Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
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Erin has been writing and editing for several years and has a master's degree in fiction writing.
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.
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.
Dubliners - remember, again, that's in 1914 - is a short-story collection about people living in Dublin; the most famous stories in it are 'Araby' and 'The Dead.' It reads fairly normally, but very beautifully - it's beautifully written - and the stories tend to be characterized by moments of epiphany. That's the thing to associate with Dubliners. When he's describing a prostitute it sounds pretty straightforward: 'Frank rude health glowed in her face, on her fat red cheeks and in her unabashed blue eyes. Her features were blunt.' That's from 'Two Gallants,' a story in it. That's straightforward - unadorned, a good description.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in 1916 - this is the semi-autobiographical novel about a guy named Stephen Dedalus who's essentially Joyce becoming an artist - it reads a little more experimentally. It's still pretty realistic and also has a lot of epiphanies. Sample line about a prostitute from Portrait: 'A young woman dressed in a long pink gown laid her hand on his arm to detain him and gazed into his face. She said gaily: --Good night, Willie dear! Her room was warm and lightsome.' So you can see with that, again it's pretty straightforward, but you've got that word at the end 'lightsome' - that doesn't sound like a word I've ever heard in the English language. You start to get some kind of experimentation in what kind of language you're going to use.
When you get to Ulysses, we're really experimenting with style, we're alluding - it's just kind of shouting out to a ton of other literary works - and it's also way longer. The sample line about a prostitute from Ulysses, and this is just nuts: '(The famished snaggletusks of an elderly bawd protrude from a doorway.) THE BAWD: (Her voice whispering huskily.) Sst! Come here till I tell you. Maidenhead inside. Sst.' So you can see there's stage directions, those words like 'snaggletusks' (basically 'lightsome' to the extreme) - we're getting words here that aren't totally words you and I would use but are really to the point of what Joyce is trying to say. It starts to be pretty cool and pretty weird.
Then we get to Finnegans Wake, which is nigh-unreadable. It's really experimental, it's got lots of words from foreign languages sprinkled in, it's kind of in its own Finnegans Wake language. A good thing to know about Finnegans Wake is that the beginning of the book and the end of the book are the same sentence, but in a circle. The beginning of the book is: 'riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.' And the end of the book: 'End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousandsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.' It's this big kind of circle; that's sort of an important thing to know about Finnegans Wake.
But as you can see from those lines, it's nuts. The way that he describes a prostitute in this: 'I said to the shiftless prostitute; let me be your fodder' and to rodies and prater brothers; Chau, Camerade!: evangel of good tidings, omnient as the Healer's word, for the lost, loathsome and whomsoever will:' It doesn't make any sense, at least to me; I'm sure it does make sense to some people who study this endlessly, but that's the point. He goes from something that's very easy to understand, like Dubliners, into something that's really not.
Why does he do this? That's something we'll explore a little more in individual videos about these works, but the key takeaway is that he can do it, he can make sense, he knows how, and that's really the important thing to know about Modernism in general in art and music - they know how to be normal and they choose not to be. That's always an interesting way to approach any work of Modernism - to take a look at it, see where it's weird, and think about why it's weird. Why does he use 'lightsome' instead of 'full of light'? Why does he use the not-English word instead of the English word? There's a lot of intention there. Joyce is a pretty famous dude, pretty awesome, and we trust him when he's weird that he knows what he's doing, because he proved early on that he's able to make sense. And that's Joyce.
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets