Ulysses by James Joyce
4/5 stars (2 stars for overall enjoyment)
Ulysses is considered to THE modernist novel. Divided into 18 episodes, the novel is loosely based on Homer’s the Odyssey. Events and characters from the Odyssey are transformed into events and characters within a 24-hour period in Dublin in the early 1900s. The majority of the novel uses stream-of-consciousness and follows protagonist Leopold Bloom who represents Odysseus. However, each episode uses a different type of technique and much of it seems chaotic and unstructured on first read. Within the book you’ll find an episode written in the style of a play, one episode written as a series of questions and answers, one written as a series of hallucinations, one in a pompous, old fashioned style, and one episode representing the gestation of the English language –where Joyce starts off with more archaic styles then ends with slang all within the same chapter.
Overall the book is broken into three parts. The first part represents Telemachus and the suitors and events that occur focus on Stephen Dedalus (from Portrait of the Artist) and center on his stream of conscious. Stephen of course represents Telemachus. Stephen is the most challenging character to follow. His thoughts are highly intellectual and his musings focus on musings about religion, philosophy, aesthetics, and Ireland. The second section represents the travels of Odysseus who is represented by Leopoldd Bloom. Bloom is much more practical and thus following his stream of conscious is much easier than following Stephen. Bloom is a 38-year old advertising salesman, son of an Hungarian Jewish father and Irish Catholic mother. He is married to Molly Bloom whom he fears is having an affair. The final three episodes represent Odysseus’ homecoming and the final chapter is told from the stream of consciousness of Leopold’s wife Molly who represents Penelope. Overall, not much happens in the way of plot.
This book is mostly about characters and their thoughts. On my fourth attempt to read this book, I have finally succeeded! To be perfectly honest, the attempt was torturous. People aren’t kidding when they say this is one of the hardest books to read. There were times when I wanted to throw the book in the trash and other times that I was amused or impressed. I was appreciative of all the effort and intelligence of the author, however, I found it all rather pretentious. There is no way for the modern reader to really be able to understand this book without significant guidance. The book is so filled with literary references, Irish slang, political and religious references, and stylistic switches that in order to understand even a small fraction, you need a guide to help you. I read this book with the Gifford guide (a lifesaver) and also reread the Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the Odyssey. Even then, I still only understood a fraction. In addition, some chapters have almost no punctuation and make no distinction between stream of consciousness and external dialogue, rending it all very difficult even for those readers who do understand all the references. Ulysses is a book best tackled in a college course where you can dedicate the time to analysis and bring in outside reading. But, that’s precisely what’s so obnoxious about the whole thing. I dislike authors whose writing seems to scream “look at me, I’m so smart and clever.” Joyce once said that he purposely wrote Ulysses in a way to keep professors busy for centuries. Is that really such a good thing? I think good fiction books are those that are at least partially accessible to the average reader and at a minimum to the serious reader. Books shouldn’t be written only to be understood by college professors.
What I did like about this book: 1) the very rich detail about Dublin and the local neighborhoods. There’s no question that in reading this book you feel immersed in Dublin. In fact the guide (Gifford’s guide) will provide you with a map for each episode and you can literally trace the characters’ steps through Dublin; 2) the moments of humor. There’s a lot of humor in the book. I did laugh at many moments; 3) Bloom. I liked Bloom and found his thoughts funny. Character development was amazing especially since you live inside the characters heads throughout the novel; and 4) the lyrical passages. Many passages are beautiful. Some are worth listening to or reading aloud just to hear the rhythm of the words.
So in sum, I enjoyed moments and I recognize the intelligence and skill of the author, but for the most part I did not enjoy reading this book. I would not recommend this book to anyone unless they were reading it within a structured university setting (preferably a graduate school setting). If you do insist on reading it, below are my suggestions.
- Get the audio by Jim Norton and read along with the narrators. Norton is fabulous and hearing it helps break up some of the text and also lets you hear some of the beautiful lyrical parts. Marcella Riodan’s narration was a bit odd for me (she narrates the final episode as Molly Bloom). She sounded like she was in mid orgasm and while Molly’s stream of conscious was quite sexual, it was off-putting for me. But, Norton was REALLY good.
- Get the Gifford guide (or any other guide). There’s debate about whether your first read should be with the guide. My experience was that I needed to guide to make sense of any of it. Some episodes are easier than others, but there are some episodes when I basically had to look up every other word in order to understand the meaning – not the definitional meaning but rather the fact that words, phrases, sentences basically had religious, philosophical, literary meaning that you don’t always pick up on.
- Read the Odyssey first. If you’re not familiar with the Odyssey, you’ll miss out on all the most important references
- Other books to consider (for a full understanding): A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Dubliners, Hamlet, works of Yeats. Of course it would help if you are familiar with Catholic doctrine and major ideas of Aristotle & Plato.
- Read a little about the history of Ireland in particular about Parnell.
- Allow yourself to keep reading even if some passages seem like gibberish to you. Three chapters in particular are excruciatingly difficult. Yet, if you stick with it you’re rewarded with several easier (although it’s all relative) episodes.