James Joyce Biography – Irish Writer, Novelist, Poet, Modernist Literature, Ulysses, Legacy

James Joyce Biography
Spread the love

James Joyce. Photo by Jacques Bopp on Unsplash

Listen to the audio version of this biography.

James Joyce Biography and Legacy

James Joyce was an Irish novelist, poet, and short-story writer, who made a major contribution to the modernist avant-garde movement.

Along with Ernest Hemingway, Joyce is regarded as one of the most important and influential writers of the 20th century.

His works are considered some of the most important in English literature, attaining the status of classics.

In this biography, we will take a closer look at the life of James Joyce the writer and the person.

Early Life and Education

James Joyce was born on 2nd February 1882, in Dublin, Ireland, into a middle-class family.

Joyce was the eldest of ten surviving children of James Stanislaus Joyce and Mary Jane.

In 1888, Joyce, aged 6, was sent to Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit boarding school near Clane, County Kildare.

But in 1892, when his father could no longer afford to pay the school fees, Joyce had to leave the school. After that, he briefly studied at home and then at the Christian Brothers O’Connell School in Dublin.

In 1893, after Joyce’s father had a chance encounter with a Jesuit priest who was a family friend, Joyce was offered a place at Belvedere College, in Dublin. The priest agreed to a reduction in fees so that Joyce could attend the school.

Higher Education

in 1898, James Joyce, aged 16, enrolled at University College Dublin (UCD).

Here Joyce studied English, Italian, and French, and he also became active in literary and theatrical circles.

During this period, Joyce wrote a few articles, including one in the United Irishman newspaper in 1901. He also wrote an article on the Irish Literary Theatre, a national theatre for Ireland founded in 1899 by W.B. Yeats, Edward Martyn, Lady Gregory, and George Moore in Dublin.

Unfortunately, Joyce’s university magazine refused to print it. Joyce was forced to get it printed by himself and distribute it locally.

Moving to Paris

After graduating from university in 1902, James Joyce, aged 20, left for Paris with the intention of studying medicine.

But Joyce soon abandoned this plan, the reason for which is not exactly known. Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, suggests that he probably left medicine because he found the lectures in French too difficult.

In Paris, Joyce spent a lot of his time reading in the Sainte-Genevieve Library, a popular public and university library.

Returning to Dublin

After studying in Paris for a few months, James Joyce received a telegram from his father informing him that his mother was diagnosed with cancer and was dying. Joyce returned to Ireland immediately to be by his mother’s side.

On 13th August 1903, Mary Jane passed away.

Life in Dublin

After his mother’s death, Joyce continued to drink heavily and got into drunken fights. After one such fight, a man named Alfred H. Hunter, who was an acquaintance of his father’s, picked Joyce up and took him to his house to tend to his injuries.

It is said that Hunter served as one of the models for Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, as Hunter was believed to have had an unfaithful wife.

Joyce tried to earn a living by teaching English and writing book reviews, but these endeavors resulted in meager earnings. In January 1904, he tried to publish A Portrait of the Artist, which was a story dealing with aesthetics. But the story was rejected by Dana magazine.

He later tried to revise the story and make it into a novel called Stephen Hero, but eventually abandoned it after becoming frustrated with the direction in which it was going.

The same year, Joyce met Nora Barnacle, who worked as a chambermaid. The two were instantly infatuated with each other and would be together until Joyce’s death in 1941.

Later on, Joyce stayed for six nights in the Martello Tower in Sandycove, along with a medical student, Oliver St. John Gogarty, who was the inspiration for the character ‘Buck Mulligan’ in Ulysses.

But after six nights at the Martello Tower, Joyce left in the middle of the night after a serious altercation with another student, Dermot Trench, who inspired the character ‘Haines’ in Ulysses. The cause of the altercation was that Trench had fired a pistol at some pans hanging directly over Joyce’s bed.

After leaving the tower, Joyce took up temporary accommodation with some relatives of his, and then shortly thereafter, he left Ireland along with Nora.

Life on the Continent

In October 1904, Joyce and Nora moved to Zurich, Switzerland.

In Zurich, Joyce briefly taught English at the Berlitz Language School. Later on, the director of the school sent Joyce to Trieste, a city that is now in northeastern Italy but was once a part of Austria-Hungary until the First World War.

