Last semester I took a seminar class on James Joyce, and of course no class on Joyce would be complete without reading Ulysses. We spent the last halfLast semester I took a seminar class on James Joyce, and of course no class on Joyce would be complete without reading Ulysses. We spent the last half of the semester on Ulysses, and now that I've reviewed both Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist, I think it's finally time for me to talk about my experiences with Joyce's most famous/infamous novel.
Ulysses picks up approximately one year after Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ends, and begins with our old friend Stephen Dedalus, who is navigating the world of Dublin, working as a teacher, and still trying to be an artist in a place that continuously leaves him feeling isolated, alone, and without a home. While the first three chapters focus on Stephen, the rest of the book focuses on a new character, the famous Leopold Bloom, a Dublin Jew who, after eating a breakfast of mutton kidney, leaves the house to go about his daily business, all-the-while knowing that his wife, Molly, is planning an affair later that afternoon. That knowledge, the isolation he feels from his fellow Dubliners, the death of his young son ten years ago, and many other things weigh on his mind as we follow him about the affairs of his day. His path crosses and recrosses that of Stephen, and eventually the two outcasts finally meet and have a real conversation. Taking place in slightly less than 24 hours, Ulysses is an epic of the ordinary, a single day that contains every conceivable high and low.
Now, if you've ever heard anything about Ulysses, I'm sure you've heard that it's nearly impossible to read. It has gained a nearly mythic status in the bookish world as an impenetrable wall of stylistic experimentation and dense allusion. The only hope for the intrepid reader is to consult many guides and source-books that will lead them through the labyrinthine. To be honest with you, this is partially true. There were plenty of times when I didn't know what was happening, and I assure you that I missed most of the allusions and references to historical events. And yes, I did use a guide when I read it, which was a big help. More importantly, I also had a class full of people to discuss each chapter with and to keep me on schedule. (I do recommend reading this book with a friend. It's more fun that way.) But I want to make one thing very clear:
The myth is only partially true.
Because while I did not catch many of the allusions and references, I mostly understood what was happening in terms of plot and location. While I may not have understood the meaning of every sentence, I did understand the meaning of most paragraphs. And while I didn't always see exactly how each stylistic invention connected thematically to Bloom's journey, I could certainly appreciate the beauty and craft of Joyce's writing. Reading Ulysses is like being at the ocean; you have to let the waves of text wash over you without trying to analyze every single piece of sand. Understanding every single allusion is not necessary to enjoy the novel as a whole. You might miss a few of the jokes, but I promise you will be ok. The guide I used and which I would highly recommend, James Joyce A to Z, had brief summaries of each chapter in terms of plot and any major thematic elements, and that is all I needed in order to thoroughly enjoy myself. I think that oftentimes we as readers get too caught-up in "getting" the book that we forget to really read it. Ulysses is, first and foremost, an experience. If you get too caught up in trying to "understand" it, you'll miss all the fun.
Fun? Yes, fun, because Ulysses is a deeply funny, witty, engaging, and beautiful book. First of all, Joyce is a phenomenal writer, and it would be a challenge to find a novel with more beautiful or more varied writing than this one. Some passages are just heart-stopping in their elegance. I literally stopped and reread some passages just so I could hear them again; they were that beautiful. Others were incredibly technically impressive, showing Joyce's amazing command of the English language (and others). Joyce's amazing skills as a writer mean that he is capable of making the wittiest puns and the funniest satires I have ever read. No, really. From the pub to the graveyard, from political arguments to prostitution, from the romantic novel to the epic catalog, there is nothing that Joyce can't laugh at. I never thought I would say this, but Ulysses literally made me laugh out loud. But of course this novel isn't all fun and games. There are tender, honest moments here more touching than nearly anything else put into print. There is heartbreak here, not of the cheesy faux-tragic kind that you find in a Nicholas Sparks novel, but honest emotion felt by ordinary people in situations that are all too real. Though Ulysses very often made me laugh, on a number of occasions it also made me cry. It touched me, because it spoke to that part of me (and, I think, of many of us) that knows what it's like to feel alone, regretful, and lost. That realism, that honesty of emotion and situation, is what sets Ulysses apart. The strange style, the encyclopedic allusions, the weird diversions, all of these serve to represent reality in all of its complexity, beauty, and sadness. Ulysses is funny, crafty, beautiful, and heartbreaking, but it is all of those things because it is real.
If you've ever read my reviews before, you'll notice that this one is rather different. This time I haven't talked very much about technique or writing style, though really this would be the perfect novel to do that. And part of me does want to pull out my analytical brain and tell you all about Joyce's tricks and techniques and themes. I would feel accomplished for breaking down such a complex novel, and you would maybe feel like you learned something. But I don't think I'm going to do that this time. This time I think I'm going to focus on other things.
