By Carrie Hughes
Ulysses by James Joyce is considered by many to be the best novel of the 20th century. A masterpiece of modernism, the action takes place over the course of a single day, June 16, 1904 (the day the historical Joyce first “stepped out” with Nora Barnacle, the woman who would eventually become his wife), and is loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey. In it protagonist Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus travel through the streets of Dublin on an ordinary day. In Ulysses Joyce pioneered the stream of consciousness technique, a narrative mode that seeks to portray an individual's point of view by giving the written equivalent of the character's thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue, or in connection to his or her actions.
James Augusta Joyce (Augusta was the result of an error in the registration) was born in Dublin on February 2, 1882. He was the first of nine surviving children of John Joyce and his wife, Mary Jane (May), and in his early years his family was comfortably middle class. When Joyce was ten years old the family fortunes changed when his father lost his job as a tax collector due to shifting political winds. Joyce was largely educated by Jesuits, and was a successful and popular student. In his teens he began to question Catholicism, and this loss of faith and suspicion of the Church and other national institutions would be a recurring theme in his life and work.
After receiving a degree in modern languages from University College Dublin in 1902, Joyce went to Paris, ostensibly to study medicine. He returned to Ireland in April of 1903 when his mother became ill and eventually died. During this time Joyce was mostly unemployed, but had begun writing that would later appear in The Dubliners and serve as the beginning of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
On June 10, 1904 Joyce met Nora Barnacle, a hotel maid. On June 16, 1904, a date he would later make famous in Ulysses, they went walking together, and six months later they eloped to Switzerland (though they would not be legally married until 1931), so Joyce could escape the creative limitations he was finding living in Ireland. A promised job at a Berlitz school in Switzerland turned out not to exist, and the couple moved around, settling in Trieste, in what is now Italy, then Austro-Hungary, in 1905, where their son George was born. The Joyces’ ex-patriot life included frequent moves and financial instability. At various points Joyce attempted to become a movie magnate and a wool importer, but the bulk of Joyce’s income would come from teaching, borrowing, and gifts from generous friends.
In 1907 Joyce completed The Dubliners, and Nora gave birth to a second child, Lucia. Joyce began his attempts to get Dubliners published, a battle over content, ownership and obscenity that was not completed until 1914. He would struggle with similar frustrations in attempting publication of all his work.
In June 1915 Joyce and his family were required to leave Trieste due to the war, and moved to Zurich, where they remained until 1919. While in Zurich Joyce began to suffer from glaucoma, but it was a very productive period. He made serious progress on Ulysses and finished his play, Exiles. A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man, which had been published serial in the magazine the Egoist in 1914-1915, was published in America in book form at the end of 1916. (British publishers refused it for fear of obscenity charges, though It eventually appeared there in 1917). The first parts of Ulysses were published in serial form in the magazines Egoist and Little Review beginning in 1918. After the war Joyce and his family returned briefly to Trieste, but in 1920 moved to Paris, where they lived for twenty years.
As with his earlier work, in spite of critical praise from friends like Ezra Pound and W.B.Yeats, and the support of magazine editors, Joyce struggled to find a publisher for Ulysses. Indeed, the publishers of the Little Review had already been convicted of publishing obscenity. But Sylvia Beach, of the English language bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris, volunteered to publish it through her shop. It appeared in 1922 in Paris, but took another 12 years to arrive in the US and 14 in Great Britain, and was not published by an American publishing house until a 1933 court ruling declaring it not pornographic. (Again, English publishers followed suit two years later.)
He began his next major work, Finnegans Wake, in 1923, an even more radical and controversial (Even with some of his critical fans) stylistic experiment. He published fragments in magazines, but the entire work did not appear until 1939. James Joyce died in 1941 in Zurich, after surgery for a perforated ulcer.