In James Joyce's novel Ulysses, what are the elements of comedy, parody, caricature, grotesque, satire, and irony?

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Ulysses by James Joyce is a grotesque and satirical version of The Odyssey that switches Homer’s heroic characters and grand locations with ordinary ones situated in everyday life of the early twentieth century. Complex and ambitious, Joyce’s novel contains layers of allusion, irony, and wordplay.

Joyce’s characters correspond to yet often contradict Homer’s characters, sometimes with exaggerated traits. The "Ulysses" here is Leopold Bloom, an easygoing, ordinary man who meanders about the streets of Dublin on various mundane errands. Bloom is of Jewish heritage, but his Jewish identity is ambiguous; he was baptized and doesn’t keep kosher, yet is still recognized as different by characters like the citizen in Episode 12, “Cyclops.” Instead of a stoic, faithful Penelope with measured speech, Bloom’s wife, Molly, is a lively woman who is having an affair with another man and provides the novel’s last episode in the form of an enthusiastic soliloquy without punctuation.

Ulysses features different narrators and points of view and a mix of poetic forms, literary styles, and parodies of contemporary popular genres to convey the story, blending together the avant-garde and vaudeville, philosophy and vulgarity, literary allusions and scatological jokes. Episode 7, “Aeolus,” takes places in a newspaper office and conveys the action through headlines with corresponding stories filled with wordplay, underscoring the blustery nature of sensationalistic and popular journalism. The opening line of Episode 13, “Nausicaa,” begins like a popular romance novel, which is then satirized by Bloom’s lustful thoughts about Gerty MacDowell (which in turn links the story back to classical Greek scenarios of nymphs and satyrs).

Grotesque themes, ironies, and Freudian theories about sex and death come to a cathartic climax in Episode 15, “Circe,” which is written as a play. In contrast to the slower pace of previous episodes, Circe features restless fever dream dark magic action. While looking for Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus) in Dublin’s “nighttown” district, Bloom enters a brothel owned by Bella Cohen. In Homer’s epic, Circe was a sorceress who turned sailors into swine. At the brothel, Bloom experiences a transformation as he faces his darkest thoughts and dreams a trial where he is confronted by women about his seedy fantasies. In the end, he confronts his deepest feeling: grief for his son Rudy, who was previously referenced during the funeral in Episode 6, “Hades.”

Due to its explicit content, Ulysses became the subject of an obscenity trial and was prohibited from publication in the United States from 1921 to 1933. Joyce would then further develop his stream-of-consciousness style and fantastical wordplay in his last novel and literary masterpiece, Finnegans Wake.

Further Reading:

Attridge, Derek, ed. James Joyce's Ulysses: A Casebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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In the novel Ulysses, James Joyce satirizes Western society by satirizing society's perspective of a hero. To satirize society's perspective of a hero, Joyce makes allusion to the famous Ancient Greek hero Odysseus, called Ulysses in Latin, whose heroic journey home from the Trojan War was told in the epic poem The Odyssey, attributed to Homer. In making his literary allusion, Joyce juxtaposes his protagonist Leopold Bloom with the hero Ulysses in order to question society's typical definition of a hero.

Bloom is the exact opposite of Ulysses: as the editors of Novels for Students, Vol. 26, phrase it, Bloom is characterized as "gentle, self-effacing, reserved and peripheralized" (eNotes, "Themes"). While Ulysses is characterized as out slaying monsters, rescuing his crew from harrowing situations, and battling hordes of men who are trying to court his wife and take his place, Bloom is characterized as the exact opposite. He chooses not to interfere with others, tries to negotiate conflicts peacefully, and is kind and polite towards others.

One example can be seen with respect to how Bloom handles his wife's infidelity. Unlike Ulysses, who battled and killed his wife's many suitors, Bloom accepts her infidelity. He even continues making her breakfast in the morning. However, he also responds by starting a flirtation of his own via letter, a very natural and human response. Regardless, unlike weaker men, he does not give way to his physical urges. Hence, Joyce characterizes him as a kind, gentle man, who is strong in his own way. However, by the end of the novel, Bloom tells his wife to bring him his breakfast in the morning, showing he has gained his own inner strength, as we see Molly reflect, "Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs" ("Episode 18: 'Penelope'"). Hence, all in all, Joyce satirizes society's image of a hero to show that the true hero is really the ordinary, everyday man.

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