Analysis of James Joyce’s Exiles

Exiles is Joyce’s only extant play. It was written in Trieste during 1914 and 1915, and first published by Grant Richards in London and by B. W. Huebsch in New York on May 25, 1918. Joyce purposely waited to publish the play until after A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man appeared in book form in 1916. In many ways the structure of Exiles resembles those in the plays of Ibsen that Joyce had so admired a decade earlier. The play also reflects an autobiographical projection of what life might have been like for Joyce and his family had they returned to Ireland around this time.


The action opens in a suburban Dublin sitting room in Merrion (a fictitious location that seems to correspond with the Sandymount area) with an encounter between Beatrice Justice and Richard Rowan, the play’s protagonist. Their conversation touches upon a series of increasingly personal topics: his writing, their eight-year correspondence while Richard was living in Rome with Bertha (his common-law wife) and Archie (Richard and Bertha’s child), Beatrice’s love for Robert Hand (Richard’s long-time friend and Beatrice’s cousin), and the attitude of Richard’s mother—who had died three months earlier—toward Richard’s relationship with Bertha.

Richard breaks off the conversation and leaves the room to avoid meeting Robert, who subsequently enters with a large bunch of red roses for Bertha. The awkward exchange that follows between Beatrice and Robert lasts only a few minutes before she goes off to give Archie a piano lesson, but the feeling of distance and the tone of embarrassment that dominates their conversation clearly signal their changed relationship. Robert and Bertha on the other hand seem to enjoy a much more intimate bond. When the others have left them alone, they talk of their affection for one another, hold hands, embrace, and kiss. The scene is intentionally ambiguous. Robert appears consumed by his passion for Bertha. She, on the other hand, neither encourages nor discourages his advances. This ambivalent attitude will emerge as the central issue of the play. Robert also mentions that he will encourage Richard to take a position at the university in order to ensure Bertha’s stay at Merrion. Just before Richard returns, Bertha consents to go later to Robert’s home at Ranelagh.

In the scene that unfolds after Robert has left, the conflicted sexual relationships of the central characters come to the foreground. It becomes clear that Richard is fully aware of Robert’s attempts at seduction. Bertha and Richard discuss her conversation with Robert in detail. Bertha’s own feelings are by no means clear, and she accuses Richard of doing the work of the devil by trying to turn Robert against her, as, she claims, he had tried to turn Archie against her. In addition, Bertha, who knew of the correspondence between Richard and Beatrice, accuses Richard of being in love with Beatrice and also of trying to manipulate Robert’s relationship with Bertha. By the end of the act, when Bertha asks Richard to forbid her to go to Robert’s home, the inability or unwillingness of the characters to act independently has become a dominant and oppressive condition. Although Richard says that she must decide for herself, it remains clear to the audience that he has manipulated the situation by, at the very least, allowing it to progress without his intervention.

Act 2 opens with Robert in his cottage in Ranelagh (at that time a suburb south of Dublin), waiting for Bertha. However, Richard arrives first, and declares that Bertha has told him everything. The conversation that follows raises, but does nothing to resolve, the questions of fidelity, friendship, and freedom central to the play. When Bertha finally arrives, Robert leaves to wait in the garden. Richard and Bertha then discuss trust and their own relationship before Richard departs. Bertha calls Robert in from the garden. They too talk about freedom, love, and choice, and the act ends ambiguously, giving the audience no clear sense of what, if anything, will transpire between Bertha and Robert.

The third act begins early on the morning of the following day at Richard Rowan’s home, with Bertha seated alone in the drawing room. Beatrice Justice enters, ostensibly to bring a copy of the morning newspaper which contains a leading article (i.e., an editorial) on Richard’s life written by Robert. In fact, however, Bertha and Beatrice quickly confront one another on the issues of Richard’s return to Ireland and his writing. Although the central concerns remain unresolved, before Beatrice leaves Bertha offers her friendship.

