In the previous posts in this series, I’ve taken off with the assumption that most people reading will have a familiarity with the giant novel. This time I’ll start from the basics. Ulysses is one of those books that many people have heard of but probably still can’t tell you much about.
Ulysses takes place over a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom. In fact, June 16 is called Bloomsday, and celebrations happen around the world in commemoration of the novel. I went into Ulysses knowing this much. What I hadn’t realized is that Stephen Dedalus, from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is given equal weight as a main character.
It is written in stream-of-consciousness style. People have probably heard this novel is “unreadable,” and this is the reason why. It’s not so much that the events of the day are mindnumbingly boring (this is true!), but that the prose itself is impenetrable. I’ve worked my way through many, many works of literature people have called unreadable and never found them to be so. This one actually is.
Unlike Proust, whose stream-of-consciousness prose is thoughtful and elegant, Ulysses fully embraces the utter chaos that is the human mind. Here’s a sample:
Proudly walking. Whom were you trying to walk like? Forget: a dispossessed. With mother’s money order, eight shillings, the banging door of the post office slammed in your face by the usher. Hunger toothache. Encore deux minutes. Look clock. Must get. Ferme. Hired dog! Shoot him to bloody bits with a bang shotgun, bits man spattered walls all brass buttons. Bit all khrrrrklak in place clack back. Not hurt? O, that’s all right.
And on and on and on it goes: for 260,000 words. There are ways to ground yourself though. And that’s what I’d like to spend the rest of the post talking about.
The name of the book is Ulysses in reference to the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. The novel is divided into sections, and one can supposedly correlate sections of The Odyssey with sections in Bloom’s day. But why? And should you care? We have to take a step back and put the book in context to answer this question.
Ulysses is often considered the perfect culmination of all modernist literature. Modernism as a movement is sometimes considered to have started all the way back with Madame Bovary (1856) but didn’t fully come into realization until the devastation of World War I.
There was a vast turning inward. The classics like War and Peace or The Odyssey or Great Expectations all had grand sweeping plots, rigid forms and structures, and a focus on beautiful language to show these things. Modernism rejected these notions.
I think it’s very hard for us to understand the feeling in Europe after WWI, but once can try to empathize with the sense of futility. We’re all small. People’s lives didn’t seem to matter. There weren’t heroes. There weren’t illusions of being able to change the course of history. The classic form of the novel probably seemed a dangerous fantasy. The world was chaos and unpredictable not structured and clear.
All right. So what on Earth does this have to do with Ulysses? The one takeaway from the title is that this novel is self-aware of what it is doing. It says: Bloom’s ordinary day is the heroic journey of our time. Maybe in the past, people could be worried about saving the world. In our time, an ordinary person trying to make it through an ordinary day is just as grand a struggle.
Depressing. I know. For me, the only way to make it through this book is to get rid of trying to figure out how individual sections parallel The Odyssey. Also, give up on there being any sort of plot to follow (though the wikipedia page is quite helpful on this front). The main thing is to dive into the difficult prose and think: yes, this is how real people think, it is chaotic, and somehow we manage to get through it everyday.
So is this novel worth it? In my opinion: definitely not. As a perfect embodiment of the modernist movement, it is an extremely important historical work. As a work for scholarly study, it will give endlessly. As a giant novel people should read, it is a nightmare.
If this type of thing interests you, read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf instead. It is the exact same idea, an ordinary person’s ordinary day in the modernist style, but it is infinitely easier to read and much, much shorter.