Comparison between the Language of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett

Essay, 2006

14 Pages, Grade: 85 %


Towards the end of the composition of Finnegans Wake Joyce wrote in a letter ‘I have discovered I can do anything with language I want.’ Language for Joyce seems to be infinitely plastic and a means of universal communication. By contrast, Beckett seems sceptical that language can ever communicate, be meaningful or expressive. Compare and contrast Joyce and Beckett’s representation of language in a range of works.

At the beginning of the 20th century a major change in literary technique took place. Authors turned away from the old conventions of Realism and Naturalism, claiming that its detailed materialism and extensive descriptions were no longer appropriate means to account for the modern world they were living in. More and more writers repudiated the literary tradition of objective external and internal descriptions by an omniscient narrator and instead embraced the idea of representing reality from a subjective and somehow limited perspective. During “Modernism” the attitude to neutral language as an adequate means of communication and representation changed profoundly, and James Joyce is certainly one of the prime examples of the notion that a piece of literature can never be fully objective. For him language was not a transparent medium but always a part of the reality it represents, a “prism, colouring, shaping, or even obscuring the world”.[1] The first part of this essay will analyse Joyce’s literary language and extracts from Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922) shall help to reconstruct the stages of “maturation” his language went through until reaching the High-Modernism of Ulysses. Around the Second World War a new literary movement nowadays usually called “Post-Modernism” began to emerge, which is not as easily definable as Modernism in contrast to Realism. Whereas Modernist writers like Joyce still trusted in the written word as a way to articulate reality, the deconstruction of language became all-embracing in Post-Modern writing. Language as a mediator for truth was regarded with suspicion and the world itself was no longer seen as a coherent entity but as a fragmented place that could only be appropriately described with a “linguistically unstable” piece of work.[2] The second part of the essay will therefore deal with one of the foremost writers of Post-Modernism, Samuel Beckett. His usage of language and its “Post-Modernist style” will become apparent when analysing exemplary passages from his two plays Waiting for Godot (1953) and Endgame (1957). The evident differences as well as the slightly more unobvious similarities between the literary language of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett will be addressed separately in the last part of this paper. Here the different literary aims and techniques of the authors shall be outlined again and contrasted with each other. While looking at this, the reader should however keep in mind that neither Modernism nor Post-Modernism is as coherent and clear-cut as some literary critics might claim. McHale for instance observes that both movements are rather literary constructions than definite facts and often intermingle with each other.[3] Therefore the essay will also deal with the similarities of Joyce and Beckett and shall try to prove that there are already elements of Post-Modernism in Joyce’s work.

The first part of this essay will concern itself with the literary style of three of James Joyce’s books – the collection of short stories called Dubliners, the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and his masterpiece Ulysses. The following section will show the stages of development Joyce’s language underwent from the fairly realistic Dubliners to the “stream-of-consciousness fantasy” of Ulysses. Dubliners was published in 1914, but Joyce had worked on the short stories since 1904. This book is generally considered to be his most accessible piece of work, certainly due to the rather conventional naturalistic style in which it is written. The content of each short story in Dubliners is in essence a variation of a basic message “[…] Dublin […] the centre of paralysis […]”[4]. Joyce referred to Dubliners as being written in a language of “scrupulous meanness”, meaning that the sparse and flat style was in fact carefully crafted to capture the sense of ordinariness and apathy in the lives of the various central characters.[5] In this sense, the depleted language mirrors the condition of the people inhabiting Dublin without commenting directly on it. Patterns of repetition, like in the story “Eveline” stress the monotony and limitations of the characters’ lives and their inability to break out of it.

She sat at the window […] her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne […] she continued to sit by the window, leaning her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne […] (Dubliners, 29, 32)

However straightforward the realism of the short stories may be, literary critics have also pointed out that there is more Symbolism and Modernism in Dubliners than apparent at first sight. Throughout Dubliners there are numerous allusions to Irish myths and Christian symbols and some stories even give direct hints that they should not be taken as a realistic account but rather as allegories, like “The Dead”, beginning with the sentence “Lily […] was literally run off her feet” (Dubliners, 175). Dubliners is generally presented by a third-person narrator, but when the authorial report is focused on the mind and inner experiences of central characters it almost impalpably changes to the more intimate free indirect style, thereby blurring the boundary between the narrator and the character.[6] An example of this literary technique is the following extract from the story “Eveline” (the passage containing free indirect style is underlined).