At this point Richard comes into the drawing room, and he and Bertha begin a conversation in which they attempt to resolve the conflict in their attitudes toward freedom and fidelity. Robert Hand enters the room but not before Richard leaves for his study. Bertha chides Robert for planning to leave the country without a word to her. She also seeks to bring about a reconciliation between Richard and Robert. She calls Richard back from his study, and Robert confesses his failure to him. After Robert has left, however, it becomes apparent that he has given Richard little consolation. Richard speaks of the “wound of doubt” in his soul, and the play ends with Bertha, speaking softly, asking him to return as a lover to her once again.

James Joyce/Delphine Lebourgeois The New Yorker


While critics continue to debate whether Exiles stands as a substantial work in its own right, few would disagree with the view that it remains an important transitional piece between A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Whatever one thinks of its dramaturgy, the play clearly highlights themes crucial throughout Joyce’s creative process: exile, friendship, love, freedom, betrayal, and doubt. Of all his other works, Chamber Music, with its similar themes, comes closest to such concentration. (And, one might argue, labors under the same flaws that beset the play.) In Dubliners, Stephen Hero, and A Portrait (written prior to Exiles) and in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (written after Exiles), these themes compete with others and, to that extent, become marginalized. Throughout Exiles, however, they remain at center stage.

As one would expect from the title, the theme of exile operates both literally and figuratively throughout the play. On the literal level, one sees the slipperiness of the term. Richard’s self-imposed banishment of nine years, though absolute, is also temporary, ending with his return to Ireland. On the other hand, at the figurative level, the exile recurs through the estrangements between the main characters. It is a spiritual separation that alienates one from the other and that, by the end of the play, has the literal effect upon Robert that Richard experienced before the play began, forcing him to leave his country. Joyce makes us aware of the way that estrangement, though not bound by place, can produce the same effect as literal exile. Paradoxically, it results not from the failure of a country to sustain its people but from the failure of unrestrained freedom to sustain friendship and love. This deeper, more primal form of expulsion acts as the major concern and provides the central metaphor of Joyce’s play.

Joyce recognizes that just as unlimited freedom can nourish, it can burden the soul and paralyze the mind. (This of course stands as the opposite of the restrictions in Dubliners that produce this condition.) Bertha, feeling abandoned in the freedom given her by Richard, suffers “mental paralysis,” a phrase used by Joyce about her in his notes for the play, which follow the version published by the Viking Press. Bertha’s paralysis comes to the foreground at the end of the first act. She asks Richard to decide whether she should or should not visit Robert, and he refuses, leaving the choice to her.

As the second act demonstrates, such putative freedom, however, can easily prove less substantial and more tyrannical than overt repression. When Bertha does go to Robert’s cottage, she finds Richard waiting there, unwilling to exert his own will but unable to relinquish engagement with what transpires. Whether or not it is intentional, this move intimidates Robert, who is unable to face Bertha and Richard together, and absents himself until Richard leaves. Betrayal seems inevitable in Richard’s world of unrelenting freedom, because he proves to be as incapable as a conventional husband of surrendering control. At the end of the play, which Joyce referred to as “three cat-andmouse acts,” Richard admits to Bertha: “I have wounded my soul for you—a deep wound of doubt which can never be healed.” However, even here a note of ambiguity remains. Given Richard’s behavior during the course of the drama it remains an open question whether he masochistically luxuriates in that wound.

When explaining the play’s title in his notes, Joyce declared that “[a] nation exacts a penance from those who dared to leave her payable on their return.” The same penalty might be said to apply to those who test the limits of friendship and love. The action of the play repeatedly explores not simply the price one must pay for leaving one’s country but also the emotional consequences that one must face as a result of segregating oneself from others. Richard Hand stands as much more than a geographic exile. He demonstrates the consequences of imposing emotional and spiritual independence upon every aspect of his life.

This complex exploration of the theme of exile recurs throughout Joyce’s writing. In his Italian lecture “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages” (in Critical Writings), for example, he touches upon ideas that also resonate in Robert’s newspaper article on Richard, such as the effects that emigration has upon those who must stay at home. In his fiction, from Dubliners to Finnegans Wake, the consequences of spiritual and emotional exile dog the central characters. Nowhere, however, is the topic presented more overtly than in this play.

