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An overview of the epiphany and the work of james joyce

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.

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. 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.

This disclosure might manifest itself in vulgarities of speech, or gestures, or memorable phases of the mind. 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.

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.

They are like snapshots, recording specific and minute fragments of life and they are presented without commentary. 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. There he became friendly with the Sheehy sisters Hanna, Margaret, Mary and Kathleen and even developed a crush on Mary. 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 Ibsenbut tells her that she got the age wrong. 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.

Joyce, James - Stream of consciousness and epiphany

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. Another epiphany records an exchange between Joyce and Skeffington, who apologises for having missed the funeral.

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.

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.

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. 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 an overview of the epiphany and the work of james joyce the epiphanies were of no further use to him. 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.

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. Lockwood Memorial Library, University of Buffalo: Easy Hill Press, 1956.

The Workshop of Daedalus: Northwestern University Press, 1965.