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Ulysses by James Joyce


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This is the most difficult book I have tried to read, but I will struggle on, despite no engagement with characters and no narrative to engage. Why? The surface, the unusual diction choices in particular, and because I feel it a defeat not to persevere. Anyone else read Joyce's Ulysses?

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David W. Parsley

Phil, we must have some sort of psychic connection.  I completed Derek Walcott's Omeros over the holidays and decided it was time to re-attempt Ulysses, after abandoning the attempt a dozen years ago.  I am on page 105 and am finally starting to engage with some of the characters.  It helps that I swallowed my pride and have decided to avail myself of online resources, some of which are quite good.  But I do not consult these resources until after doing all that I can with a section on my own first.  I find it interesting that I sometimes disagree with the commentators' interpretation of the action and even the symbolism.  My motives up till now have mostly been like yours.  Don't let "Proteus" stop you from getting to the part where Leopold Bloom comes in - gets better from there, at least for a while.

I  have found the following sites to be helpful companions:

The Joyce Project : Ulysses : Home

Omphalos in Ulysses | The Omphalos (wordpress.com)

Annotations to James Joyce's Ulysses/Telemachus/007 - Wikibooks, open books for an open world

Omphalos in Ulysses | The Omphalos (wordpress.com)

It is a slow, methodical, but rather absorbing read.

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Many thanks for those links David. I feel I may revisit earlier chapters. I've started the 'Sirens' chapter. I like Bloom, but the rest don't connect.

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  • 5 months later...
David W. Parsley

I finished the thing a week ago, still making up my mind about what I think of it.  At this point I would be inclined to characterize Ulysses a miscarriage of genius.  But genius it is.  Is there a rhetorical device or method in the English language in which Joyce does not exhibit his mastery?  It would be hard to name one.  Thanks to Joyce, I know more about the vagaries of protasis and apodosis, if you will indulge me in such a claim.  I can now catch on to catechismatisma and licentious word inventionastics.  Milton has been praised as augmenting his impeccable implementation of classic models and Christian doctrine by incorporating the most advanced scientific concepts and speculations of his time in Paradise Lost.  Joyce matches him, and that in an age when scientific knowledge had already achieved the status of explosion.  Politics?  Joyce is all over it.  History?  Same.  Medicine and the character of its practitioners?  You got it in spades.  The majority of character development in the novel is rigorously molded by the latest in Freudian psychology of the time.  Religion?  Well, most commentators concur that he somewhat misunderstood the Hindu and Buddhist belief systems, but that does not stop him from trying to give both a well-intentioned fair shake in the conversation, so he even gets partial credit there.  And I did learn of the existence of some ethical and logical arguments for the existence of Deity with which I was not previously familiar, so thanks for that, too.  A few more important facts about the diaspora.  And I can now tuck my chin and consider the significance of omphalos in the development of our roots in ancient thought and culture.

But Ulysses also has a story.  A rather good one, neglecting some outlandish BDSM and a few other Freudian extremes.  But Joyce deliberately obfuscates the story line and I honestly don't see why.  He is so busy switching between narrative forms and making fun of them, assessing world views and personalities, that he is willing to let those aims predominate while he plays shell games with the reader on what is even happening or what setting we have just been dropped into or even who is speaking for the first three pages of a new chapter.  Without the help of some on-line aids, like the ones given previously, there are parts of the novel I simply could not have followed.  Other parts I ventured without such consultation and felt like I had achieved something by keeping up.  It is a game of Literature Clue: Bloom did it in the bedroom with and without a handkerchief; Lenehan did it in the pub with the help of Samson of Ireland; etc.

