Often considered one of the ‘greatest novel of the 20th century’, James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses
, is both a feat and feast of sheer literary brilliance. Reimagining Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey
as the travels and trials of an everyday man through the crowded streets and pubs of Dublin, Joyce weaves strikingly versatile prose styles and varying perspectives to encompass the whole of life within the hours of a single standard day, June 16th, 1904. This day, dubbed Bloomsday, is celebrated with increasing popularity in modern times, which is a testament to the lasting greatness of the novel (and to the desire to drink and be merry of all people). Instead of taking a daily life and elevating it to mythical proportions, Joyce has taken mythology and reversed it, shrinking it into an average day, which in turn gives each character and action a heroic sense about them. In this way, even besting a drunken nationalist spewing anti-sematic sentiments at a bar can be seen as a legendary conquest. Ulysses
is an epic in its own right, setting the bar for literature up to the stratosphere as we immerse ourselves in Joyce’s dear dirty Dublin.
While one must have their wits about them to navigate this laborious labyrinth of literature, the task is highly rewarding. It is very understandable that so many people do not finish this novel, or just plain dislike it; this book can be downright frustrating. Combining the heavy use of cryptic and dated allusions, obfuscating narration, an enviable vocabulary and pages of dense prose to decipher, Joyce intentionally set out to create a literary odyssey of words to conquer saying ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.
’ Readers should be warned this is a tough novel. Often times this novel inspired such frustration that it was tempting to slam the cover for good, and it wasn’t until the second half that I was finally able to recognize that this novel had written its way into my heart. Upon reflecting back after completion, only then did I realize that this truly is one of the greatest books ever written and I have come to love it. Perhaps this is akin to the feeling those who run marathons or climb mountains feel; the adventure is a long, arduous struggle where one must keep focus and positive to battle through, yet the pride and elation of completion more than makes up for the struggles. I do not wish to make this book seem like it is only for masochists though, as there are more than enough rewards to reap along the way. This is some of the finest displays of writing I have ever encountered, and offers a broad range of style. Many people fail to mention that this book is downright funny as well. There are countless little jokes, such as characters running from a bar so they can fart loudly unheard, endless sexual jokes and quips, and many funny characterizations. It should be noted as well that there is no shame in seeking aide for this book. Originally I didn’t want to, but there are so many esoteric allusions and puzzles that an annotation guide and a few essays really helped my understanding. This is a novel to teach to yourself, not just read – there are people who spent years at universities digging through this book and it is still widely debated. Even the great Ulysses (or Odysseus depending on who your asking) had to seek aide in his epic journey.
The variety of style in this book is highly impressive. Each of the 18 chapters, aside from being thematically built around a corresponding episode of The Odyssey, has its own unique set of techniques and lexicon, often parodying the styles of newspapers or current women’s magazines, traditional Irish mythological styles, a chapter dissolving the world into scientific properties, the famous stream-of-consciousness, 200 pages of jocular hallucinations in play format, and a dizzying array of prose from flowery language to the language of flowers. Joyce had such a love of style that there is even an entire chapter devoted to alternating writing styles as he parodies many famous authors throughout history (calling all fans of David Mitchell
or If on a winter's night a traveler
) in a swirling scene of drunken debates. The language is often quite playful, lyrical and full of puns. He even uses sentence structure to convey motion, such as Gerty’s limp: ‘Tight boots? No. She’s lame! O!
’. If just for the use of language alone, this is one of the most spectacular books ever written and practically killed my dictionary. Also, it is interesting that C.G. Jung diagnosed Joyce as having schizophrenia based on reading this book due to the rapidly changing styles and the use of playful rhyming and jangling speech. Joyce's daughter did in fact have schizophrenia.
One of Ulysses
most discussed features is Joyce's technique of placing the reader within the minds of the characters. It is not a typical first person narration, however, as the characters are seemingly unaffected and unaware they have a reader riding along in their thoughts. Information comes across in broken and random spurts, and Joyce does not bother with clarifying these thoughts to the reader. Much like William Faulkner
, Joyce leaves the reader unaided to piece together his massive puzzle. Often the subject of a thought can switch between several people without any indication, as with Boylan and Bloom in Molly’s soliloquy, and many chapters take pages to realize who the person speaking is. While initially following Stephen and then Bloom second by second through their routine, the novel soon fractures into smaller chunks of concurrent narration, to further fit all of life within the day and to offer a broader, more varied perspective on the events that transpire. The idea of the ‘parallax’, which is essentially a scientific term that different perspectives will have a uniquely different view of the same object, is often on Bloom’s mind, and is a major theme running through this novel. Through the multiple points of view, the reader is flooded with alternative, and often conflicting, images of the characters. The readers must then decide themselves what is the whole picture.
