Ulysses by James Joyce has a reputation of being impenetrable and impossible, but there is a way to make it easier to understand, and appreciate, what is considered one of the best novels ever written
Ulysses is one of the most exceptional and outstanding novels ever written in the English language. Its author, James Joyce, declared that he had put so many enigmas and puzzles into it that it would keep professors busy for centuries arguing over what he meant. Ulysses was published on February 2, 1922, so the first century has just passed.
I first read the great novel when I was 17. English was my favourite subject at school and I spent many spare hours reading The Pilgrim’s Progress, Moby Dick and such like. I was enraptured by Ulysses. I probably only understood about a third of it, but I realised at the time that it was an exceptional piece of writing. And over the years, I’ve continued to learn more and more about it.
It took James Joyce seven years to write Ulysses. That’s a long time, and therefore you’d expect it to be a long, rambling epic about extraordinary characters, heroic deeds, plots and sub-plots, probably spanning years, decades and maybe even centuries. Well, it’s not like that at all. Actually, there’s nothing particularly special about any of its characters; and nothing particularly dramatic or sensational happens anywhere in the novel.
Ulysses is just about ordinary people going about their ordinary everyday lives on a very ordinary day. And that’s one of the things that makes Ulysses so exceptional. Sounds boring? Believe me, it certainly isn’t. And I guarantee that you’ll discover that for yourself as you start turning the pages.
Believe it or not, all of the ‘action’ in the book takes place within a period of about 19 hours, between 8am on June 16, 1904 and 2.30am on June 17. Joyce had a very specific reason for picking that date — it was the day that he first walked out with Nora Barnacle, the Galway woman who would eventually become his wife and with whom he would have two children.
Why do so many people abandon Ulysses after a couple of dozen pages? Why does it have a reputation for being impenetrable and impossible? Well, there are several aspects of Ulysses which can be challenging for readers, but the main one is Joyce’s use of a writing technique known as the ‘stream of consciousness’.
Also known as ‘internal monologues’, these are all over the place in Ulysses. If you don’t understand what they are and how they work, you’ll probably abandon the book after a couple of dozen pages; just like so many millions of other people down through the years.
So what are streams of consciousness? Very simple. They are your thoughts. When Joyce wrote Ulysses, not only did he write the usual narrative and dialogue found in every novel, he also included the innermost thoughts of some of the characters as they move through their day.
Joyce threw in these streams of consciousness at the very moment they occurred in the character’s head — anything from a fleeting thought to a long-winded ramble; in the middle of narrative; in the middle of dialogue; without any warning. Added to that is the lack of punctuation. The dialogue isn’t encased in standard quotation marks and the streams of consciousness are not differentiated in any way from the narrative and dialogue — they just appear on the page out of nowhere.
This makes the text very difficult to follow and means that the average reader has to study the text, rather than just read it. Too much of a head-wreck for most people.
And if that’s not enough, half the time these streams of consciousness bear little or no relationship with whatever’s going on in the particular scene. Why is that? Because our thoughts are rarely focussed on the here and now. Our thoughts are constantly rambling around in our heads, non-stop, getting in the way of what we’re doing. Did I lock the door when I left the house this morning? Why have I got a headache? Is it going to rain etc, etc.
This is where most people fall down with Ulysses. What happens is this: you’re reading along — a nice piece of narrative or a nice dialogue sequence — and everything is making sense to you; and then suddenly, out of the blue, you find that you’re reading words that don’t make any sense to you and don’t appear to have any relationship with the sentences around them.
So you start looking over the last few paragraphs thinking, I must have missed something. But when you go back a bit you don’t find any clues. And you read the words again. And they still don’t make any sense to you. And when this happens to you a couple of dozen times there’s every chance that you’ll throw the book aside thinking, they were right. Ulysses is impossible! I’ve no idea what’s going on or who’s doing what!
So let’s think about ‘thoughts’ for a moment. Very few of our thoughts are what you might call structured. Most of the time they’re instantaneous; a lot of the time they probably wouldn’t make sense to anyone but ourselves; and they don’t come along neatly arranged in proper sentences with proper grammar and a beginning and end. No, most of the time they just flash into our heads out of nowhere, and are gone in an instant.
That’s also the way it is in Ulysses. With most editions of Ulysses there’s no indicator on the page to let you know that you’ve entered one of the characters’ streams of consciousness. They just appear out of nowhere, as they do in real life. And it’s left up to you to detect the exact words that make up the particular stream of consciousness, to separate them from the remainder of the sentence or paragraph and then to make sense of it all.
