Joyce’s Epiphanies 

The Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated in the Christian calendar on 6 January each year, and commemorates the revelation of Jesus’ divinity to the Magi, the three wise men who had followed the star to Christ’s birthplace. Derived from Greek, the word ‘epiphany’ means a sudden manifestation of deity. In Christian theology, it also means the manifestation of a hidden message for the benefit of others, a message for their salvation. Joyce gave the name epiphany to certain short sketches he wrote between 1898 and 1904, and the idea of the epiphany was central to much of his early published fiction.

Through his education at the Jesuit schools at Clongowes Wood and Belvedere College, Joyce was steeped in Catholic religious ideas. He even suggested that there was a certain resemblance between the mystery of transubstantiation in the Catholic mass and what he was trying to do as an artist, changing the bread of everyday life into something with permanent artistic life. In making this claim, Joyce envisaged himself as an artist/priest of the eternal imagination through whom the flesh becomes word. It’s no surprise, then, that he adapted the idea of epiphany to suit his own artistic ends.

Joyce himself never defined exactly what he meant by epiphany, but we get some idea of what it means from the way in which the character Stephen Daedalus defines it in Stephen Hero, an early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen says that epiphanies are a sudden and momentary showing forth or disclosure of one’s authentic inner self. This disclosure might manifest itself in vulgarities of speech, or gestures, or memorable phases of the mind.

Joyce’s brother Stanislaus saw the epiphanies as something more like records of Freudian slips. Writing after Joyce’s death, Stanislaus claimed the epiphanies were ironical observations of slips, errors and gestures by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal. Oliver St John Gogarty, a friend of Joyce’s and one of the models for the character Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, thought that Fr Darlington of University College had told Joyce that epiphany meant ‘showing forth,’ and that an epiphany was a showing forth of the mind in which one gave oneself away.

Nonetheless, the notion of the epiphany remains slightly obscure and even somewhat confusing. For instance, in the course of Stephen Hero, Stephen tells Cranly that he believes the clock on the Ballast Office is capable of an epiphany, but neither Stephen nor Joyce make clear how this might be possible. Also, the word epiphanic has been used by scholars to describe the kinds of revelations that occur at the end of Joyce’s short stories in Dubliners, and these moments of revelation are often called epiphanies. However, it is not always clear just what such epiphanic moments reveal or just how these so-called epiphanies relate to what Joyce called epiphanies.

Though the epiphanies proper were written between 1898 and 1904, Joyce may have been developing the idea for some time before that. His brother Stanislaus mentions a series of short prose sketches written in the first person that Joyce began while still a sixteen-year-old student at Belvedere College. These sketches were called ‘Silhouettes’ and, though none of them are extant, they seem to have been similar in style to what Joyce later calls epiphanies. It may be that Joyce also got some of his ideas about epiphany from his reading of the Italian author Gabriel D’Annunzio. L’Epifania del Fuoco (The Epiphany of Fire) was the first part of D’Annunzio’s novel Il Fuoco (The Fire) that Joyce almost certainly read while attending University College. D’Annunzio’s writing also influenced the young Joyce’s early ideas on aesthetics and the role of art and the artist in society.

The epiphanies reflect aspects of Joyce’s life at the time when they were written, a formative period in Joyce’s life. They are like snapshots, recording specific and minute fragments of life and they are presented without commentary. Often these fragments appear without a given context, making it difficult to determine Joyce’s intention and meaning. Some of the epiphanies are rendered as dramatic dialogue while others are simple prose descriptions or prose poems.

There are several epiphanies that centre on social visits to the home of the MP David Sheehy. The Sheehy’s lived at 2 Belvedere Place, not far from Belvedere College. Richard and Eugene Sheehy attended Belvedere with Joyce, and Joyce regularly visited their house. There he became friendly with the Sheehy sisters (Hanna, Margaret, Mary and Kathleen) and even developed a crush on Mary. Joyce’s friend Tom Kettle later married Margaret Sheehy, and another friend, Francis Skeffington, married Hannah. Margaret gave elocution lessons and wrote short dramatic sketches, and Joyce appeared on stage in one of her sketches, Cupid’s Confidante, when it was first performed in 1900.