On reaching Trieste, James Joyce found that there was no position available for him. But eventually, with the help of Almidano Artifoni, director of the Trieste Berlitz School, he was able to secure a teaching position in Pula, a city that is now in Croatia but was also once part of Austria-Hungary.

In Pula, Joyce taught English to Austrian-Hungarian naval officers stationed at the Pula base.

Unfortunately, in March 1905, his teaching job suddenly came to an end when the Austrian authorities discovered an espionage ring in the city and expelled all non-citizens from the city.

Once again with the help of Artifoni, Joyce moved back to Trieste and again began teaching English there.

Life in Trieste

Late in 1905, Nora and Joyce’s first child, George, was born.

Joyce also convinced his younger brother Stanislaus to join him in Trieste and managed to secure him a teaching job at the school.

The same year, Joyce began sending out the manuscript of his short-story collection Dubliners to publishers.

In 1906, after becoming frustrated with life in Trieste, James Joyce moved to Rome along with his family for a brief period. In Rome, he began working as a clerk in a bank.

But Joyce’s stay in Rome did not last for long. He did not like the city, and he found it difficult to get adjusted to life over there.

In early 1907, Joyce moved back to Trieste. And later that year, his daughter Lucia was born.

One of Joyce’s students in Trieste was Ettore Schmitz, a catholic of Jewish origin, who was the primary inspiration for Leopold Bloom. It is said that most of the details about the Jewish faith in Ulysses were a result of Schmitz’s answers to Joyce’s questions.

It was during this period that Joyce began to have problems with his eye.

Publication of Chamber Music

In May 1907, Chamber Music, a collection of thirty-six love poems by James Joyce, was published by Elkin Mathews.

The book did not sell well and was a commercial failure. The original print run was 500 copies, of which fewer than half of it sold in the first year.

But in spite of the book’s commercial failure, the poems garnered some critical acclaim from other renowned poets of the time such as W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound.

Joyce’s Various Endeavors

While living in Trieste, James Joyce tried a number of different ways to make money.

He tried his hand at becoming a cinema magnate in Dublin but later abandoned the idea. He also came up with a plan to import Irish tweed to Trieste but then abandoned that idea too.

Whatever meager income Joyce earned was from his teaching job at the school, from tutoring private students, and from frequently borrowing money from others.

Publication of Dubliners

In June 1914, Joyce’s first short-story collection Dubliners was published by Grant Richard.

The book is a collection of fifteen short stories, comprising a naturalistic depiction of Irish middle-class life in and around Dublin in the early years of the 20th century.

James Joyce submitted the book 18 times to 15 different publishers between 1905 and 1914.

The publication of the book was a complicated and messy affair. Two publishers, Grant Richard and Maunsel & Roberts agreed to publish the book only to back out later on.

The refusal of the publishers to publish the book was due to some stories and passages in the book.

Eventually, the book was published by Grant Richard, the publisher who had first accepted to publish the book but then backed out.

Around this time, Joyce began working on Ulysses.

Publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

In 1915, after most of Joyce’s students in Trieste were enlisted to fight in the First World War, Joyce left Trieste and moved to Zurich, bringing an end to his ten-year stay in Trieste.

The following year, Joyce’s first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published in December by B.W. Huebsch.

The semi-autobiographical novel follows the intellectual and religious awakening of the protagonist and anti-hero Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s literary alter ego. The prose is written in a modernist style.

In the novel, James Joyce uses many of the literary techniques which he would frequently employ in his subsequent works, such as the use of interior monologues and the stream-of-consciousness technique.

Exiles and the Beginning of Ulysses

In May 1918, James Joyce’s first and only play Exiles was published by Jonathan Cape.

The play is a study of a husband-wife relationship and draws on the story of ‘The Dead’ (the final story in Dubliners). It was rejected by W.B. Yeats for production by the Abbey Theatre (National Theatre of Ireland) and its first major London performance only took place in 1970.

The play was received poorly by critics and readers alike and is considered the least successful published work of James Joyce.

Moving to Paris

In July 1920, James Joyce moved to Paris at the invitation of expatriate poet and critic Ezra Pound, a major figure in the modernist movement in Paris.

Joyce had intended to stay in Paris for only three months but ended up living there until 1939.

In Paris, Joyce was welcomed into literary and artistic circles, where he met fellow writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and Samuel Beckett. He was glad to see that he was slowly gaining recognition and fame as an avant-garde writer and a pioneer of modernist literature.

