James Joyce was born on February 2, 1882, in Dublin, Ireland, into a Catholic middle-class family. He went to Jesuit schools and University College, Dublin, where he graduated in 1902. Joyce went to Paris with the intention of attending medical school but abandoned his studies and returned to Dublin when his mother died. He stayed in Dublin for a year and met his future wife, Nora Barnacle. At this time, Joyce also began work on an autobiographical novel called Stephen Hero which he reworked much of the material into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which tells the story of Joyce’s youth up to his 1902 departure for Paris through the experiences of his alter-ego, Stephen Dedalus. Nora and Joyce left Dublin again in 1904, this time for good. They spent the next eleven years living in Rome and Trieste, Italy, where Joyce taught English. They had two children, Giorgio and Lucia. In 1907 Joyce’s first book of poems, Chamber Music, was published in London. He published his book of short stories, Dubliners, in 1914, and the same year he published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in serial instalments in the journal The Egoist, and then in serial form in 1916. Joyce began writing Ulysses in 1914, and when World War I broke out he moved his family to Zurich. He published his play, Exiles, in 1918 and also the first episodes of Ulysses in serial form in The Little Review. In 1919, the Joyces moved to Paris, where Ulysses was published in book form in 1922. In 1923, with his eyesight quickly diminishing, Joyce began working on what became Finnegans Wake, published in 1939. Joyce died in 1941.
Although Joyce wrote in a self-imposed exile in cosmopolitan Europe, his work is strongly tied to Irish political and cultural history. After a bloody civil war, the Irish Free State was officially formed during the same year that Ulysses was published. Ireland had experienced the failure of several home rule bills that would have granted the island a measure of political independence within Great Britain. These failures were linked to the downfall of the Irish member of Parliament, Charles Stewart Parnell, who had been publicly persecuted 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, involved in their own conceptions of Irishness.
Ulysses chronicles the life of two characters, Stephen Dedalus (in a sort of follow-up from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and Leopold Bloom. This happens in Dublin on 16 June 1904, the day of James Joyce’s first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle, also known as Bloomsday. Joyce had read Charles Lamb’s Adventures of Ulysses, an adaptation of the Odyssey for children, and wrote an essay on Ulysses entitled “My Favourite Hero,” as he told his friend and biographer, the painter Frank Budgen. In 1918 he consulted Victor Bérard’s two-volume Les Phéniciens et l’Odyssée in the Zentralbibliothek Zürich where he was exiled for a while during World War I.
Joyce prose is simultaneously poetic and parodic, full of intertextual allusions to his previous texts and to a huge amount of texts by other writers. Since publication, the book has attracted controversy, ranging from early obscenity trials to textual “Joyce Wars.”
Ulysses is divided into eighteen episodes based on Homer’s poem Odyssey and follows a careful structure where each chapter is modelled on a different body organ and recalls perception through a particular sense and by means of stream-of-consciousness technique. Part I: The Telemachiad is composed of three episodes that deal with Stephen Dedalus. The first (Telemachus) shows the tension at breakfast time (8 a.m.) between Stephen and his medical friends at the lodgings they share (Sandycove Martello tower). In Nestor, Stephen is teaching a class on classical history, after which he collects his pay from unpleasant Mr. Deasy, the school director, who passes a number of derogatory remarks against the Jews. This episode is the source of some of the novel’s most famous lines, such as Dedalus’s claim that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” and that God is “a shout in the street.” In Proteus, Stephen is taking a walk on Sandymount Strand looking across Dublin Bay to Howth Head. His mind is full of philosophical thoughts about the proteic (changing) nature of the world, and of reminiscences on his family (his mother in particular).
