Ulysses chronicles the events of a single ordinary day, June 16 1904. We follow the novel’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom as he walks through Dublin contemplating life, love, marriage, sex, paternity, food and drink. The novelis widely considered one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century. It introduced the stream of conscious narrative and influenced every major work since its publication in 1922.
It is by turns moving, funny, erudite but accessible, and brilliant in its use of the English language. It is a difficult read but a beautiful listen. When read aloud by great actors, the text becomes highly accessible, magical. Ulysses is word-music, sound poetry — filled with delicious language and many cultural allusions. Joyce was a celebrated tenor; his writing has a musical quality that lends itself brilliantly to performance. The density of the text gives a talented actor bottomless material to draw from.
Ulysses‘s structure is episodic, modeled after Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Joyce often referenced the episodes by Homeric titles in his letters. Although Joyce didn’t use them as chapter titles in the publication, the names (Telemachus, Proteus, Circe, Penelope etc.) remain closely associated with the book. The eighteen distinct episodes not only differ in content and perspective, but each is written with a unique style and narrative technique. For example, Aeolus, the seventh episode, is written in the style of newspaper articles while the penultimate episode Ithaca, resembles that of a catechism.
Joyce also discovered, more than any other author, the importance of the inner monologue or stream of consciousness. The reader is granted access to the characters’ thoughts. We are privy to Stephen Dedalus’s insecurities, Leopold Bloom’s fantasies, and even Molly Bloom’s private sexual thoughts. It is this exploration of their minds that gives Joyce’s characters’ such depth. We know them not only by their actions, but also by their inaction.
James Joyce was an Irish writer and poet. Born in Dublin on 2 February 1882, Joyce received a Catholic school education and went on to attend University College, Dublin. After graduating in 1902, Joyce moved to Paris only to return a year later for the death of his ailing mother. In 1904 he met Nora Barnacle of Galway, his future wife. They moved to Trieste where they lived until 1915. In those ten years spent in Italy, the couple had two children, Georgio and Lucia. Joyce published two books, Chamber Music, a collection of poems and Dubliners, a book of short stories. At the beginning of World War I, the family moved to Zurich until 1919, during which time Joyce published a novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and a play, Exiles.
It was at this point that Joyce relocated his family to Paris with the intention of publishing Ulysses, the work he had begun in 1914. It was first published in serial form in literary journals in the United Kingdom and the United States. After the Nausicaa episode appeared in the American journal The Little Review in 1921, Ulysses was declared obscene and banned in the US. The UK followed suit a year later. It took seven years and three cities, but Ulysses was finally published in Paris by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co. on 2 February 1922, Joyce’s fortieth birthday.
Over a decade later, in United States v. One Book Called Ulysses (1933), Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that the book was notpornographic and would be admitted into the US. In his decision he wrote “that reading Ulysses in its entirety…did not tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts but that its net effect on them was only that of a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women.” The UK lifted the ban a few years later in 1936.
Joyce went on to publish a collection of poems and Finnegan’s Wake, but suffered greatly from concerns for the mental health of his daughter Lucia and his own failing eyesight. With the beginning of World War II, Joyce left occupied France and returned to Zurich in December of 1940. He died there on 13 January 1941 at the age of 58.