Today is Bloomsday. The events of Ulysses take place during a twenty – four hour period on June 16th 1904. James Joyce fans the world over commemorate the day with readings, costumed events, consuming various foods that are eaten by the characters during the course of the narrative, as well as with any other festivities that they want to partake in. As I completed this book several weeks ago, I decided to wait until today to post my commentary. Happy Bloomsday everyone!
I have completed James Joyce’s Ulysses! Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I have experienced this novel. Navigating through its pages seems something of a journey. It was one of the most unique reading experiences that I have ever had.
This is a difficult book to describe, much less write a coherent post about. Though famous, this work is monumentally odd, and it was extremely challenging. In fact, this is the most difficult piece of fiction that I have ever read. Though known for its stream of consciousness style, there are actually dozens of unique prose styles used throughout the novel. The narrative jumps in and out of all sorts of unconventional techniques, including Stream of Consciousness, trips into the bizarre imagery of the unconscious, odd imitations of newspaper headlines, Irish Folklore style and parodies of other writers, such as Charles Dickens, just to name a little of the strangeness. In addition, the text is full of allusions, many extremely obscure, to literature, art, Irish history, current events at the time in which the novel was written, as well as other topics. Joyce’s novel is also very funny. It is full of jokes and puns, and even during serious moments it radiates a zany and chaotic humor.
The book is broken up into chapters that correspond to the parts of Homer’s Odyssey. The parallels between the two works are odd and obscure and I would not have been able to recognize them without the aid of notes and outside assistance. There is also a rough connection with the characters of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The theme of father and sons, which plays prominently in the famous play, is also an important component in this novel.
The narrative takes place during a 24 hour period in Dublin. There are three main, as well as dozens of minor, characters. The main characters are: Stephen Dedalus, who was also the subject of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Leopold Bloom, an advertising agent; and Bloom’s wife, Molly.
In terms of plot, the characters mostly wander around Dublin and interact with one another. They discuss and ponder virtually every subject imaginable from the everyday mundane to profound ruminations on aesthetics and philosophy.
I got an enormous amount out of this work. I also missed a lot. It seems that the folks who really understand this book have read it multiple times. In fact, I have communicated with people who have gone through it six or seven times. My comprehension of parts of this book was spotty. This is despite the fact that I used notes, both Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce's Ulysses by Don Gifford, as well as various online notes and summaries. I also read several essays on the work. Finally, there is a dynamic online community that is fanatically enthusiastic about this book. My interactions with members of this community have been very valuable.
My actual comprehension varied a great deal. There are parts of this book that are easily understandable. Other parts that come close to indecipherable word salad seemed completely enigmatic, even with the assistance of notes.
An example of the novel’s dense zany difficulty is illustrated in the below, a very difficult compound sentence that lacks punctuation. Based upon several outside sources, the below is intended to replicate a strange mix of Old English with some Latin grammatical touches. It is worth noting that this prose is near the beginning of a section and there is no real context in the previous text to assist.
“Universally that person's acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held as most profitable by mortals with sapience endowed to be studied who is ignorant of that which the most in doctrine erudite and certainly by reason of that in them high mind's ornament deserving of veneration constantly maintain when by general consent they affirm that other circumstances being equal by no exterior splendour is the prosperity of a nation more efficaciously asserted than by the measure of how far forward may have progressed the tribute of its solicitude for that proliferent continuance which of evils the original if it be absent when fortunately present constitutes the certain sign of omnipollent nature's incorrupted benefaction.”
This is just one example of the unusualness and difficulty of this book. There are numerous additional sections that are odd in completely different ways.
Through the denseness, it slowly dawned upon me as to how much of an interesting character Leopold Bloom is. One remarkable thing about him that has been observed by many readers is his compassion directed at almost everyone he encounters. Bloom exhibits warm feelings and support for grieving survivors of the deceased, women in labor, prostitutes, animals he encounters, and just about everyone else.
He is also a calm and moderate but progressive thinker who champions good sense.
In one of the book’s best passages, Bloom expounds the virtues of equality, non-violence, tolerance and moderate change.
“—Of course, Mr B. proceeded to stipulate, you must look at both sides of the question. It's all very fine to boast of mutual superiority but what about mutual equality. I resent violence and intolerance in any shape or form. It never reaches anything or stops anything. A revolution must come on the due installments plan. It's a patent absurdity on the face of it to hate people because they live round the corner and speak another vernacular, in the next house so to speak. “
Though in the end very admirable, Bloom is not without imperfections, and he is ultimately portrayed as very complex person. For example, one of his foibles is a fetish for snatching glimpses of women’s undergarments.
Stephen is portrayed as an intellectual. When the book shifts to his point of view, it becomes difficult to understand and becomes chockfull of references to writers and philosophers. He also exhibits serious guilt surrounding the death of his mother.
Molly is Bloom’s wife. Though her point of view is highlighted in only one chapter, her passages are among the book’s most entertaining and interesting. Her lines are humorous, and she is a character that is full of life. Throughout the novel, it is apparent that she is unfaithful to Bloom. However, when we get to her chapter, we learn that a key motivation for this is the fact that she perceives that Bloom has neglected her.
This was an extremely challenging work for me. Despite my best efforts, a fair bit of the book fell outside of my comprehension. I will need to reread this, perhaps several times, in order to remedy the holes in my understanding.
The effort needed to get through this work level begs the question: was it worth reading? My answer is a resounding yes. Though I am accustomed to a much higher level of reading comprehension than I managed here, the rewards were also plentiful. The multiple and strange writing styles, while often challenging, are very creative and aesthetically pleasing. The many obscure and odd references, at least those that I was able to decipher, were enlightening and fun. The book is brimming with ideas. Though I missed some of them, I also caught a lot of them. Bloom, Stephen and Molly are so very well sketched out that they are a joy to contemplate. In fact, the narrative style brought things out of these characters like no other book that I have ever read. This novel is an enormous artistic achievement. I have not even scratched the surface of what this book contains in this post.
Joyce’s work is obviously not for everyone. In fact, had I tried this when younger, I would have failed to complete it. The book took patience and determination to get through. It helped considerably that I have been reading difficult texts for years. This previous reading experience helped me to “get into shape” for this endeavor. A fairly strong knowledge of both Shakespeare’s works and of the Odyssey was also invaluable. Ultimately, my verdict is that for a fearless and adventurous reader who is prepared, this book is not just worthwhile, it is essential.