This paper discusses historical contexts and its rationale in literature as explained through the works of Irish novelist and poet, James Joyce.  The relationship between history and literature is strongly associated as explained van Boheemen-Saaaf (1999) and Carignan (2000).  In terms of application in Joyce’s works, Spoo (1994) mentions how history served as a backbone to Joyce’s works, particularly Ulysses which the author described as ‘a condition of the novel’s aesthetic production’ (4).  From these, this paper finds that Joyce’s works, which are founded on life in Ireland during the country’s transition period, is more of a journey for the author as a means to preserve those specific points of Irish history with respect to the fiction he created.


            Literature can be regarded to be reflective of history.  Literature, in a sense, becomes a narrative of history whether it is about the past, a history that is unfolding, or maybe how history will eventually look like in the future.  Lipking (1995, 1) provides the following description as to their relationship, a “narrative that would take account at once of the relatively timeless, formal, autonomous world of works of art and of their contingent, fact-strewn, wandering passage through time”.

            Although it may seem that history becomes subject to literature, literature is also subject to the restrictions and accuracy of history.  This is to say, for example, that when a writer establishes the setting or the plot of a story, the validity of the story also depends on the historical accuracy of the plot whether it is fiction or not.  For example, some stories may write about the 1990s and mention an American president whose name is neither George H.W. Bush nor Bill Clinton; albeit the fictionalized details of the work, the historical accuracy can be attributed to other factors which are essential to the history of that particular period.

            History therefore becomes a background to any literary work as can be seen in the work itself and most likely in the position of the author himself.  This is why certain authors have been strongly associated with historical eras not only because the author came from that era but the works also embodies the essence of that period.  Hence, Soshana Felman and Dori Laub described literature as a ‘testimony… to make history available to the imaginative act’ (as cited from van Boheemen-Saaf, 1999).

            An example is the Irish writer James Joyce.  James Joyce is known to have encapsulated the essence of early 20th century Irish history which he experienced.  This can be seen in his works, from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) to the epical Ulysses (1922).  In his collection of short stories, Dubliners (1914), Joyce told tales about life among the people of Dublin or the Dubliners, who lived during that period.  What is interesting is that Joyce’s works do not only represent a narrative of historical Ireland but it also became a collection of literary works that establish a strong Irish identity.

Review of Literature

            Carignan (2000) discusses how some historians have utilized narratives as based on history, meant to be read as a kind of literature.  This is because, as Carignan pointed out, the growing historical consciousness has taken place in the West in addition to the historical thinking of the novelist; with this, the author cited Lukacs (1985) on the observation that “the novel affected historianship” (395).  Carignan further cited how some historians utilized the literature approach as a means to make the history texts more readable.  Examples are the works of B. Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle in England.

            From this article, it can be gathered that Carignan demonstrated that the difference between a novelist and a historian or writer of history may overlap in a sense that the subjects reflect certain truths although in history, there is an expected drive of historical facts.  However, as the author mentioned, history can also serve as a source of imagination that can help the novelist in the construction of his literary work.

            What is interesting is that even in the educational processes it was acknowledged that learning history through literature is a helpful means to learn.  In an article by Crawford and Zygouris-Coe (2008), the authors mentioned a discussion in professional development course program in which the participants discovered a greater appreciation towards historical fiction as means to be aware about history instead of learning them from textbooks.  Historical fiction — ‘facts of history into a storyline that includes unique perspectives, a contextualized setting, and a sense of emotional pull’ (Crawford & Zygouris-Coe, 2008, 198) — has been considered as a potential means to be introduced into the classroom and a tool for instructional strategies.

            This therefore brings up the degree of history that can be found in some literary works.  Spoo (1994) discussed extensively how James Joyce’s works “reverberate” history.  As can be seen in Joyce’s works, it can be noted that there is the constant hint of nationalism embedded in his fiction.  Spoo noted that Ulysses had history as “more than a theme… it is to an exceptional degree a condition of the novel’s aesthetic production” (4) which specifically represented simulation of Dublin in 1904.

Journey into Late 19th and Early 20th Century Ireland in James Joyce’s Fiction

            Unlike historical fiction, the historical aspect in Joyce’s works is that he strongly utilized history as a foundation in his stories.  As a poet, he already addressed a historical event in Ireland in which he wrote “Et Tu Healy” addressing the death of Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell.  Parnell is also mentioned in some of his works like in Dubliners.             Joyce’s approach at history is that everything else about his work is true except for his characters.  His noted works are mostly based in Dublin, he sketched life in the Irish city as found in the early part of the 20th century.  Joyce did not write political stories but rather he tackled regular life, mostly being an Irishman or a Dubliner encountering certain historical truths such as complications with Englishmen (which demonstrates the political conflict between the two countries), and the beliefs and value systems of the Irish who are typically raised as Roman Catholics.

