4 Key Works by James Joyce You Need to Read

James Joyce was a leading figure within literary modernism and a defining writer of the twentieth century who penned what some consider to be the greatest novel of all time.

Jan 28, 2024By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature
james joyce key works

 

Widely heralded as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century – if not all time – James Joyce famously declared that, in writing his 1922 masterpiece Ulysses, he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

 

While his densely allusive and stylistically experimental works have certainly kept “the professors busy for centuries,” his writing is relatively little read outside of academic circles. Yet, although his works can be challenging at times, they are nonetheless rewarding for diligent, careful readers. Here, we will take a closer look at Joyce’s four main works of prose and explore the development of one of the greatest literary stylists of all time.

 

1. Dubliners (1914)

james joyce dubliners
Front cover of a Penguin Books reissue of James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), via National Book Critics Circle

 

Dubliners is a (perhaps superficially, at least) realist short story collection first published in 1914, at a time when Irish nationalism was at its most fervent. Though Joy opposed British colonial rule in Ireland, he also opposed nationalism, which he believed bred cultural stagnation within his native Ireland. A pervading sense of stagnation and atrophy, therefore, is discernible throughout the collection.

 

Focusing on the lives of middle-class inhabitants of Dublin, the collection is structured so as to move through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and public life, closing with the much-anthologized story “The Dead.” While covering childhood faith, adolescent desire, and personal failure, Joyce’s characters are united by the city they call home.

 

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Though Dubliners is often dismissed as the most straightforward of Joyce’s works, it is, in fact, near impossible to categorize, owing to its thematic and stylistic heterogeneity. It is also noteworthy that it is the only work by Joyce in which quotation marks are used – though, crucially, this had not been Joyce’s decision. In his manuscripts, he eschewed the use of quotation marks (as he would in the other three works also mentioned here) and even specified his wish to exclude them from printed copies of the work. However, Joyce’s publisher, Grant Richards (which had agreed to print the collection after others, including Maunsel and Company, refused to do so for fear of libel cases, as many of the characters are based on real inhabitants of Dublin) countermanded Joyce’s stipulation.

 

2. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

james joyce portrait artist young man
Front cover of James Joyce’s debut novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), via Welcome to the Writer’s Life

 

A modernist Künstlerroman, James Joyce’s debut novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was first published serially in Ezra Pound’s literary magazine, The Egoist, from February 2, 1914 to September 1, 1915. Pound first came to learn of Joyce’s work after W. B. Yeats sent Joyce’s poem “I Hear an Army” to Pound for inclusion in his anthology, Des Imagistes, in 1913. Pound was so taken with Joyce’s writing that he himself wrote directly to Joyce, who in turn sent him the opening chapter of the then-unfinished A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. On the strength of this extract alone, Pound agreed to publish the novel in The Egoist, prompting Joyce to finish writing it.

 

After struggling to find a British publisher for the novel as a printed volume, Pound also helped to arrange for the publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with the US publisher B. W. Huebsch. The novel was then duly released on December 29, 1916.

 

The novel grew from an earlier work, Stephen Hero, which Joyce had been writing since 1904 but later abandoned in 1907, having written 25 of the novel’s projected 63 chapters. Instead, he adapted the work into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, abandoning a traditional realist style in favor of a radical form of free indirect discourse and distilling the lengthy Stephen Hero (which, after 25 chapters, came in at 914 pages in Joyce’s manuscript edition) into just five chapters.

 

franz xaver wagensch”n daedalus icarus wings
Daedalus Forming the Wings of Icarus out of Wax by Franz Xaver Wagenschön, 18th century, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Just as Joyce drew inspiration from the real people and places of Dublin for his short story collection, he modeled Stephen Daedalus (the novel’s protagonist) on himself. (In fact, Joyce even signed some of his early essays and stories with the nom de plume Stephen Daedalus.) Like Stephen Daedalus, Joyce was born in Dublin to a well-to-do middle-class Irish family and was sent away to be educated by the Jesuits before his father’s debts meant the family had to leave their home in the suburbs and move to the city.

 

Both Joyce and Daedalus also studied at University College Dublin, and both came to the conclusion that, in order to realize their potential as writers, they must leave Ireland behind for continental Europe. Joyce’s decision to name his protagonist Daedalus thus takes on significance when read in light of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus as recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphosis (from which Joyce also borrows the novel’s epigraph). While Daedalus himself defies the King of Crete when he builds a hollow, wooden cow for Pasiphaë to enable her to mate with the Minotaur, it is his son, Icarus, who charts a new course that leads to his downfall, hinting at Stephen’s determination to forge his own path in life and the freedoms and dangers that accompany that decision.

