A Mother

by

James Joyce

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A Mother Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on James Joyce's A Mother. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of James Joyce

James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, the eldest of ten surviving children. Although his Catholic family lived comfortably for the beginning of Joyce’s life, when he was around ten, his father lost his job and began drinking heavily. The Joyce family sank into poverty, moving often. But with his father’s connections, Joyce still managed to eventually attend Belvedere College, one of the best Jesuit schools in Dublin. His Catholic education left him torn between his feeling that the Church repressed him and his love for its thinkers, symbols, and tradition of intellectual rigor. Joyce attended University College Dublin, where he studied multiple languages, wrote plays and poetry, and published in Irish literary magazines. After graduation, he moved to Paris to study medicine but soon gave up, occasionally appealing to his family for money to support him despite their poverty. In 1903, he returned home to see his dying mother, but refused her dying wish that he make confession and take communion, a defining event for his novel Ulysses. From 1904 on, Joyce reworked details from his own life into Dubliners, a collection of short stories, and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. But his controversial writing about religion and sex meant that he had a difficult time getting his writing published, and since he was an accomplished tenor and played the guitar and the piano, he nearly became a musician instead of an author. Despite his publishing woes and the obscenity charges that his work faced, Joyce had a major impact on the Modernist movement of the early 20th century. Just two years after the publication of Finnegans Wake, Joyce died in Germany following a surgery on a perforated ulcer.
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Historical Context of A Mother

“A Mother” takes place at the turn of the 20th century in Dublin. During this time, Irish Nationalism, the push for Ireland to fight back against English colonial rule to attain self-governance and economic independence, was growing in influence. The Irish Nationalist movement included political efforts to rebel against English rule—some of them violent. But it also encompassed the Irish Revival: a renewed interest in the Celtic and Gaelic precolonial cultures of Ireland and their languages, literatures, and music. The Kearneys participate in the Nationalist movement by taking advantage of the Irish Revival’s popularity to promote Kathleen’s musical career. The fictional Eire Abu Society also benefits from the Irish Revival: although it ends up a failure, they promote their concert series as a celebration of Irish culture.

Other Books Related to A Mother

“A Mother” is one of the short stories in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners. Mr Holohan, the event planner in “A Mother,” also briefly appears in another story in Dubliners, “Two Gallants.” “Two Gallants” explores similar themes: the characters, Lenehan and Corley, each appear to be products of their circumstances and mostly focused on getting money like Mrs Kearney. But while Mrs Kearney is wealthy and tries to take advantage of Mr Holohan at the same time he tries to take advantage of her, Lenehan and Corley end up swindling a woman out of a gold coin. Overall, both stories examine how the classism in Dublin society keeps the city and its people stagnant and focused on being self-serving. James Joyce’s best known works include novels A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. Playwright Samuel Beckett drew on his personal familiarity with Joyce and his Modernist style in his existentialist dramas like Endgame and Waiting for Godot. Later, Irish author Frank McCourt cited Joyce as an influence on his memoir Angela’s Ashes, which deals with social tensions in mid-20th-century Ireland.
Key Facts about A Mother
  • Full Title: A Mother
  • When Written: 1905
  • Where Written: Trieste, Italy; Pola, Croatia; and Zürich, Switzerland
  • When Published: 1914
  • Literary Period: Modernist
  • Genre: Short Story
  • Setting: Dublin, Ireland
  • Climax: Mrs Kearney mocks Mr Holohan
  • Protagonist/Antagonist: The third-person omniscient narrator most often provides the reader with insight into Mrs Kearney’s point of view, making her the protagonist of the story. But by fixating on making sure her daughter receives an eight-guinea payment for her performance at a series of concerts, she gets in her own way to the point that she crosses everyone and ruins her family’s reputation, making her the story’s antagonist, too.
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for A Mother

Joyce’s Musical Career: If James Joyce hadn’t found success as an author, he might have been an artiste like the concert performers in “A Mother”—the story is likely based on his own experiences singing in festivals and competitions. Joyce was an excellent tenor, played the piano and the guitar, and, like Mr Bell, the second tenor in “A Mother,” he competed at the Feis Ceoil (an Irish competitive classical music festival). Joyce won the first round of competition, but only ended up taking home a bronze medal—again, like Mr Bell—in the main event, likely because his poor eyesight made him bad at sight-singing. He is said to have thrown the medal into the River Liffey since he couldn’t sell or trade it for anything. But he kept the positive newspaper reviews of his performance in his pockets until they disintegrated.