James Joyce – an overview and Ulysses

James Joyce

This is an overview of James Joyce from Professor Cóilín Owens.   

Owens is a dedicated Joycean scholar, and a native of Roscommon. His lecture is excellent, combining vast knowledge and entertaining insight with his own earthy Irish qualities.


Ulysses is one of the master works of modern literature. It is an original book. Born 1882 – 1941. Irish middle-class, Catholic family. Educated in Clongowes Wood. Majored in French and Italian in UCD. Tried studying Medecine in Paris. Gave it up. Lived in Trieste, Zurich, Rome briefly, then Paris. Took him 7 years to write Ulysses, the book appeared in 1922 on his 40th birthday. ‘ I have now invented myself as a full-scale writer’. A coming of age, and Ulysses is about that.

Joyce modelled his life on Dante. Studied Dante in college. He thought Dante wrote according to the Gold-standard. Dante believed that we are emanations of a divine order.

Joyce was recognised from childhood, as having enormous gifts, musical and lingustic in particular. Spoke many languages, fluent in 5 or 6 but knew over 20 to varying degrees. Loved Opera. Total recall of Dante, Opera, Yeats. Extraordinary memory.

Ulysses is the relationship between youth and middle-age. Stephen age 22 represents how Joyce saw himself. Bloom is 38, is a real man, has suffered life’s knocks, a whole person. Not a hero, but is a hero of Joyce’s book. Bloom has survived. The book is about maturing. Growing up. The dialogue between Joyce’s past and present. Also about the relationship between Father and Son. Stephen is looking for a Father figure. To become a man.

Bloom cannot be typecast as an Irish man. He is an international figure. Does not belong to a tribe. Bloom represents the intelligent, sensual, responsible man. A good person. An advertising salesman. Molly Bloom represents the body.

Joyce is writing a democratic book, one that celebrates any one of us. He is suspicious of heroes. The virtues of the ordinary person are relevant to us. And Joyce had this very much in mind when he created the character of Leopold Bloom. Religious belief AND unbelief is another theme of Ulysses. The Stephen/Bloom comparison.

Joyce wants to make Dublin the centre of the world. Freeing Ireland. We all live in a real place. It is as authentic and credible a place as any other. 16 June 1904, the day Nora Barnacle said ‘ Yes ‘. Ulysses is his wedding ring to Nora. Joyce would go to the Opera, even if the children were hungry. Ulysses is fully true to the events of the day. Greek blue cover. Ulysses is the Irish epic, as Homer to Greece and Virgil to Rome, but in modern terms.

Joyce discovered the Gospels were unreliable. They didn’t all agree with one another. This contributed to Joyce’s crisis of faith as a young man. Parallels and mimics the Odyssey by Homer. Odysseus is an all-round man – as is Bloom. A pacifist though. Bloom is a Humane, kind, thoughtful person.

The concealed narrator. No accidents with Joyce, never chaotic, everything has an explanation. 90,000 different words in Ulysses. Neologisms. The Isle of Dreadful thirst = Ireland. Ringsend = broken barrels. Human shells.

So many narrative structures. It can be read on different levels. This a real poet writing. Original. Highly intelligent. When asked about the apparent trivial nature of some of the detail of Ulysses, Joyce replied .. ‘ Yes, some are trivial, and more are quadrivial ‘ .

Joyce changes the game. Old and new testaments. Greek and biblical structures. Joyce is not telling us how to live. You have to make judgements all the time. The book as a whole has meaning, has order – like the universe. Ulysses is extremely smart. Literary judgements, enabled by your knowledge of literature. For example, the Shakespeare scene.

Ulysses is learned and elite. A universal book and an internationalist book . The book of the 20th century. Ulysses is Joyces contribution to Irish Freedom. He is liberating us from ignorance and complacency. He wants to make Ireland european, make us world citizens. He is guarded against any types of mass-movement – Catholicism, Nationalism, Marxism, Feminism etc.

He has set out to rival the bible, to write a book that is equally complex. There is no obvious plot or plot solutions in the book. Unresolved issues, like our own real lives. Joyce is sceptical about conversion stories or changes of heart. The slow processes of daily life. How we chip away at problems we have, improving on one area, but slip back then in another. It is universal in that sense.

He was vastly read, but he had narrow actual experience of life. Hardly travelled. Stream of consciousness. Interior monologue. Highly inter-textual. A book of quotations. Built by a master tactician. Highly disciplined book. Deep orders. Imitating the divine creator of the world. Mercantile language and the language of the literary tradition. Stephen-Bloom.

Joyce respected the poetry of the working classes. The art of the illiterate. They have the same conflicts as everyone else. Everyone has the dignity of their suffering and their loves. All people are dignified human beings in that sense. Very democratic. That is one of the themes of the book. All respected in different ways.

