Why You Should Try to Read Ulysses—Again
Many novels are so challenging that we never manage to finish them. One of the most famous is James Joyce’s Irish masterpiece Ulysses. And with St. Patrick’s Day here, this seems a good time to reconsider this work and ask why you should make another attempt at seeing it to the end.
Ulysses: an introduction
Paul Hermans, Creative Commons Licence
Published in Paris in 1922, banned as obscene until 1933, yet hailed as one of the groundbreaking works of early Modernism, the nearly 800-page novel takes place in Dublin on a single day, June 16, 1904.
It records the thoughts and activities of two main characters—Leopold Bloom, an unhappily married Jew and advertising canvasser, and Stephen Dedalus, a lapsed Catholic and frustrated academic. Although strangers to each other at the beginning, their day unfolds along parallel tracks that finally intersect.
A third important character is Bloom’s earthy and unfaithful wife, Molly, who occupies much of her husband’s thoughts on this day and who is preparing for the arrival of her lover, Blazes Boylan. Along the way, we are introduced to a host of minor characters who play a part in Bloom’s and Dedalus’s day.
Challenge 1: a stream-of-conscious narrative
The most difficult task that Joyce set for himself was to replicate through language the kaleidoscopic nature of consciousness. He sought to capture the way we experience the world around us (smells, noises, bits of conversations overheard), then internalize these stimuli, prompting the free and often chaotic association of ideas in the mind.
Challenge 2: time as nonlinear and fluid
The novel also reflects a post-Einsteinian, post-Bergsonian understanding of how we actually experience time. This is not “clock time,” but time as something nonlinear, fluid, in a constant state of flux through the activity of consciousness, which can bring past, present, and future into near-simultaneity while processing and ordering many other bits of information.
Myriad conflicting thoughts and emotions crowd into the minds of Joyce’s characters, including political anxieties, religious antagonism, historical memory, literary allusions, guilt, and sexual desire.
For the reader, this method of moving between the outer world of seemingly inconsequential events and the inner world of thought poses perhaps the greatest challenge. This is a novel void of “plot.” There is no clear distinction between narrator and characters, and between what characters are saying and what they are thinking.
Challenge 3: Ulysses in historical context
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
It is important to remember what was happening in the world, both in 1922 when Joyce published the novel and in 1904, the year in which the story is set.
The early-twentieth century ushered in the age of technology, advertising culture, and sensational newspaper headlines, all of which we see reflected in the novel.
Freud had already published a number of works that legitimized the exploration of the unconscious mind and the hitherto secret world of sexual psychology.
Joyce allows the reader access to the uncensored thoughts of his characters—their sexual fantasies, vulgarities of expression, and meditations on bodily organs and their functions—in language so frank that it can still shock. These were largely uncharted waters for the English middle-class novel.
The 700-year domination of Ireland by England, the numerous uprisings against the English in Irish history, the internecine conflicts within Ireland itself then reaching a boiling point over home rule. The future role of the Roman Catholic Church drift in and out of characters’ thoughts and barroom conversations. Modernity constantly butts up against the traditional, as Joyce shows us an Ireland caught between these two forces.
Challenge 4: allusions to Homer’s Odyssey
Two other features make this novel unique. Overlaying the text with a “schema” based on Homer’s Odyssey (beginning with the title, Ulysses) creates a kind of puzzle for the reader who searches for direct correspondences between the novel and Homeric epic.
Instead of the loftiness of the epic with its quest-journey, epic hero, and supernatural adversaries over which the hero triumphs, one experiences only a very ordinary walk around Dublin, two very unheroic protagonists, and rather degraded adversaries.
If anything, the novel seems to suggest that epic ambition and achievement are a thing of the past—that the ordinary man’s struggle for identity and dignity in a changing world is quest enough.
My own breakthrough with Ulysses
The real breakthrough for me, as a once-failed reader of Ulysses, came when I purchased the Naxos audiobook of the novel (22 CDs!) read by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan.
Listening to their beautiful Irish voices as they brought each character to life, dramatizing the subtle differences in speech based on the characters’ social class and educational background (and degree of sobriety), allowed me to hear for the first time the music of Joyce’s language, with its chorus of polyphonic voices.