Ulysses, a novel by the Irish writer James Joyce, was first published in installment-form from March 1918 to December 1920 in The Little Review, an American journal. It then was published in whole-form by the Parisian Sylvia Beach in February of 1922. Critics consider Ulysses to be one of the most important works of Modernist literature, and claim it to be a “demonstration and summation of the entire movement”, considering that no fiction writer before Joyce had so “foregrounded the process of thinking”. In its eighteen episodes, the entire book chronicles the passage of one Leopold Bloom through Dublin during an ordinary day that happens to be June 16th, 1904. The importance of the day is not to Leopold, but to Joyce, as it is the day of his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. To Joyce fans worldwide, June 16th is celebrated as Bloomsday.
The title of the book comes directly from the Latinized name of Odysseus, Joyce’s favorite childhood character and the hero of Homer’s poem The Odessey, and, in its approximately 265,000 words, it establishes multiple parallels between the characters and events of the novel with the infamous poem (Leopold Bloom, a bourgeois Odysseus for the 20th century with his compassion as heroic, Molly Bloom to the perceptive Penelope’s remorse of conscience, Stephen Dedalus (a harshly drawn version of Joyce himself at age 22) to Telemachus’ quest for paternity). It was explained that each of the 18 episodes has a theme, technique, and correspondence between its characters and those of The Odyssey, but it neglected to actually have episode titles, and I had to refer to outside chapter analysis to understand the connection. A further disadvantage is that I have not yet read The Odyssey. It is claimed that the book has careful structuring and experimental prose, but I found that all the puns, parodies and allusions were difficult to follow. I had to constantly refer to chapter summaries to understand what the intent of each chapter actually was. It felt as though he was reading several different books as he was writing this one, and thought “oh, I like this style of writing!” and consequently started the next chapter in that style of writing. I also felt that all his digressions were distracting, and his lists were merely showing off. Joyce once said that he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant”, which would earn the novel “immortality”; however, from a personal point of view, it made it a very difficult and unenjoyable read. I have no problem with the shifts of narrative style as much as I have a problem with the lack of punctuation. Big words don’t make you intelligent if people cannot understand you. While many claim to understand and comprehend Ulysses, I doubt that very many do, and only claim to do so to fit into a very small and unique clique. The average reader will “glean little or nothing from it – even from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of it- save bewilderment and disgust” (Dr. Joseph Collins). And, sadly to say, his “message” was lost on me, but at least I was able to push through to the end! I still feel that it was a total waste of my time.
I understand that Ulysses was banned from the United Kingdom (until the 1930’s) after the publication of the Nausicaä episode led to an obscenity prosecution in 1920; however, sections of the novel did appear in The Egoist, a London literary journal. The prosecution was after the passage in the book dealing with Leopold Bloom masturbating, despite it being given in metaphoric language. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public, was the pushing force behind the actions attempting to keep the book out of the United States. The 1921, the trial resulted in the novel being declared as obscene, and banned from the United States with the USPS burning copies as they found it throughout the 1920s. The Random House publisher and lawyer Morris Ernst made all necessary arrangements to import French editions. He contested when customs seized the cargo, and a new trial date was set. On December 6th, 1933, in United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that the book was not pornographic and therefore could not be obscene. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in 1934, making the United States the first English-speaking country to have the book freely available. While Ulysses was not banned in Ireland per say, it definitely wasn’t available there, either.
Remember, it was written during the years of the Irish bid for independence from Britain. After a bloody civil war, the Irish Free State was officially formed—during the same year that Ulysses was published. Even in 1904, Ireland had experienced the failure of several home rule bills that would have granted the island a measure of political independence within Great Britain. The failure of these bills is linked to the downfall of the Irish member of Parliament, Charles Stewart Parnell, who was once referred to as “Ireland’s Uncrowned King,” and was publicly persecuted by the Irish church and people in 1889 for conducting a long-term affair with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea. Joyce saw this persecution as a hypocritical betrayal by the Irish that ruined Ireland’s chances for a peaceful independence. Accordingly, Ulysses depicts the Irish citizens of 1904, especially Stephen Dedalus, as involved in tangled conceptions of their own Irishness, and complex relationships with various authorities and institutions specific to their time and place: the British empire, Irish nationalism, the Roman Catholic church, and the Irish Literary Revival.