 

3. Ulysses (1922)

james joyce ulysses
Front cover of the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), published in Paris by Shakespeare and Company, via Biblio

 

The year 1922 has come to be seen as the high-water mark of literary modernism, seeing the publication of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and Joyce’s Ulysses. Ulysses, in particular, has been hailed as “a demonstration and summation of” literary modernism by critic and scholar Maurice Beebe and is widely considered to be one of the best – if not the best – novels of the twentieth century.

 

Ulysses, however, had already been partially serialized in The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920 before the publication was taken to court in the US for obscenity. The outcome of this trial effectively banned the publication of Ulysses in the US, though the novel would eventually be published in its entirety in Paris by Sylvia Beach, an American expat, in 1922.

 

james joyce ulysses manuscript
Page from the “Proteus” chapter of James Joyce’s manuscript edition of Ulysses, via the Joyce Project

 

Joyce first encountered Ulysses (the Latinized name of Odysseus) as a child via Charles Lamb’s Adventures of Ulysses, an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. While the novel centers around a day in the life of Leopold Bloom (specifically June 16, 1904) in Dublin, the novel’s structure parallels that of Homer’s Odyssey, from its own version of the Telemachia (which focuses on Stephen Daedalus) to the final chapter, “Penelope,” written from the perspective of Molly Bloom.

 

As well as this, Ulysses is also the epic of the human body, with each chapter being assigned a body part. Ulysses is divided into three books and 18 episodes (or chapters), meaning that both the human body and the Homerian schemas can be only imperfectly mapped onto the novel: Homer’s Odyssey has 24 sections to Ulysses’ 18, while the human body has 79 organs, a number that rises higher still if one includes each bone and muscle. Nonetheless, the thematic scope, allusive complexity, and stylistic dexterity of Ulysses remain unparalleled.

 

4. Finnegans Wake (1939)

james joyce finnegans wake
Front cover of the 1999 Penguin edition of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), via Biblio

 

Published in 1939, Finnegans Wake is a monumental work within literary modernism. Deeply experimental and, according to some at least, near impenetrable in its linguistic idiosyncrasies, it is simultaneously considered to be one of the most important and one of the most difficult works of twentieth-century literature, blending standard English with Hiberno-English, portmanteau words, and Joycean neologisms.

 

The novel is comprised of seventeen chapters, which are, in turn, divided into four parts. Part I is by far the largest section, containing eight chapters in total, while parts II and III each contain four chapters, and part IV (also referred to by Joyce as the novel’s epilogue) contains just one brief chapter. The novel (which is conceived as a cycle so that the final sentence, in fact, supplies the first part of the opening sentence) begins with the wake of Finnegan, the hod carrier, who has died after falling from a ladder. During the wake, a fight breaks out, and when some whiskey splashes the corpse of Finnegan, he starts up from the dead and has to be put to rest by his mourners, who assure him he is better off dead than alive.

 

sylvia beach james joyce
Photograph of James Joyce and Sylvia Beach, who published his 1922 novel Ulysses, via Lit Hub

 

The novel then proceeds to follow HCE and his family. Set largely in Chapelizod, a suburb of Dublin, HCE and his family sleep, and Joyce records their dreams, using the idiosyncratic language he has constructed for the novel to convey the liminal state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep. Thanks to Freudian psychoanalysis, dreams were understood in the early twentieth century to be overloaded with significance, and the dreams of HCE (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, or Here Everybody Comes) and his family allow Joyce to explore history (global, national, and personal), desire, shame, transgression, failure, and conflict – and, in doing so, reimagine what the novel can do.

 

Just as it is often considered a difficult read, Joyce found the writing of Finnegans Wake to be increasingly tasking. During the process of writing what would be his last novel, such former supporters of his work as Ezra Pound and his own brother, Stanislaus Joyce, began to lose faith in the new direction Joyce’s writing was taking. The speed at which Joyce was able to work was also impeded by various factors, including the death of his father in 1931, his growing concerns for the mental well-being of his daughter Lucia, and his own poor health.

 

james joyce adolf hoffmeister
Portrait of James Joyce by Adolf Hoffmeister, 1966, via Wikimedia Commons

 

As a matter of fact, Joyce died just twenty months after the 1939 publication of Finnegans Wake following surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer in Zürich. Though he was only 58 at the time of his death, Joyce left behind him a monumental body of work and is widely regarded as one of the most important writers of all time. Wildly inventive and endlessly allusive, his works repay careful reading (and rereading), revealing new layers of meaning with every encounter. There has, therefore, never been a better time than now to read Joyce’s work.

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.