Because despite all the intellectual enjoyment I got from untangling and discussing the themes and techniques, and despite the aesthetic enjoyment I found in Joyce's language, what struck me the most about Ulysses was it's emotional honesty, especially in the characterization. For the first three chapters I felt nothing but empathy and pity for Stephen. I wanted to be his big sister, to comfort him, to let him know that he wasn't alone and that he could make it. And then I met Leopold Bloom, and slowly, cautiously, not without reservation, I fell for him, completely and utterly. Not in a romantic way, but as a human being, an all-too-real human being who had emotions and quirks that I could see and understand like those of an old friend. I fell in love with the way that he always tries to figure things out, to calculate, explain, and reason, even if his explanations are often incorrect, more pseudoscience than real science. I fell in love with his desire to please everyone, to make everyone happy, to avoid conflict wherever possible. I love the way he always walks on the sunny side of the street, is conscientious about his money, and loves food. I wanted nothing more in the world for him to actually meet Stephen, because I needed to see what would happen when these two characters whom I cared so much about finally met. And yes, sometimes Bloom creeped me out a little with his thoughts about sex or bodily functions. Sometimes I got annoyed with him for being so passive, and I yelled at him to stop being such a pushover already. But when he had the chance to finally show some courage, I cheered him on with all of my heart, and when he stood up for Stephen my heart nearly burst I was so proud of him. Leopold Bloom was so lonely, so hopeful, and so real, and in the end it was the force of his character (and, to a lesser extent, Stephen's) that really made Ulysses shine.
Ulysses is a novel that takes place in a single day, and yet somehow seems to encompass the whole world. It's strange and difficult and sometimes frustrating, and to be honest I wouldn't recommend it to those who don't like their books to be a puzzle or who get frustrated when they don't understand what is going on. But if you do like a challenge, then I think you'll find that every frustration in Ulysses is paid back a thousand times over in beauty and enjoyment. I promise that you won't catch everything on your first read-through; I know I didn't. But that did not take away from my enjoyment of the novel in the slightest. I know I'll come back to it some day, maybe a chapter at a time here or there, and that no matter when or how often I return it will always have something new to offer me.
Rating: 5+ Recommendations: Don't get too weighed down with guides. Just read it and enjoy it, and check chapter summaries or historical events if you get lost. Ulysses is an experience, so just dive in....more
As I mentioned in my review of Dubliners, I recently took a seminar class on James Joyce. After we finished discussing Dubliners, our next book was JoAs I mentioned in my review of Dubliners, I recently took a seminar class on James Joyce. After we finished discussing Dubliners, our next book was Joyce's first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Filled with lyrical prose and vivid imagery, this semi-autobiographical story of Stephen Dedalus’s "intellectual and religio-philosophical awakening" and "passage from university student to independent artist" is an excellent first glimpse into the experimental style of Joyce's mature works.
Portrait of the Artist is, first and foremost, a portrait of the Stephen Dedalus. It is, in many ways, a traditional coming-of-age story, following our hero from his youngest school days through college and his budding life as an artist. What separates Portrait from other coming-of-age stories is the style. To give the reader a proper portrait of Stephen, Joyce uses a free-indirect style in which the narrator is colored by Stephen's perception and knowledge. The descriptions, imagery, and style all reflect Stephen's mental and aesthetic development. This allows the reader to see the world as Stephen sees it. When Stephen is very young, the descriptions and ideas expressed by both Stephen and the narrator are the kind of thing that a young child would notice. The dramas of school life, the stories told to him by his parents, and family arguments over politics all loom large in Stephen's mind. As he gets older and his mind is occupied by religious uncertainties, the style becomes more like a sermon and religious imagery creeps into normal descriptions. As he looses his faith and becomes more interested in poetry and aesthetics, the style becomes more luminous and lyrical, images become symbols, and the words themselves are filled with poetic beauty. The limited narrator and the matching of style, word-choice, and imagery to Stephen's mental state make reading this book the closest thing to plunging into a character's consciousness that you can get short of Ulysses.
Portrait of the Artist isn't just an incredibly realistic coming-of-age story; it is also filled with social, political, and religious commentary. One of Stephen's early memories is of his family arguing about Parnell and Irish revolutionary politics. In this one scene the reader is shown the conflict between Ireland and the colonial power of England and the way that the Catholic church becomes tangled in the political struggles of the time. These themes, Irish nationalism, English oppression, and Catholicism, come back throughout Joyce's work, and make up a realistic (if not always flattering) portrait of Dublin. Stephen's time in a Catholic school, his brief desire to join a monastery, and his eventual loss of faith show the many ways in which people could react to the Irish Catholicism of Dublin. His encounters with Irish revolutionaries and his reluctance to join them provides a commentary both on British colonialism and on the occasional dogmatism of the Gaelic movement in Ireland. These themes, along with other Joycian themes such as loneliness, paralysis, and alcoholism, recur throughout his works, and add yet another dimension to this already multifaceted book.