            Hence, this literary journey provides the readers a snapshot of life in Ireland during this period.  In his more detailed historical work on the life of his famous fictional character, Stephen Dedalus who is the subject of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce adopted a developmental trajectory of a growing boy subject to the ‘myriad pressures and repressions of Irish life in the late nineteenth century’, especially when it comes to the role of the Catholic Church (Spoo, 1994, 39).  However, according to Spoo, Joyce’s utilization of history in this coming of age novel has a lack of theory of history although this work can be identified as a metahistorical work which Hayden White defined as a presentation of the ‘figurative dimension of nonfiction historical accounts’ (as cited in Spoo, 1994, 39).  In this case, an examination of image and metaphor in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man also pertains to the development of the character’s sense of aestheticism.  In addition, this novel can be also considered historical since James Joyce wrote this as semi-autobiographical.

            Ulysses is an allusion to the Greek epical poem Homer’s Odyssey.  The historical issues presented in this novel also included social factors such as the place of a converted Jew in Christian Ireland and the presence of antisemitism and other forms of prejudice during that period, especially coming from a small group of Anglo-Irish Protestants.  In the novel, Joyce injected political and social contexts that convey an essence of 1904 Dublin history.

            Another notable work by Joyce is the ‘unreadable’ Finnegan’s Wake.  This time, Joyce maximized his employment of ‘stream of consciousness’, a method in which the author would write the internal monologue of its characters.  Such approach has been used by Virgnia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Hubert Selby Jr’s Requiem for a Dream.  Joyce’s use of this technique also reflected this rising trend among the modernist movement which Joyce is noted to be among the authors of modernist literature.  Again, Joyce had Dublin as a setting for this novel.

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            James Joyce’s work can then be said to embody certain issues among his characters that are also reflective of the issues of Ireland during that period.  During 19th century up to the early decades of the 20th, Ireland was struggling for autonomy from British powers.  There is also the issue on religion in which Ireland would maintain Catholicism in contrast with the British faith, Protestantism; religion would then become a source of penalty during this period in which discrimination against Roman Catholics were present.  Hence, there was the conflict in terms of identity such as the gap between a Catholic and a Protestant, and whether the individual is a Nationalist or Unionist (Boyce, 2004).

            Hence, when Joyce wrote his novels, Ireland was experiencing a period of critical transition as it was in the process of fighting for autonomy and eventually, independence.  Ireland was experiencing the height of nationalism when Joyce wrote most of his works.  Even when the author lived overseas, he continued to write about Ireland, especially life in Dublin.


            It can be considered that because of history and the influence of nationalism, Joyce wrote his works as a means for him to immortalize Ireland during these transition stages.  He brought up through his works the Irish values, the internal struggles between morality and individuality, and the sense of identity, among others.  As a result, Joyce had the tendency to write through his stream of consciousness which shows how strongly personal his works are, particularly the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.  This may also explain as to why James Joyce is not for any regular reader because the journey he takes the reader to is a journey into his mind and his perceptions on life in his country.

            Hence, albeit the strong nationalist background in Joyce’s works, his novels do not have to be political.  Still, through literature, Joyce still comes out as an Irishman first and novelist second.  He takes the readers through fiction as set in his home country during those critical historical periods although the fiction themselves are not necessarily about those events.  Rather, Joyce encapsulated the essence of the period and metaphorically turned the social values and political issues into different versions that would serve as the spirit of his fiction.

            Somehow, Joyce’s works can be considered as a testimony of life in Ireland, particularly in Dublin, where people struggled for religious and political identity in addition to reconciling with their personal demons, during their country’s period of transition.


Boyce, D.G.  (2004).  A First World War Transition.  In Ireland in Transition, 1867-1921,

D.G. Boyce & A. O’Day (Eds.).  New York: Routledge.

Carignan, M.  (2000).  Fiction as History or History as Fiction? George Eliot, Hayden White

and Nineteenth-Century Historicism.  CLIO, 29, pp. 395+.

Crawford, P. & Zygouris-Coe, V.  (2008).  Those Were the Days: Learning about History

through Literature. Childhood Education, 84, 197+.

Lipking, L.  (1995). A Trout in the Milk.  In The Uses of Literary History M. Brown (Ed.).

Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Spoo, S.  (1994). James Joyce and the Language of History: Dedalus’s Nightmare.  New

York: Oxford University Press.

Van Boheemen-Saaf, C.  (1999). Joyce, Derrida, Lacan, and the Trauma of History:

Reading, Narrative and Postcolonialism.  Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.


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