I get James Joyce… Well, no, not really

James Joyce is the Mount Everest for English majors.  We don’t want to climb the damn mountain but if you want to be a real mountaineer, well, you have got to climb that damn mountain.

That is how I see James Joyce and his library of creations.

I heard it once argued that if it wasn’t for the demands of the English college classroom Joyce would not be in print today. I was initially stunned by that concept, but as the years progress I begin to believe it more and more.

He is not someone who people pick up for a little “light” reading, and his characters and plots are not exactly the most moving. Yet, what Joyce does have is incredible creativity on the page, with language, characterization and, of course, his influence on stream of consciousness as a writing style.

I don’t want anyone to think I am dismissing Joyce. Hardly, I think he should continue to be required reading for English majors and writers (especially those that want to do something artistic and new as compared to pulp everyday fiction which flood our bookstores each year).  He is the granddaddy of avant garde writing, especially around modern literature. I get all that… It’s just I find him… well… boring and frustrating.

Yes, if asked to describe Joyce I would probably use words like “influential” and “modern” and “avant garde,” but in my heart I would probably be screaming “too smart for his own good.”


As compared to a lot of other readers, Dubliners (the easiest of his work to digest since it is a collection of short stories) was not my first experience. My first dip into Joyce was Ulysses.

You can’t help but be awed by the audacity for referring his work to the Odyssey by Homer. I mean, to take that epic work and compare it to a normal day of citizens in Dublin is still an astounding concept for me. It is even more so when one considers all that happens in the actual Odyssey and what little happens in Ulysses.

That is not to say Ulysses is boring, but it is fair to say it (like most Joyce) is not exactly a normal book with a plot that drives it forward. What drives Ulysses is the characters and the internal monologues they have. If you are interested to discover how much a writer (if they put their mind to it) can dive into a character’s consciousness, this is it.

It’s not a book that is read, but studied.

What I liked about the book, is that each chapter is so different from the others. From the last chapter (with its stream of consciousness over 8 sentences, 8!) to the script structure of chapter 15. Yet, it’s not enough to really recommend the book for me, or to really give it the standing in literary circles it has today.  See, while I believe there should be some artistic exploration and groundbreaking in literary work, I am nervous when it is done to the ruination of plot.  And comparing your work to the Odyssey like that only emphasizes to me the lack of it.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I always felt A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be a more satisfying read since you follow the growth of Stephen Dedalus over the course of his young life. He matures into the character we see in Ulysses. Maybe it is the aspect of time and this character growth that makes it easier for me to enjoy.

If I was to say I love any of his books, it would be only this one and it would be merely for the scene at the end of Chapter 4 where he finds the young woman bathing. It is beautifully written moment, probably the best he every put to paper, and in it you see the awakening of the soul of Dedalus.

I would recommend this book just for those few pages.

Finnegans Wake

My relationship with Finnegans Wake is a little different. Simply put, I wanted to prove I was the bad ass of all English major bad asses.

See, this was the mid-90’s and I needed to apply to grad schools for English Literature. I had papers on Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and others in my file cabinet that I could have used, but a part of me wanted to prove that I could do anything. Oh, no, I will not be the normal English major in your department! I wanted to come in as king of the mountain. Hi, my name is Scott and THIS is my brain.

Finnegans Wake is the most difficult book to read in all of English literature. Period. With no real beginning or ending, it is a mish-mash of images and language, resulting in some kind of a free-flowing story about… well, really no one has any concrete idea.

Is it a dream? Is it death?

Those may sound like easy questions to answer, but they are not… and those are the easiest questions to attempt to tackle around the work. I read this book three times. Three times! And I am uncertain whether you can call it reading, because every sentence is so open to interpretation, you really walk away with what you bring with you to the text originally. Whew.

Here is an example of what I mean, the second sentence of the book (or the first real sentence, since the first is the ending of the last sentence in the book):

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passen core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.

Yeah, I read an entire book like that three times.  Three times, back to back….

The first was to get through it, prove to myself I could. I waited then, thinking about what I read and how I interpret its characters and meanings. I then re-read it to prove (and disprove) a lot of what I thought. The third reading was to… just… to help emphasize to myself that I would be okay because no one can really know if I am right or wrong.

The book, if you can call it that, is a masterpiece of confusion. Joyce (who spent 17 years of his life working on it) always claimed that it all worked and made sense together. I would have loved to have had that debate with him.

In Dublin, they cherish James Joyce. There are statues and photo tours, and other extravagances for interested literary-minded people.  One can’t help but wonder if they have confused him with a more likeable writer. But if you want to drink at the same pub as Bloom, you can. Yippee!

Yet, when I hear about this celebration or that celebration around him, I wonder exactly how many really know what they are celebrating. James Joyce was a great writer, certainly, but he needs English Majors; and English Majors need him. I just don’t understand how the rest of the world fits into that calculation.

If you liked reading my article, why not check out some of my books? I had two novels published in the last few years, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here. Thanks for reading!

11 thoughts on “I get James Joyce… Well, no, not really

  1. Pingback: Writing About Genius: Discussing Authors on a Blog « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

  2. Completely terrific post! The only book I dare to read, and I have to admit it’s one of my favorite of all time, but it still makes me a lightweight English major (at least I admit it), is… Portrait.


    Nia Simone

      • Thanks, Scott! That’s good to know… both things, that we’re awesome and I didn’t miss anything. I do have Dubliners and plan to check it out.

        I said some stuff about Portrait today on my blog, if you would like to check it out. When I was writing the article, a friend sent me here to check this out.

        Here’s the link:
        Writing craft musings”

        If that doesn’t work, you can copy and paste this. wp.me/p329BT-q5

        Nothing earth shaking, but there’s a pretty funny comment in there from a reader.



  3. Pingback: My Time Lost in Books… | The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

  4. Any of you people ever see the Stuart Gilbert book?
    “James Joyce’s Ulysses?”
    Joyce sorta directed him how to write it—a chapter by chapter motivational analysis.
    Well kinda…
    Written shortly after Ulysses arrived, it contains a wonderful, shall we say, spreadsheet that details the: art, science, part of the anatomy, etc—can’t remember all of them off hand—all the corresponding Homeric bridges he marches his 18 episodes across!
    Aeolus, with the Parable of the Plums—Out for the waxy dargle!—has its parallel references to Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” detailed.
    The Wind, don’t you know.
    Joyce is a real idiot; and a bit of a trickster.
    The devil, as always, is in the details.
    (At least those one is able to discern.)

  5. Pingback: For Banned Books Week | Artistry

  6. Nice new look for your blog, Scott. As a former English lit. academic, I know that feeling of wanting to prove something by reading challenging texts. Ulysses at least rewards our efforts with some vivid scenes. As writers, we can learn from what he does with interior monologue, even if we know we have to tone it down and incorporate more dialogue and plot in order to appeal to readers who aren’t being forced to read our books. I also think it’s important to acknowledge how bold his depiction of sexuality (especially feminine sexuality) was. Still, I agree with you that Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Dubliners are more satisfying. Finnegan’s Wake, on the other hand, was just too much for me. Joyce went to the extreme of self-indulgence in that case. It seems like an example of not really giving a shit about the needs and interests of your readers–or even deliberately provoking them.

    • Thanks. I felt like the site needed a revamp look.

      I’ll probably need to review Ulysses at some point for WKAR, but I am holding off my re-reading of it until that fated day. Finnegan’s Wake is too much for most people. I will say though that the Folio Society has a really beautiful version of Finnegan’s Wake. Wicked expensive, but a beautiful edition of the book.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s