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By acclamation, “Ulysses” by James Joyce all but dwarfs almost all other works of literature written during the past century.
Find out what the fuss is all about.
Who Should Read “Ulysses”? And Why?
In fact, as witnessed by the Linati and Gilbert schemata, the book is tightly structured and organized, even though it should take you no more than one casual look of a random page to start seriously doubting the first part of this sentence.
In other words: we’re talking about one of the ultimate works of art (on par with Mona Lisa or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony), so everybody should read it.
However, if you have an intention to, prepare well and use annotations!
James Joyce Biography
James Joyce was an Irish modernist author.
He is best known as the author of “Ulysses,” but his other two novels, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Finnegans Wake,” as well as his short story collection, “Dubliners,” are critically acclaimed as well.
He is widely regarded as the most influential writer of the past century.
Notoriously difficult to summarize, “Ulysses” is divided into 18 episodes which correspond roughly to the episodes of Homer’s “Odyssey.”
Which means the main characters of Joyce’s novel correspond roughly to the protagonists of Homer’s epic, with Leopold Bloom, “a Jewish advertisement canvasser,” taking the role of Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin), Molly Bloom that of Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus of Telemachus.
However, even though the world of Homer is a world of gods and heroes and features a decade-long timespan, “Ulysses” takes place in Ireland and happens during the length of a single day.
Namely, June 16, 1904, the day Joyce first met his wife-to-be Nora Barnacle (in real life), and the day nowadays celebrated worldwide as Bloomsday (also in real life).
Part I: Telemachia
It’s 8:00 A.M. and Stephen Dedalus eats his breakfast with Buck Mulligan and Buck’s English friend, Haines at the roof of Sandycove Martello tower (where they both live). Stephen doesn’t like Buck and, departing, says that he doesn’t intend to return to the tower that evening.
Around 10:00 A.M., Stephen teaches a history lesson to his class. After the class, he meets with the school’s headmaster, Garrett Deasy, to receive his wages. The two have a discussion about Jews and Irish history, during which Dedalus famously exclaims that
History… is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
Deasy gives Stephen a letter, and Stephen spends the rest of the morning strolling along Sandymount Strand, thinking about many things and composing a poem on a scrap from torn out of Deasy’s letter.
Part II: Odyssey
We go back in time: once again it’s 8:00 A.M., but now it’s Leopold Bloom in focus.
Leopold prepares some breakfast, bringing it to his wife in bed, together with the mail; one of the letters is from Molly’s concert tour manager, Blazes Boylan, with whom (Bloom believes) Molly is having an affair.
It states that Boylan will visit her at 4:00 that afternoon, and Bloom is uneasy with the thought that Molly will probably welcome Blazes in her bed.
Bloom goes downstairs once again, where he reads a letter from the couple’s daughter, Milly Bloom, informing him about her progress in the photography business.
At 10:00 A.M., we find out that Bloom too has someone on the side: from the Westland Row post office, he picks up a love letter sent by a certain Martha Clifford to Henry Flower, his pseudonym.
After reading the letter, he tears up the envelope and wanders into a Catholic church. Then, he goes to a chemist where he buys some lemon soap. Afterward, he runs into an acquaintance, Bantam Lyons, who mistakenly thinks that Bloom is giving him a racing tip for the horse Throwaway.
Around 11:00 A.M., Bloom enters a funeral carriage with three other men: Simon Dedalus (Stephen’s father), Martin Cunningham, and Jack Power. They go to the funeral of Paddy Dignam. It’s obvious that the men treat Bloom as an outsider. At the funeral, Bloom muses about the death of his son, Rudy, and the suicide of his father.
At 12:00 A.M., Bloom tries unsuccessfully to place an ad for a liquor merchant at the offices of the Freeman newspaper. Stephen arrives with Deasy’s letter, but the two men don’t meet.
At 1:00 P.M., Bloom happens upon Josie Breen, an old love interest of his, and they discuss Mina Purefoy, who is at the time in labor at a maternity hospital. At Davy Byrne’s pub, Bloom reminisces about the more beautiful times of his marriage with Molly. He leaves and heads for the museum, but spots Boylan on the street and hides into the nearby gallery.
At 2:00 P.M., Stephen is in the National Library, presenting his theory that “Hamlet” is actually based on the adultery of Shakespeare’s wife, to a poet and few librarians. Bloom enters the library looking for an old ad of his. On their way out, the two encounter each other, but only briefly and unknowingly.
At 4:00 P.M., Bloom has dinner with Simon Dedalus, Blazes Boylan, and Ben Dollard at the Ormond Hotel bar. Boylan leaves to meet Bloom’s wife, and Bloom ogles the seductive barmaids and listens to Dedalus’s and Dollard’s singing.
At 5:00 P.M., at Barney Kiernan’s pub, Bloom has a chance encounter with a character referred to only as the Citizen, an aggressive Irish nationalist, who begins an anti-Semitic rant. Bloom stands up for himself and for peace, reminding the Citizen that even his god was a Jew.
After leaving the pub, sometime around sunset, Bloom relaxes on Sandymount Strand. A young woman, Gerty MacDowell, notices that Bloom is watching her from across the beach, and she starts teasing him by revealing more and more of her legs, as Bloom starts secretly masturbating.
At 10:00 P.M., Bloom visits Mina Purefoy at the maternity hospital. There, he finally meets Stephen, as well as a few of his medical student friends. Bloom joins them, though, thinking about Mina’s labor and his lost son, he isn’t too interested in reveling. Following the birth of Mina’s son, the group heads to a pub to continue its little party.
Stephen is at the Bella Cohen’s brothel, where Bloom arrives. Stephen is fairly drunk and imagines seeing the ghost of his mother, after which, enraged, he shatters a lamp with his walking stick. Bloom pays Bella Cohen for the damage. In the meantime, Stephen argues with Private Carr, a British soldier who knocks him out after a perceived insult to the King.
Part III: Nostos
Bloom takes Stephen for a coffee at a cabman’s shelter in an attempt to sober him up. After this, he invites him back to his house.
Sometime after midnight, Stephen and Bloom arrive back at Bloom’s house. While drinking cocoa, they discuss each other’s backgrounds. Bloom invites Stephen to stay for the night, but Stephen respectfully refuses. Bloom sees him out, after which he goes to bed, where Molly is sleeping. She awakes and starts questioning him about his day.
After Bloom falls asleep, Molly Bloom stays awake and starts thinking about all kinds of things, from her childhood in Gibraltar through her singing career to her numerous affairs ending with the one with Boylan. Her monologue (eight endless serpentine sentences with no punctuation whatsoever) ends with a famous reminiscence of Bloom’s marital proposal:
…and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
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Our Critical Review
When F. Scott Fitzgerald finally met James Joyce – supposedly, he adored him too much and was afraid to approach him – he kissed his hand and declared: “How does it feel to be a great genius, Sir? I am so excited at seeing you, Sir, that I could weep.”
This, believe it or not, is only one of many similar acts of reverence Joyce has been continually adorned with ever since the publication of “Ulysses,” without a doubt, one of the most important fiction books ever written, habitually topping numerous lists of the greatest English-language novels in history.
I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found,” wrote prophetically T. S. Eliot in a contemporary review, “it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.