When we speak of Ulysses we must first address its critics. This is nothing new: though the complaints have changed, the arguments remain as ignorant and outmoded as ever. Upon publication, the book was censored for its supposed obscenities, and was not legally available in the United States for over a decade. Now that it has been accepted as a literary classic, the charges against it have changed. It is too difficult, we can’t understand it, they cry. Wah. They call it “overrated” – a far too facile criticism that speaks more of the critic’s own laziness than any shortcomings of the book itself. Thus the Joyce defenders must once again “crush our old limbs in ungentle steel” to take up arms against public opinion. Is it obscene? No. Difficult? Perhaps. Worthy? yes I said yes I will Yes.
Ulysses is about a single day in a city told in the form of the private monologues we cannot share. Those stray thoughts: observations or coincidences no one else can fully appreciate: half-forgotten memories or miscommunications: random connections. These are the building bricks of the novel. These solitary thoughts might seem more appropriate for a pastoral literary setting – Joyce’s contemporary Proust comes to mind. But we can’t always be musing on past remembrances and loves when we’re worrying about work, finances, shopping, where to eat lunch. There’s a love story in Ulysses but it exists in the background of life’s daily responsibilities. What’s more important than love? Kindness, dignity. This is what truly resonates even beyond all the literary allusions and connections. Every character in Dublin – from snuffling pub dweller Nosey Flynn to a dog pissing on a rock on the beach – is allowed a certain dignity in this world. This is why it is worth the trouble, why the critics are wrong.
A first read through is admittedly a bit of a challenge, particularly with the first three chapters of Stephen Dedalus. This is essentially a continuation of the narrative of A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. But we are thrown into a scene with characters who seem distant, despite their chatty low dialogue and the intimacy of the narration. Buck Mulligan refers to Stephen by several names and speaks with heretical sarcasm that we aren’t sure what to make of; houseguest Haines is an arrogant English student who seems like a budding snob. Right away we are expected to know these characters and at first we aren’t sure if we care to. Stephen himself is subdued and rather weak, a poet of empty pages. A listless teacher with a clever wit that he can’t ever properly express, he has a tendency to drift in his thoughts, along with the reader’s attention. By the end of chapter three with its famously detailed abstractions of roaming poetry, we are weary of him. But he looks over the sea: “Moving through the air high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the crosstrees, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship.”
Who is it? It is Mr Leopold Bloom. We meet him in chapter four and his narrative will comprise the bulk of the novel. He is in the kitchen of his home on Eccles Street where he is making breakfast, first for his wife then for himself (an important distinction). He is talking to his cat: “- Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the chook-chooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.” But he’s also musing thoughtfully: “They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them.” Mr Bloom’s interior monologue is the heart of the novel. He’s a good man – to his wife, to his co-workers, to his community. His thoughts also tend to ramble as we follow his day, but they are more vital and funny than Stephen’s. A few examples of Mr Bloom at work:
- I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the kind of food you see produces the like waves of the brain the poetical. For example one of those policemen sweating Irish stew into their shirts; you couldn’t squeeze a line of poetry out of him.
- Mass seems to be over. Could hear them all at it. Pray for us. And pray for us. And pray for us. Good idea the repetition. Same thing with ads. Buy from us. And buy from us.
- Insects? That bee last week got into the room playing with his shadow on the ceiling. Might be the one bit me, come back to see. Birds too never find out what they say. Like our small talk. And says she and says he.
- It was a nun they say invented barbed wire.
- A corpse is meat gone bad. Well and what’s cheese? Corpse of milk.
- Police chargesheets crammed with cases get their percentages manufacturing crime.
- Hamlet she played last night. Male impersonator. Perhaps he was a woman. Why Ophelia committed suicide?
- Pray at an altar. Hail Mary and Holy Mary. Flowers, incense, candles melting. Hide her blushes. Salvation army blatant imitation. Reformed prostitute will address the meeting. How I found the Lord. Squareheaded chaps those must be in Rome: they work the whole show. And don’t they rake in the money too?
- My kneecap is hurting me. Ow. That’s better.
- Horse looking round at it with his plume skeowways. Dull eye: collar tight on his neck, pressing on a bloodvessel or something. Do they know what they cart out here every day. Must be twenty or thirty funerals every day. Then Mount Jerome for the protestants. Funerals all over the world every minute.
- Makes them feel important to be prayed over in Latin.
- You might pick up a young widow here. Men like that. Love among the tombstones. Romeo. Spice of pleasure. In the midst of death we are in life.
- All the odd things people pick up for food. Out of shells, periwinkles with a pin, off trees, snails out of the ground the French eat, out of the sea with bait on a hook. Silly fish learn nothing in a thousand years.
- All quiet on Howth now. The distant hills seem. Where we. The rhododendrons. I am a fool perhaps. He gets the plums and I the plumstones. Where I come in. All that old hill has seen. Names change: that’s all. Lovers: yum yum.
This is a clever and quirky means of characterization (and these excerpts almost read like a Mr Bloom Twitter feed.) But if Joyce had simply sustained this style the book would have been more accessible but infinitely less valuable. His ambitions, his techniques, went far beyond interior monologue. One of the most fascinating aspects of Ulysses is the way in which its changing styles reflects its composition; that is, we can see him discarding themes and concepts, trying out and mastering new ones, ever widening the artistic scope of his epic. Some critics will still complain that Joyce was just showing off, stretching out his genre experiments and esoteric knowledge beyond reasonable (and readable) measures. Chapter styles change drastically, genre parodies dive deeply into arcane literary sources. Some sections may seem incomprehensible at first glance. So let us instead turn to the great Joyce admirer and interpreter Anthony Burgess: “Ulysses, then, is a labyrinth which we can enter at any point, once we have satisfied ourselves as to its general plan and purpose…To say that one has to live with it is not to utter a prejudiced, partisan claim but to state quite objectively that there is enough meat in it to last a lifetime.”
