Saturday, June 16, 2012

Ulysses on Bloomsday

In honor of Bloomsday, I'm tackling James Joyce's Ulysses today, reading along with O at Delaisse and a few other bloggers. I've read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Many three times, hating it the first time in high school because I didn't understand Modernism and what he was trying to do, and enjoying it the second and third times because I had a better grasp of his style and purpose.

Since Ulysses is one of the few books that intimidate me, I prepared by watching a lecture last night on the work, part of the series on The English Novel offered by The Teaching Company. I'm so glad the library carries many of those courses! Between that and the lengthy introduction in the Penguin Modern Classics edition I'm reading, I feel like I'm got a good grounding in the novel and what Joyce wanted to accomplish.

So far, I've finished the first six sections and have followed along pretty well, much better than I expected. There have just been a few places where I get lost, but I look at those sections as a whole instead of focusing too much on one sentence and I seem to be getting it. I'm sure I'm missing somethings, but I think I'm getting the overall gist.

As I read, I can't help but read as a critic, analyzing what's happening and why Joyce is doing what he's doing. I wonder if that's a construct of the novel that forces you do that or if it's a societal construct that makes you feel like you have to do that understand it. Either way, I'm enjoying it so far.

Section one lures you in with a fairly traditional narrative structure and a false sense of security. This section does not prepare you for the coming sections where the structure keeps changing. We learn about Stephen, the same character from Portrait, and how he's back in Dublin as a teacher and how his mother recently died. She wanted him to pray over her death bed and he refused because he doesn't believe in a personal God or prayer. Buck Mulligan can't believe he wouldn't grant her wish. Buck seems more like a traditional Irishman to me and like someone who is more comfortable with who he is (although maybe that's not very Irish). Stephen just wants to break free from the English (political) and Italian (religious).

In section two, the style changes to a catechism and is more lyrical. Stephen is teaching a class and the boys do not respect him. He reflects on the ugliness of one boy and how despite that, the boy's mother loved and protected him and made sure he's made it this far and kept him from being stamped out by the world. When Mr. Deasy pays Stephen, Deasy talks about how the most important thing to an Englishman is being debt free and owing no one. Stephen thinks of his debts. This doesn't seem feasible for an Irishman. While Deasy laments the death of Old England, Stephen thinks of the past as a nightmare to escape.

Section 3 is where the stream of consciousness really starts and following everything gets trickier. Stephen visits his aunt and uncle, who seem to blame him for his mother's death to some extent. Later, he walks and wonders if his works will be read. Then, he picks his nose and wipes it on a stone, then looks to see if anyone saw. On the one hand, we want some level of fame because we want to be remembered, yet we don't want people to see us at our worst.

Section 4 moves to Leopold Bloom, our main character. In this section we get a stream of consciousness narrative of Bloom's morning. He prepares breakfast, talks to his cat, talks to his wife and goes to the store. Here, write like Yoda Joyce does. Many of the sentences are in an odd order, although since we don't think in complete sentences this works. I liked seeing Bloom interact with his cat, thinking about how the cat sees him. There's a lot of description of the food, which is just a normal everyday breakfast (albeit a gross one - liver). Usually food descriptions in books are either lush meals or someone scavenging for food for survival, not an ordinary meal. Joyce is trying to capture everyday life in this novel, and this is more evident here than anywhere else thus far.

In Section 5 Bloom is preparing for a funeral he will attend at 11. M'Coy asks him to write his name down and the funeral in case he can't make it. Really? Who does that? We see letters from Martha to Henry and vice versa. Henry is Bloom and Martha is his erotic pen pal whom he has not met face to face. The narcissism technique for this chapter made me think about how we all think our thoughts are amazing and they are so important to us, but if you spilled them all out on paper they would be mostly mundane and banal like Bloom's with a few strokes of genius now and then, but mostly non-sensical to anyone but us. There are more references to Hamlet, which have occurred throughout the book. Maybe this is telling us something about ghosts of our fathers, ghosts of our pasts?

In Section 6, we learn that the Blooms had a son who died in infancy. Bloom mentions that when babies are born healthy the mother is credited, when not, the father is blamed. What an opposite reaction from how most of history viewed that! Bloom goes to the funeral, talks about how at funerals you always have to say the deceased is now in Heaven, because what else can you say and you have to say something.

I'm off to continue reading! I know I won't get through the whole thing today because my father-in-law and his girlfriend are coming over for dinner. I also got a late start and have taken a few breaks, so I'm already a bit behind. I'm planning to continue reading tomorrow and hope to finish most of it this weekend and then wrap it up this week. I don't want to drag it out forever. I plan to come back and update this post again later. Happy Bloomsday everyone!


  1. Thanks for the awesome synopsis! Ulysses is over my head at this point. I want to read The Odyssey and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before I seriously try it. I listened to the reading of Part One at Radio 4 today though. Enjoy!

    1. I think reading both of those first would be good, more so Portrait than The Odyssey. Reading Portrait is a good way to become more familiar with his writing style since it takes getting used to!

  2. He really does write like Yoda! (--But I did enjoy those episodes the best.) I also raised an eyebrow at the bit about the father being blamed when a baby was not healthy. I'd always heard the opposite before. The Ulysses Annotated claimed this was typical of the Jewish tradition. (And also, how reliable is Bloom?)

    Happy reading and I will check back for your updates :)

    1. That's interesting about the Jewish tradition. But good point on Bloom's reliability!