On 29 August 1904 Joyce wrote to Nora about his character and attitudes.
Joyce and Nora had been seeing each other frequently in the weeks since they first met and, by the end of August, Joyce wanted to reveal his real character. It was an anxious moment for Joyce, caught between the impulse to tell her everything about himself, and the fear that Nora would reject him as a result.
Joyce’s letter was written from 60 Shelbourne Road where he lived until the end of August. He had just returned from his latest rendezvous with Nora, but was haunted by the look of tired indifference on her face that evening. His midnight supper had made him feel ill but, despite bad paper and a bad pen, he was determined to write to her and wanted her to write to him.
Despite his fear that what he wanted to tell her would cause her pain, Joyce felt it was important that she should know his attitude towards things. He boldly told her that he rejected the present social order and Christianity, and claimed that his family’s middle-class home had been destroyed by his father’s habits, habits which he had also inherited. Though he blamed his father’s habits for causing the death of his mother, Joyce also acknowledged that his own frank and cynical behaviour was responsible for her death. He could see his mother as the victim of a system she could not escape, and he cursed that system that had made her a victim.
Joyce went on to tell Nora that his own natural impulses led him to reject the Catholic Church, and that now he was at war with the Church in his writing. He also pointed out that he had failed miserably in his attempts to study for a career in medicine, in law and in music, and that as recently as last week he was thinking of taking work as a travelling actor.
After leaving Nora that evening, he had walked to Grafton Street where the lively people reminded him of his time in Paris. Leaning against a lamp-post, smoking, he felt attracted by that old life, but at the same time he rejected it because it couldn’t give him what he wanted.
Though Joyce outlined the things he had rejected and made clear his own behaviour and attitudes, he had little to say about the future. His aim with all this frankness was to get Nora to see through his masks and disguises. He told her that no one had ever come as close to his soul as she has, but despite that, he was left doubtful and anxious.
Sources & Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. II edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.