Tag Archives: James Joyce

James Joyce’s play “Exiles”

I am far from being the first reader to notice that there is a great deal that is autobiographical in the fiction of James Joyce. Stephen Daedalus in both Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses has many obvious similarities in temperament and experience with his creator. In the play that Joyce wrote between those two novels, Exiles (1915), the would-be writer who rejects Irish Catholic conventionalities is named Richard Rowhan.


Unlike Joyce, Richard has returned to Ireland with his (common-law?) wife Bertha, who like Nora Barnacle, a Galway girl, who had been a chambermaid in Finn’s Hotel in Dublin, is from a Protestant background and an unsuitable match in class to boot.

Like Joyce and, later, Leopold Bloom, Richard is inordinately fascinated with being cuckolded. In both cases, the writer wanted to know what it felt like (an emotionally dangerous form of research), intellectually rejected possessiveness and felt jealous while reiterating the freedom of his partner.

Beyond those two motives for exploring sexual freedom/jealousy, as I reread Exiles, I had intimations of a suppressed homoerotic bond between Richard and his friend and champion, Robert Hand (based on Joyce’s pre-exile drinking cronies, Oliver St John Gogarty and Vincent Cosgrave, who are redeployed in Ulysses). These intimations are not entirely creatures of my imagination, because in notes on the play Joyce himself wrote that “the bodily possession of Bertha by Robert, repeated often, would certainly bring into almost carnal contact the two men.” Moreover, a sense of bonding of semen mixing in the same receptacle (or at least of having “carnal knowledge” of the same orifice) is not unprecedented.

And in addition to his pride being damaged by Bertha choosing Richard when she met both Richard and Robert, Robert seems to have some jealousy — or at least resentment — of Richard’s vision of himself as the Homer of the Irish “race” (embarking on writing a Dublin update of Homer’s Odyssey).

Bertha is not an intellectual like Richard, Robert, or Beatrice (Robert’s sister who is still carrying a torch for Richard and would have been a more suitable mate both in terms of social status and in the ability to understand Richard’s writing and, indeed, speaking). Joyce treats her mind as a region of mists, though he gives her complete sentences rather than the caroming fragments of Molly Bloom in Ulysses). Again in Joyce’s own notes, “Robert wishes Richard to use against him the weapons which social conventions and morals put in the hands of the husband. Richard refuses. Bertha wishes Richard to use those weapons in her defense. Richard refuses…” and has an erotic stimulation in imagining his best friend bedding his wife, however unjoyful such excitement is.

Reading the play as autobiography (which it would be very difficult to avoid doing), I wonder if Joyce realized how much he manipulated Nora and the various men he all but threw at her to test her and them (notably Cosgrave and Roberto Preziosa)… and himself.

Nora/Bertha differ significantly from Hedda Gabler, though Ibsen was clearly Joyce’s role model as a conventionality-defying playwright, as is well-documented, including correspondence with Ibsen himself. Joyce has his alter ego seemingly more in love with Nora’s than Ibsen has the artist who uses his wife in “When We Dead Awaken,” though having the grace to wonder if he (Richard) has ruined her (Bertha’s) life and innocent simplicity for his artistic/philosophical experiments in breaking the chains of conventionality (social here, artistic in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake).

My guesstimate is that without cuts the play would run three to three-and-a-half hours, though cutting the first part of Act Three and much of the second part of Act One (both involving Archie, the son of Bertha and Richard) might make the length manageable. The characters are archetypes of Joyce’s private mythology of betrayal. Although they rattle on, the dialogue is more realistic than that in either Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses.

Exiles seems to me to be a key text, though one I rarely see or hear mentioned (less even than Stephen Hero, the first draft of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). Joyce revisited Ireland in 1909, 1911, and 1912, but did not repatriate even after the establishment of an independent state. There is no certainty within Exiles that Richard will remain in Ireland, though it seems that Robert is going into exile after the return after nine years of Bertha and Richard

Turning one last time to Joyce’s notes, in regard to the play’s title: “Why the title Exiles? A nation exacts a penance from those who dared to leave her payable on their return… [In the Biblical tale of the Prodigal Son] the father took the side of the prodigal. This is probably not the way of the world—certainly not in Ireland.

