The female characters in James Joyce's fiction have received considerable critical attention since the publication of his writings and are often denigrated as misogynist portrayals of women. However, a textual and historical analysis of the female characters in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake shows them in a more constructive light. Such an analysis reveals them to be sympathetic portrayals of the situation of Irish women at the turn of the twentieth century. An historical contextualization of the characters is essential in any reading of Joyce, but is particularly important for his female characters. An historical and textual analysis also reveals a noticeable shift in the characterization of women from his early novel to his later novels. Additionally, approaching Joyce's fiction from this angle highlights the significant influence of Nora Barnacle, whom he eventually married, on Joyce's characterizations of women. Joyce started writing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a very young man, before he met Nora, and this fact coupled with the choice of an adolescent boy as the narrator explains some of the criticism leveled at the novel. The subject of the novel, an artist as a young man, requires that the narrator be a self-centered youth. Consequently, the aesthetics of the novel are not focused on the female characters, but this is a result of the somewhat narcissistic adolescence of the narrator, not Joyce's purported misogyny. A close textual reading reveals the female characters as somewhat fleeting as a result of the age of the narrator, but not misogynist creations. The discussion of Portrait serves as an introduction to the larger subject of the admirable aspects of his female characters in Dubliners, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. Numerous parallels can be found between the female characters in "Araby," one of the first short stories in Dubliners, and the female characters in Portrait. However, throughout the progression of the collection of short stories, the female characters become more detailed, in part because the narrator is no longer an adolescent and has become more socially aware. This textual analysis of the female characters in "Araby," "Clay," "Eveline," and "The Dead" is enhanced by an historical analysis that clarifies the similarities between the women in the stories and the situation of Irish women as Joyce observed them, as discussed by Joyce in some of his published letters. An awareness of these close parallels between the characters and the historical setting reveals the characters as sympathetically drawn, eliciting a reader's pity rather than judgments of misogyny. A similar textual and historical analysis, when applied to Molly Bloom in Ulysses, reveals the mosaic-like quality of her characterization. Although she speaks only in the "Penelope" episode, Molly Bloom's characterization is established from the beginning of the novel through frequent references to her by her husband Leopold Bloom, and other characters throughout the novel. The layered or mosaic-like approach to her characterization is a departure from Joyce's earlier style, but the resultant character is engaging and intricately detailed. An historical and textual analysis accounts for the stylistic aspect of her character and allows for a more engaging perspective of Molly. Always innovative, Joyce transforms the mosaic style of characterization used for Molly in the characterization of Anna Livia Plurabelle and Issy in Finnegans Wake and, instead, creates the characters on an entirely differentscale, that of myth. Ulysses is a daytime walk through Dublin that could also function as a founding myth for Ireland; Finnegans Wake is the nighttime counterpart to a walk through Dublin. Joyce chose to stylistically obscure the language in the novel in order to create the nighttime setting for his dream-like comment on Dublin's founding myths. The characters of Finnegans Wake are rooted in mythic tradition also, which serves this aesthetic choice well. An historical and textual analysis of ALP and Issy reveals the universalized and nuanced characterization inherent in their creation and execution. From A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Dubliners, Joyce's early female characters are notable in their own right, and function as important precursors to Joyce's visionary approach to characterization which culminated in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake with Anna Livia Plurabelle.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Gordon, Anna Margaretha, "A Reassessment of James Joyce's Female Characters" (2008). Theses and Dissertations. 1620.
James Joyce, Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, Women, Female Characters