Joyce also received a grant from Harriet Shaw Weaver, an English magazine editor, and political activist. Harriet would continue to financially support him throughout his stay in Paris, becoming his patron.

The grant enabled Joyce to write full-time again, and he set about finishing Ulysses, a work that he had begun in 1914.

During this period, Joyce’s eye problems became worse, compelling him to undergo multiple eye surgeries and treatments in Paris and Switzerland. It was around this time that he began wearing an eye patch.

Publication of Ulysses

With the help of Ezra Pound, the serial publication of Ulysses began in March 1918 and continued till December 1920, in the American magazine The Little Review.

The serial publication of the novel caused a lot of stir and controversy. The novel was accused of obscenity due to its frank and intimate content, which seemed to offend the Church as well as the State.

US Courts banned the publication, calling it obscene. The publication also ran into problems with the New York Postal Authorities.

The serialization of the novel was finally stopped in December 1920 and the editors were convicted of publishing obscenity in early 1921.

Due to these controversies, James Joyce found it extremely difficult to find a publisher who would publish his novel.

But the novel in its entirety was finally published on 2nd February 1922, on Joyce’s 40th birthday, by the American bookseller and publisher Sylvia Beach.

The Importance of Ulysses

Ulysses chronicles an ordinary day in the life of Leopold Bloom, in Dublin, on 16th June 1904.

Each chapter of the novel establishes a series of parallels with Homer’s Odyssey. It is a detailed study of the city of Dublin and it explores various areas of Dublin life.

The novel is considered as first of its kind and is regarded as one of the most significant works in modernist literature.

The structure of the book, the stream-of-consciousness technique employed, the experimental prose full of allusions, puns, and parodies, the rich characterization, and the imitations of the styles of different periods of English literature, all contribute to making the work a masterpiece.

Ulysses is now widely regarded as one of the greatest literary works of all time.

The novel was not published in America until 1934.

Life After Ulysses

After completing Ulysses, James Joyce did not write again for almost a year as he was exhausted.

In early 1923, Joyce began working on another book, which would eventually become Finnegans Wake.

By 1926, he had completed the first two parts of the book, but a major portion of it was still left to be written. For the next few years, he worked on trying to finish the book.

Joyce’s writing slowed down considerably in the early 1930s due to a number of reasons. His father had died in 1931 and he was also worried about his daughter’s mental health.

During this period, Joyce was also suffering from health problems of his own and his eyesight was becoming worse. In order to complete the book, he took the help of others, including fellow Irish writer Samuel Beckett, to type it out for him.

Publication of Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake was finally published on 4th May 1939 by Faber and Faber.

On its publication, the book was received unfavorably by both the critics and the general public. Many of Joyce’s early supporters and admirers such as Ezra Pound and his own brother Stanislaus reacted negatively to the book.

The book is written in peculiar English, full of complex multilevel puns. Joyce deliberately ensured that the book remained obscure and allusive.

Due to the literary allusions, free dream associations, linguistic experiments, and the abandonment of characterization and plot, the book remains largely unreadable and incomprehensible to readers.

The book is the final work of James Joyce and is regarded as one of the most difficult works of literature.


On 13th January 1941, less than a month short of his 59th birthday, James Joyce passed away in a hospital in Zurich.

Just two days before his death, Joyce had undergone surgery for a perforated ulcer and had slipped into a coma the next day.

Joyce’s body was first buried in the Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich. In 1966, his remains were moved to a prominent ‘honor grave’ with a seated portrait statue nearby.

Joyce’s wife Nora, who died in 1951, and their son Giorgio, who died in 1976, are buried by his side.


James Joyce is now regarded as one of the greatest, most important, and most innovative writers of all time.

His works have influenced and inspired writers and scholars across the world. Writers such as Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Updike, Cormac McCarthy, and Salman Rushdie claim to have been influenced by the works of Joyce.

Joyce’s life and work are now celebrated every year on the 16th of June, known as Bloomsday.

Over the years, Joyce has garnered a cult following among readers and critics who hold him in high esteem and conduct critical studies of his works.

One could only wish that Joyce were alive to witness the acclaim, respect, and popularity he has achieved in the literary world. Without a doubt, Joyce has gone down in history as one of the greatest literary figures to have ever lived.