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Ulysses

Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
1822

Literary form
Novel

Genres
Literary

Writing language
English

Author's country
Ireland

Length
Approx. 286,000 words

Ulysses

THE NOVEL | THE TEXT | THE MOVIES

Adrift on the stream of consciousness

I've read this book five times. It's not that I love it so much.

It may be because I've heard so often that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the twentieth century. Or perhaps because it's so difficult, I figured I had to keep reading it until I got it.

I think I get it now. And I think I'll never read it again.

Oh, I might reread Molly Bloom's long unpunctuated soliloquy that ends the book. She's the randy, cheating, concert-singing wife of advertising agent Leopold Bloom, whose wanderings about Dublin are followed in much of the book.

When Joyce gets around to writing frankly the thoughts passing through Molly's mind, the result is wonderful, much different from the intellectual ramblings of her husband and the other main character, Stephen Dedalus. Molly Bloom's direct, simple language speaks to—and moves—the reader more than all the rest of the novel. It concludes Ulysses on a passionate, life-affirming note. (It's also the part of the novel most often cited for its dirty bits, but that may just add to the interest.)

I might again browse through a few of the other livelier sections, like the phantasmagoric visit to the red-light district by Stephen Dedalus, who has loosened up some since his overheated appearance in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but he is still insufferably self-absorbed. The section is written as an hallucinatory, demonic piece of theatre.

Over the top

Ulysses is famous of course for introducing stream of consciousness to fiction. (Actually it wasn't invented by Joyce—perhaps Laurence Sterne gets that credit with Tristram Shandy, which at least is very funny—but Joyce made it a hallmark of modernist literature.) Characters' thoughts, fragments of memory and fantasies are mixed with input from the outside world.

But it is all rather academic for me. Despite Joyce's attempts to replicate the flow of sensation through characters' minds with a diverse repertoire of literary effects, I doubt anyone has such intelligible thought processes as the characters in Ulysses do. Most of  us experience vast stretches of mental time passed without any thoughts expressed internally in words.

This is a failing of the literary stream-of-consciousness method. An author must include blank pages, pages of scribbling, musical notes, etc., or give up the pretence that one is reproducing the mental process. Authors have to acknowledge that, out of the nearly infinite range of daily human experience, they are selecting specific items to put together artificially to represent through language what is largely inarticulate.

The stream-of-consciousness approach introduced by Joyce has had a great effect on writing, but Ulysses may be the over-the-top experiment (we won't even mention Finnegans Wake) that has allowed other writers to use the technique selectively as is appropriate in their writing.

I have to mention the significance of the title. Yes, the peregrinations of the characters around the city is supposed to parallel the journey of Ulysses in Homer's Odyssey until he arrives home to his Penelope (Molly). The trip to "nighttown" (the brothels) is like Ulysses' descent to Hades, and so on.

At another point Joyce writes in an evolving style that recreates the history of literature. Which you might think would excite one who sometimes enjoys being an amateur literary historian.   

But these kinds of overbearing allegory and literary pretension leave me, as a reader of creative narratives, quite cold. A novel either works with characterization, story, plot and such, or it doesn't. Noting that it is structurally similar to some other great work or myth—or to all great works and myths—doesn't make it any more engaging. Though it is the sort of intellectual puzzle that excites many a literary critic.

You may think that my many readings of such a multi-layered and widely admired literary achievement as Ulysses would give me more to say about it. But it doesn't. No more than I would expect you to appreciate an hours-long recitation of every profound and trivial thought that passsed through my brain yesterday. (Note to self: An idea for my next novel....) 

— Eric McMillan

THE NOVEL | THE TEXT | THE MOVIES

See also:

Author
Laurence Sterne

Novel
Tristram Shandy

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Ulysses

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