James Joyce was Dublin born in a Catholic middle-class family that would soon experience extreme poverty. Jesuit schools led to the University College (Dublin) where he would begin publishing essays. In 1902 he traveled to Paris with the intention of going to medical school, but soon abandoned that avenue and devoted all his time to writing poetry, stories and theories of aesthetics. In 1903, he returned to Dublin with the passing of his mother, and met his future wife, Nora Barnacle. It was during this time that he began the autobiographical novel Stephen Hero, but never followed it through to the end. Instead, he salvaged the piece, transforming it into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It contains the very same Stephen Dedalus, which experts think is an autobiographical character, and tells the story of his youth until Joyce departed for Paris in 1902.
In 1904, Joyce and his wife moved back to main body Europe, and spent the next 11 years living in Rome and Trieste, Italy. While he taught English, he became the father of two children, Giorgio and Lucia. In 1907, Chamber Music, a poetry book was first published in London. In 1914, Dubliners, a book of short stories was published, along with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in installments (in The Egoist) in London. The year 1914 was a busy year. WWI erupted and Joyce began work on Ulysses in a self-imposed exile. He moved to Zurich, Switzerland when the war broke out. In 1916, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published in book form. In 1918, Exiles was published, and the first episodes of Ulysses were published in serial form. In 1919, the Joyce family moved to Paris, where Ulysses would be published in book form in 1922. Ulysses was first conceived as a short story to be included in Dubliners, but as it progressed, he knew it would be too long to be included with the other short stories, and looked at it as a sequel to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce noticed diminishing eyesight in 1923, but began work on Finnegans Wake. It was published in 1939. During this time, Lucia, his daughter was diagnosed by Joyce as suffering from schizophrenia. She was analyzed by Carl Jung, who after reading Ulysses, concluded that her father also suffered from schizophrenia. Jung said Lucia and her father were “two people heading to the bottom of a river, except that he was diving and she was falling”. In late 1940, Zurich welcomed Joyce back as he was fleeing from the Nazi occupation of France.
On January 11th, 1941, Joyce endured surgery for a perforated ulcer, possibly a result of his excessive drinking habit. He improved in health, at first, but despite receiving several transfusions, he lapsed into a coma. He awoke one time, and one time only, at 2 a.m. on January 13th, 1941 and asked for a nurse to call his wife and son. Fifteen minutes later, while Nora and Giorgio were in route, the world lost James Augustine Aloysius Joyce. His remains were interred in the Fluntern Cemetery near Zurich Zoo. Nora rests beside him, as does his son, Giorgio. Lucia rests in Kingsthorpe Cemetery near St. Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton, where she was sent for treatments for schizophrenia and lived out her remaining days.
#78 – 2003 BBC Big Read
#78 – BBC Top 100 Books of 2011
#75 – BBC Top 100 Books of 2012
#2 – 20th Century Greatest Novel
#27 – 2013 Classics Challenge
#4 – TheGreatestNovels.com
#18 – Koen List
#44 – The Library Journal List
#28 – LeMonde’s 100 Books of the Century
#1 – Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels
#11 – Modern Library Reader’s Choice List
#6 – Radcliff’s Rival 100 Best Novels List
#47 – World Library’s Best Books of All Time List
Holds positions on the following lists:
The Best 100 Novels of All Time
Telegraph’s 100 Novels Everyone Should Read
World Book Day Poll Top 100 Novels
The Guardian’s Top 100 List
The Guardian’s Definitive List Everyone Must Read