Updated: Dec 31, 2020
“Like Odysseus....who spent ten years trying to get back home after the Trojan War, readers need to think of themselves as ‘heroic readers,’ who are willing to carry on even in the midst of confusion and uncertainty.” This was the introduction that my teacher gave to the dozen students who had signed up for a term of Ulysses. Joyce’s 1922 novel has a reputation that precedes it, often considered the greatest English-language novel ever written — and one of the most difficult to read.
In place of Odysseus’ heroic homecoming, Joyce’s Ulysses describes the mundane events of a single day in Dublin. Our hero is Leopold Bloom, an idiosyncratic, timid, broadly yet clumsily thoughtful man. Rather than returning home to a loyal wife and slaying hundreds of suitors, Bloom spends his day avoiding confronting his wife’s affair, happening with his knowledge just that afternoon. We spend most of the book in Bloom’s head, indiscriminately and deeply so. Through continuous, unfinishing thoughts, we see him fantasize about women around him, muse about Christianity and the Catholic Church, and eat and relieve himself and go about all aspects of his day. A later chapter devolves into a hallucinatory stageplay in which Bloom is put on trial for his sexual desires, examined by doctors and labeled “the new womanly man,” reigns and is usurped as the ruler of Ireland, preaching universal love and tolerance, and becomes the female sex slave of a brothel mistress genderbent into an abusive dominatrix.
Ulysses is held in such high regard for its command of the English language, pushing it to and beyond its extremes. Innovative, unbroken stream-of-consciousness writing makes up the bulk of the book, but experimentation in style and voice runs through it. “Sirens” (the chapters are named after figures from The Odyssey) constructs rhythm and mimics music with its structure; “Oxen of the Sun” progresses through the evolution of the English language as it proceeds; the most famous, ultimate chapter, “Penelope,” does away with sentences and punctuation, unfolding in 36 pages of uniformly unbroken text. Just as often, the writing is sprawled with rapidfire references to theology, literature, philosophy, and contemporary Irish and English figures and issues. Latin phrases, partially given titles, and abbreviated author names provide key context for understanding the scene, requiring a reference book to decipher.
In its free-flowing writing, flawed hero and subversive characters, and description of equal parts mundane and obscene thoughts and events, Joyce aimed to glorify all of the experience of life, not just what was beautiful or noteworthy, an analysis video told me. “It’s so ambitious,” my teacher often said. “It attempts to capture so much of the human experience, the human condition.” Ulysses is immense, overflowing with eclectic language and *humanity* — this is what makes it the greatest English-language novel ever written.
These were the expectations I had going into Ulysses. Quickly, many of them were met. I was immersed in the incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness thought and dense thicket of references and allusions. Bloom emerged as the highly imperfect, idiosyncratic character I had heard so much about, as did the setting and world of Dublin with its accompanying discussion of the Catholic church, British rule, and Irish nationalism. Yet, for all the pieces that emerged, I struggled to feel a larger sense of grandeur and meaning. Here was a highly intricate and experimental novel with countless interesting themes and ideas, but they felt like surface level points of analysis that I could point out in an essay, not things that I *felt* and would remember long after I turned the last page of the book. Was this all to the novel’s alleged encapsulation of the totality of the human experience? What was I missing?
Perhaps, as I read in a few articles, I could attribute this gap in appreciation to the fact that what was shocking about Ulysses at the time of publication isn’t anymore. Deeply flawed, unheroic protagonists are commonplace in today’s stories; worlds of myth and literature are often appropriated and remixed in pop culture; the outlook on what is acceptable to write about is much broader, almost unbounded. Or, perhaps it’s that I just wasn’t a good enough reader. From week one, my classmates were analysing connections to The Odyssey like they had read the epic yesterday, to Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners, to all manner of other texts and ideas. Maybe my lack of knowledge and familiarity with difficult classic literature meant I was simply unable to understand the true meaning of the book on my own. The grandeur was hidden in plain sight, just beyond the barriers of my own mind.
Dutifully I read each chapter once, then again with a PDF of Ulysses Annotated open, checking all the annotations and adding my own. The efforts provided me with the rungs I needed to keep moving through the literary jungle gym. Patterns took shape and emerged. But, as before, I couldn’t find any sort of platform or solid ground. Rather than being a challenge I was determined to take on, Ulysses became something that I dreaded, a class I had to get through, as cowardly as this felt to admit; I abandoned Ulysses Annotated and pages flew by without comprehension.
