James Joyce was never a favorite writer of mine. I had to push myself to read all of "Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man," which was assigned in college; Irish Catholicism was totally foreign to me, and I had little understanding of its strength. I was, however, deeply moved by the stories of trapped Irish lives in Joyce's short stories in "Dubliners." I always felt I should read "Ulysses," but could never do it.
Brenda Maddox's 1988 biography of Joyce's wife titled "Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce" really changed my idea of Joyce and informed me about Nora, who was usually called not very intelligent and a bad cook. Maddox basically argues that Joyce was a feminist, was inspired by Nora to write strong portraits of Irishwomen which helped liberate downtrodden women in Ireland.
What I learned from Brenda Maddox's biography of Nora Joyce was how hard Nora and Joyce's lives were. They gave from impoverished families--the grinding poverty of 1900 Ireland-- and both had alcoholic fathers. Joyce did capture that desperate poverty and feelings of being trapped in Ireland in "Dubliners," but he and Nora courageously left the country to start a new life outside. I do admire both of their courage tremendously. Moreover, Nora ran away with him in 1904 and lived with him without marriage until he actually married her in 1931. For an Irishwoman woman to run away with a man and then live without the marriage ceremony was utterly scandalous.
Though living without a marriage license, Maddox shows they had an incredibly strong, loving marriage. Though seen as libertines, Nora and Joyce were always sexually faithful to each other. They simply insisted on choosing their life rather than following traditions they disagreed with.
They had two children. Brenda Maddox convincingly argues that Nora Joyce was the rock on which her family rested. They had tough times. They were terribly poor for years as a young married couple with two small children. Joyce needed many eye operations, but then went blind, and Nora survived cancer. I was horrified by what they suffered and amazed by their stoicism. Their daughter Lucia went mad, which was heartbreaking for both her parents. Her grandson Stephen says that Nora "was a rock. I would venture to say that he [Joyce] could have done it it, written not one of her books without her." Maddox convincingly shows that Nora was strong and Joyce was totally dependent on her strength.
Maddox says that Marxist scholars argues that in Finnegan's Wake 'Joyce wrests English from its colonial past ... by investing his own language" out of English. He took the language of the colonialists and transformed it. Also, Joyce was inspired by his wife Nora's voice to create powerful woman's voices in "Ulysses" and "Finnegan's Wake." In fact, Joyce barely knew Ireland outside of his hometown Dublin, so he learned about Ireland from Nora who was from Galway in the west, that part of Ireland where Gaelic customs were least stamped out by the English.
Maddox says that Nora is the Irish woman--feisty, original, humorous, strong, sexy--who inspired all Joyce's female characters, and influenced all of Irish literature and society: "That Joyce should raise Nora to the status of his personal goddess is not surprising. That the ordinary is extraordinary is the meaning of Joyce. Nora was ordinary. That is to say, she accepted life, with its madness, drunkenness, poverty; it music, it comedy, and its sexual imperatives."
Maddox quotes critic Colin McCabe, ""if young Joyce was to antipathetic to the national ideology... it was not so much to the specific claims of Gaelic .. but to their service of a notion of Irish purity ... to be more specific, the pure Irish woman ... '" Other writers like Yeats created ideologies of Irish nationalism that helped them gain independence, but "Joyce related the repression of women to male brutality in [Finnegan's] Wake." Ireland both has repressed its women and had a violent past.
Maddox argues that given the repression of women in Ireland, "Nora ... was more than Joyce's Ireland; she was Irish Woman as he thought she should be. Just as 'Finnegans Wake' creates on the page an Irish national that history has never allowed to exist. Nora combined a mixture of Irishness with female libido, two qualities that Irish society still strives to keep apart. Joyce chose her to be his companion .. because she embodied the idea of the headstrong Celtic woman who trusts her intuition and her passions ...." Maddox is convincing that on the surface Joyce never tackled politics, but his exalting ordinary people and his creation of literature about an Ireland that he wished to see with religious freedom and equality between the sexes is quite political. Maddox has written a book that revises how we look at Nora Joyce, James Joyce, and his writing.