Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

On one of its many levels, Ulysses is an attempt to recapture completely, so far as it is possible in fiction, the life of a particular time and place. The scene is Dublin—its streets, homes, shops, newspaper offices, pubs, hospitals, brothels, and schools. The time is a single day in 1904. A continuation of the story of Stephen Dedalus as told in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915, serial; 1916, book), the novel is also a series of remarkable Homeric parallels. The incidents, characters, and scenes of a Dublin day correspond to those of the Odyssean myth. Leopold Bloom is easily recognizable as Ulysses and Molly Bloom, his wife, as Penelope.

The book is written in a variety of styles and techniques; the most significant of which is the stream-of-consciousness method, by which James Joyce attempts to reproduce not only the sights, sounds, and smells of Dublin but also the memories, emotions, and desires of his people in the modern world. This technique—combined with multilayered wordplay, concatenated sentence structures designed to connote as well as denote, and the sheer density and richness of Joyce’s allusive language—makes the narrative nonlinear and epic in its proportions. While on the surface Ulysses relates one day in the life of its Dubliner characters, Joyce’s juxtaposition of his characters’ thoughts, descriptions of place, and evocation of history make the book as true an epic as its predecessor by Homer.

Short of Joyce’s other great masterwork, Finnegans Wake (1939), Ulysses is arguably the most “difficult” work in English literature—a work impossible to appreciate fully with only one reading. Readers approaching Ulysses for the first time should therefore do so somewhat aggressively. If comprehension lapses—even for pages at a time—it is best to push on. Many elements that appear early in the story make sense only after one has read much further along. Bloom’s potato talisman, for example, is mentioned in the fourth episode but remains unexplained until the fifteenth. The novel contains so many such difficulties, and of such variety, that readers sometimes feel lost. Persistent readers, however, will find that the novel is deliberately and intensely structured—Joyce later speculated that he had made it perhaps too structured. Too much or too little, the book’s structure helps buoy readers voyaging into the narrative for the first time.

Although he said he did not want them published, Joyce let out two (very similar) schemas of the novel’s structure. These charts indicate the following for each of the eighteen episodes: a title referring to the Homeric original, the time of day, a dominant color, a “technic” (the narrative style of the episode), a dominant art (history, literature, philology), an organ of the body, a dominant symbol, and miscellaneous correspondences between Homeric and Joycean characters. The charts have not been an unalloyed blessing to Joyce’s readers, because the schemas are sometimes ambiguous and cryptic. Nevertheless, it is difficult to think of another major author whose critics have been so influenced, indeed...

(The entire section is 1304 words.)