James Joyce

Cover of Ulysses

Rank: A+
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Fall, 1998 to Spring, 2000

Author Name: James Joyce

Review:The big question: Is it really that good? Yes, I say, yes it is, yes.


To catch everyone up, Ulysses is the “sequel” to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. That book is about the youth of Stephen Dedalus. Ulysses picks up where that book left off, following Stephen Dedalus in and around Dublin, along with another character, Leopold Bloom. The book is about a day in their lives: June 16, 1904. It’s supposedly a “perfectly ordinary day”, but, in its ordinariness, it succeeds in being rather extraordinary. The novel itself has a very specific structure—probably one of the most specific in all of literature. Joyce had a schema for each chapter which you can view here (though it’s rather messy). As the book was structured after Homer’s Odyssey, each chapter in the book (there are 18) is associated with a particular scene of The Odyssey. Each scene is exactly an hour long, has a specific locale, has specific colors associated with it, a type of art, a “technic” (writing style), and a symbol. Why? Because Joyce wanted to show, essentially, that within the confines of a single, ordinary day (not even the whole thing, mind you; just eighteen hours), you could find everything: existence itself.

So, does it work? Sure, why not? To the extent that I understood any of it, it worked. Was it enjoyable? Mostly, no. One cannot deny, though, that the work is truly brilliant, and deserving of the top spot on the list. To give you an example, each chapter has a separate writing style, true. Arguably the most difficult chapter to get through, though, Oxen of the Sun (chapter 14) has a technic entitled “embryonic development”. What does that mean, pray tell? Well, Joyce takes language itself and develops it from how he imagined it beginning thousands of years ago, and, throughout the course of the chapter (paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence!), takes the reader from the beginning of human language, to modern literature—even Hemingway’s “style”’s in there (funny because it’s so stupid, yet I bet if he wrote it, he’d be proud of it). And he does so very effectively. I figure one has to have read every book from time immemorial to the time of writing to fully get it (or to even figure out what the hell is going on [something about a woman giving birth]), but even if you haven’t, it’s possible to appreciate just how difficult the undertaking was, and just how well it was done. This is all, mind, while tying in the section of The Odyssey, using the colors, and the body part (did I mention each chapter has a body part associated with it?), and the symbol, and the art style, and making it work with the plot, etc. And this is just one chapter.

Now, to the second question: Was it enjoyable? I feel like one is almost intimidated by unseen forces into saying “yes”. But, really, it wasn’t all that much. Perhaps with much more knowledge it would be, but a normal human being can only know so much. This isn’t to say there aren’t enjoyable parts. Joyce is funny, after all (every so often), and when his writing isn’t opaque, it’s, well, quite good (he had to get the reputation somehow). Some chapters are absolutely fantastic. For example, Lestrygonians (chapter 8) is one of my favorites. It takes place during lunchtime, and Leopold Bloom is wandering around town trying desperately to avoid Blazes Boylan (the man his wife’s cheating on him with), and it kind of reads like an adventure story, capped off with Bloom crying, “Safe!” to close the chapter. Additionally, chapter 15, Circe, is terribly brutal, and very straightforward—especially coming after the Oxen of the Sun chapter. It’s written like a play about Bloom’s visit to a brothel, where he meets up with Stephen Dedalus, and they act out a kind of nightmare wherein Bloom has to save Stephen from his vices. But the true crowning achievement is the end. The second-to-last chapter involves Bloom and Stephen talking together, enacting a kind of father-son relationship that neither ever really had. As Stephen leaves, Bloom goes home to his wife (at the start of the next chapter) Molly, and asks her to make him breakfast in bed the next morning. The last chapter is told entirely from Molly’s point of view. It’s an internal monologue that takes her from a rant against her horrible husband, and how much she despises him, to the memories of their first meeting, of their courtship, and of his proposal to her, and, in the end, she decides to accept him all over again for who he is. It’s quite exhilarating, and an experience not likely to be duplicated in literature, given what comes before it.

So even though I admitedly didn’t “get” most of the book, and couldn’t trace most of the references, and didn’t know most of the history, and wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have been (and didn’t read it quickly enough), it was most definitely worth it, and I’ll take time to read it again. It’s not as easily enjoyable as a book like Catch-22 or The Great Gatsby (and not as short), but it really is a literary event, and possibly the most imaginative thing ever done with the English language. I’m willing to say it’s a must.

Some other info: Ulysses was banned in the United States for quite awhile. Eventually, there was a Supreme Court decision that reversed the ban, and it was first published in 1933—more than 10 years after it was completed. Click here to see a good summary of the whole situation. Additionally, there’s a holiday in Dublin honoring Ulysses, and the day in which the action was supposed to have occurred, June 16 (click here for more info). If you’re looking for a succinct and funny summary of Ulysses, look no further than this site. For even more fun, check the link at the top which describes how a publishing company threatened to sue the owners of this website because of the title they chose: “Ulysses for Dummies.” Outstanding! [Update: In fact, that publishing company succeeded in getting that site banned, and there’s no longer a link at the top. You can still see it, though, at the link I provided. -DJP 4/12/2011] Finally, the entire book is online (it is more than 100 years old—wild, huh? Especially since it isn’t). Here it is. Enjoy!

[Sociological Sidenote: This was my 100th review. Woo hoo! (1/26/2006)]

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