I am far from being the first reader to notice that there is a great deal that is autobiographical in the fiction of James Joyce. Stephen Daedalus in both Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses has many obvious similarities in temperament and experience with his creator. In the play that Joyce wrote between those two novels, Exiles (1915), the would-be writer who rejects Irish Catholic conventionalities is named Richard Rowhan.
Unlike Joyce, Richard has returned to Ireland with his (common-law?) wife Bertha, who like Nora Barnacle, a Galway girl, who had been a chambermaid in Finn’s Hotel in Dublin, is from a Protestant background and an unsuitable match in class to boot.
Like Joyce and, later, Leopold Bloom, Richard is inordinately fascinated with being cuckolded. In both cases, the writer wanted to know what it felt like (an emotionally dangerous form of research), intellectually rejected possessiveness and felt jealous while reiterating the freedom of his partner.
Beyond those two motives for exploring sexual freedom/jealousy, as I reread Exiles, I had intimations of a suppressed homoerotic bond between Richard and his friend and champion, Robert Hand (based on Joyce’s pre-exile drinking cronies, Oliver St John Gogarty and Vincent Cosgrave, who are redeployed in Ulysses). These intimations are not entirely creatures of my imagination, because in notes on the play Joyce himself wrote that “the bodily possession of Bertha by Robert, repeated often, would certainly bring into almost carnal contact the two men.” Moreover, a sense of bonding of semen mixing in the same receptacle (or at least of having “carnal knowledge” of the same orifice) is not unprecedented.
And in addition to his pride being damaged by Bertha choosing Richard when she met both Richard and Robert, Robert seems to have some jealousy – or at least resentment – of Richard’s vision of himself as the Homer of the Irish “race” (embarking on writing a Dublin update of Homer’s Odyssey).
Bertha is not an intellectual like Richard, Robert, or Beatrice (Robert’s sister who is still carrying a torch for Richard, and who would have been a more suitable mate both in terms of social status and in the ability to understand Richard’s writing and, indeed, speaking). Joyce treats her mind as a region of mists, though he gives her complete sentences rather than the caroming fragments of Molly Bloom in Ulysses). Again in Joyce’s own notes, “Robert wishes Richard to use against him the weapons which social conventions and morals put in the hands of the husband. Richard refuses. Bertha wishes Richard to use those weapons in her defense. Richard refuses…” and has an erotic stimulation in imagining his best friend bedding his wife, however unjoyful such excitement is.
Reading the play as autobiography (which it would be very difficult to avoid doing), I wonder if Joyce realized how much he manipulated Nora and the various men he all but threw at her to test her and them (notably Cosgrave and Roberto Preziosa)… and himself.
Nora/Bertha differ significantly from Hedda Gabler, though Ibsen was clearly Joyce’s role model as a conventionality-defying playwright, as is well-documented, including correspondence with Ibsen himself. Joyce has his alter ego seemingly more in love with Nora’s than Ibsen has the artist who uses his wife in “When We Dead Awaken,” though having the grace to wonder if he (Richard) has ruined her (Bertha’s) life and innocent simplicity for his artistic/philosophical experiments in breaking the chains of conventionality (social here, artistic in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake).
My guesstimate is that without cuts the play would run three to three-and-a-half hours, though cutting the first part of Act Three and much of the second part of Act One (both involving Archie, the son of Bertha and Richard) might make the length manageable. The characters are archetypes of Joyce’s private mythology of betrayal. Although they rattle on, the dialogue is more realistic than that in either Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses.
Exiles seems to me to be a key text, though one I rarely see or hear mentioned (less even than Stephen Hero, the first draft of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). Joyce revisited Ireland in 1909, 1911, and 1912, but did not repatriate even after the establishment of an independent state. There is no certainty within Exiles that Richard will remain in Ireland, though it seems that Robert is going into exile after the return after nine years of Bertha and Richard
Turning one last time to Joyce’s notes, in regard to the play’s title: “Why the title Exiles? A nation exacts a penance from those who dared to leave her payable on their return… [In the Biblical tale of the Prodigal Son] the father took the side of the prodigal. This is probably not the way of the world-certainly not in Ireland.
I have extended the celebration of Bloomsday (16 June) to a whole month of postings on Joyce and other Irish writers (and films, including the one the recently deceased Joseph Strick made of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).