Joyce really loved Wagner, and Verdi. He regarded Wagner as a serious artist, like himself. Ulysses is full of all kinds of language, from grafitii to the highest level of intellectual discourse. Not chaotic, not cynical, not a leg-pull. Very funny book.

Joyce is such an encyclopedic writer. He has put as many puzzles in the book as will keep the professors busy for centuries. Joyce leaves certain things out. The final mystery of why we exist is unknown to us. We can fill in that gap with God, or we can take the agnostic view that it is unknowable. To believe or not believe. Joyce leaves it poised – you can decide. Bloom was a deep sceptic. Bloom is not Joyce’s answer to the question, but part of the dialogue. The spirit of the novel is something other than, Stephen/Bloom/Molly. That arranger or organiser of the thing, is the equivalent of God. You can’t quote Bloom and say that’s Joyce.

Ulysses brings us into contact with all the fundamental questions that serious people worry about, but in a way, that no one has matched. The linati schema, and he also had a map of Dublin, moving all the characters around, knowing where every character was at all times. He had schemas.

Joyce had an astonishing memory. Jealous and competitive, stinging in his praise of other artists. Felt threatened by Proust. Despite the appearance of the word ‘fuck’ in Ulysses, Joyce was very gentlemanly in his own speech and conversation. Joyce thought about becoming a Jesuit himself, was invited to, but declined. Joyce’s work is the highest emulation or expression in human culture of mystery. His work is an emulation of that. A divinely empowered book.

The joke about Ireland being the only place in the world with 2 capitals, and neither of them in it – London and Rome.

– Deireadh –

Ulysses summary


Finnegans Wake                            1 Nollaig 2017


Finnegans Wake is significant for its experimental style and depth of imagination. It has a reputation as one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language. The book is written in an idiosyncratic language. It is full of multilingual puns and contains layer upon layer of reference and meaning. It is dense and rich. Many critics believe that these were attempts to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams. The opening line of the book is a sentence fragment, and the book’s last words are a fragment also. They can be turned into a complete sentence by attaching them to the words that start the book. The entire work recirculates :


A way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.


This cyclical structure, a never-ending cycle as if it were, links the start and the end of the book. This is one of its principle themes. Owing to the expansive linguistic experiments and the abandonement of conventional narrative, Finnegans Wake remains largely unread by the general public.

 The Broad Story :

The book discusses the Earwicker Family, comprising the father, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE), the mother Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), and their 3 children Shem the Penman, Shaun the Postman, and Issy. They were from Chapelizod, Dublin.


Book 1.

In the first chapter, Joyce describes the fall of Finnegan and his awakening as the modern family man and pub owner HCE. Dublin hod carrier “Finnegan” falls to his death from a ladder while constructing a wall. His wife Annie puts out his corpse as a “meal” for the mourners at his wake, but Finnegan vanishes before they can eat him. During Finnegans wake a fight breaks out and whiskey splashes on Finnegan’s corpse. The dead Finnegan rises from his coffin bawling for whiskey and his mourners put him back to rest, persuading him that he is better off where he is. The chapter ends with the image of the HCE character sailing into Dublin Bay to take a central role in the story.


I.2      HCE rises to prominence in Dublin. He is then brought low by a rumour of an ‘unspecified’ transgression.

I.2 to I.4 follows the progress of the rumour. The rumours are turned into a song called ‘ The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly ‘.

HCE is brought to trial.

ALP, Finnegan’s wife writes a letter about HCE. The letter is an important piece of trial evidence. ALP’s letter was written by Shem, and entrusted to Shaun, the postman, for delivery. It never arrived.


I.6   We see Shaun and Shem’s conflict. The following chapter concerns ALP and is interwoven with thousands of river names from all over the globe. It is widely considered the book’s most celebrated passage.


The chattering dialogue across the River Liffey by two washerwomen. They gossip about ALP’s response to the allegations against HCE. HCE’s guilt was published in the morning newspapers. The two washerwomen finally turn into a tree and a stone.


Book II

This book shifts the focus onto the children, Shem, Shaun and Issy.

The 3 children are playing a guessing game, to guess by “gazework”.


II.2   The 3 children are upstairs studying in the pub. Euclid diagrams. The children are united in a desire to overcome their parents.


II.3   HCE is working in the pub below. Upstairs, the children are studying. As HCE serves his customers, two narratives are broadcast via the bar’s radio and TV sets. The first ‘ The Norwegian Captain and the Tailor’s Daughter ‘, and the second, ‘ How Buckley shot the Russian General ‘.


