James Joyce’s Ulysses has quite a reputation. It has a reputation of literary excellence, often topping lists of greatest novels of the twentieth century and even greatest novel of all time. It also has a reputation of inaccessibility, byzantine complexity and linguistic virtuosity that make it a grueling struggle to complete. There is an entire market of ancillary texts – companions, allusions, annotations, criticism, guides, notes, maps, charts, schemas, etc. But the truth is that Ulysses is eminently readable. Not only is it readable but it is very enjoyable as well. An often unmentioned quality of the novel is its humor. Ulysses, the great list-topper, is raucously funny, containing situational comedy, comedic characters (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not) and scathing satire of literary styles, politics, religion, psychology and basically every institution held dear by anyone, ever. The trick to reading Ulysses for the first time is to disregard its reputed complexity – it can be challenging in sections, but it is very readable for the most part - and prepare to laugh. Approaching Ulysses as a comic novel is key in enjoying a first reading.
There are a few things to know about Ulysses, to keep in the back of one’s mind, during a first reading. There is a relationship to Homer’s Odyssey, and familiarity with that story can be handy; however, for the most part, the relationships are very cerebral, often ironic, and can be hard to discern in some cases for the first-time reader. There is a Cyclops, there are sirens, there is an Odysseus and a Telemachus and a Penelope – but this isn’t some cheap gimmick or elbow-nudging reference where those schooled on Homer wink and smugly smile to each other whenever they get an allusion – there is some serious thought and consideration behind every link. For instance, the Cyclops of the Odyssey is transformed into the concept of violence, myopia, nationalism, blindness to reason and refusal of basic humanity. This is embodied in a man known as “The Citizen,” a Sinn Féin fanatic. However, this is only one of the ways in which the chapter refers to the Cyclops. This particular episode is told by a disembodied “I,” a narrator heretofore unknown, a crony of The Citizen’s. His subjective and opinionated perspective provides another facet of reference to the Cyclops. Each chapter is loaded with these sorts of references and more; however, it is not necessary to find them all during a first reading.
Secondly, knowledge of Joyce’s earlier works is beneficial to reading Ulysses. Not only does Ulysses contain characters from Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it follows thematically from both of them – from Dubliners in the sense of Dublin being a stagnant, paralyzed city with a cultural void and from Portrait in the sense of reaching for artistic heights as yet unknown, or as Stephen Dedalus says, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Joyce’s own style progresses in a fairly linear fashion. In Dubliners the style is epiphanaic, it revolves around epiphany, with a focus on the “paralyzation” of Dublin culture and the lives of Dubliners themselves. Portrait of the Artist is a more personalized book, focusing on the growth of the writer, his desire to create something new, his casting off of societal nets such as family, country and religion. The literary style in Portrait progresses as the protagonist grows and learns. It begins with a nursery story and ends with the style that is to dominate much of Ulysses – an allusive, confident and daring use of language.
Third, when a new style enters Ulysses, it is almost always done ironically, as satire. The novel’s first two chapters are extremely straight forward. One may need a dictionary, but the action is easy to follow and a great deal is established. The third chapter is where most people begin having trouble. Chapter three, known as the Proteus chapter, is a stream-of-consciousness outpouring of thoughts from Stephen Dedalus. Stephen is educated, literate and artistic, so his thoughts are complex. But Joyce is also poking fun at the erudite intellectual. Many agree Stephen is a Joyce avatar. This may be so, but if so, it is an incarnation of a younger Joyce, a writer far less confident, far more self-conscious. Joyce’s depiction of Stephen, as his depiction of most everything in Ulysses, is simultaneously satirical and sincere. He has an awareness of the pomposity and absurdity of Stephen’s intellectualism, but also feels an immense empathy for him as a character. Joyce goes on throughout the book to parody romance novels, plays, history books, medical journals, Anglo-Saxon folk tales and every other literary form imaginable. But this virtuosity is not mere showboating; it’s actually the opposite. It’s a deflation of forms that until the modernist era were held in high esteem as givens.
As mentioned above, there are tons of companion books to Ulysses. On a first reading, it is recommended not to use any of them. Trying to grasp the fullness of the novel on a first reading is a futile effort, regardless of how many other books you read about it. It contains a depth of riches that can only be plumbed by numerous re-readings, tackling the ancillary texts only after a first, casual reading.It shouldn’t be worrying to not get something if a particular phrase or idea seems impenetrable. It won’t impede the big picture understanding of the novel that comes from a first reading. Getting stuck can happen for some readers and some people simply prefer to have a guide of some kind just in case. For these people the book of choice is Stuart Gilbert’s concise yet thorough examination of Ulysses. This book contains all the information one needs to begin studying Ulysses, but it is not mandatory knowledge for a first reading.
The best thing to do is to dive in. Shake off expectations and reputation and take it in as it comes. There are serious parts to Ulysses and an intellectual content that keeps teams of scholars busy day in and day out. There are many levels at which this novel operates and by which it can be interpreted, but for first time readers enjoyment should be the primary concern.
For those who have read Ulysses, what other tips can you offer to those interested in reading it?
Mark Brendle is a writer living in Oregon. His short fiction is available on the web at http://brendlewords.blogspot.com