Having said all that, I consider part III, comprised of "Eumaeus", "Ithaca", and "Penelope", to be a great 20th century novella.  Some would complain of Joyce's idea of femininity as archaic, even chauvinistic.  Molly does exhibit qualities of vanity, caprice, narcissism, borderline nymphomania.  I think one would do well to take the broader view of the diversity of female behavior in the novel before hastily generalizing such a view.  Molly is a product of her time and her gifts.  The two combine to shape this individual with whom I cannot help sympathizing at the last, as I do with several characters in the piece.  And I am deeply moved by her ultimate proclamation of yes I said yes I will Yes.  Part I of Ulysses can be enjoyed somewhat if one is willing to invest time and concentration, including an appeal to available commentaries and summaries.  With exceptions here and there (e.g. Cyclops), I consider Part II to be hopelessly abtruse, relentlessly perverse and obscene without sufficient cause, and profane to the point of consciously ugly and contemptible.

In the end, I find Jimmy clever (unspeakably, unmatchably clever!) rather than profound, wallowing in irony, satire, and outre contempt for practically every world view and human disposition except sexual love between human beings.  And even this elicits little more from him than sympathy, though not quite pity.  Almost totally absent are the epiphanies that peppered A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Even when he allows himself to wander toward a nobler event horizon, such as in a full page of "Cyclops" and almost so much at times in "Ithaca" and "Penelope", he always catches himself before descending the black hole of affirmation and belief.  (Ah, if only Ernie could have spared himself such a gust of redemption before releasing The Old Man and the Sea to his publishers!)  Joyce is just another face in the class photograph of the Lost Generation, that so ably paved the way for 20th century disillusionment as the only worthwhile representation of reality in the Arts.

Just Another Point of View (yes I know James just be quiet for a moment okay),
 - Dave

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  • 4 weeks later...
David W. Parsley

Phil.  You know...  I just might have to look into that piece.  It's intentions definitely remind me of my own shadow project, Notes from the Common Era.

(The relation to Ulysses is a bit tenuous, though the epic quality and the somewhat skeptical commentary would seem to align.)

 - David

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David W. Parsley

I wrote another piece of commentary a few weeks ago, but it got erased somehow.  I'll try to reproduce it here:

A redeeming aspect of Ulysses is its portrayal of the father-son/mentor-protégé relationship, to varying degrees of success.  For example:

1.       Yearning of a man to have a son, mostly as regards to Bloom

a.       Projected with sympathy onto the transferred desire to cultivate a master-protégé relationship with Stephen Dedalus

2.       Mourning of father for a lost son as seen with Leopold Bloom

a.       To a lesser extent with Simon Dedalus

3.       Resistance of maturing son/protégé to fatherly guidance

a.       Stephen Dedalus w.r.t. Simon Dedalus

b.       Stephen Dedalus w.r.t. Prof. Deasy

c.       Stephen Dedalus w.r.t. Bloom

d.       Stephen Dedalus w.r.t. Catholic Church

4.       Son’s respect for father/mentor

a.       Bloom w.r.t. father-in-law, Major Tweedy

b.       Stephen w.r.t. Bloom

5.       Other complexities

a.       Bloom’s difficulties in coming to grips with his own father’s premature death

b.       How relationship affects marriage, illustrated in context of Rudy’s death at 11 days of age

c.       Alienation with loss of mother, as Stephen and Simon upon passing of Mary Dedalus

d.       And more, but not quite achieving anything like an epiphany (see above commentary)

Other parental relationships also are dealt with, perhaps the next best being father-daughter concerning Leopold’s devotion and affection for his flowering daughter, Millie.  This relationship does not achieve full expression here, but enough is given to deliver one of the few glowing niceties of the novel, though not one that flinches from difficulties.  Mother-daughter relations was given light treatment.  Most angst-ridden would be the mother-son relationship that developed with believable warmth and something approaching mutual understanding in A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, but found anguishing conclusion and self-alienating lack of resolution in Ulysses.

Note: If it seems I am incessantly harping on the concept and/or experience of epiphany, it is only because Joyce himself talked about its value in the reader's conversation with Literature.  And indeed, he illustrated this all too well in Portrait (along with its draft, Stephen Hero) and at times in his earlier story collection, Dubliners.  By the way, I take some issue with the popular view that Joyce's epiphanies are mere Freudian slips or moments of self-recognizing paralysis.  I think there was more to it in his earlier work - maybe I should write up something of my view of the subject.  (See also this.)

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