James Joyce’s Ulysses

James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is widely regarded as the greatest novel written in English in the twentieth century. It retells Homer’s Odyssey in the context of a single day—June 16, 1904—in Dublin, Ireland, recasting Homer’s great hero Odysseus in the unlikely guise of Leopold Bloom, an aging, cuckolded ad salesman who spends the day running errands and making various business appointments before he returns home at long last.

Though Bloom seems unassuming and ordinary, he emerges as a heroic figure, displaying compassion, forgiveness, and generosity toward virtually everyone in the odd cast of characters he meets. In his mundane and often unnoticed deeds, he practices an everyday heroism that is perhaps the only heroism possible in the modern world. And despite the fact that he always feels like an outsider—he is a Jew in overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland—Bloom remains optimistic and dismisses his insecurities.

Ulysses is celebrated for its incredibly rich portraits of characters, its mindboggling array of allusions to other literary and cultural works, and its many innovations with language. Throughout the course of the novel, Joyce flirts with literary genres and forms ranging from drama to advertising copy to Old English. The novel is perhaps most famous for its extensive use of stream-of-consciousness narrative—Joyce’s attempt to render the inner thoughts of his characters exactly as they occur, with no effort to impose order or organization. This technique became a hallmark of modernist literature and influenced countless other writers, such as Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, who also experimented with it in their works

Not surprisingly, Ulysses poses a difficult journey for the reader, especially its famous last chapter, which recounts the thoughts of Bloom’s wife, Molly. Molly’s reverie goes on for more than 24,000 words yet is divided into only eight  mammoth sentences. Despite the challenge it poses, the chapter shows Joyce at his most lyrical, especially in the final lines, which reaffirm Molly’s love for her husband despite her infidelity:

…and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

 
 
 

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