HCE’s customers turn on him after the Buckley tale, as they see Buckley’s shooting of the Russian General as symbolic of Shem and Shaun’s supplanting (replace) their father. HCE delivers a general confession of his crimes. A policeman arrives sending all home. A drunken HCE clears up the bar, swallowing the dregs of the glasses left behind. He then morphs into the ancient Irish high king, Rory O’Connor and passes out.


II.4   portrays the drunken and sleeping Earwicker’s dream (HCE). It chronicles the spying of 4 old men (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) on Tristan and Iseult’s journey.


Book III

It concerns itself almost exclusively with Shaun, in his role as postman, having to deliver ALP’s letter, which was referred to in Book I, but never seen.


III.1   The 4 Masters ass narrates how he heard and saw an apparition of Shaun the Postman. Shaun, floating down the Liffey in a barrel, is questioned about the significance and content of the letter he is carrying. After the inquisition, Shaun falls off the barrel and disappears from view.


III.2 Shaun re-appears as Jaunty Jaun. He delivers a sermon to his sister Issy, and her 28 schoolmates from St Brigid’s school.


III.3   then Shaun changes into a vessel through which the voice of HCE speaks. HCE defends his life in the passage ‘ Haveth Childers Everywhere ‘. (Another HCE reference)


Book III. ends in the bedroom of Mr and Mrs Porter. The dawn is rising outside.


III.4   Jerry, their son, awakes from a nightmare of a scary father figure. Mrs Porter comforts him. “ You were dreamend, dear “. She returns to bed. Coitus. The Rooster crows.


Book IV


There is an opening call for dawn to break. Many vignettes, seemingly unrelated, follow. ALP is given the final word, as the book closes on a version of her Letter and her final long monologue in which she tries to wake her sleeping husband declaring,


“ Rise up, man of the hooths, you have slept so long ! “

and remembers a walk they once took, and hopes for its re-occurrence. At the close of her monologue, ALP – as the river Liffey – disappears at dawn into the ocean. The book’s last words are a fragment, but they can be turned into a complete sentence by attaching them to the words that start the book :

A way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.


General Information:

Anna Livia Plurabelle is the carrier of the Eternal Yes. She is the secret of the continuation of the jollification. Men, cities, empires, and whole systems bubble and burst in her river of time. She affirms and celebrates all things connected with life and this world as she slips between the river banks on her dream journey to the sea of renewal. Anna has the last word of the dissolving dream. But this last word loops back to join with the first, ‘ river-run,’.

In that tick of time, from her dissolution into the vast ocean and her reappearance as ‘river-run’, a brave renewal has taken place. We know that she will be drawn up in dew and descend in rain upon the Wicklow Hills (source of the River Liffey), and that the sun of a whole new day will run its course before she again leads us back to Howth Castle and Environs (Dublin).


Language: Joyce seized many languages for his province. He had Latin from his Jesuit education; He had scholarly intimacy with Greek, Irish, Sanskrit and Russian. He spoke Italian in his own home. French and German were second mother tongues to him. Obscure dialects, argots, and the slang of many nations clung to his ear like limpets. As a young man he had learned Norwegian in order to study Ibsen. Oddments from Finnish, Arabic, Malay, Persian and Hindustani are sprinkled plentifully through Finnegans Wake. The reader stands rooted in bewilderment at Joyce’s multi-semantic barrage.


Joyce’s language means so much that any intelligent reader can shave off some rewarding layers of meaning. Of one thing we can be sure: there are no nonsense syllables in Joyce! The clarity and the scope of the discoveries will depend almost wholly on the perception brought to bear. As the Master himself says, ‘Wipe your glosses with what you know’.


What is Finnegans Wake all about?

It is full of antagonisms, male and female, age and youth, life and death, love and hate. Ordinary, but cosmic – the gene stream back to Africa.

By their attractions, conflicts and repulsions, they supply polar energies that spin the universe.

Wherever Joyce looks, in history or human life, he discovers the operation of these basic polarities. While we assume diversity – in the individual, the family, the state, the atom, or the cosmos – these constants remain unchanged. Séamas Seoighe presents, develops and recondenses the eternal dynamic. This dynamic is implicit in birth, conflict, death and resurrection.


Quotes :


“They lived and laughed and loved and left.” ― James JoyceFinnegans Wake.


“Thus the unfacts, did we possess them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude…”
― James JoyceFinnegans Wake.


“And you’ll miss me more as the narrowing weeks wing by. Someday duly, oneday truly, twosday newly, till whensday.”
― James JoyceFinnegans Wake.


A way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

― James JoyceFinnegans Wake.


“In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!”
― James JoyceFinnegans Wake.


“Let us leave theories there and return to here’s hear.”
― James JoyceFinnegans Wake.


==========   Deireadh ========