In A Nutshell
James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) is, arguably, the single most influential novel of the 20th century. Written in a wide variety of styles, chock-full of an encyclopedia's worth of allusions, rife with enough puns and jokes to fill a comedian's career, the novel focuses on one day – June 16, 1904 – in the life of Mr. Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged Jewish man living in Dublin, Ireland. The groundbreaking stream-of-consciousness style allows the reader not only to trace the actions of Bloom's day, but also to follow the movement of his thoughts, to hear the inner timbre of his needs and desires, his joy and his despair. In doing so, the novel nearly breaks the back of realism (literature with a goal of portraying people and events as they exist in the real world). Ulysses is so saturated in Dublin life and in the particularities of its characters that, at times, it strains coherence. In other words, it is (as you may have heard) hard.
Ulysses is Joyce's third book. His first book, Dubliners (1914), was a remarkable collection of short stories which set out to depict the sense of paralysis that one could get from living in Dublin at the turn of the 19th century. Joyce then set out to write a semi-autobiographical novel about his youth in Dublin. It began as a book called Stephen Hero, but Joyce was so dissatisfied with his first attempt that he threw the manuscript in the fire. (Many thanks to his wife, Nora Barnacle, for fishing it out.) Joyce then re-worked Stephen Hero into the much more experimental and ambitious A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). After Ulysses, Joyce wrote one final novel, Finnegan's Wake (1939). That one took him seventeen years to write and was based on puns in a number of different languages. Finnegan's Wake is recognized not only as a masterpiece, but also as one of the most difficult books ever written. In other words, if you see it on someone's bookshelf, check to see whether or not the binding is broken.
There is a noticeable progression in the body of Joyce's work, and you can see him begin in Portrait to toy with a number of the techniques that he would flesh out and master in Ulysses. Namely, we're talking about stream-of-conscious writing and other radical ways of depicting a character's internal life in relation to the world around him. Similarly, some of the more radical techniques in Ulysses are extended even further in Finnegan's Wake. Ulysses itself was originally going to be a short story in Dubliners about an erudite young teacher who has a run-in with an English constable and is rescued by a middle-aged Jewish man (this story was itself based on an actual experience of Joyce's). But then it grew. And grew. And grew…
Joyce wrote Ulysses between the years 1914 and 1921. The book was first published in Paris on February 2, 1922 by Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company. Before being published as a whole, however, the book was serialized in the American journal The Little Review beginning in 1918. When the journal published the episode in the book called "Nausicaa," which depicts the main character masturbating, the publication was prosecuted for obscenity and the book was censored until 1933. In that year, Judge M. Woolsey declared that the book was neither pornographic nor obscene. The scandal in the U.S. was only one of many around the world, and ironically, it was Ireland, Joyce's home country, that was the last to lift the ban on Ulysses (source: Ellman, James Joyce, 3).
So what's the big deal? As T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland (1922) did for poetry, Ulysses changed people's ideas about what a novel is and what it can do. Joyce, more than any author before him, realized that how you write about something determines what you can write about. In other words, form is inseparable from content, and content from form. While other writers realized this and just lamented the fact, Joyce strove to master a wide variety of styles instead of becoming imprisoned by them. He wanted to give his language the power to say anything.
Ulysses is best known for its stream-of-consciousness style, where Joyce forces readers to become intimately familiar with his characters' thoughts no matter how fragmentary and disoriented they may be. But style is also extremely flexible in the novel, giving Joyce the power to alter his form to fit his content. Hence, a chapter set in a newspaper office is broken up with newspaper headlines; a chapter set in a maternity ward is written in styles ranging from Old English verse to contemporary Dublin vernacular, as if language itself were going through a gestation period and being prepared for delivery; a chapter set almost entirely in Leopold's Blooms fantasies and nightmares is written out as a play script.
Famously, Ulysses is structured on Homer's Odyssey, with each of the eighteen episodes in Joyce's book corresponding to a given episode in Homer's work. Joyce makes his hero, Leopold Bloom, a sort of modern-day Ulysses (called Odysseus by Homer). He casts Bloom's wife, Molly, as Penelope, and casts the aspiring artist Stephen Dedalus (first encountered in Portrait) as Telemachus. What is Joyce doing? Here, he might be trying to modernize the ancient epic, to strive to (in the words of Ezra Pound) "Make it New."
Ulysses moves the epic journey from the realm of external adventures to the realm of the mind, and in doing so Joyce dares to make a heroic figure of an ordinary urban man of no apparent distinction. For all its difficulty and obscurity, what Ulysses can do is to reveal the ordinary as extraordinary.
Why Should I Care?
There's this fascinating thing about Ulysses. Hordes of people think it's a brilliant book, maybe the best book ever written, except for one thing…they can't make it to the end.
There has always been a big disparity between the praise that people shower on Ulysses and the real experience of reading and trying to understand it. Just consider the book's reception in Ireland. Dublin today can seem like a city-size monument to the novel: there are tiles in the sidewalk quoting sections of the book; Davy Byrne's is filled with tourists who only know the pub because of Joyce; there's a life-size statue of Joyce himself off O'Connell Street; and June 16th, the day the book takes place, is now a holiday called "Bloomsday." But here's the thing. Joyce's book was banned in Ireland for years. In fact, Ireland was the last – the last! – country to lift the ban on the novel.
Now today, knowing the reputation the book has, you might feel like you "have to" like Ulysses. That's nonsense. When you get right down to it, Ulysses is an extremely difficult book. There are good reasons not to like it. As you push through it, there might be periods of frustration and boredom. You might even wonder: "Who does Joyce think he is?"
Well, here's an answer: he thinks he's a genius. The tradition of writing great literature could be traced back to Homer and the Greeks, but then it moved through Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton and Dickens. So before Joyce, literature was English, not Irish. For most Irishmen, literature was something that did not belong to them. It was written in a language by which they had been humiliated: it was the language of the garrison, the language of the eviction notice. And now imagine Joyce, from this small country that had been brutalized by the English for centuries, saying: "With all due respect your majesty, I'm going to write the greatest novel in the English language."
But what about the novel itself is so great? Since we're giving Joyce the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he's a genius, let's talk about something that Joyce struggled with: jealousy.
Joyce was passionately in love with his wife, Nora Barnacle, but early on their relationship hit a major bump. In 1909, a friend of Joyce's informed him that, when Joyce had only just become involved with Nora, she had also been seeing this "friend." Unlikely as the story was, Joyce went mad with jealousy. He wrote letters to Nora that first were harsh and accusatory, but gradually became more and more honest and revealed just how vulnerable he felt. Joyce simply could not conceive of the woman he loved most being involved with another man.
We hear a lot about Ulysses as this extraordinary encyclopedic book that makes language go everywhere and do everything, but at the heart of it is ordinary human fear: fear of being betrayed by the person you love, made to look a fool. For all his genius, Joyce still couldn't figure out ordinary human problems like how to deal with love and pride and jealousy. And he gives us a hero like ourselves – a hero that's lost amidst these problems.