on May 18, 2013
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 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 labyrinth. 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 its 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 that he maintains his optimism despite everything that happens to him. I love the way he always walks on the sunny side of the street, is conscientious about his money, and loves to eat good food. I wanted nothing more in the world than 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.
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.
Note: This is a review of the Revised Gabler Edition, which is that one you should read.