Yeats rejected the play for the Abbey Theater, and it was not mounted by professionals until Harld Pinter directed it in London in 1970.


©2010, 2018, Stephen O. Murray


Edna O’Brien ‘splains Jame Joyce

The greatest living Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s (b 1930) brief (179 page) biography of James Joyce was aimed at people like me who are curious about Joyce’s life, but not curious enough to undertake Richard Ellman’s definitive but massive biography. O’Brien venerates Joyce’s writing, but recognizes the high cost to most everyone who had any contact with Joyce. As a vainglorious, insanely jealous, epically condescending, boozing spendthrift he does not strike me as a very good husband, but he was a worse son and father and brother, ruthlessly exploiting anyone he could, including various younger writers (the most notable of whom was Samuel Beckett) he enlisted as publicists and treated like serfs, and a series of patrons (one of whom, Miss Weaver, over time gave him what would be more than a million dollars in today’s currency) whom he hated for helping him but exercised cunning flattery to keep funds flowing his way.


There is certainly a sense in which the increasingly blind expatriate Irish writer was a martyr to his art. But weighing the price of his achievements against the human costs involves the hurt and misery he inflicted on others. Perhaps because she values the achievements more highly than I do (indeed, as “immeasurable”), she is more willing than I am to suggest that the result was worth the suffering inflected on others. In his treatment of his mother O’Brien justly calls him “monstrously indifferent” and I would extend that label to many of his other relationships, particularly with his son.

O’Brien does not attempt to defend Joyce from being viewed as a monster; instead, she answers her question “Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? I believe that they do.” (I doubt that she is such a monster, though no doubt pilfering in the privacy of those she knows to stockpile material for her fictions.)

She does challenge the view that Joyce was misogynist. This despite noting that the young man chose as his confirmation name Aloysius, a Catholic saint who (like Mohammed Attah) feared any contact with women. O’Brien argues that “in all the stories [in Dubliners] the women, despite being victims attain a moral superiority,” and that after carrying off Nora Barnacle the women in his writings are “temptresses and sorceresses.” The idolization of primitive life force in those he considered s-l-u-t-s and idealization of asexual, indulgent patronesses seems to me a very familiar, very Catholic Madonna/w-h-o-r-e dichotomy with an unoriginal delight in pulling the madonnas down into the “filth” that is sex in this worldview. (I am not sure what O’Brien means in writing that “if he depicted women as sexually primitive he was more prescient than anyone before or since. It probably says more about her than about Joyce, but the “pre-” may be a cunning annulment of the seeming praise.)

After the celebration among the cognoscenti of Ulysses and letting Finnegan’s Wake loose on the world, the world was swallowed up by war (WWII). Joyce got out of occupied France and died in Switzerland. A problem of biography, even one so novelistic as O’Brien’s, is that the endings are often anti-climactic. In this instance, the climax was also smudged between the triumph of Ulysse and the dragged out excesses of Finnegan’s Wak. For me Ulysse pushes the boundaries of readability (I greatly doubt I could reread it and am not even sure I could read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a third time) and Finnegan’s Wakis far into gibberish.


O’Brien makes some sense out of Finnegan’s Wake and provides interesting responses to Joyce. Hard-core Joyceans will already have processed Ellman’s biography—regarded by some as the best biography of any writer ever written. The somewhat curious have a fine guide in O’Brien. She sometimes indulges in Joycean wordplay and some of her sentences lack verbs, but her book is generally readable, and I am inclined to trust her sense (as a novelist, as an Irish novelist) of what in Joyce’s fiction is autobiographical. (Very little is invented, but much amalgamates experiences and characteristics of multiple models).


The volume is an excellent match of biographer and subject, like Edmund White’s Marcel Proust that began the series of Penguin Brief Lives, a welcome antidote to the mountains of details that make so many biographies exhausting or too daunting to undertake.


©2002, 2018, Stephen O. Murray