[…] The boat blew a mournful whistle into the mist. If she went, to-morrow she would be on the sea with Frank, steaming towards Buenos Ayres. Their passage had been booked. Could she still draw back after all he had done for her? Her distress awoke a nausea in her body, she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer […] (Dubliners, 33-34).

Dubliners was also the piece of work that introduced Joyce’s concept of “epiphany”, the word taken from Catholic belief and famously explained in Stephen Hero as “a sudden spiritual transformation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself” (Dubliners, xxxiv). In Dubliners, these moments of revelation are in fact often anti-manifestations, dealing with “some ambition not achieved, some vision or desire frustrated, some key moment which turns out to be sourly disenchanting”.[7] The most famous of Joyce’s epiphanies can probably be found in “The Dead”, preceding Gabriel’s realisation that his wife still thinks about her dead girlhood love.

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of […] Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter […] (Dubliners, 211)

One could conclude that Dubliners is basically written in a realistic style but that the language itself remains rather opaque and intransparent, thereby drawing the reader’s attention to the literary language itself and challenging him to work out the shifting perspectives between the character’s thoughts in relation to the narrator’s voice.[8] Whereas the collection of short stories only hinted at this feature, an analysis of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses will show that this will become a characteristic of Joyce’s later writing.

In 1916, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published, based on Joyce’s uncompleted and only posthumously published Stephen Hero, which dates back to 1905. Though the novel is still primarily written as a third-person narrative, it definitely marks a step in Joyce development to the Modernism of Ulysses. Portrait is more subjective than the preceding Dubliners, focusing often exclusively upon the mind of the main character Stephen Dedalus. Dedalus consciousness is often dramatised by his long contemplations about feelings, thoughts and language itself. When recollecting past emotions and their fusion with present ones, Dedalus’ mind is ruled by repeated patterns of rhyme and rhythm without any immediate sense rather than by rationalism.[9] Thereby the narrative structure of Portrait underlines the shifting quality of Dedalus memory, governed by reenactment and not by continuity and chronological development. By using this style, Joyce also incorporates the readers, asking them for an active recollection of earlier passages in the novel. The beach scene at the end of chapter IV is a good example for the dramatisation of Dedalus’ inner world.

A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. […] She was alone and still, gazing out to sea […] a faint flame trembled on her cheek. –Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy […] On and on and on and on he strode, far out over the sands, singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him.[10]


[1] Randall Stevenson, Modernist Fiction: An Introduction. (London: Prentice Hall, 1998) 172.

[2] Cf. Terry Eagleton, The English Novel: An Introduction. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005) 288.

[3] Cf. Brian McHale, Constructing Postmodernism. (London, New York: Routledge, 1992) 56.

[4] James Joyce, Dubliners. (London: Penguin, 2000) xxxi. All quotes are taken from this edition, referred to as dDubliners in the text.

[5] Katie Wales, The Language of James Joyce. (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992) 38.

[6] Cf. Stevenson, Modernist Fiction, 48f.

[7] Eagleton, English Novel, 298.

[8] John Paul Riquelme, “Stephen Hero, Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Styles of Realism

and Fantasy.” The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce. Ed. Derek Attridge (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1990) 127.

[9] Cf. Adam Piette, Remembering and the Sounds of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett. (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 1996) 155ff.

[10] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (London: Penguin, 2003) 185f. All quotes are taken

from this edition, referred to as Portrait in the text.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Comparison between the Language of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett
University of Birmingham  (Faculty of Law, Humanities, Development and Sociology )
Joyce and Beckett
85 %
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Comparison, Language, James, Joyce, Samuel, Beckett
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Gregor Rumpf (Author), 2006, Comparison between the Language of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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