Despite suggestions that Exiles does not match the creative achievements of his fiction, the dramatic structure of the work reflects how deeply committed to it Joyce was. For Exiles, Joyce wrote precise and extensive stage directions, detailed the scenery, specified the year, and identified the season. The play takes place during the summer of 1912. (As it happens, this was an important period in Joyce’s life as an exile. He was in Ireland from mid-July to mid-September of that year in an unsuccessful effort to get Dubliners into print, and left bitterly disappointed, never to return again.) Autobiographical material and (to some degree) personal longings were assimilated into the play. The death of a mother, the return of an exiled writer with a common-law wife and their child, the publication of a book, and the desire for financial security seem to parallel Joyce’s life and aspirations. One cannot say whether this use of autobiographical material actually liberated Joyce from any lingering thought that he need ever return to Ireland, but once he had completed Exiles he was able to forge ahead with his most innovative works, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

Although the dramatic mode figures significantly in Joyce’s aesthetics and writings, Exiles did not enjoy the theatrical success for which Joyce had hoped, perhaps in part because of difficulties imposed by the play itself. In a 1915 letter to Joyce, Ezra POUND bluntly commented that the play “won’t do for the stage” and that “even [to] read it takes very close concentration of attention. I don’t believe an audience could follow it or take it in” (Letters, II.365). Pound, however, did suggest that Joyce send the play to the Stage Society in London. Pound suspected that Exiles would not be suitable for the Abbey theatre, and, in fact, the play was rejected in August 1917 by W. B. Yeats, on the grounds that it was not Irish folk drama, and therefore was not the type of play he believed his actors could perform well. As of the date of this publication, Exiles has not been performed at the Abbey, although the company participated in a joint television production that aired on Telefis Eireann on October 2, 1974, and proposed to stage it in 2004 until the James Joyce estate raised objections. (The estate threatened to sue on the grounds of copyright infringement. Although in 1991, 50 years after Joyce’s death, Exiles went out of copyright, it went back into copyright in 1995 when in the European Union a new law went into effect extending the time period to 70 years after the death of the author.)

The first stage production of Exiles was not in English but in German at the Münchener Theater in Munich, in August 1919. (The German title of the play is Verbannte.) In fact, Exiles is rarely performed, and infrequently read and studied. Nonetheless, the play remains an important document for anyone interested in the evolution of Joyce’s canon and in the development of his art. As a dramatic work, it embodies, albeit imperfectly, a vital principle in Joyce’s aesthetics, one that he formulated years earlier in his Paris Notebook (March 6, 1903). In Aristotelian style, Joyce characterized the differences among the lyrical, the epical, and the dramatic forms of art, the dramatic being the least personal and thus the purest: “that art is dramatic whereby the artist sets forth the image in immediate relation to others.” Particular concern for the dramatic mode can be found in Joyce’s early essays as well as in the thoughts of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.



She is one of the principal characters in Exiles. Bertha, whose surname is not given in the play, is the unmarried companion of the writer Richard Rowan and the mother of their son, Archie Rowan. Although much is made of the fact that her social class is beneath Richard’s, she emerges as a formidable figure in the complex and tense relationship that they share. Bertha’s direct and tenacious approach to life stands in sharp contrast to the opaque and often passive positions adopted by Richard.

With Richard’s knowledge and tacit consent, she develops a relationship with Richard’s friend Robert Hand. Although this seems on the point of becoming an affair, it is not clear whether the sexual relationship is ever consummated. Although, as the play reveals, Richard was himself unfaithful to Bertha many times, he announces that her assignation with Robert wounds him spiritually, and it convinces him of the inevitability of betrayal if freedom is permitted. Joyce’s notes to the play indicate that certain aspects of Bertha’s character—the most obvious being her status as a common-law wife of an Irish writer and her sexual attractiveness— were modeled on his wife, Nora Barnacle.


She is an old servant of the Rowan family who continues to work for Richard Rowan after he inherits the family residence from his mother.

