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Monday, 18 June 2012


In 2006, the poet laureate Andrew Motion recommended that all schoolchildren read ‘Ulysses’ as part of their essential grounding in English literature. One can see why. To read ‘Ulysses’ is to realize that the whole of twentieth-century literature is little more than a James Joyce Appreciation Society. Among the many writers who would have been different, or even nonexistent, without ‘Ulysses’, are Samuel Beckett, Jorge Louis Borges, Dylan Thomas, Flann O’Brien, Anthony Burgess, Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Philip K. Dick and Bernard Malamud --- to name but a few. Even a writer as unlikely as George Orwell deliberately echoed the ‘Circe’ episode of ‘Ulysses’ in the play scene of ‘A Clergyman’s Daughter’. Joyce’s hectic layering of styles, his unstoppable neologizing, his blurring of viewpoint, his love of parody and imitation, his obscenity, his difficulty, obscurity and outright incomprehensibility was the beginning of the high modernist style in world literature. Andrew Motion was right in seeing ‘Ulysses’ as fundamental, but in another way his suggestion was absurd. ‘Ulysses’ is not a book for children. It is barely even a book for adults. The paradox of ‘Ulysses’ is that one needs to read it to understand twentieth-century literature, but one needs to read twentieth-century literature to build up the stamina to read ‘Ulysses’.

The problem starts with the title. Early readers of ‘Ulysses’, exhilarated and appalled after 800 pages, were often still left thinking “Why ‘Ulysses’?” The word ‘Ulysses’ is barely mentioned. The name is mentioned four times, twice in passing as a proper name, Ulysses Grant and Ulysses Browne, and twice as a brief mention among other heroes and notables. The occurances are cited below :---

  1. What softens the heart of a man, shipwrecked in storms dire, Tried, like another Ulysses, Pericles, prince of Tyre?[i]

David Lodge in ‘The Art of Fiction’ wrote that the title, as a clue to the allegorical nature of the book, was “the only absolutely unmissable one in the entire text”.[v] The solution, as we now know, after a century’s worth of scholarly investigation and Joyce’s own prompting, is that the book is an intricate allegory of the ‘Odyssey’ --- the hero being latinized from Odysseus to Ulysses. ‘Ulysses’ is divided into eighteen parts, or ‘episodes’ as Joyce scholars call them, each written in a different style and with a different Odyssean name, though the names themselves are not given in the text.
Each episode is assigned, tacitly, a colour theme, a dominant organ of the body, an hour, a setting, and other characteristics, though many of these remain a matter of scholarly dispute. The action takes place in Dublin on a single June day (June 16th 1904) and its three main characters are Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus and Molly Bloom, who represent Ulysses, Telemachus and Penelope, respectively. Other characters and places also have their Homeric counterparts.

The problem is that one can know all of this and still be left thinking “Why ‘Ulysses’?” The choice of the ‘Odyssey’ seems somewhat arbitrary. Why not ‘Oedipus Rex’ as a background text? That way Bloom could be Oedipus, Molly Jocasta and Dedalus Tiresias (or someone else). ‘Ulysses’ is not so much a novel as a symbolic system, rather like a clock or a computer programme. Underlying the final, visible product, the time-telling or the computer display, is a corresponding machinery, the cogs or the binary code. Why did Joyce choose the ‘Odyssey’ for his code?

The answer is that it could hardly have been anything else. Joyce was from an early age deeply in love with the ‘Odyssey’. “The character of Ulysses has fascinated me ever since boyhood,” he wrote to Carlo Linati in 1920.[vi] As a schoolboy he read Charles Lamb’s ‘Adventures of Ulysses’, an adventure-yarn version of the story which presents, in Lamb’s words, “a brave man struggling with adversity; by a wise use of events, and with an inimitable presence of mind under difficulties, forcing out a way for himself through the severest trials to which human life can be exposed; with enemies natural and preternatural surrounding him on all sides.”[vii] Joyce said later that the story so gripped him that when at Belvedere College (he would have been between the ages of 11 and 15) he was tasked to write an essay on ‘My Favourite Hero’, he chose Ulysses. The essay title ‘My Favourite Hero’ actually appears in the 17th episode of ‘Ulysses’ :---

