Classic Review: Ulysses by James Joyce

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Friday, July 3, 2020

In honor of Bloomsday on June 16, the day Irish lit fans celebrate the novel Ulysses, our classics expert Bernie revisits James Joyce’s novel to determine what makes it so worthy of celebration.

When James Joyce published his novel Ulysses in 1922 (it had appeared in serialized form in the years 1918-1920), he sparked a great controversy. 

The work was initially banned in England and in the United States for “obscenity,” though that designation was struck down in the courts of the United States (United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, decided for the defendant in 1933, and affirmed on appeal in 1934) and the work was allowed to be published and distributed. 

In the time since its general release, the work has quickly risen in the estimation of scholars and adventurous general readers to its status as one of the greatest (some would say the greatest) novels of the 20th c.  

The work, as its title indicates, is inspired by Homer’s Odyssey (Ulysses is the Latin name for the protagonist Odysseus). Joyce’s hero is not Homer’s intrepid explorer, however, but Leopold Bloom, a Jewish Dubliner, who makes his living by getting ad space in the various Dublin newspapers for his clients (“What’s a home without Plumtree’s Potted Meat?  Incomplete.”)

Instead of traveling all over the Mediterranean and beyond, as Homer’s hero does over the course of 10 years in his attempt to get home, Bloom travels through the city of Dublin over the course of a single day: June 16, 1904. 

Where Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, remained faithful to her husband for 20 years, Bloom’s wife, Molly, a soprano performing popular songs and operatic arias in music halls around Ireland, is having an ongoing affair with her manager, Blazes Boylan, including a rendez-vous that afternoon. 

And where Odysseus has a son who joined him in a heroic battle to regain his kingdom, Bloom’s only son, Rudy, died soon after childbirth, a matter of great sorrow for him and something that has put a strain on his marriage.

Serving as a surrogate son is Stephen Daedalus, a young man trained by the Jesuits and a teacher of Classics in Dublin. Daedalus was the hero of Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  In Ulysses, Stephen’s dissatisfaction with his situation and with Ireland’s parochial outlook leads him to decide to leave, just as Joyce himself did in 1904. 

Speaking of travel, the book is a very detailed travelogue of Dublin in 1904, and if you go to Dublin you can take a tour, visiting the various sites mentioned. If you visit Dublin on, or around Bloomsday – which Joyceans around the world celebrate every 16th of June – you won’t be able to escape from such tours amidst all the festivities.

But the book does provide all sorts of travel – Bloom, Molly and Stephen spend a lot of the book thinking about the past, about loved ones, about language and literature, and these reflections are presented in stream-of-consciousness, a jumble of associations, much as thoughts often are. 

When Molly encounters the word “metempsychosis” in a graphic romantic novel, she asks Bloom what the word means (“transmigration of the soul” or “reincarnation”).  Throughout the book, the word recurs and when Bloom thinks of it, his thoughts bounce from thoughts about his dead son, about Molly’s salacious taste in literature, about his own epistolary romance, even about advertising jingles.  So where the external travel of the book is minimal (Molly never leaves their flat at 7 Eccles St.), the internal travel in the mind of characters encompasses life, death, philosophy and graphic romance novels. 

So what makes this such a classic and such a fascinating work?  Well, when I reviewied Homer’s Odyssey, I maintained that Homer, more than simply telling Odysseus’ story, was demonstrating the power of story itself, and the power of the spoken word.  In the case of Ulysses, Joyce is doing more than telling the story of one day in the life of an ordinary (and somewhat underachieving) man. He is presenting us with all sorts of ways of thinking (in an episode called “Proteus,” we see Stephen thinking of all sorts of things – his life, his academic work, the world beyond Dublin, and even on death and beyond); ways of categorizing information and analyzing the world around us (in an episode called “Ithaca,” the discussion of Bloom and Stephen at Bloom’s home is recast as a “catechism” or FAQ, and deals with high philosophy but also with the urinating force and trajectory of the two men as they pee in the garden); and with the whole majesty of language and literary style (in an episode called “Oxen of the Sun” the account of Bloom, Stephen and Buck Mulligan having a royal drunk is told in a variety of English styles, from an Anglo-Saxon directness, to the flights of fancy of Medieval English to the measured and reasonable prose of 18th and 19th c. essayists to a crazy and invented slang).

So in this one day, in this one place, we have a prism through which we get a glimpse of much of human knowledge (at least as viewed in the West) and of much of the nature of language (what it can and cannot express), and, in the final section, an extended internal monolog by Molly Bloom, a glimpse into the nature of the human heart, with all its foibles and mysteries. 

So, this Bloomsday, do yourself a favor.  Find yourself a quiet spot, have yourself a pint (of Guinness, ideally; or some soft drink, if you are not yet 21), and read a section from this work. Or find a group of people and take turns reading the work aloud. In fact, the Irish Center of Kansas City at Union Station is doing this very thing from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow, along with other festivities.

Or listen to a recording of the work – Joyce is so much better aloud than silent! The one done by Donal Donnelly and Miriam Healy-Louie is excellent. Don’t worry about taking on the whole work – just a section – and one day, you’ll know that you’re ready, and in you’ll plunge.  Happy Bloomsday, all!

About the Author


Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.