James Joyce concept of epiphany is one concerned with a move away from religious transcendentalism towards secular moments in which the subjective experience of the moment harks to a transcendental sense of belonging, awe or inspiration (Barry 2002). This is notably captured in two of his texts known as A Portrait of an Artist and The Dubliners. Using two examples taken from these two texts alongside critiques put forward by certain literary critics, we will attempt to analyse his concept of epiphany in relation to other significant literary devices that he employs.
In Joyce’s text A Portrait of an Artist, the narrative can be viewed as moving away from the notion of an objective account of reality. This rejection of realism, prevalent in the realist novel of the early nineteenth century, results in a certain form of ambiguity that has come to define many fellow modernists.
Divorcing from the associated omniscient narrative styles of the earlier periods, modernist writers began to take on a great range of new forms and styles, one of which being the employment of the epiphany formerly used commonly in religious writing (Bennet & Royle 2004). In A Portrait of an Artist, this acts in changing the perspective of reality that is being explored by the author, which is achieved through an indulgence of ambiguity rather than process of deduction.
This ambiguity is captured in a vagueness in both the author’s narrative and the protagonist’s thoughts throughout the text. For instance, in one extract taken from the text expressing the thoughts of the protagonists direct experience, we can see this ambiguity turn into an epiphany that refers to the experience itself and acts in combining it with other subjective experiences. For instance, on reflection of his own reaction or response to the direct experience he is accounting for, the protagonist enters into the ambiguity of his own thoughts, stating that:
‘O how cold and strange it was to think of that! All the dark was cold and strange. There were pale strange faces there, great eyes like carriage-lamps. They were the ghosts of murderers, the figures of marshals who had received their death-wound on battlefields far away over the sea. What did they wish to say that their faces were so strange?’ (Joyce 2003, 59)
In this extract we can see through the division of perspective and perception that the narrator is not observing, documenting or accounting for the experience of the protagonist. Rather, he is allowing the subject the freedom to recall the experience and, in doing so, transcend both the objective reality being accounted for and the form of the literary function. This allows the conscious mind of the character to question their own direct response and reinterpret the reality of the moment by way of an epiphany.
This shift in perspective from the reality being charted by the omniscient observer to that of a reflective and ambiguous account being drawn out in the description of the experience itself is referred to by the scholar and critic Peter Barry. In his text Beginning Theory Barry suggests that this is ’the loss of the real’, that he warns can lead to legitimizing ’a callous indifference to suffering’ (Barry 2006, 89). However, this loss of the real is perhaps the antithesis of what Joyce is attempting to evoke in his concept of the epiphany.
In essence, the loss of the real is something of an awakening of the transcendental marking the beginning of a psychological reality. This premise could perhaps be seen as a stream of consciousness that could be used to examine the transcendental connectedness between the people and members of a community on the basis of intellectual, as well as objective, reality.
Through the techniques incorporated in this style of narrative it is possible to allow the reader to see the psychological reality of the character and have access to their experiences, making the relationship between objective reality and the subject a semiotic one. In this sense, the epiphany is a challenge to the reader. Furthermore, the transcendental reality that it refers to is also secular, as it refers to the subjective experience as the catalyst, rather than any form of divinity as a measurement.
In Dubliners, we can see that the premise of Joyce’s city is based upon the idea of nationalism and modernism that was prevalent throughout Europe at his time of writing. This nationalism is personified in the city, which acts as the source of experience and reflection. In many ways, this may be understandably regarded as the replacement for the transcendental God at the heart of religious epiphanies. This is because the object of the city is given as being in natural sync with the individual‘s subjective experience. Essentially, it is the catalyst for the individual’s semiotic relationship with the world and the source of their reflection.
Essentially, the city, or city life, is the source of this transcendental epiphany, which makes it a very different environment to the objective and macabre city of some of Joyce’s contemporaries. In one extract, Joyce reveals this transcendental moment and how it combines with other experiential referents through the means of the epiphany. He states that:
‘Walk along a strand, strange land, come to a city gate, sentry there old ranker too, Tweedy’s big moustaches leaning on a long kind of a spear. `Wander` through awned streets. Turband faces going by. Dark caves of carpet shops, big man, Turko the terrible, seated cross legged smoking a coiled pipe. Cries of sellers in the streets.
Drink water scented with fennel, sherbet. Wander along all day. Might meet a robber or two. Well, meet him. Getting on to sundown. The shadows of the mosques along the pillars: priest with a scroll rolled up. A shiver of the trees, signal, the evening wind. I pass their dark language. High wall: beyond strings twanged. Night sky moon, violet, colour of Molly’s new garters. Strings. Listen. A girl playing one of those instruments what do you call them: dulcimers. I pass.’ (Joyce 2007, 124)
In this extract, we can once again see this shift away from any objective detail and move towards a reflective and subjective account of the experience. Joyce describes the city in relation to the referential meaning of each individual sign as the protagonist combines the account with their experience. This subjective and fluid account of the environment and its many innate objects is then transcended via the epiphany of the experience without reference to any God. Rather, it is the relationship with the city that evokes such the depiction and seemingly alive narrative. Referring to this detail, literary critic Raymond Williams states that:
‘In Joyce, the laws and the conventions of traditional observation and communication have apparently disappeared. The consequent awareness is intense and fragmentary, subjective primarily, yet in the very form of its subjectivity including others who are now with the buildings, the noises, the sights and smells of the city, parts of this single and racing consciousness.’ (Williams 1973, 1)
It would appear that Joyce is conscious of his use of the concept of epiphany. It would appear that in applying it in a secular manner, he is rejecting the notion of a God or objective transcendental truth. It would seem that this is because Joyce believes that it is the experience itself and the reflection rather than response of the individual that can awaken the transcendental realm and semiotic reality that lies within experience itself. Essentially, without the notion of the epiphany, the narrative would be veering away from the truth of experience itself and would negate the very social and relative apparatus that constitutes our being.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
Bennet, Andrew. & Royle, Nicholas. Introduction to Literature Criticism and Theory Harlow: Pearson Education, 2004.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man London: Penguin Classics, 2003.
Joyce, James. Dubliners Oxford: Penguin Classics, 2007.
Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City London: Chatto & Windas, 1973.