In Part II: The Odyssey, Joyce focuses on Leopold Bloom, but Stephen crosses Bloom’s path as well. In Episode 4, Calypso it is again 8 am, and Bloom, a part-Jewish advertising canvasser, is preparing breakfast. Unlike Stephen, whose mind is full of utopic and elevated thoughts, Bloom is very physical. He walks quickly to buy a pork kidney and watches a delightful young woman while waiting at the butcher’s queue. Back home, he prepares breakfast and brings it with the mail to his wife Molly who is still in bed. One of the letters is from her manager (she sings opera) Blazes Boylan, with whom she is having an affair of which Bloom is aware. Bloom reads a letter from their daughter. The chapter closes with Bloom defecating in the outhouse and reading a magazine called Titbits. In Episode 5, Lotus Eaters, Bloom is going to a friend’s funeral but first he passes by the post office to collect a love letter he receives from a secret and platonic admirer (a ‘Martha Clifford’) addressed to his pseudonym, ‘Henry Flower’. In the street, he meets several people, buys a bar of lemon soap and heads towards the baths before going to the funeral. In Episode 6, Hades, he shares a funeral carriage with three others, including Stephen’s father. The carriage passes both Stephen and Blazes Boylan, and the travellers pass some remarks on Boylan that bring to Bloom’s mind his affair with Molly. His thoughts focus on death and burial, the death of his son, Rudy, and the suicide of his own father. After the funeral, in Episode 7, Aeolus, Bloom is at the office of the Freeman’s Journal, where he attempts to place an ad. Stephen arrives bringing a letter given to him by Mr. Deasy, the schoolmaster. Stephen and Bloom symbolize Father and son/Odysseus and Telemachus. Bloom leaves to go for lunch at Davy Byrne’s Pub in Episode 8, Lestrygonians. On leaving the pub Bloom heads toward the museum, but spots Boylan across the street and, panicking, rushes into the gallery across the street from the museum. Episode 9, Scylla and Charybdis at the National Library of Ireland, Stephen explains his theory on Hamlet, based on the posited adultery of Shakespeare’s wife. Bloom enters and encounters Stephen briefly and unknowingly for the second time. In Episode 10, Wandering Rocks, nineteen short vignettes depict the wanderings of various characters, major and minor, through the streets of Dublin. Bloom goes for something to eat at a bar where he Bloom watches the seductive barmaids and listens to the singing of Stephen’s father and others at Episode 11, Sirens, and moves on to Barney Kiernan’s pub where he meets the ‘Citizen’, a fierce nationalist and anti-Semite in Episode 12, Cyclops. In Episode 13, Nausicaa, Bloom escapes to Sandymount strand and watches the young Gerty MacDowell while he has sexual fantasies. At the end of the episode he decides to visit a friend who has recently given birth. In Episode 14, Oxen of the Sun, Bloom visits the maternity hospital and finally meets Stephen with his medical student friends. They continue on to a pub to continue drinking, following the successful birth of the baby. This chapter recapitulates the entire history of the English language from its birth to contemporary slang. Episode 15, Circe, is written as a play script with stage directions. It takes place at a Dublin brothel and is interrupted by hallucinations experienced by Stephen and Bloom in their drunken stupor. Bloom decides to take Stephen home.
Part III: The Nostos sees the two protagonists together on their way back to Bloom’s house in the early morning hours. Episode 16, Eumaeus reflects the exhaustion and confusion of the two protagonists as they look for a cab. Stephen refuses Bloom’s offer of a place to stay for the night. Written in the form of a rigidly organised catechism, the deep descriptions in Episode 17, Ithaca, range from questions of astronomy to the trajectory of urination. The final episode 18, Penelope consists of Molly Bloom’s thoughts as she lies in bed next to her husband. Using stream-of-consciousness and no punctuation, Molly thinks about Boylan and Bloom, her past admirers, the events of the day, her childhood in Gibraltar, her singing career, and Bloom’s marriage proposal, and of her acceptance “Yes.”
Episode 9: Scylla and Charybdis
In the National Library director’s office, sometime after 1:00 P.M., Stephen casually presents his “Hamlet theory” to John Eglinton, a critic and essayist; A.E., a poet; and Lyster, a librarian and a Quaker. Stephen is trying to interest Eglinton and A.E. in publishing the theory. Episode Nine corresponds to Odysseus’s trial-by-sea in which he must sail between Scylla, the six-headed monster situated on a rock, and Charybdis, a deadly whirlpool. The concept of negotiating two extremes plays out several times within the episode, most notably in the Plato-Aristotle dichotomy that Stephen mentions. Like Odysseus, Stephen sails closer to Scylla, and thus his thoughts and theories owe more to Aristotle’s material and logical sense of the world (symbolized by the rock) than to Plato’s unembodied concepts or ideals (symbolized by the whirlpool). Stephen pays the rent for the Martello tower, where he, Buck, and Haines are staying. Buck’s demand of the house key is thus a usurpation of Stephen’s household rights, and Stephen recognizes this and refuses to return to the tower. Stephen mentally dramatizes this usurpation as a replay of Claudius’s usurpation of Gertrude and the throne in Hamlet. Bloom’s home has also been usurped by Blazes Boylan who is having an affair with Molly in Bloom’s absence. This