James Joyce: Life, Work, and Criticism


46 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-919966-46-2





Reviewed by Robert Seiler

Robert Seiler was Assistant Professor of General Studies at the University of Calgary.


The subject of T.J. Rice’s latest research guide for undergraduate students of literature is the paradox that runs through the works of James Joyce (1882-1941). This is the paradox that Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot identified when they hailed Ulysses (1922) as a triumph of naturalism and symbolism, respectively. It is no exaggeration to say that for a great many years critical evaluations of Joyce fluctuated between the positions taken by Pound and Eliot. Recently, however, attention has focused on the dialectical tension between the naturalism and the symbolism and it is frequently argued that this tension shapes Joyce’s fiction. It should not be surprising to learn that, like many other critics, Rice attempts to construct a pattern that contains and clarifies all the others.

In many cases the assumption is that Joyce’s meaning must be found in the elaborate schemes and correspondences he worked into his novels. Studies of early drafts and final revisions seem to support the belief that he wrote to a predetermined design. Quite naturally, commentators concentrate on the counterpoint between Leopold Bloom, who is married but celibate, a parent to Molly but the father of a dead son (Rudy) and a son of a dead parent (Rudolph) and Stephen Dedalus, who is unmarried but sexually active, the child of a dead parent (his mother) and a nonentity to his living father (Simon). As they approach the core of Ulysses they find that its complexity increases: whenever Bloom’s thoughts approach Molly’s unfaithfulness or whenever his eyes encounter his rival, Blazes Boylan, his interior monologue becomes confused and he forces his attention elsewhere. Many commentators have dismissed the stylistic and technical virtuosity which dominates the rest of the novel as so much self-indulgence.

These self-reflecting elements — they increase in complexity from novel to novel — suggest that Joyce’s meaning might be found above and beyond the matter. As Rice sees it, the pattern that reduces readers’ perplexity is simply the pattern that connects the artist and his audience — that is, through the medium of the book. Critics have failed to see that Joyce gradually turned his attention from the subject matter to the medium of transmission; in making his language more and more opaque, he reinforced his theme — namely, the difficulty of achieving a compassionate, sympathetic relationship with the artist.

The first chapter introduces the preoccupations that run through the novels. These include achieving an objective detachment from life, transforming the fragmented absurdities of experience into symbolic patterns, and developing techniques to frustrate readers’ expectations. Rice explains that Joyce’s artistic vision is based on two visions: man is paradoxically isolated from and yet connected to the community he finds himself in, and man confirms his alienation by self-absorption or escapes it through communication.

Chapters three and four trace the development of the preoccupations mentioned above. Rice’s commentary in chapter three focuses on Dubliners (1914), which develops the thesis that man’s moral paralysis, sense of unfulfillment and materialism result from his egoistic withdrawal into himself, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), whichshows that the central character must fly from the nets of home, church, and fatherland in order to become a priest of art.

Rice’s commentary in chapter four focuses on Joyce’s major novels. He claims that the thesis advanced in Ulysses is that the artist, represented by the merger of Bloom, the businessman with a “touch of the artist” about him, and Dedalus, the artist with a touch of the businessman about him, must move through the stages of integration, alienation, and reintegration (that is, as part of the community), to achieve the balance of attachment and detachment that will give him clarity of vision.

Readers’ ultimate test is the detection of the patterns of integration that shape Finnegans Wake (1939), a novel virtually impossible to summarize because it has no story in the conventional sense of the word. Rice reiterates his belief that the opaqueness of Joyce’s language reinforces the theme of achieving communion. This reading of the novel alerts students to the fact that the meaning of Joyce’s language is communicated before his message is completely understood and that the prevailing comic tone of the novel makes the otherwise tortuous reading enjoyable. The element of “play” is crucial to the pattern as Rice represents it — the composition and the interpretation of “fun” has been ignored by commentators — because the abilities required to participate in fun and perplexity — that is, to participate in the author’s vision — are similar.

Chapters two and five comprise selected bibliographies of important book-length studies of Joyce’s work.

The remarkable thing about Rice’s guide is that it brings together many aspects of the life, work, and criticism of Joyce in such a way that students are challenged to re-read the works.


Rice, Thomas Jackson, “James Joyce: Life, Work, and Criticism,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 25, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/36079.