Finish it!: “Ulysses” by James Joyce

Ulysses was James Joyce’s third book, and is considered by many literary critics as the best novel of the twentieth century. This is due to the book’s complexity, stylistic narrative and parallax of perspectives given through the main characters.

The plot of Ulysses is difficult to sum up because much of what is gleaned from the novel has to do with the stream-of-conscious narrative messages from the characters. It takes place in one day and follows the tracks of Stephen Dedalus (the main character in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and Leopold Bloom (a Jewish man who works in advertising for a local newspaper). The book is segmented into episodes that correlate to a theme from The Odyssey. Leopold and Stephen are followed throughout the day until they finally meet and connect toward the end, which occurs after Leopold takes him home from a brothel. Bloom then goes to bed next to his wife Molly, who has been on his mind all day because of suspected infidelity. It is here that we get to hear Molly’s perspective.

The strength of Ulysses lies in its central character: Leopold Bloom. Joyce had the nerve to select this imperfect and marginalized figure to be the hero, or rather, anti-hero of the novel. He is passive-aggressive and in many ways is the antithesis of common notions of masculinity. Yet, for all his faults, he also embodies many uncelebrated characteristics. He is sensitive and considerate, illustrated by his assistance to a widow with insurance and by his belief in the humane treatment of animals. He also tries to help a struggling Stephen Dedalus, teaching him better money management and other responsible behaviors. That Bloom struggles to integrate in Irish culture is Joyce’s way of saying the problem also lies in the culture, not just Bloom.

The novel’s weakness is the excesses of Joyce’s experimental narrative techniques. He was a genius, and perhaps goes overboard in showing this. He is quoted once as saying “I have put in Ulysses so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” His artistic hubris in the book is unrestrained and unnecessary at times.

Despite that, though, it is no small reason that Ulysses has made such a lasting impression in the literary world. The book is highly entertaining, funny, and evokes profound emotions with the characters. Joyce does this through his stream-of-conscious writing style, which gives us a depiction of the character’s inner worlds that would hard to achieve otherwise. It’s this narrative style that would profoundly influence Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and even Jack Kerouac.

My recommendation is to read this novel, and, unless you’re like really smart, to do so with a study-guide of some sort. I took a class on it, and even then there were very difficult sections to get through. The difficulty pays off though, and just about anyone who can manage to get through Ulysses will benefit from the intellectual, emotional and aesthetic journey that it is.

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