Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1304

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 dominated, by a single piece of text that is external to the work in question. The schemas are at least suggestive with regard to three of the more salient (and problematic) aspects of the book. These three are the Homeric parallels, Stephen’s theory about Shakespeare and art, and the episodic structure and use of style.

Shortly after the publication of Ulysses, T. S. Eliot applauded the Homeric parallel as having “the importance of a scientific discovery.” Ezra Pound thought the parallel was gratuitous, something “which any block-head could trace.” The elaborate Homeric correspondence is, however, surely not, as Eliot thought, merely a backdrop to heighten “the immense panorama of futility that is the modern world.” Rather, it allows readers an opportunity at faith. One may infer from the novel, if one wishes, that Bloom is a modern reincarnation of Odysseus and that, by extension, the modern age is as heroic as the ancient.

Ulysses was Joyce’s favorite hero from his childhood. The quality he was to isolate as unique to the Greek hero was completeness. He observed that Ulysses had been a father, a son, a husband, a lover, and a soldier who was at first a draft dodger and then a hawk. Although this is a rather curious ideal, it suggests what may have been Joyce’s purpose. The story of Ulysses constitutes such a full representation of a given complex of attitudes and values that Joyce was able to use it as a paradigm for the structure of a modern story.

The correspondences to Homer are not consistent. Bloom and Stephen are Ulysses and Telemachus, respectively, in only a general way. Correspondences listed on the schema indicate that in the first episode, for example, Stephen is Telemachus but also Hamlet. In the ninth episode, Ulysses is “Jesus, Socrates, Shakespeare.” Furthermore, as has been remarked, Stephen is more like a youthful aspect of Ulysses than like Telemachus, who is almost a minor character in Homer’s work. There is, then, no one-to-one impersonation of Homeric characters. Rather, there is a play of functions pointing to an essential human, the abstract Ulysses who belongs not exclusively to Homer but to the entire tradition of the Ulysses theme.

The ninth episode, “Scylla and Charybdis,” contains Stephen’s aesthetic theory. The action is presented as a parable of artistic creation based on Shakespeare’s biography. The way the “Ulysses” of the schema functions is rather complex. The schema says that Scylla is “The Rock—Aristotle, Dogma” and Charybdis “The Whirlpool—Plato, Mysticism.” “Ulysses,” who must sail between these perils, is given as “Socrates, Jesus, Shakespeare.” This aspect of Ulysses is manifested in Stephen’s discourse; Bloom is not even immediately present. The course is the one the artist must take. It includes going between extremes of the inner and outer worlds of his personal experience. There is a struggle between the flux of everyday life and a permanent, repeated structure in the artist’s self. This structure is compared to the mole that remains on Stephen’s breast although all the molecules of his body have changed and, in the parable, to a supposed psychological trauma in Shakespeare’s youth that determined the structure of his plays and their themes of usurpation, humiliation, and, later, reconciliation. At the level of the individual artistic psyche, the theory recapitulates the determinism treated by the novel as historical and sociological.

As to the individual episodes, the schema names a variety of elements of style that make each unique. Joyce told friends that he intended each to be able to stand on its own. Various episodes are sometimes anthologized and read like short stories. “Circe,” episode 15, has been produced as a play many times. Each episode has a limited narrative point of view, but the points of view are clearly never the same. Abundant exegetical literature exists for each episode, treating in detail the unity derived of its tone, style, and themes. For this overview, however, it is more important to note that the various episodic styles are part of a second structural principle in the novel.

Total autonomy and interdependence combine in the episodic structure; Stephen and Bloom, component elements of the “Ulysses” composite, partake of this combination and therefore avoid becoming mere allegorical types. They are, in fact, complete individuals. This pattern suggests the paradoxical doctrine of the Trinity, in which three complete and equal Persons have one Essence. Of the Trinity, Joyce once said that when one is contemplating one Person, the others slip from view. So it is with Stephen and Bloom; for that matter, any individual episode in Ulysses seems capable of absorbing the reader’s whole attention. It is, therefore, the overview that leads the reader best through the myriad captivations of Joyce’s odyssey.

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Critical Overview