Portrait of the Artist is a very different kind of book than Dubliners. Unlike Dubliners, which had a mostly traditional realistic style, Portrait of the Artist represents Joyce's first real move toward the experimentation with style for which he is famous. As such, it is the perfect choice for those who have read Dubliners and want to read more. While Portrait of the Artist was, admittedly, not my favorite of Joyce's works that I read this semester, this is possibly only because of how much I enjoyed both Dubliners and Ulysses. If you are interested in reading Ulysses (hint: do it) you should definitely read Portrait of the Artist first, because Stephen comes back to play an important role in Ulysses. But even without the connection to Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an impressive book in its own right. With lyrical prose, psychological depth, and social commentary, it is truly an impressive first novel.
Rating: 4 Stars Recommendations: don't try to catch everything at once, just enjoy it. Read it slowly when you have enough time to concentrate. Enjoy the prose and the plays on words.
If you're interested in Joyce, take a look at my review of Dubliners and stay tuned for my upcoming review of Ulysses....more
I've recently taken a personal interest in T.S. Eliot. I studied Prufrock and The Waste Land in one of my classes last semester, and that got me interI've recently taken a personal interest in T.S. Eliot. I studied Prufrock and The Waste Land in one of my classes last semester, and that got me interested in Eliot. Over the summer I read The Four Quartets, which is now one of my all-time favorite literary works and which has taken up much of my study this semester. I'm hoping to read his plays throughout the course of next year. When I went to talk to one of my professors, an Eliot scholar, about Eliot's poems, he gave me a copy of The Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. On a recent plane ride I finally had time to finish this excellent collection of Eliot's prose writings.
I will admit that I was a little worried about reading prose written by a well-known poet, but luckily Eliot's prose writing is as virtuosic as his poetry. His essays are both easily enjoyable and incredibly beautiful, and I found myself noting passages for both their insight and their beauty. This collection is helpfully split up into three types of essay, essays in generalization, appreciations of individual authors, and social and religious criticism, which are categories that Eliot described when looking back on his writing. This makes it easy to read the kind of essay you feel like reading at the moment while skipping things you might not be interested in, and makes the essays flow together nicely.
I found the essays in generalization to be the most interesting, as they dealt with criticism, theory, aesthetics, poetics, and the use of poetry and criticism. His essay on "Verse Libre" was a short but thorough look at the misconceptions surrounding supposedly "free verse" poetry, and what makes poems without a strict meter or rhyme scheme good. Easy to read, and with lovely quotable passages like "Freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation," this essay should be assigned reading for poetry students everywhere. His essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" should likewise be required reading. In this essay, Eliot argues that modern writers can only be evaluated in light of their relation to the past, and that classics are made by how they fit into and change our perception of the course of tradition. Eliot's essays on criticism are equally useful, stressing that critics focus on the facts of the content and structure of a piece rather than writing florid essays about how a work made them feel. "When we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts." With a brilliant mind and a way with words, Eliot is an excellent essayist on the subject of literature.
While I loved his essays of generalization, I found the section on individual authors slightly less helpful, though not any less well-written. Because I had not read many of the authors he was writing on, I couldn't really appreciate the essays as well as I would have liked. On the other hand, his essay on a few poets made me eager to add them to my to-read list, and his praise of Joyce made me want to quit being such a chicken and pick up his books already. For those who may be more well-read than I, this section of the essays may be more useful.
While I found this collection as a whole to be very informative and eye-opening, there were a few essays that I did not enjoy, and a few points about which I disagreed with Eliot. His emphasis on Latin being the most universal language to Westerners was a bit weird, and had a little too much classical studies bias for me to really buy into it completely. His essays on religion and culture were, at least to me, disappointing. He talked about Christianity as if it were a threatened minority, when of course Christians are both the majority of the population and of governments. His fears of the secularization of society and the adaptable nature of anything other than Christian morality seemed very close-minded to me, which was surprising to see in a man whose ideas are otherwise so expansive and cutting-edge. Since he was a convert to Anglicanism, I guess I can understand his need to do what he saw as defending Christianity, but I feel that he went too far and came off as close-minded. Luckily for us, his poems, even those that are overtly religious like The Four Quartets, lack that pedantic dogmatism and remain focused on the personal contemplative mysteries of his religion, and are therefore enjoyable by all.
Overall, I would say that Eliot's essays are absolutely incredible. Even when I don't agree with his subject matter or think that his logic follows, the writing is always superb. His insights into literature, especially in the essays at the beginning of this collection, were enlightening and enthralling. If you at all interested in Eliot, who was an influential critic and cultural icon of his day as well as an incredible poet and playwright, I would highly recommend this collection.
Rating: 4 stars Recommendations: If you're a literature geek like me, these might be the essays for you. I especially recommend the essays of generalization at the beginning of the book....more