Reading Ulysses: justification, reflections, and warnings

I have a confession. I was an English major as an undergrad and I’m still trying to finish my homework. From time to time, I launch into reading a ‘literary classic’ that I missed while in college. A few years back it was Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

Last year, my project was reading Ulysses by James Joyce.  Ulysses is a tremendously rigorous novel. For some reason, although I don’t really want to, I cannot free myself of the necessity of putting these thoughts together in written form.

Part I: Three reasons that justify my reading Ulysses

  1. The Novel’s Status: In Ulysses we encounter the epitome of Modernism in literature. James Joyce achieved something entirely unique in the history of the novel with this work.
  2. Something’s Missing: While at Wheaton College, I really wanted to take Dr. Roger Lundin’s class “Modern European Literature” but didn’t have time before graduating. It is my penance to finally read the capstone work of the class.
  3. My Ego/Inferiority Complex: I must admit that if I were ever able to ‘arrive’ as a literature student, I could only do so if I had conquered this taxing twentieth-century novel of novels. Not that this is a noble goal, but … this is a confessional blog, so please value my authenticity with this statement.

Part II: Twelve reflections after reading Ulysses:

  1. Tough: It really is as difficult to read as everyone said. I needed extra help from outside resources to understand what was happening.
  2. Homer: Not Simpson. The book echoes the structural flow of Homer’s Odyssey through a twenty-four hour period in Dublin via the intersecting lives of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. Yes. 24 hours. Ancient Greece and Dublin. Homer and Joyce. Odysseus and Bloom.
  3. An Epic Day: Have you ever considered your twenty-four hour day as an epic? Joyce was able to do so through the 768 pages (my Random House edition) of this novel. Have you ever written about your day? How many pages would it take? You would probably leave out more than Joyce did here.
  4. Spiritual realities in an Epic Day: Eugene Peterson, one of my favorite pastor-authors, values Ulysses for the ways in which “Joyce shows the method” for working out the gospel story in our daily lives. If Joyce can do it with Homer and Leopold Bloom. We can learn to do it with Jesus and our lives.
  5. Place: It has been said that a map of Dublin could be drawn from the details of the city conveyed quite naturally through the course of this novel. The importance of locality in this novel is compelling. Joyce provides a rich and vivid setting for Ulysses.
  6. Stream of consciousness: If you tracked every thought that passed through your mind in the course of a ten-minute period, what would it sound like? How would it read? Have you ever wondered what is going on in the minds of others? Joyce will let you know all of this, including some things that you may wish you didn’t know about his characters.
  7. History of Language: In episode fourteen, Joyce provides a history of the development of the English language beginning with early history up to the slang Irish-English of Dublin by the end. Joyce subtly unfurls the evolution of language in a form that parallels the nine month gestation period of a baby in utero. The development of language echoes the development of the individual. Insightful. Complex. Strange. It is a slippery experience to have your mind steadily changing gears to handle syntactical development for comprehension of meaning.
  8. Techniques of telling: Each episode in Ulysses is told through the lens of a different technique. For example, episode one is written with a narrative structure, as one would expect of a typical novel. Episode seventeen, however, is written in the form of a catechism. The flow of activity and thought is conveyed entirely through questions and answers. This highlights the power of form and technique in the telling of story.
  9. Point of view – different stories?: The majority of the novel is conveyed through the eyes and experience of two characters: Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. The final section of the novel, however, distinctly changes to the perspective of Leopold’s wife, Molly. Joyce gives us an inside look into Molly’s thoughts about much of what has happened in her life, her relationship with Leopold, and with others. It is interesting to consider the different points of view that can be held by different people who are all held together in the same story…or is it the same story?
  10. What is going on here?: Because the language, literary forms, and story techniques are constantly changing throughout the book, the reader is easily confused. You may begin to wonder what is really going on. Is anything happening at all? Is the something you think is happening really the thing that is happening? Or is everything you are reading happening in Bloom’s head and not experiential reality at all? Joyce makes us wonder if, in our own daily living, we are actually getting a grip on what is going on or not.
  11. Common – Coarse – Vulgar: In Ulysses, James Joyce operates in the realm of the common person of early twentieth-century Dublin. It is a messy, coarse and rough world. It is full of vulgarities in language and activity.  But it is the real, gritty experience of many in his day. Today, there are no fewer people who experience similar gritty lives. If it is not the world you inhabit, it may be good to see what it is like from the inside. For someone to make an epic out of the common, gritty world is perhaps not too far away from redemption.
  12. Insanely Complex Genius: When you come to the end of the book you cannot help but breathe a sigh of relief and wonder. You are done. You have achieved it. Then, ever so slowly, you may consider that it took Joyce over seven years to write this novel in its original, serial form. Joyce is a genius for his complexity in this work, but he is a slightly insane genius.

Part III: Three points to consider when embarking on Ulysses

first, realize that this is a long journey which may feel as though it may never end. after I stalled for two months with only 150 pages left, a friend of mine who had read the book encouraged me to just keep going. you will … eventually … reach … the end.

second, you will not last long on your journey without a guide. trying to read Ulysses without some helps would be like trying to navigate from Earth to Jupiter and back again while being totally blind and using a surfboard. there are a variety of online helps, but also some good written resources.

thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this book takes sustained concentration. unlike reading a relaxing, end-of-the-night book, Ulysses will make you think. your mind will strain under the weight of understanding, or lack thereof. you will stop midway through an episode unable to make neither heads nor tails of what has just happened. you will need to actually think while reading this book.

and that is why, I think, you should give careful consideration before choosing to make the epic journey with Leopold Bloom through James Joyce’s Ulysses.

One thought on “Reading Ulysses: justification, reflections, and warnings

  1. Read it the same year the movie came out. Molly Bloom’s Yes passage left a poignant impression on this teenage male. Dedalus was a lost soul.

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