He later described Ulysses to Frank Budgen, in an interview in 1934, as the only “complete all-round character presented by any writer”.[ix]

Unsurprisingly therefore, this “complete man” surfaced as early as Joyce’s first major prose work --- ‘Dubliners’ --- of 1914. Joyce had originally planned that it would include a short story called ‘Ulysses’, the plot of which was based on an incident which took place in June 1904. Joyce was involved in a scuffle on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, after accosting another man’s lady-companion, and was rescued and patched up by one Alfred H. Hunter. Hunter, according to Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, was “rumoured to be Jewish and to have an unfaithful wife”[x] --- in both of these respects a prototype for Leopold Bloom. In 1906, Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus : “I have a new story for ‘Dubliners’ in my head. It deals with Mr Hunter.”[xi] In a letter written shortly afterwards he mentioned its title : “I thought of beginning my story Ulysses but I have too many cares at present.”[xii] Three months later, on February 6th 1907, he had abandoned the idea, writing : “Ulysses never got any forrader than the title.”[xiii] The incident with Hunter was only written up later, in ‘Ulysses’ itself, in a passage at the end of episode fifteen in which Bloom rescues Dedalus “in orthodox Samaritan fashion” from a fight. The idea of Ulysses as symbolic hero --- and as a title --- was therefore present as early as 1906. Its centrality to the early plan for ‘Dubliners’ was revealed in a conversation with Georges Borach : “When I was writing Dubliners, I first wished to choose the title Ulysses in Dublin, but gave up the idea. In Rome, when I had finished about half of the Portrait, I realized that the Odyssey had to be the sequel, and I began to write Ulysses.”[xiv]
The figure of Ulysses could not therefore have been less arbitrary. He existed as a thread through all of Joyce’s prose works from ‘My Favourite Hero’ onward. He was there in embryo in ‘Dubliners’, was being considered halfway through ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, and burst out in his full, final and inevitable form in the work that bore his name. It was only after publication of ‘Ulysses’ in 1922 that Joyce was free of his ‘favourite hero’, and could allow his literature to expand to its ultimate extent. The book that came after ‘Ulysses’ was ‘Finnegans Wake’, a work not tied to one hero but inclusive of all heroes, not tied to one myth but including all myths, and using not one language but all languages. The tale of Leopold Bloom, modern-day wanderer and homecomer, is a timeless story illustrating the age-old theme of wanderers who long to return. Joyce himself, in his maturity blind like Homer but with mind’s eye undimmed, would return to the major themes and characters of ‘Ulysses’ by recycling them in the ever-circling book of dreams, ‘Finnegans Wake’.

[i] Joyce, James; ‘Ulysses’; Project Gutenberg edition; Scylla and Charybdis; (9327-9329)
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[ii] Joyce, James; ‘Ulysses’; Project Gutenberg edition; Scylla and Charybdis; (10056-10057)
[iii] Ibid; Cyclops; (16032-16033)
[iv] Ibid; Penelope; (31404-31405)
[v] Lodge, David; ‘The Art of Fiction : Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts’; Penguin (Non-Classics);
   London; 1994
[vi] Ellmann, Richard; ‘Selected Letters of James Joyce’; Faber and Faber, London; 1975
[vii] Pindar, Ian; ‘Joyce’; Hans Publishing; 2004; (pp.10-11)
[viii] Joyce, James; ‘Ulysses’; Project Gutenberg edition; Ithaca; (28481-28484)
[ix] Budgen, Frank; ‘James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses’; Indiana University Press; 1989; (p.258)
[x] Ellmann, Richard; ‘James Joyce’; Oxford University Press, Oxford; 1983; (p.162)
[xi] Ellmann, Richard; ‘Selected Letters of James Joyce’; Faber and Faber, London; 1975
[xii] Ibid
[xiii] Ellmann, Richard; ‘James Joyce’; Oxford University Press, Oxford; 1983; (p.230)
[xiv] Ellmann, Richard; ‘Selected Letters of James Joyce’; Faber and Faber, London; 1975