A Bluffer's Guide To Great Books: Ulysses, by James Joyce
This early twentieth century, modernist masterpiece has something of a reputation for being 'hard'. Certainly, after nearly a century since its publication, it still looks very different to what most of us think of as a 'novel', with the author employing some 'long' and very obscure words, while alluding to Homer's Odyssey throughout.
But with a little knowledge of classical literature, patience, an open mind and only occasional recourse to a dictionary, you will gain access to one of English Literature's most intriguing and entertaining books.
The Main Characters
Stephen Dedelus, an arts graduate, lives in one of Dublin's Martello Towers with an Englishman and a medical student. He does a little teaching and a lot of thinking and drinking. He and his siblings are invariably hard up.
Leopold Bloom is an Irish Jew of Hungarian origin. He lives with his wife Molly and earns his living selling advertising space and writing the copy. He is a thoughtful, considerate and sensual man.
Molly Bloom is a professional singer who does little else than stay in bed reading romantic novels and cuckolding her husband.
The plot (such as it is) is as follows:
Everything takes place on one day in Dublin.
Daedalus and Bloom go about their business until they bump into each other and after an adventure or two make their way to Bloom's residence and share a cup of cocoa and have a chat.
Stephen leaves and Bloom goes to bed where Molly ponders Blooms new-found assertiveness and thinks matters over.
Here may be found a more comprehensive synopsis.
The Odysseian Joyce in ...Click thumbnail to view full-size
As must be obvious, I don't consider the plot to be of that much importance, other than in its shadowing of the events of The Odyssey in 20th-century Dublin.
Of more importance is Joyce's innovative stream-of-consciousness technique, whereby the thoughts of the characters are revealed to the reader more-or-less as they come.
Although Ulysses shares some aspects of the traditional 'realistic' novel where characters speak, act and interact, there is little obvious narration other than that of the characters themselves.
And this not the only modernist innovation employed by Joyce. Variously, newspaper headlines do some of the talking, while another section is written in the form of a play (in the midst of which a fantasy of Bloom's is enacted). In the penultimate section of the book, the 'narrative' consists of a question-and-answer session.
Finally, Molly Bloom has her say in the form of an interior monologue.
How To Read Ulysses
Too often a new reader of Ulysses gets stuck after only a few pages, and gives up.
This is not surprising. Written from the viewpoint of the erudite, intellectual, brooding Stephen, this section reflects his character.
If you get stuck, don't throw in the towel - go straight to the section that introduces Bloom and his thoughts and doings and start there.
Any way in is better than none.
Indeed, you might choose to start almost anywhere (especially since the 'action' of the novel is far less important than what is said and thought).
Once in, you should appreciate what a richly expressed and entertainingly comic novel this is (yes, it's a comic novel, not unlike Don Quixote or Tom Jones.)
This is not to say that it is a laugh-a-minute, but it is not the grim, 'hard' book some may take it be. Indeed, it might be worth having a drink or two before attempting some of it (one assumes that its author wasn't always stone-cold sober when he was composing it!)
The Odyssey provides a background to and structure for the novel, and although it is not necessary to have read it, it will nevertheless enrich your understanding of Ulysses if you have.
Briefly, Homer's ancient Greek epic tells the story of Odysseus's voyage home from the Siege of Troy.
Having successfully brought the siege to an end through deception (the Wooden Horse of Troy), he and his crew spend years at sea, sent this way and that by the God Neptune, landing at various islands and encountering all number of supernatural creatures.
Eventually, Odysseus makes port at his home island of Ithaca, meets with his son Telemachus and slaughters the various suitors who have been pursuing his wife Penelope.