Ulysses should be read as a social, political, and historical novel. Joyce examines Ireland's dominance by England, Dublin as a city in which there is a dearth of meaningful work, and women, whose definition derives from men's stereotypical minds. Ulysses is Joyce's inquiry into the question of what values are viable in the 20th century urban world, where, according to Joyce's view, God does not exist and traditional notions of heroism are obsolete.
Among other things, Ulysses is an effort to redefine the concept of the hero. Joyce uses the marginal Jew, Bloom, to redefine heroism in secular humanistic terms. As Joyce examines recent history and culture, he proposes Bloom as an alternative to the contemporary xenophobia and fantasies of the Celtic Renaissance, as well as a successor to the Irish hero, Parnell.
It is worth recalling that prior to 1922, Ireland was not an independent country and stood in the approximate relationship to England that Northern Ireland still stands. Joyce's imagined world reflects the reality of British political domination of Ireland and the complexities of the evolving urban culture, including how information is transmitted.
Among other things, Ulysses is about the marketing of the modern city, and the major character, Bloom, is an advertising salesman. Within Ulysses, characters read and write the city in terms of advertising slogans and jingles, newspaper headlines and articles, and personal notes and letters.
Ulysses teaches us how to read itself. We should think of our experience of reading it as the reader's Odyssey. We should be aware of what the novel does to us as we read it, and how the ventriloquy of its various styles establishes an unusually complex relationship between text and reader.
Unlike some critics who believe that Joyce's interest in style deflects the reader from his characters, I believe that the focus in every episode returns to the subjects of Stephen, Bloom, Molly, and the Dublin world they inhabit.
To be sure, the episodes from Sirens through Oxen of the Sun, we are aware of a tension in Joyce's imagination between interest in style and interest in character. But in the climax of every episode, his focus returns to his major figures and their significance.
As Odyssean readers, turning the pages of the novel and progressing through one crystallizing day in the lives of the major figures, we must overcome the difficulties of style and the opacity of content, just as the modern Ulysses, Bloom, must resist temptations to deflect him from his journey home.
As Odyssean readers, we must wind our way through a variety of experiences, but those experiences can best be understood in terms of the novel's two major and contradictory formal principles, on the one hand, its insistence on integration and on the other, its refusal to allow every word to signify in terms of coherent thematic or structural patterns.
Resisting our efforts to understand Ulysses in terms of organic unity are a plethora of catalogs, barely relevant details, marginalia, false clues, linguistic games, and playful attempts to undermine the reader's quest for unity. Does not Joyce's insistence on exploring the eccentricities of style for its own sake, its local wit, word games, catalogs, neologisms, and odd typography urge the read it to pause and enjoy without imposing interpretive patterns or judgments upon the peculiarities and oddities of either language or human behavior?
Yet finally, Ulysses insists that its readers interpret every detail in terms of larger patterns, and thus urges the book's own argument that even the most particular details of the individual lives of Bloom and Stephen are important, because Bloom and Stephen iterate major historical and mythic figures in Western civilization.
Ulysses urges the reader to see that if only Bloom's deeds and Stephen's words touch one person, they have an effect, because that one person's behavior and words in turn affect another, and so on, in an endless sequence. Indeed, that is one reason why the Greek and Hebraic cultures have survived, and why we continue to read Joyce's Ulysses with excitement and pleasure.
Finally, June 16, 1904 is a crystallizing day, rather than a gratuitous day for all three characters, as it was within Joyce's imagination as the supposed day when he met Alfred Hunter and Nora Barnacle. Given Stephen's political parable in Aeolius, his theory of literature in Scylla and Charybdis, which echoes Joyce's own, and his expanding horizons by meeting the Irish Jew, Bloom, so different from himself, hasn't Stephen made progress towards becoming the artist who will write the national epic of Ireland, namely, Ulysses?
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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 9 of 9 in the Reading James Joyce's Ulysses series.