Book Review: Ulysses by James Joyce

Anya R-G.

Ulysses is a modern interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey, in which the reader follows our hero, Leopold Bloom, through the trials of a single day in Dublin.

James Joyce uses a surfeit of various writing styles and lexicons to convey the atmosphere of each of eighteen “episodes” in Ulysses, which correspond to events in the Odyssey.  The writing styles vary from a play-like script, complete with stage directions, to a continuous train of thought without punctuation and very few paragraph breaks, to narration by an unnamed individual.  Joyce even writes one episode beginning with a literal translation of early Latin prose, and then shifts the writing every few paragraphs to imitate dozens of literary works, moving from past to present, and ending in jumbled Dublin slang.

The plot of Ulysses follows both Bloom and a younger man, Stephen Dedalus, who Joyce uses to represent himself.  In this way, Joyce accompanies his characters and stitches himself into Bloom’s world.  Throughout the course of Ulysses, Bloom and Stephen go from being distant acquaintances to serving as surrogate father and son (Stephen is Joyce’s version of Telemachus, son of Odysseus).  This is the only significant change in the character of either man.  Both have their flaws, however.  These flaws, including overconfidence and arrogance in Stephen and infidelity (and possibly chronic party-pooperism) in Bloom, often cause the characters to be difficult to relate to.  The character of Leopold Bloom has flaws just like any other human, and is   far from the most clever character in Ulysses.  Readers are enveloped in the thoughts of Bloom, some benign and logical, others malignant and irrational.  It is Bloom’s deep, underlying humanity which draws the reader in.

The analogies in Ulysses are practically endless.  Joyce seamlessly weaves correspondence with his own life, analogies to political events of the time, and similarities of his writing styles to past literary works into his novel, which in its entirety appears as a parallel to the Odyssey.  Not only does he manage this feat with seeming ease, but he manages to sprinkle an abundance of comic relief on just about every page of the book.  Sometimes the comedy appears in the form of a “class clown” character, Buck Mulligan.  Other times it’s just a single phrase, a reference to a previous line in the book, which brings joy to the reader.  Sarcasm, irony, and pure stupidity (such as when a sleepy, drunken Bloom hallucinates a trial in which he is announced pregnant, to which he proclaims “O, I so want to be a mother.”) are also used by Joyce, allowing readers of just about any sense of humor to thoroughly enjoy the story.

Comic relief is often necessary due to the burden life has placed on Bloom’s shoulders.  Possibly the most alarming aspect of this book is the extramarital affair perpetrated by Bloom’s wife, Molly.  Bloom recognizes that she is having an affair, is aware of the man she is having it with, knows the time and place they will meet, and yet does nothing about it.  The misery and humiliation this knowledge causes him is apparent throughout the novel, and yet he continues his life as though he can’t do anything about it.  This reflects both the time period in which the book was published (divorces were uncommon) and Bloom’s passive tendencies.  Perhaps the most important thing it reflects, though, is the key difference between Bloom and Odysseus.  Bloom is no hero.  He fails to defeat his “Penelope’s” suitors and regain the hand of his love.

Bloom, as he undergoes the trials of the day, seems to be experiencing pains rare to his daily life, yet as the reader nears the end of the novel, it becomes clear that Bloom lives through these ordeals often.  The reader comes to know Bloom, through his thoughts and actions of one day, better than perhaps any other character in literature to this day.  His odyssey through Dublin seems to reveal every aspect of his life and personality, positive and negative alike.  Nearing the final few pages of the 783-page day, the reader is forced to realize that this was all just a day.  One day.  And that is the true meaning of Ulysses.  The challenges we face every day might seem to stretch on forever, an odyssey in themselves, yet each and every day is just a short episode in our odyssey of life, and each and every day we will continue living, just like the last, until we live no more.

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