One of these epiphanies records a guessing game, where Margaret Sheehy has an author in mind and the others are trying to guess who it is through a question-and-answer session. In the epiphany, Joyce claims to have known who she had in mind (the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen), but tells her that she got the age wrong. The epiphany gives us some insight into Joyce’s feeling about Dublin as an intellectual desert, where Ibsen’s name is known, even notorious, but nothing else is known about him. In another epiphany, Hannah Sheehy is asked who her favourite German poet is and replies Goethe, quite possibly because she knows no other German poet, again revealing something of the intellectual desert. Yet another concerns a teasing comment made about the ‘rabblement’ being at the door, a mocking reference to Joyce’s essay ‘The Day of the Rabblement’ which was published in a booklet along with an essay by Francis Skeffington.

Closer to home, three epiphanies concern the death of Joyce’s brother George in March 1902. One of these is a particularly dramatic sketch in which Joyce, playing at the piano, is questioned by his mother who emerges from the sick room and is concerned about what it happening to George. In fact, it records the moment when Joyce and his mother realise that George has just died. In another epiphany, Joyce records that everyone in the house is asleep, and that his dead brother George is laid out on the bed where Joyce had slept the night before. Joyce says that he cannot pray for him in the way that the others do, and twice refers to George as ‘poor little fellow’. Another epiphany records an exchange between Joyce and Skeffington, who apologises for having missed the funeral. Skeffington appears to use the usual, clichéd formulae for expressing condolences, and these formulae contrast starkly with Joyce’s own, more personal feeling of grief.

Some of the other epiphanies come from Joyce’s time in Paris. One records prostitutes walking the streets and eating pastries, and this, in a more refined form, turns up later in Stephen Dedalus’ reminiscences of Paris in Ulysses. He also has a dream-like epiphany of his mother, where his mother’s image is confused with that of the Virgin Mary. This may have been written in response to letters from her about the hardships the family were suffering in Dublin.

Another describes Joyce, lying on the deck of a ship, hearing the voices of the choirboys from the nearby cathedral of Our Lady. Stanislaus claimed that Joyce wrote this about his journey home on 11 April 1903, after receiving a telegram from his father telling him that his mother was dying. There is another epiphany about a woman and a young girl making their way through a crowd at a funeral, and a reworked version of this appears in the ‘Hades’ episode of Ulysses. It’s not clear whether the original epiphany related to the funeral of Joyce’s mother or his brother.

It seems that Joyce circulated the epiphanies in manuscript form before he left Dublin in December 1902 to go to Paris. It also seems likely that he showed the manuscript of the epiphanies to the poet WB Yeats when they met in 1902. Later that year, as he was preparing to leave for Paris, Joyce gave Stanislaus (who was keeper of the manuscript of the epiphanies) instructions that, in the event of his death, copies of the epiphanies were to be sent to all the major libraries of the world, including the Vatican. Stephen Dedalus somewhat disparagingly recalls a similar desire in the ‘Proteus’ episode of Ulysses where his epiphanies were to be sent to all the major libraries of the world, including Alexandria!

From Paris in February 1903, Joyce sent Stanislaus 2 poems and 13 epiphanies, with instructions on where the epiphanies were to be inserted into the existing manuscript. It seems that, even at this stage, Joyce was still considering publishing a book of epiphanies, just as he had planned to publish his aesthetic system as a book. However, he decided to combine his aesthetic system and epiphanies with the short essay entitled ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ which had been rejected by John Eglinton (editor of Dana, and a librarian at the National Library of Ireland). All three elements were incorporated into Stephen Hero, on which Joyce started work in January 1904.

After January 1904, Joyce did not write any further epiphanies. However, that did not mean that the epiphanies were of no further use to him. In their book, The Workshop of Daedalus, Robert Scholes and Richard Kain show how individual epiphanies were incorporated into Joyce’s later works, including Stephen Hero, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners and Ulysses.

In manuscript form today, 22 epiphanies are in the collection at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and another 18 at Cornell University. Those at Buffalo are from Joyce’s own collection of manuscripts. Those at Cornell come mainly from Stanislaus Joyce’s commonplace book. There are indications from the page numbering on the Buffalo manuscript that there may have been at least 70 and possibly even more epiphanies originally.

The epiphanies are published in: 

Epiphanies, edited by Oscar Silverman, [Buffalo, N.Y.]: Lockwood Memorial Library, University of Buffalo: Easy Hill Press, 1956.

James Joyce: Poems and Shorter Writings, edited by Richard Ellmann and A. Walton Litz, London: Faber & Faber, 1991. ISBN 978 0571143054

Scholes, Robert & Richard M. Kain: The Workshop of Daedalus: James Joyce and the raw materials for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1965.

To read more about significant dates in Joyce’s life please click onSignificant Joycean Dates