How James Joyce Reinvented the Epiphany and Saved the Short Story

I’ve been working up a new course this spring in the contemporary short story. To get a sense of what makes for a good short story, I’ve gone back to ground zero – that is, I’ve been reading various acknowledged masters of the short-story form to see what their tips for writers are. When you try that on James Joyce, you get into deep water fast.

Joyce, who in 1914 published what is often seen as the first collection of modern short stories, Dubliners, had a solid Roman Catholic education, even though he was to rebel against the Church in his life and his writing.  Early on Joyce applied what had always been a religious idea, the epiphany, to the art of the writer.

The word epiphany derives from two Greek words epi (upon) and pheineia (to show). In religious terms it means the appearance or manifestation of a god.  The Epiphany in Catholicism (January 6) commemorates the baptism of Jesus, or the moment when the three wisemen, Gentiles that they were, understood the infant to be the Christ.

Joyce wants to import this sense of revelation into everyday life through literature. Here’s his take on the concept in his early work Stephen Hero, as the protagonist/Joyce stand-in witnesses a moment of flirtation between a young woman and young man:

He [Stephen Hero] was passing through Eccles’ St one evening, one misty evening, with all these thoughts dancing the dance of unrest in his brain when a trivial incident set him composing some ardent verses which he entitled a “Vilanelle of the Temptress.” A young lady was standing on the steps of one of those brown brick houses which seem the very incarnation of Irish paralysis. A young gentleman was leaning on the rusty railings of the area. Stephen as he passed on his quest heard the following fragment of colloquy out of which he received an impression keen enough to afflict his sensitiveness very severely.

The Young Lady-(drawling discreetly) … 0, yes … I was … at the … cha … pel …

The Young Gentleman- (inaudibly) … I … (again inaudibly) … I …

The Young Lady-(softly) … 0 … but you’re … ve … ry … wick … ed .

This triviality made him think of collecting many such moments together in a book of epiphanies. By an epiphany he meant  a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.

Photo of Marilyn Monroe reading Dubliners.

Marilyn Monroe reading Dubliners.

This is Joyce’s fullest explanation of a literary epiphany, an idea that is often vague and somewhat mystical in his work. Fortunately, in time, the English professors of the world applied the term to Joyce’s own stories in Dubliners – and codified it into one of the essential elements of the short story. In this sense an epiphany is that moment in a story, usually the climax, when a character comes to a sudden realization that she did not have at the beginning of the story.

The blogger Dave Hood in a post titled “Ending a Short Story” elaborates on the idea and lays out the conventional wisdom about the literary epiphany as:

…less an intellectual than felt moment. It is the moment in the story when the character gains significant insight or life-altering revelation, at the end of the story. It is the instant of felt understanding by the reader.

Many contemporary short stories end with an epiphany.

Photo of Dublin's Sandymount Strand.

Sandymount Strand, setting for a scene of flirtation in Joyce's Ulysses.

True, so true. Thus  an epiphany has morphed from the unexpected appearance of the divine – the word made flesh, so to speak – into a change in consciousness. Joyce’s radical idea has become the standard.

Tune in Thursday for part 2, in which we’ll take a look at how Joyce creates a series of epiphanies in his greatest short story, “The Dead.”

4 Responses to How James Joyce Reinvented the Epiphany and Saved the Short Story

  1. By coincidence the next post I came across after reading this one was also about short stories. Kirk Curnutt’s got a post up at the OUP blog, about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories. Given your recent excursions into romance, I thought you might be interested by this bit:

    at conferences and in classes when I read aloud the following passage from “The Love Boat” in which two strangers, Mae Purley and Bill Frothington, “lock eyes” for the first time, I inevitably excite sniggers:

    “They made love. For a moment they made love as no one ever dares to do after. Their glance was closer than an embrace, more urgent than a call. There were no words for it. Had there been, and had Mae heard them, she would heave fled to the darkest corner of the ladies’ washroom and hid her face in a paper towel.”

    On the other hand, I can recite a passage from The Great Gatsby that will make grown men weep: “Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder”—the famous passage, in other words, that culminates with Gatsby’s desire for Daisy Buchanan described as a “tuning fork … struck upon a star.”

    What makes the former seem overripe while the latter is regarded as one of the most beautiful moments in American literature?

    I wish I knew.

    I’m tempted to say it’s because one appears in a commercial short story dopey enough to go by the title “The Love Boat” and that the other—well, the other comes from The Great Friggin’ Gatsby.

    Ultimately, however, I think we lack an extensive enough knowledge of “the type of language used” in 1920s’ love stories to judge beyond that flippant response. Attaining that knowledge would require us to break down that arbitrary dividing line that separates “literary” expressions of love from popular ones—a dividing line that, again, has exiled many Fitzgerald short stories from “serious” consideration for way too long.

    • Thanks once again, Laura, for continuing to deepen the discussion. Curnuttt, of course, is being quite selective in quoting Fitzgerald, zeroing in on one of his purpler and, in my view, weaker passages. It doesn’t make me cry; it makes me laugh. And the lesson here is that even the great prose-poetry stylists occasionally go off the deep end. Of course, in my view Gatsby is also a great romance novel.

  2. If you look closely at the size of the book Marilyn is reading, you can see that it is Ulysses, not Dubliners. One reason I recognize it is that I have that very same Random House edition, circa 1934, inherited from my grandmother, with its tan cover — and text of the court decision declaring that the book was not obscene and could finally be published in the U.S.

    • Thanks, hacwriter. You’re right. I found an enlarged photo and that book MM is reading is indeed Ulysses. Eve Arnold, the photographer, said Marilyn carried the novel around in her car and read it from time to time. According to Arnold, Marilyn said “she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it – but she found it hard going.”

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