One night, I sat down to get through my overdue reading, starting with chapter 11 of 18, “Sirens.” In expected Ulysses fashion, the first two pages contained a list of onomatopoeia and wordplay without context. I read, and at this point listened, having resorted to an audiobook for comprehension, to the book; I read dutifully, little pencil circles, underlines, and notes scattered on the page, but also a bit mindlessly. Soon, though, things started to change. There had been plenty of experimentation with narrative style before this point, but for the first time, I felt it. I felt the frivolous self-indulgence of the writing (“Miss Kennedy sauntered sadly...Sauntering sadly, gold no more...sadly she twined in sauntering gold…”, p. 212; “While you wait if you wait he will wait while you wait. Hee hee hee hee…”, p. 230); I felt the thrill and passion of the characters singing, breaking its way into the narration, breaking out of time and order, breaking out of prose into poetry as if it couldn’t contain itself. Perhaps the Sirens of the chapter are the expressive potentials of writing, the narrator a journeyer lured in by its song; or, if the narrator is the Siren, I was lured inescapably in. “Sirens” was exultant in its beauty and emotion, a departure from the focus on the mundane and un-beautiful that Joyce aimed to capture before; yet in this song, none of the earlier humanity was lost! Bloom’s clumsy narration is still ever-present, finishing off the chapter by describing farting discreetly. This contrast (the chapter, not the farting specifically) was the entry point I had been looking for. Bloom came alive, masculine and feminine, devious and principled, knowledgeable and un-high-minded, an attempted representation of all of humanity. The book came alive, its promised grandeur finally beginning to wash over me.
Maybe it was only because of my realization, but the rest of the book didn’t disappoint. I continued to struggle through...well, all of it, “Oxen of the Sun” especially. But “Circe,” “Ithaca,” and “Penelope” soar to glorious, glorious new heights. Circe was the “later chapter” described in the beginning of this review: a 150-page hallucinatory trip written in the format of a stageplay, in which Bloom’s deepest fears and desires come out in full display, unbridled in every way imaginable. “Ithaca” takes a question-and-answer form, a book’s length of obfuscation giving way to profoundly stark clarity, not simplifying but rather imbuing Bloom and humanity with ever more complexity and depth. The last chapter “Penelope,” mentioned earlier as taking the form of 34 unbroken walls of text, presents Molly’s subversively sexual, liberated thoughts, breaks free of societal expectations and grammar alike; in doing so it makes no moral statement, but rather speaks to something much larger.
A review by Ben Heineman in The Atlantic compares the endings of The Great Gatsby and Ulysses. You probably know how Gatsby ends — here’s Ulysses:
...and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
“The final sentences of Gatsby are about the futility of our dreams,” Heineman writes. “The end of Ulysses is about the affirmation of our humanity.”
Ulysses is incredibly unwieldy. It’s mind-numbingly boring at times, intensely academic or pornographically obscene at others, occasionally as beautiful as any other literature. But this is because its subject matter is even more misshapen and imperfect. Voyaging through the book, embarking on an Odyssean journey, the reader might just get a glimpse of something truly great.
Now, I’ll qualify this judgement extensively. I will confidently say that, just by word count, I understood less than half of this book. Beyond this, there is so, so much to dive into. “I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” Joyce said about the book. I highlighted certain chapters in this review because they were the ones that I understood; there are likely countless articles or even books arguing that any one of the chapters or passages is the greatest, chapters that I skimmed by without being able to appreciate. On the other hand, Ulysses isn’t a universally loved book, either. Just as often as it’s considered the greatest English-language novel ever written, Ulysses is considered the most overrated.’ “Never did any book so bore me,” Virginia Woolf wrote, leaving the book behind 200 pages in. A 2011 Slate article said as much: “Ulysses is an overwrought, overwritten epic of gratingly obvious, self-congratulatory, show-off erudition that, with its overstuffed symbolism and leaden attempts at humor, is bearable only by terminal graduate students who demand we validate the time they’ve wasted reading it.”
Does Ulysses deserve to be considered the greatest English-language novels ever written, or not even close? Hell, I’m in no place to judge. Should you read it? Still a tough question — I struggled to get through it with the support of a teacher and classmates; even if Ulysses is unique in its poignance, there are many, many other great works that won’t require so much time and mind-wearing (plus, at least for me, it absolutely destroyed my writing: my already free-flowing journal entries often slipped into incomprehensible Bloom-esque broken sentences). But if you happen to have the environment and opportunity to do so, there’s a lot to be taken from Ulysses, even for a very casual reader like I ended up being. One of my favorite books I’ve read this year is Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, flowing seamlessly between prose, poetry, and meta commentary, autobiography and fiction. It was gorgeous at the time, and now I appreciate it all the more having seen Joyce’s precedent almost a century before. For me, Ulysses offered a foundation-shattering new lens on what literature and writing can be.
Menand, Louis. “Why We Are No Longer Shocked by ‘Ulysses’”. The New Yorker, 16 Jun, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/why-we-are-no-longer-shocked-by-ulysses. Accessed 3 Jun, 2020.
Heineman, Ben. “Rereading 'Ulysses' by James Joyce: The Best Novel Since 1900.” The Atlantic, 29 Nov, 2010, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/11/rereading-ulysses-by-james-joyce-the-best-novel-since-1900/67092/. Accessed 3 Jun, 2020.
Rosenbaum, Ron. “Joyce’s Ulysses: The Only Chapter Worth Reading.” Slate, 7 Apr, 2011, https://slate.com/human-interest/2011/04/joyce-s-ulysses-the-only-chapter-worth-reading.html. Accessed 3 Jun, 2020.