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Dubliners | Study Guide

James Joyce

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James Joyce | Biography


James Joyce was born in Rathgar, outside of Dublin, on February 2, 1882. He was the oldest of John and May Joyce's 10 children to survive infancy. The family was not wealthy and descended further into poverty through Joyce's childhood as his father, a professional singer, squandered his earnings and drank heavily. When he was six years old, Joyce attended Clongowes Wood College, a prestigious Jesuit boarding school in County Kildare, but he had to leave in 1891 when his parents could no longer afford his tuition. Joyce spent two years schooling himself at home before he and his brother Stanislaus were admitted, tuition-free, to Belvedere College, a Jesuit school, in 1893. Joyce was a good student and in 1899 entered University College in Dublin, where he studied modern languages and Latin. He completed his BA in 1902. Joyce departed for Paris to attend medical school but quickly discovered he lacked the qualifications and instead worked a series of jobs, including teaching and banking. He returned to Ireland in 1903 when his mother became sick.

May Joyce died in August 1903, and Joyce refused to take part in the Catholic sacraments associated with death, having abandoned his faith some years before. In June 1904 he met Nora Barnacle, who would become his wife. Joyce continued to work on his writing after three of his short stories were published in the August, September, and December 1904 issues of Irish Homestead magazine. These stories would reappear in Dubliners as "The Sisters," "Eveline," and "After the Race." In 1905 Joyce and Barnacle moved to Trieste in northern Italy, where their two children were born. They also lived briefly in Rome, but the onset of World War I forced the family to move to Zürich, Switzerland. After the war, Joyce's friend Ezra Pound, the American expatriate poet, convinced Joyce to move to Paris, where the family lived for 20 years.

Joyce made four return trips to Ireland after 1904—partially related to prolonged negotiations surrounding the publication of Dubliners—but did not return after 1912. Despite his self-imposed exile, Joyce's work represents his attempt to capture the texture of Irish society and culture. His first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is a semiautobiographical account of his own beginnings, and the short stories in Dubliners provide a series of other portraits of the residents of the titular city that prefigure both his first novel and his second, Ulysses. A number of characters who appear in Dubliners make cameo appearances in Ulysses.

Initial reception for Dubliners was subdued in part because it was released in 1914, two weeks before the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, which sparked World War I. Only 499 copies of Dubliners sold in 1914, and Joyce purchased 120 of these himself. In 1915 only 31 copies were sold. However, Dubliners' poor reception began before publication when two different publishers rejected the manuscript, fearing prosecution under English anti-obscenity laws and objecting to comments about English King Edward VII.

Joyce's success with his second novel, Ulysses, renewed public interest in Dubliners, whose stories critics and scholars consistently describe as some of the best short fiction written in English. Even today, Ulysses tends to overshadow Joyce's other works in terms of popularity, but Dubliners is far more accessible and often serves as a gateway into Joyce's world.

In 1922 Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the bookstore Shakespeare and Company—a hub for Paris's expat literary scene in the 1920s—helped Joyce publish Ulysses. The novel was commercially successful despite controversies and censure in the United States and the United Kingdom. For the first time, Joyce was financially secure as a writer, and he devoted himself to the massive project of writing his next novel, which would incorporate poetic stylings, allusions, and more than 40 languages. With the help of another expat in Paris named Paul Léon, Joyce published his final novel, Finnegan's Wake, in 1939. Leon would also help preserve Joyce's manuscripts and other personal effects when the Joyce family fled Paris in 1940 ahead of the Nazi invasion. Under political asylum, Joyce settled again in Zürich where he died of a perforated ulcer on January 13, 1941.
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