Ulysses Study Guide

Ulysses, a Modernist reconstruction of Homer's epic The Odyssey, was James Joyce's first epic-length novel. The Irish writer had already published a collection of short stories entitled Dubliners, as well as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the semi-autobiographical novella, whose protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, reappears in Ulysses. Immediately hailed as a work of genius, Ulysses is still considered to be the greatest of Joyce's literary accomplishments and his first two works anticipated what was to come in Ulysses. The novel was written over the span of several years, during which Joyce continued to live in self-imposed exile from his native Ireland. Ulysses was published in Paris in the year of 1922--the same year in which T. S. Eliot published his widely regarded poem, "The Waste Land."

Within English literature, the "Modernist" tradition includes most of the British and American literary figures writing between the two world wars, and James Joyce is considered among the likes of T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf: standard-bearers who initiated the Modernist "revolution" against the Victorian "excesses of civilization." Even today, Ulysses is widely regarded as the most "revolutionary" literary efforts of the twentieth century if only for Joyce's "stream of consciousness" technique. In his efforts to create a modern hero, Joyce returned to classical myth only to deconstruct a Greek warrior into a parody of the "Wandering Jew." Joyce's hero, Leopold Bloom, must suffer the emotional traumas of betrayal and loss, while combating the anti-Semitism of 1904 Dublin. In place of Greek stoicism and power, Joyce set a flawed and endearing human being. And while Homer's The Odyssey only touched upon "epic," dignified themes, Joyce devoted considerably detailed passages to the most banal and taboo human activities: gluttony, defecation, urination, dementia, masturbation, voyeurism, alcoholism, sado-masochism and coprophilia-and most of these depictions included the hero, Bloom.

Joyce saw Ulysses as the confluence of his two previous works. From Dubliners, Joyce borrowed the fatalistic and naturalistic depictions of a gritty, urban center. Ulysses is impressive for its geography alone, charting almost twenty hours of Dublin's street wandering, "bar-hopping" and marine commerce. Even though Joyce took alternate residences in Switzerland, Italy and France, he was able to paint Dublin from his almost perfect memory. While Leopold Bloom is the major character of the work, Joyce spends considerable time focusing on Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of his first work. It is through Stephen, that Joyce is able to debate the contentious religious and political issues that dominated the novella. Unsurprisingly, Joyce's portrays Dublin as the semi-complicit victim of Britain's aggression and the Roman Catholic Church's oppression. Joyce continues his argument as a non-conformist, that the Roman Catholic Church's structure facilitated corruption and more generally contributed to the alienation and rot of the human soul as opposed to its uplift.

At the same time, the Irish population was governed by the British and kept under close watch. The British occupying force humiliated Irish patriots, and this permanent military presence was one of the principal obstacles on the path towards Irish "Home Rule." Despite Joyce's resentment towards Britain's colonial outlook, his most dramatic political evolution since Portrait, is his rejection of Ireland's nascent nationalist fervor. The patriots and zealots of Ulysses are invariably buffoons or villains. Frequently they are drunk, and their national agendas usually feature misogynist and anti-Semitic corollaries. Most notably, Joyce satirizes the campaigned "Renaissance" of the Irish language and we should remember that Ulysses accomplished the double act of establishing Joyce as the premier stylist of the English language while giving Ireland a national bard and epic.

But Ulysses' ascension into the literary canon was not a simple one even though the novel sold well in Paris. Critics heralded Joyce's genius and wit, though the book's incredible opacity, numerous deceptions and tedious allusions were a source of contention. In Ulysses, Joyce attempted to replicate the thoughts and activities of genuine human beings, but Joyce's "outhouse humor" even drew criticism from literary familiars like Virginia Woolf. The allegedly "pornographic" novel was immediately banned in the United Kingdom as well as the United States. The frank sexuality of the "Penelope" episode and Bloom's sado-masochistic "hallucinations" in the "Circe" chapter elicited the strongest reactions. Despite the moral indignation, Ulysses was a smuggled commodity and Joyce's literary stature rose considerably among literary communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Nonetheless, it was well over a decade before a Random House court victory initiated the first American publications of the novel, which became available in Britain two years later.