DANIEL R. SCHWARZ: Hi. I'm Dan Schwarz, professor of English. And I have been teaching Ulysses at Cornell for over 30 years. I am the author of Reading Joyce's Ulysses, a critical book for scholars, teachers, and students that has been in print for 16 years. A new edition will appear in 2004 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the day in 1904, June 16, when the action of Ulysses takes place.
My edition of Joyce's The Dead in the Bedford series Case Studies in Contemporary Critics, for which I wrote three of the seven accompanying essays, is widely used in classes. I have also written on Joyce in my Reconfiguring Modernism-- Explorations in the Relationship Between Modern Art and Modern Literature and in my book The Transformation of the English Novel 1890 to 1930.
While Ulysses and the ensuing discussion will challenge you, I urge you to persevere in your reading. You will join those for whom Joyce's great novel, widely regarded as the most influential and important literary work of the 20th century, has become a lasting part of your intellectual and reading life.
Now that almost a century has passed since June 16, 1904, the date the events of Ulysses occurred, we need to ask why we are interested in the details, even in the minutiae of the lives of the novel's three central figures on that one day. Or put another way, how, without discernible action to justify a novel of its inordinate length which covers less than 24 hours in one day, does Joyce arouse and maintain our interest in the arrogant, paralytically self-conscious, putative author Stephen Dedalus, the compassionate, gentle, and generous Irish Jew, Bloom, and his lusty, intuitive, and adulterous wife, Molly.
What is it about these characters' thoughts and feelings, memories and desires, hopes and fears, fixations and obsessions that fascinates us? The very question, in part, provides the answer. Namely, that it is less the events of the day than the characters' interior lives that are Joyce's concerns, no different than ourselves. These characters live in a complex, modern world and have little opportunity for the traditional grand actions of earlier epics suggested by the book's title.
In Ulysses, published in 1922, the same year as Eliot's The Waste Land, Joyce transforms the ordinary events of one day, June 16, 1904, in the lives of his three major characters, Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom into significant form. Joyce read Homer's Odyssey as a family drama in contrast to the bellicose and xenophobic Iliad.
What was central, Joyce thought, was Telemachus' search for his father and Ulysses' quest to return home to his wife. In Joyce's 20th century retelling, Stephen is Telemachus, Bloom is Ulysses, and Molly is Penelope. In stressing Bloom's commitment to home and family, Joyce thought he was returning to the original spirit of The Odyssey, which he saw as contrasting with The Iliad's focus on war.
The crucial events are often based on details of Joyce's own life. In June, 1904, Joyce met his future wife, Nora Barnacle on June 10, in all probability. And on about June 20, following a drunken spree in Dublin, he was taken home by Alfred Hunter, a man who may have been both Jewish and an unfaithful husband.
Hunter became the source for Bloom, the humanistic Jewish hero of Ulysses from whom Stephen learns about family, courage, caring, and life. When writing Ulysses, Joyce's imagination assigned both dates to June 16, 1904, the day Joyceans celebrate as Bloomsday.
Why Ulysses? Why do we care about one day, June 16, 1904, in the life of a 38-year-old advertising salesman who is barely a Jew, his lusty and frustrated wife, and a 22-year-old depressive, recovering Catholic who would like to be recognized as a major writer, although he hasn't written more than quote, "a capful of odes," unquote? Why do we put up with a novel which not only has a plethora of arcane references and allusions but often nearly impenetrable phrases if not whole sentences? Why do we regard Ulysses as the centerpiece of modernism?
We need to remember that we read novels because novels are by humans, about humans, and for humans. Specifically, we respond to Ulysses because Joyce creates compelling characters. We are empathetic with Stephen Dedalus, the marginalized artist, and his counterpart, Leopold Bloom, the man of enterprise and flaneur, because we have an interest in the sexuality and concomitant dysfunctionality of the Bloom marriage. Because June 16, 1904 resembles the diurnal activities of our days, albeit our obsessions, frustrations, and fixations and ambitions may be different from Stephen's, Bloom's, and Molly's, and because Ulysses gives significance to the small tribulations and triumphs of modern life that recall our own lives.
Joyce's representation of human behavior depends on his management of his narrative economy in such a way that he engages us in a process of reading that gives pedestrian events significance and makes us feel that they matter. He does this in part by placing these events in a larger context evoked by patterns of allusions to prior eras, including, notably, the Homeric period, the biblical periods, the material of both the old Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the Christian Bible, and the plays of the Elizabethan world of Shakespeare as well as the imagined worlds evoked by Dante, Milton, Swift, and the contemporary world evoked by Yeats, Wilde, and others.
We read Ulysses, too, for several other important reasons. The novel shows us the inner workings of the modern city. It enacts the effects of colonialism on the colonized. In the multi-perspectivism of the ventriloquistic narrator, Ulysses is a wonderful rendering of the multi-dimensional aspect of modern reality.
We read Ulysses because the novel can be hilarious, high-spirited, and playful in its language and situations. We read Ulysses because of the originality of the rendering of these characters' unconscious and semi-conscious lives, especially in the 15th episode, Circe, written in the form of a play that has been successfully produced as Ulysses in Nighttown.
We also read Ulysses because of our pleasure in recognizing and understanding, not only literary parallels, parodies, and pastiches, but also verbal resonances from the novel's prior episodes. Finally, we read Ulysses because in its experiments with literary form, language, style, and subject matter, it is, along with Picasso's and Matisse's paintings, Kafka's stories, and Eliot's poetry, one of the crystallizing texts of modernism.
By distributing his schemata for the novels and by helping both Frank Budgen write his early biography and Stuart Gilbert write his critical study, Joyce deliberately and wilfully shaped the interpretation of Ulysses. It is as if God had given both the holy word and the subsequent exegesis.
Nevertheless, if we approach Ulysses as a novel which has important continuities with other novels and with Joyce's prior work, we discover that its meaning and significance depend, as is the case for all literary works, on the relationship among the three basic ingredients of literary experience, author, work, and audience. I urge you to read Joyce's challenging and difficult yet funny and compassionate novel that has given me and so many others a lifetime of pleasure.
Because of its difficulty, Ulysses is best read in a community, whether it be a class or a reading group. It is also best read over the course of a semester as the one book in a course, so that students can wrestle with it, savor it, learn how to read it, reread it, and have it become part of their lives.
Read this way, Joyce's masterwork will accompany them as long as they are sentient. Using Molly Bloom's response, quote, "O, rocks, tell us in plain words," unquote, to Leopold Bloom's explanation of metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls, I shall stress that Ulysses is a readable novel, rather than an elaborate puzzle or a Rosetta Stone or a hieroglyph.
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A Professor of English and the Stephen H. Weiss Professor of English, I am the Joyce specialist at Cornell where I have taught generations of students for 35 years. I have taken particular pleasure teaching Ulysses at Cornell not only because of the world class Joyce collection in the Rare Book room of Olin Library, but because Ithaca is the place to which Ulysses yearns to return and name of the episode in Joyce's novel in which Bloom returns home.
Because of its difficulty, Ulysses is best read in a community, whether it be a class or a reading group. It is also best read over the course of a semester as the one book in a course, so that students can wrestle with it, savor it, learn the how to read it, reread it, and have it become part of their lives. Read this way, Joyce's masterwork will accompany them as long as they are sentient. Using Molly Bloom's response "O Rocks . . . .Tell us in plain words" -- to Leopold Bloom's explanation of metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls), I shall stress that Ulysses is a readable novel rather than an elaborate puzzle or a Rosetta Stone or a hieroglyph.
This video is part 1 of 9 in the Reading James Joyce's Ulysses series.