Reading and Not Reading ‘Ulysses’

Paul Norris 20 April 2019
Image Credit: Paul Norris

From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?

—The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All human history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.

Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:

—That is God.

Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!

—What? Mr Deasy asked.

—A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.


Ulysses is an impossible book to introduce because we have all been introduced to it, one way or another. It is so long, difficult and expansive in meaning that you can never finish reading it. But it is also so prevalent in culture (both popular and literary), so often mentioned and imitated, that you can never pinpoint when you started to read it either.

Jeri Johnson puts it in her introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition that it ‘has so colonized twentieth-century Anglophone culture that we can never now enter it for the first time’. Ulysses is rewritten not only across the streets of Dublin, but across countless sentences in the novels which follow it, and has entered the bloodstream.

But Ulysses’ presence is also an absence. It has infamously few readers. For most of us it is one of the ‘fantasy books’ described by Eve Sedgwick: these are

the books we know about – from their titles, from reading reviews, or hearing people talk about them – but haven’t, over a period of time, actually read. Books that can therefore exert a presence, or exert a pressure in our lives and thinking, that may have much or little to do with what’s actually inside them.

Unread, the book expresses much of what is exciting and frightening about urban modernity. It is outrageous, bewildering, unwieldy. It went from being unacceptable in polite society and censored by the government, to being embraced by some circles, while remaining on the edge of others, a trajectory which parallels some of the twentieth century’s struggles against repressive authority.

Jorge Borges said he knew Ulysses ‘with that bold and legitimate certainty with which we assert our knowledge of a city, without ever having been rewarded with the intimacy of all the many streets it includes.’ Knowledge here is inextricable from alienation, and intimacy is a reminder of absence: the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

Even if we have read it, the book throws up all the ways in which we could have read it and did not. Every reading means learning not only what we have read, but also what we have not.

Much of the book is concerned with literary criticism, and Stephen’s extended critique of Hamlet is biographical, perhaps suggesting that Ulysses too should be read through its author’s life. There are some suggestive hints: Stephen clearly resembles Joyce himself, and Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle (whom he would later marry) was on 16 June 1904, when the novel’s action takes place. And yet the book gives an amount of data about everyday life which could not possibly lead us back to Joyce himself, most obviously in the ‘Wandering Rocks’ episode, where the perspective shifts between 19 characters as they pass each other on the street. The book seems to move the reader away from Joyce, and even away from reality altogether.

The detail in Ulysses may appear realistic, but in the nineteenth century novel’s sense of the genre (where every detail is pregnant with psychological or symbolic potential) it is anti-realist. In Ulysses there is too much data for it all to be made relevant to the reader. The most famous example is the unidentified man in a mackintosh in the graveyard in the ‘Hades’ episode, whose significance is never explained.

Walter Benjamin writes in One-Way Street that modern life is constructed by ‘the power of facts far more than convictions’, so that ‘true literary activity cannot aspire to take place within a literary framework’. Ulysses offers a new framework for literary activity in that it gives us the unmediated thoughts of ordinary people in a single day, but there are traces of the old structures here too. Later chapters imitate various genres (newspapers, plays, philosophical essays), and even confining the action to a single day recalls the Aristotelian unity of time which delimited Greek theatre.

Joyce’s classical learning is channelled through Stephen Dedalus, whose intelligence leads him to a studied irreverence, often expressed in disarmingly simplistic aphorisms (‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,’ and the definition of God quoted above). God is a shout in the street, quite pointedly not in the rigidly pious headmaster’s office. The movement of human history described by Mr Deasly is reconfigured into the movement of the boys across a football pitch.

This is Joyce’s method throughout Ulysses: creating parallels between epic and the everyday, between power and profanity. But he is no iconoclast. Joyce does not want to destroy the history, literature and religions which make up western civilisation, but only to knock civilisation off its pedestal and situate its values, archetypes and aims in the lives of ordinary people. By making them strange (strange as all people are strange) he can make them familiar. This is the end for which Joyce uses his learning, and this is why he would be sad that when Ulysses does find its way onto bookshelves its purpose is largely decorative.

There’s no doubt the book is hard to read, but the process becomes easier (and much more enjoyable) if one abandons the perfectionist mentality which dictates most of our reading. You don’t have to read it cover-to-cover. No reading of Ulysses can ever be complete because reading all its words can’t exhaust all the resonances they contain.

But broadly speaking, there are two approaches to reading Ulysses. One sees its plot develop by characters’ relationships, such as the estrangement and ultimate reconciliation of Bloom with his wife, Bloom’s burgeoning role as a father-figure to Stephen, and Dubliners’ antisemitism. It reads stream-of-consciousness sections for the insight they give into character’s histories and desires.

The alternative is to read the book’s overwhelming range of signs as patterns in themselves, without limiting the meaning of these signs to individual characters. In this kind of reading, the book is an extremely complex system of parallels between the novel and its literary antecedents. This gives us the episodes’ titles, which mirror the events of Homer’s Odyssey.

Both approaches have limitations. Reading Ulysses as a character drama threatens to obscure what makes the novel interesting, by turning its unique forms into obstacles rather than objects of study in their own right. Equally, an excessively systematic approach could get lost in Joyce’s systems of meaning, and lose sight of his emotional core, which is by turns funny and intensely moving.

No system can completely explain Ulysses, not even the narrative which gives it its title. The episodes do not follow the order of the Odyssey, nor do Joyce’s characters have fixed parallels with Homer’s. ‘Wandering Rocks’ is not even in the Odyssey: it is one of the possible paths described by Circe, but Odysseus chooses to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis instead. (That ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ consists of Stephen explaining his Hamlet theory in a library, while ‘Wandering Rocks’ is demotic and heterogeneous, suggests that the path Joyce’s Ulysses takes can incorporate both high and popular culture.)

Sometimes the comparison with Homer is obviously ironic. Penelope’s is faithful despite a crowd of suitors, while Molly Bloom’s latest lover

is always the last term of a preceding series even if the first term of a succeeding one, each imagining himself to be first, last, only and alone whereas he is neither first nor last nor only nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.

But elsewhere it can be taken seriously, such as when Bloom (who is Jewish) plays Ulysses by standing up to a racist bully, a cyclops capable of seeing from only a very narrow perspective. Bloom triumphs by putting a metaphoric stake in the man’s eye: the wood of the cross, as Bloom points out that ‘the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God.’

Certain episodes clearly lend themselves more to character-focussed or systematic reading. The early Bloom episodes are redolent of the nineteenth-century realism from which Joyce departs later in the book, and offer an insight into the mind of a middle-class advertising executive as he wanders around the city, goes to a funeral, and eats a cheese sandwich in a pub.

Later episodes seem to place system before plot or character: ‘Oxen of the Sun’ takes the reader from scholastic philosophy and early alliterative poetry, to contemporary street slang, via chivalric romance, Sterne, Dickens, Pepys and countless other styles. It is easy to lose track of what is actually happening.

The best reading of Ulysses integrates both perspectives, and many more besides. Although often seen as the mad product of a single mind, the book reveals how different lives have their own meanings. I can’t claim to have read all of it, but still feel I know it, partially. It exerts a pressure and presence in the reader’s mind, not unlike the pressure and presence of a life we love and think we know, but can’t, at least not completely.