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James Joyce’s near blindness, his peculiar gait, and his death from perforated ulcers are commonplace knowledge to most of his readers. But until now, most Joyce scholars have not recognized that these symptoms point to a diagnosis of syphilis. Kathleen Ferris traces Joyce’s medical history as described in his correspondence, in the diaries of his brother Stanislaus, and in the memoirs of his acquaintances, to show that many of his symptoms match those of tabes dorsalis, a form of neurosyphilis which, untreated, eventually leads to paralysis. Combining literary analysis and medical detection, Ferris builds a convincing case that this dread disease is the subject of much of Joyce’s autobiographical writing. Many of this characters, most notably Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, exhibit the same symptoms as their creator: stiffness of gait, digestive problems, hallucinations, and impaired vision. Ferris also demonstrates that the themes of sin, guilt, and retribution so prevalent in Joyce’s works are almost certainly a consequence of his having contracted venereal disease as a young man while frequenting the brothels of Dublin and Paris. By tracing the images, puns, and metaphors in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and by demonstrating their relationship to Joyce’s experiences, Ferris shows the extent to which, for Joyce, art did indeed mirror life.
Kathleen Ferris is associate professor of literature at Lincoln Memorial University.
“Revisionism this radical might prompt readers of this review to dismiss Ferris out of hand as an extremist riding her personal hobby-horse. To do so would be a mistake."—Charles Rossman
“Ferris accumulates an impressive array of signs and symptoms to support her thesis."—South Atlantic Review
“The disease in question is syphilis, and Ferris assembles a quite impressive array of evidence, literary and medical, to argue that Joyce contracted this disease in his early twenties and that he then went on to infect not only his own family but also (by way of confession) his two main characters, Stephen and Bloom, who betray various symptoms in Ulysses."—Year's Work in English Studies
The University Press of Kentucky
Place of Publication
James Joyce, Irish writers, Syphilis
Literature in English, Anglophone outside British Isles and North America
Ferris, Kathleen, "James Joyce and the Burden of Disease" (1995). Literature in English, Ireland. 4.