Ulysses is famously patterned on Homer’s The Odyssey, with each of its eighteen chapters corresponding to an episode. Joyce believed that Odysseus was a great modern sort of hero – a man who first refused conscription to a dubious foreign war by feigning insanity, then fought bravely before focusing his remaining energy on simply returning home to his family. Thus the chapters are full of references to the story: the Cyclops episode is full of eyes (and I’s) as well as an attack on Mr Bloom by a beastly drunk; the Sirens episode is structured in musical form, with an overture that runs through all the key phrases from the ensuing chapter of piano playing and alluring barmaids; Hades follows a carriage to a funeral. And so on. Taken in full, it’s a stunning display of inspiration into cohesive literary form. But the Homer connection can also be a trap for some readers. This is a modern, human story accessible to anyone and to view it solely in terms of its allusions is to miss the point. Joyce himself removed the Homeric titles from the chapters before printing, wisely preferring to let the novel stand on its own.
Ulysses can provide endless material for academic study, but it is a most common sort of literary classic. Perhaps there might be a critical explanation for why Mr Bloom tears off a sheet of newspaper to complete his morning toilet duties, but such a study would have to quote lines like “Asquat on the cuckstool he folded out his paper turning its pages over on his bared knees. Something new and easy. No great hurry. Keep it a bit…He read on, seated above his own rising smell.” This is a comic novel, from its lowest to highest forms. One section in the Cyclops chapter parodies a psychic reading with recently deceased Paddy Dignam: “Before departing he requested that it should be told to his dear son Patsy that the other boot which he had been looking for was at present under the commode in the return room and that the pair should be sent to Cullen’s to be soled only as the heels were still good.” I hear Woody Allen’s voice in that sort of humor much as the absurdist theatre of Circe reminds me of Monty Python.
So if nothing else we must take from the Homer connection what Joyce himself did: kindness, dignity, love. Stephen Dedalus is son Telemachus, in search of a father, as his own father Simon Dedalus is a financially ruined would-be aristocrat who can’t offer much in the way of guidance for his wayward would-be poet son. Leopold Bloom is Odysseus in search of a son: we learn that the Blooms lost their son Rudy as a baby and that this event has affected a distance, emotionally and sexually, in the marriage; more than that, Mr Bloom is a wise, kind man with a wide range of interests and no one to share in his inquisitive monologues. Molly Bloom is Penelope, weaving and unweaving her shroud, entertaining her unsatisfactory suitors but remaining faithful – in her own way – to her husband. These connections are never explicitly stated nor even fully resolved – Ulysses is not that kind of book. But they are all searching, all in some way unfulfilled. Every character in the book has a private side that can’t be reconciled with public Dublin: Father Conmee has blessings but inner displeasure at begging parisioners; Martin Cunningham silently understands a secret of Mr Bloom’s father’s suicide even amid some coarse discussion of the same; Gerty MacDowell has four sets of panties which Joyce generously describes; the man in the macintosh in is love with a dead woman. (Who is the man in the macintosh? One of the book’s many unsolved riddles, though Nabokov believed it was Joyce himself. Another puzzle: who is Mr Bloom’s secret admirer “Martha Clifford”? I say it’s Miss Douce, but we’ll get to that.)
Even more inventive and audacious is what we might term the secret narrative of the novel. Blazes Boylan, lothario singer, will meet Molly Bloom for a sexual encounter in the afternoon. Mr Bloom knows this, even tacitly allows it to happen, but he’s not keen on pondering upon it. He will muse endlessly on the eating habits of birds or advertising methods on rivers but any thought of his wife’s fidelity is brushed quickly away. For example, at the conclusion of Lestrygonians, he spies Boylan on the street and panics, pretending to look for something in his pocket before ducking around a corner. There is no mention of Blazes Boylan by name and in fact the allusion is subtle enough to get lost in among the usual flow of Mr Bloom’s monologue. So it’s quite possible that these brief sort of references to the afternoon affair could be lost on a first read through, which is why we hear cries of “What is this book about?” But it’s so perfectly suited to the character driven narrative: Mr Bloom is kind almost to a fault, even to his cohorts who laugh behind his back and he is fearful of physical confrontation. His sexual attraction – though not his love – for his wife has waned, as he has found other avenues for his desires (his secret correspondence, the girl on the beach in Nausicaa, the “stuff” going on in Circe). He wants his wife to be happy, satisfied – theirs is an imperfect marriage but it works. Molly Bloom will further explain and illuminate her own desires in her final chapter, as varied and imaginative as her husband’s. So Mr Bloom is looking for a confidante to share his inquisitive and kind wisdom but he is sexually satisfied with fantasy or brief encounters. Molly Bloom likes to freely and playfully express her sexuality but she relies on the support of her husband. Have they both found something they are looking for when Mr Bloom rescues Stephen Dedalus? Another unresolved question of Ulysses.
The paradox of this challenging book is that it is still so open, so rewarding for any curious reader. You don’t have to read it straight through, but it useful to get reacquainted with Homer’s The Odyssey along with some general summaries or references. This is what we will try to do on here on the blog – we will undertake a chapter by chapter walkthrough of the book in celebration of Bloomsday on June 21. Yes, around here Bloomsday is more important than Christmas or any other holiday, and yes anyone can and should read this book. Listen to Mr Bloom:
“- Some people, says Bloom, can see the mote in others’ eyes but they can’t see the beam in their own.”