Hand, Robert

He is one of the principal characters, a journalist, neighbor, and longtime friend of Richard Rowan and cousin and former fiancé of Beatrice Justice. Robert is an example of the archetypal betrayer or Judas figure who recurs throughout Joyce’s writings. In his notes to the play, Joyce described Robert variously as “an automobile” and “the elder brother in the fable of the Prodigal Son” (Exiles 113, 114). While the significance of the automobile reference remains obscure, the analogue between Robert and the elder brother from Jesus’ parable is clear. Both remained in their native country while others left and returned to a measure of acclaim. As does Buck Mulligan in relation to Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, Robert represents what Richard Rowan might become were he to submit to the demands of Irish society. Throughout Exiles—a play Joyce characterized as “three cat and mouse acts” (Exiles 123) in which each character assumes the role of one or the other animal—Robert tries to seduce Bertha and win her away from Richard by flaunting the benefits of normalcy. Although it appears that by the end of the play he fails, the outcome is not certain.

Justice, Beatrice

She is one of the principal characters in Joyce’s play. She gives piano lessons to Archie Rowan, the son of Bertha and of her common-law husband, Richard Rowan. More sig-nificantly, she maintains a complex spiritual and intellectual bond with Richard that complements the equally multifaceted physical and emotional relationship that Richard shares with Bertha. Beatrice’s already unconventional ties to Richard are further complicated by the fact that she had at one time been secretly engaged to her first cousin, Robert Hand, a man who at the time of the play is deeply infatuated with Bertha.

Although Joyce modeled the other main characters in Exiles on recognizable Dublin friends and acquaintances, no critic has suggested an analogue for Beatrice. This absence in itself may account for the woodenness of her actions and attitudes. Joyce does, however, outline attributes of her character in his notes for Exiles: “Beatrice’s mind is an abandoned cold temple in which hymns have risen heavenward in a distant past but where now a doddering priest offers alone and hopelessly prayers to the Most High” (Exiles, “Notes by the Author,” p. 119). Joyce goes on to articulate the need to keep the image of Beatrice in the minds of the audience during the second act, despite the fact that she does not appear on stage then.

Rowan, Archie

He is a minor character in the play, more a symbol than an individual. Archie is the young son of Richard Rowan and of his common- law wife, Bertha. His status as a child born out of wedlock is of more significance than his actual presence as the play unfolds. Many of the attributes of Archie’s nature correspond to traits of Joyce’s own son, George Joyce, and in fact Joyce incorporated the experiences of his son while in Rome into the play, as Archie’s. By and large, Archie’s dialogue serves to do little more than to advance the action. At the same time, his very appearance on stage emphasizes the physical relationship between Bertha and Richard. This in turn complicates the interlocking system of emotional relations among Richard, Bertha, Beatrice, and Robert, and enhances the audience’s understanding of the major characters’ motivations.

Rowan, Richard

He is one of the central characters in Joyce’s play. Richard is a Joycelike artist figure, returned to Ireland after a self-imposed exile on the Continent. In his notes for the play, Joyce says that “Richard has fallen from a higher world and is indignant when he discovers baseness in men and women.” In any number of ways Richard Rowan embodies the type of writer that Joyce felt he had become, and Rowan’s response to Irish society reflects many of Joyce’s assumptions about the conditions he would encounter and the way he would be received were he to return to his native land.

At the same time, while there are similarities between the author and his character, there are significant differences as well. For example, in the play Richard seems to encourage the potential for a sexual liaison between Bertha and Robert Hand, and ultimately refuses to intervene to avert its possible consummation. When a similar possibility appeared to arise between Nora Barnacle and Roberto Prezioso, however, Joyce acted quickly to prevent it (although at one point Nora felt that Joyce was pushing her toward such an affair so he could write about it).

Throughout the dialogue, in a series of highly charged encounters, the play explores the diverse elements of Richard’s nature elaborated in several expository speeches (sometimes unfortunately stiff and stilted) on his relations with Beatrice Justice, Bertha, and Robert Hand. Although Bertha seems to come very close to comprehending his nature, none of these characters has a full sense of Richard’s intellectual, artistic, emotional, and sexual temperaments. Only the audience, having seen his interactions with all of the other characters, has an adequate sense of Richard’s value.

In his notes for the play, Joyce characterizes Richard as “an automystic,” and says of Richard’s relations with Bertha, “Richard’s jealousy . . . must reveal itself as the very immolation of the pleasure of possession on the altar of love. He . . . knows his own dishonour.”

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