of Major Works
  • 10:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Monagan

Erin has been writing and editing for several years and has a master's degree in fiction writing.

In this lesson, we'll get familiar with James Joyce's life and works. We'll trace how his biography influences his major novels and how his style changes over time.

Introduction to James Joyce

Ulysses by Joyce is considered one of the best books in the English language
Ulysses

James Joyce is an Irish author, and he's really one of the more important literary figures of the 20th century. He's so important, actually, that people in Dublin and all over the world celebrate Bloomsday - named after one of the main characters in his book Ulysses - every year on June 16. They raise a stein to James Joyce in a metaphorical and probably literal sense. He's really a figure that's had long-lasting impact in literature, and he's pretty well-remembered. Ulysses is considered one of the best books in the English language by a lot of people; it's a key book for the Modernist movement, which is a movement in literature between World War I and World War II.

Joyce's works, as they go along in sequence, get more and more confusing and difficult. This is also a hallmark of Modernism. He's particularly famous for starting or honing the technique known as stream of consciousness. You might take a look at a passage written in stream of consciousness and think 'what's so great about this?' I'm going to read you a passage just so you can get a little idea.

'Yes because he never did a thing like that before as asked to get breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms Hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his….'

You get the idea. There's not a lot of punctuation; there's not really a lot going on to signify what that all means. The thing that distinguishes his stream of consciousness from something that I might come up with writing is that there's a lot of intention behind it. We'll go into more specifics later on of why we know this, why we're pretty sure that this is intentional, that the way he frames things isn't an accident, that even if it seems like a stream of mess it really has got intention and meaning behind it.

Who is James Joyce?

But first let's talk about who Joyce is as an author. He's born in 1882, which, coincidentally, is the same year that Virginia Woolf was born, and he's the oldest of 10 surviving children; that's a lot of kids. He's the oldest, so he probably gets all the benefits of that. His family was pretty well-off to begin with; they were doing okay, but as he rose up they kind of descend further and further into poverty, and that becomes a problem. He starts out going to boarding school - actually the same boarding school that his character Stephen Dedalus attends in his novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (it's a little autobiographical) - but he can't keep going there because they can't pay anymore, so he comes back and has to go to local school. He goes to college in Dublin and heads off to Paris - he wants to go to medical school - but that doesn't work out so well; he doesn't really like it and he can't really follow the lectures in French (I'm sure you and I can identify with that). He has to come home because his mom is sick and dying. He ends up staying in Dublin and starts to work on what's eventually going to become Portrait. It starts off as an essay and morphs into a novel he's going to call Stephen Hero - Stephen is the hero of the book, that's pretty self-explanatory - and he eventually over the course of many years rewrites it into what we know as Portrait.

In the meantime, in 1904, on June 16 - that date might sound familiar - he meets his future wife Nora Barnacle, which might be the best name ever. That day lives on in infamy because it's the day he chooses to set Ulysses (his second big novel) on. They hit it off, they end up eloping in Zurich, they end up in Trieste in Italy, they have a couple kids, and then in 1914 he publishes a short-story collection called Dubliners. In the meantime he's also been working on a revised version of Portrait that's not Stephen Hero; he publishes that in book form in 1916.

Now he starts working on Ulysses, which starts getting published serially - in installments in a magazine - in 1918. That gets shut down after about chapter 13, because that's when the main character Leopold Bloom masturbates on the beach and there's a big description of it. They can't publish that serially anymore; it turns into a big court case about censorship that actually has a lot of implications further down the road for what's considered pornography. It was not, so it opened the door for lots of things. Publishing had to be stopped serially but Ulysses gets published in its final book form in 1922.

Then Joyce starts working on Finnegans Wake, which is going to be his last book. It takes him awhile; it's not published finally until 1939, although again it's sort of in a serial format published throughout that time. Then he dies in 1941 from surgery for an ulcer. He'd not been in great health, couldn't handle the surgery and he died. He was still not in the best place with his religious beliefs, so his wife didn't want to have mass for him - and that's his life. He starts off as this boy in Dublin and kind of follows the trajectory he lays out in Portrait for his character; he ends up becoming this great writer.

Joyce is a particularly interesting author not just because of his stature in 20th century literature but because he really changes a lot from book-to-book in his style. Just as a way to go over his four main works we're going to take a look at each one, when it was published and a sample line. I was trying to think of something that comes up in every one of his works, and prostitutes come up in every one of them, so we're just going to go through and read a description of a prostitute from every work. It's going to show you how he gets weirder and weirder and weirder as we go along.

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