also explains why Stephen grounds Shakespeare’s work in the lived reality of Shakespeare’s life, whereas A.E. separates the man from the eternal ideas expressed in his work. Stephen contends that Shakespeare associated himself with Hamlet’s father and the ghost, not with Hamlet, and that Hamlet corresponds to Shakespeare’s dead son, Hamnet, and unfaithful Gertrude represents Shakespeare’s adulterous wife, Ann Hathaway. A.E. expresses disdain for Stephen’s Hamlet theory, maintaining that biographical criticism is useless because one should focus only on the depth expressed by the art, and that a critic should focus on the work itself, not the details of the poet’s personal life, such as his drinking habits or his debts. Stephen recalls that he himself owes A.E. some money. Eglinton argues that Ann Hathaway is historically unimportant, and he cites biographers who depict Shakespeare’s early marriage to Ann Hathaway as a mistake. Stephen draws on the plots of the early plays to demonstrate that Ann seduced young Shakespeare in Stratford. A.E. gets up to leave. Lyster mentions that A.E. is compiling a volume of the work of young Irish poets. Stephen is
scornful of A.E.’s mysticism and of his involvement in the Irish Literary Revival, but he resents that he is not included in the poetry collection, nor in their social circle. Politely, he thanks A.E. for taking a copy of Deasy’s (anti-Semitic) letter for publication. They return to the argument on Shakespeare and Hamlet. Stephen suggests that the presence of the ghost, an omniscient character who knows about his own murder, is indicative of Shakespeare’s presence in the drama. He points out that after his death, Shakespeare only left her his “second-best bed.” Reflecting on paternity, Stephen goes on to suggest that Ann cheated on Shakespeare with his brothers, Edmund and Richard, whose names appear in Shakespeare’s plays as adulterous or usurping brothers. Eglinton asks Stephen if he believes his own theory, and Stephen says no.
In the first three episodes, Stephen has struggled with the circumstances of his own life and history, trying to understand how he can either incorporate them or overcome them to create art. Stephen’s theory of Hamlet shows that Shakespeare often wrote his life and times into his work. The episode also offers his ideal of literary creation as a form of paternity, that Freud himself linked to the Oedipus complex and father-son relationships as well as psychological disorders and creativity (understood as a means to overcome the ghost presence of the past/forefathers; on this see Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence). This theme also relates to Bloom’s search of his lost son (Rudy) in Stephen and, naturally, to Telemachus’s search for Odysseus, and vice versa, in The Odyssey. The theme is directly related to the reinforcement of identity, progeny, heritage and national history, and indirectly to the subtheme of the ‘wandering Jew’ (Bloom) and Christian religion (Stephen also recalls the Holy Trinity and the unity of the Father the Son, and the Holy Ghost), so that the quest for paternity in the novel may involve the search for a lasting manifestation of the self (the ghost), a topic that the French philosopher Jacques Derrida has repeatedly brought up in his writings on the ‘logocentrism’ of the Western mind.
The theme of remorse, mainly Stephen’s sense of guilt for his absence at his mother’s death-bed, and Blooms’ feelings about his own father, also runs through Ulysses and symbolizes the break of Modernism with tradition and the past. These feelings are dramatized in episode 15, Circe, linking the role of women to the brothel, and again to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and generating a lot of feminist criticism against Joyce’s novel. The last episodes of the book reflect on the topic of movement, paralysis and cosmology. As Stephen and Bloom urinate together on their return hum, Bloom calculates the trajectories and reflects on the self-conscious awareness of the past and on those errors, fears, and feelings of remorse that may be have a paralyzing effect (also related to Irish politics) but that nevertheless constitute fluid identity in the present, projecting it into action in the future. The terms ‘metempsychosis’ (transmigration of the souls) and ‘parallax’ (astronomical/epiphanic related to cosmology and visual perception) are terms that Bloom encounters in episode 3 when we first meet him, and that arise repeatedly through the course of the novel. The first refers to the presence of the past in the present and future, captured in a temporal moment (like the novel itself that takes place in one day). The second refers to the difference of position of one object when seen from two different vantage points, and is related to Joyce’ phenomenological notion of ‘epiphany’. Both terms are collated to better approximate a position in space and in a time, thus framing the complex circularity of the novel as an instant that captures eternity. The perception of events and characters in the novel combine to demonstrate the fallibility of one single perspective. The reader’s interpretation needs to be continually revised, and in this sense, Molly’s final monologue offers new insights into previous judgements and ends without a marker (period/full stop). Thus, the novel offers a continuously shifting refocused perspective that juxtaposes all characters, but particularly Stephen and Bloom, and emphasizes the human capacity to understand, empathize and love, as essential characteristics of heroism.