The various speakers are another testament to the versatility of the pen employed by Joyce. Each speaker has a drastically different tone and vocabulary, as well as structure (most notably Molly). There are times when the reader may wonder if Joyce’s opinions on the Jewish people and women may be rather negative, but then he will surprise you with a completely opposing statement. Women, and sexuality in general, are a major topic in this novel, and it is no surprise many have dismissed Joyce as a misogynist as many of the women in this novel are viewed strictly in regards to their sexuality. There are many female roles who are only used to further this idea, often by having many characters be prostitues. Through Bloom we see an unapologetic image of women as a sexual objects, and a male opinion on how women view sexuality. However, with Molly, Joyce offers a highly contrasted opinion on how women view their own sexuality, how women view men’s sexuality, and even how women view how men view women’s sexuality. Molly even fantasizes about having a penis and what it would be like to mount a woman. So while some ideas may be offensive to a reader, they must view it with an open mind and in the context of the novel and characters. Also, Joyce was aware of the overzealous censorship of novels in England and America and often wrote passages that blew past the lines intentionally to irk these censors. No wonder the novel was banned in American until 1934 when the Supreme Court over-turned the ruling in a landmark obscenity trial.
plays just as much of a role in this novel as the Odyssey. This further emphasizes the parallax, and Joyce’s goal to keep the life of his characters grounded in reality by not aligning any of the characters in a clear cut way. Hamlet is often discussed amongst the intelligentsia of Dublin, and a critical scene involves Stephen’s interpretation of the play revealing many themes of the novel at hand. From the ideas of Stephen’s role as Telemachus searching for a surrogate father in Bloom’s Ulysses as well as the ongoing thoughts over adultery all reveal themselves early on through Stephen’s lecture on Hamlet. However, this scene also demonstrates that Stephen is a Hamlet figure as well as Bloom being a figure of the deceased King, and that Molly may also fit the role of the betraying Queen as well as Penelope. There are many other roles in this novel that have more than one character that could fill them, such as how both Buck Mulligan and Blazes Boylan are both ‘usurpers
’. It is interesting to note here that many of the characters, Mulligan in particular, are based from people Joyce interacted with in real life. ‘The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.
’, is said at a timely manner when Stephen explores how the characters of Hamlet all correspond to Shakespeare’s own family, much like how these characters correspond to those around Bloom and to those that were surrounding Joyce. Stephen is also highly representative of Joyce himself. He was the hero of Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
, and in this novel we see him continue his quest of artistry. He even sides with an unborn child in a debate over whether a mother or child’s life is more important during birth, signifying his ideas that art, something we create, is of the utmost importance. A touch of metafiction as well as a compounding use of themes is one of the many ways this book stole my heart.
Joyce avoids distinct lines anywhere he can with this novel. Characters such as Bloom are walking contradictions and a paradox to those around him. He is Jewish, but also baptized. He is a father figure, but also displays many motherly traits and desires causing the more masculine characters to harbor a bit of disdain for him for being rather ‘womanly’. He is very caring and generous, but then at times very cheap and critical of others for their generosity. Such is the enigma of Leopold Bloom, one of the most likeable everyman characters in all of literature (it was very difficult not to picture him as George Clooney from O Brother, Where Art Thou?
, another wonderful retelling of The Odyssey). He is not without his faults though, as he is a shameless womanizer and has the ‘undressing eyes’ aimed at all the fair ladies of Dublin (and what is with Joyce and men masturbating in public, ie The Encounter
? I’m on to you Joyce…). Bloom spends much of this novel on the go, trying to move forward from the sadness of his past and the weight of thoughts of his wife’s possible transgressions. ‘Think you’re escaping and run into yourself,
’ Bloom mentions. His ‘coming together’ with Stephen is also grounded in reality, as there is no clear-cut bond between them. ‘Frailty thy name is marriage
’ Bloom thinks, playing off of the famous line from Hamlet. The marriage of Bloom and Stephen, Bloom and Molly, and many other ‘marriages’ of characters are fraught with incompatible moments, as people just do not always get along or agree. While the union of Bloom and Stephen is alluded to through the entire novel, they often are at odds with one another or offend the other while trying to be friendly. However, this meeting is highly significant in both their lives, and as many of these ‘marriages’ are flawed, they are shown as having shaped each individual. As C.G. Jung once wrote, ‘The meeting of two personalities is like the contact between two chemical substances. If there is any reaction, both are transformed.
is not an easy novel by any means, but it is well worth the effort. The prose may be daunting at first, but patients, and a bit of guidance can really go a long way and this novel will eventually bloom for any reader so they can drink the sweet language of Joyce’s pen. There are so many wonderful techniques buzzing about and puzzles to unlock. Plus, this novel is outright hilarious. For one of the more comprehensive reviews you can find, you should also read Ian's stunning review
Joyce has certainly left his mark on the face of literature with this novel, which is more than deserving of the title bestowed on it by the Modern Library of the greatest novel of the 20th century. Yes it is the greatest and yes you should read it and yes each word will blossom in your mind and Yes will I give this book a 5/5 and yes I said yes I will Yes.5/5
Also, reading this book in public will make you appear smart.
And even the great Jorge Luis Borges
was moved by this novel:James Joyce
(as translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni)
In a man’s single day are all the days
of time from that unimaginable
first day, when a terrible God marked out
the days and agonies, to that other,
when the ubiquitous flow of earthly
time goes back to its source, Eternity,
and flickers out in the present, the past,
and the future—what now belongs to me.
Between dawn and dark lies the history
of the world. From the vault of night I see
at my feet the wanderings of the Jew,
Carthage put to the sword, Heaven and Hell.
Grant me, O Lord, the courage and the joy
to ascend to the summit of this day.