Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624

Highlighting both the strengths and limitations of the novel, Edmund Wilson’s 1922 review in New Republic is an excellent starting place for evaluating the critical reviews garnered by Ulysses. Wilson applauds the work for its “high genius,” and at the same time, he asserts that Joyce “has written some of the most unreadable chapters in the whole history of fiction.” Wilson calls Joyce’s “technical triumph . . . the most faithful X-ray ever taken of the ordinary human consciousness.” Wilson explains that Joyce shows all the ignobility of common people in such a way that readers sympathize with and respect them. According to Wilson, Joyce demonstrates “his extraordinary poetic faculty for investing particular incidents with universal significance.” Yet Wilson faults Joyce’s work on two counts: first, its form is dictated by the form of the Odyssey rather than emerging from its own immediate content; second, his literary imitative parody “interposes a heavy curtain between” readers and the novel’s characters.

When the novel appeared . . . there seemed to be only two schools of thought—and criticism. Ford Madox Ford wrote: ‘One feels admiration that is almost reverence for the incredible labours of this incredible genius.’ But Alfred Noyes suggested that it was ‘the foulest book that has ever found its way into print.’

Delaney quotes W. B. Yeats who commented that Ulysses amounted to “the vulgarity of a single Dublin day prolonged to seven hundred pages.” Delaney also notes that the Sunday Express held that Ulysses was “The most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature”; and the Daily Express agreed: “Our first impression is that of sheer disgust.”

It was the Nausicaa episode which brought about the U.S. charge of obscenity and caused the Little Review to stop publishing installments of the novel. This decision led to the publication of the novel in France. After that, the furor brought attention to the novel and to Joyce, who was exonerated by the U.S. district court decision that the novel was not prurient. Joyce himself made little money from the novel, but when it “emerged from copyright” in 1992, many presses hurried to print and profit from the novel, as an anonymous reviewer explains in the January 18, 1992, Economist. Cyril Connolly in a 1999 issue of New Statesman mildly reports on the “revolutionary” technique that made it possible for Joyce “to create a mythical universe of his own.” But he points out that Joyce was so much a part of the novel his “clock seemed literally to have stopped on June 16th, 1904.”

The degree to which this revolutionary and controversial work came to be accepted is indicated in the widespread celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of what is called Bloomsday, on June 16, 2004. The occasion brought forth festivities, readings, and renewed critical attention for the novel. For example, two articles appeared in Commonweal. In one, Robert H. Bell writes of the “the enduring power” of Ulysses, which “has become the canonical twentieth-century novel.” In the other, which is especially beautifully written, Mark Patrick Hederman describes the festival held in Dublin in 2004 and the new James Joyce Bridge that was opened on Bloomsday in 2004. He notes the irony that the country which initially “condemned and reviled” the work now makes Joyce “an Irish industry.” Hederman points to the fact that Ulysses “describes the paralysis” of Dublin, depicting how “The twin forces of politics and religion had entrapped the Irish in alcoholism, sexual repression, and poverty.” Writing of the improvements in the city and its culture since Joyce abandoned it in 1904, Hederman remarks that Joyce in a sense showed Dubliners the way to embrace “the new century’s awareness of human possibility.” He concludes that “Joyce’s magisterial work . . . incorporates the whole of humanity, unconscious as well as conscious.”

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