The James Joyce Primer for Writers

The Dubliner, the Irishman, James Joyce is perhaps the most enigmatic, most puzzling, and most misunderstood of all writers. He was not prolific, having written little more than a handful of poems, a couple of plays, a single book of short stories, and three novels, and seventeen years separated his first major work, Ulysses, and his second big book, Finnegan’s Wake.

The Irishman James Joyce

As one critic said, “If you piled all of these works on top of each other, they still wouldn’t be the size of Dostoevsky’s shopping list, and yet this small stack towers over our century, and its unforgettable shadow touches us even on our postmodern doorstep – and beyond.”

No one has ever written with more beautiful and exquisite language than James Joyce. No writer has ever left so many readers struggling to understand the meaning behind his poetic array of words.

His literary works have become the most studied, controversial, argued, admired, and complex in the English language. As one critic pointed out, “Like a force of nature, Joyce’s writing can be demanding, unrepentant, merciless, and compelling. In the world of English Letters, Joyce compares only to Shakespeare, and it would be hard to imagine the course of modern literature without him.”

James Joyce was deeply in love with the language. His writing was meticulous and slow and filled with imagery and emotion. He would patiently work for hours on the construction of a single sentence, going back and rewriting, re-phrasing, and rearranging the words until they met his own expectations. The rest of the world be damned.

A friend of his once met Joyce in the street and asked, “How did your writing go today?”

And Joyce answered. “It was a great day. I finished three sentences.”

The controversial James Joyce

His most controversial book, Ulysses, was completed in 1922, and would be widely regarded as one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. Joyce used a stream of consciousness technique that triggered enormous praise and criticism. It was simple. Readers either loved James Joyce or were overpowered and threatened by his novels. The entire book unfolded in a single day, June 16, 1904, chosen by Joyce because it was the day when he and his wife Nora had their first date.

The novel was promptly banned in Great Britain and the United States because it had large sections considered to be sexually explicit and obscene at the time. New York postal officials promptly confiscated and burned five hundred copies.

A dozen years later, Random House sued, and a federal judge ruled that the book was not “pornographic” and that Joyce “has attempted – it seems to me, with astonishing success – to show how the stream of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impression affects the life and behavior of the character which he is describing … We think Ulysses is a book or originality and sincerity of treatment, and that it has not the effect of promoting lust.” In 1998, the novel topped the list of 100 Best Novels drawn up by the editorial board of Modern Library.

Not everyone would agree. One critic pointed out, “A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may understand and comprehend Ulysses … but the average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it, save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.” Another wrote, however, “Ulysses is the most important contribution that has been made to fictional literature in the twentieth century. It will immortalize its author. It is likely that there is no one writing English today that could parallel Joyce’s feat, and it is also likely that few would care to do it if they were capable.

The writing of James Joyce, the way he expressed himself, is poetic, haunting, and powerful. Consider these phrases:

  • His heart danced upon her movements like a cork upon a tide. He heard what her eyes said to him from beneath their cowl and knew that in some dim past, whether in life or revery, he had heard their tale before.
  • You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake and perhaps as long as eternity, too.
  • Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.
  • My mouth is full of decayed teeth and my soul of decayed ambitions.
  • Better to pass boldly into that other world, in full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.
  • History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
  • I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day.
  • Men are governed my intellect – women by curves of emotion.
  • My words in her mind: cold polished stone sinking through a quagmire.
  • Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, is always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality.
  • Saying that a great genius is made, while at the same time recognizing his artistic worth, is like saying that he had rheumatism or suffered from diabetes. Madness, in fact, is a medical term that can claim no more notice from the objective critic than he grants the charge of heresy raised by a theologian, or the charge of immorality raised by the police.
  • Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.
  • Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.

When James Joyce completed Ulysses, many of his friends found it incomprehensible. They encouraged him to write an explanation of the novel.

Joyce simply told them, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.”

He was right.

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  • I have never been a huge fan of Joyce, but I do respect his amazing talent. I struggled through reading Ulysses in college, but found the endless stream of consciousness mind-numbing. But some of it must have stuck with me, as I remembered many of the lines you quoted. This line is one of my favorites: Better to pass boldly into that other world, in full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Maryann: Joyce is difficult to read. For me, so is Shakespeare. But some of the passages that both men wrote can be hypnotic.