To give you an example, let’s take Episode One of Ulysses, where Stephen Dedalus and his friend Buck Mulligan are sparring off each other in the Sandycove Martello Tower. This episode is written in a narrative style, similar to most novels. Here’s the problem: you’re half-way down the first page and everything’s going well, and you’re thinking to yourself, this is quite straightforward; I don’t know how people find it so difficult!
Then, suddenly, you come across a word that doesn’t seem to fit in with what’s going on around it: ‘Chrysostomos’. Who or what is Chrysostomos and what is it doing there? Welcome to your first experience of a stream of consciousness in Ulysses. And, unfortunately, this is not an easy or straightforward one. Joyce isn’t doing you any favours here!
So what’s happening? If you look at the sentence immediately before ‘Chrysostomos’ you’ll see that Buck Mulligan has ‘even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points’. Stephen Dedalus is looking at Mulligan’s gold-capped teeth and a thought suddenly comes into his head: ‘Chrysostomos’.
This is a reference to two historical figures — Dion Chrysostomos and St John Chrysostomos who were both associated with the reputation of being ‘gold-mouthed’. Stephen, when he’s thinking ‘Chrysostomos’ is looking at Mulligan and either reflecting on his gold-capped teeth or the fact that he has such an easy gift of the gab (silver-tongued). So you see how complex Stephen’s thoughts can be; and also how convoluted some of his streams of consciousness can be.
But there’s no need to panic — if you don’t know the reference to Chrysostomos it actually doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t affect the flow of the story or the action in the book. It just illustrates that Stephen knows a lot of things about a lot of things.
I believe that it was Joyce’s intention that you shouldn’t understand every reference in the streams of consciousness. After all, when you end up in a character’s mind you’re there as a gate-crasher; an uninvited guest. The characters are certainly not going to explain their thoughts to you. They don’t even know you’re there.
It’s straightforward enough once you get into it. It’s great fun; at times it’s exciting and it gives you the opportunity to really get inside some of the characters’ heads, much more so than you ever would in any other novel.
Unfortunately, another problem with Ulysses is that you’re thrown in the deep end from the very beginning. This is because the first three episodes mainly concern Dedalus. You don’t meet Leopold Bloom, the character who dominates the rest of the novel, until Episode Four. The main reason for this is that the character of Ulysses doesn’t appear in Homer’s story until Book Five of Odyssey; the first four parts are about Telemachus setting out in search of his father. So, as Joyce is mirroring his story with that of the Odyssey, the first three episodes of Ulysses focus on Stephen.
I suspect that most readers abandon Ulysses before they ever get to meet Leopold Bloom, which is a pity. But, I can fully understand why. To me, one of the most difficult and frustrating characteristics of Ulysses is Stephen’s dialogue and thoughts. Between his classical references, foreign language phrases, obscure quotations and quirky thought processes, you’ll most likely at times find it very difficult, if not impossible, to understand what he’s saying, what he’s referring to, or what’s going on in his head.
You’ll also find now and again that Stephen invents ‘scenarios’ in his head and they find their way into his stream of consciousness and end up on the pages of Ulysses. If you don’t understand most of what Stephen is thinking about you won’t be alone. As the day unfolds in Ulysses, you’ll notice that other people don’t understand him either. Don’t give up now — things will ease up for you, and the fun will start when you meet Leopold Bloom!
Did Joyce realise the difficulties and frustrations he was creating for the ordinary reader? I don’t know. Certainly, from what I know about his life and commentaries, he expected that every English speaking person would read Ulysses, particularly Irish people. He was very disappointed when he realised that this wasn’t going to happen.
Too many of my friends over the years have abandoned Ulysses, having managed to tackle only a couple of dozen pages, and when the subject comes up in conversation I can sense their frustration. These friends would have no difficulty tackling Shakespeare, Yeats, Dickens, etc. So, I decided to type out the first episode of Ulysses — exactly as Joyce wrote it — but setting all of the streams of consciousness in italics and adding quotation marks to the dialogue. I didn’t change a single word, but I also adjusted some of the punctuation to render the text, in my opinion, more readable.
Before I had finished that little task I decided: in for a penny, in for a pound — let’s do this for the entire novel. And my book Ulysses Remastered was born. There were about 30 pages of guidelines for reading in the original edition. The new edition, Ulysses Remastered Centenary Edition, has over 100 pages of guidelines. So, there’s no excuse now for people not to read, understand and enjoy Joyce’s great novel.
To me, Ulysses is a masterpiece, a work of genius, a masterclass in the craftsmanship of the English language. And it’s also very funny, full of comical situations, quirky characters, and passionate, wild and outlandish thoughts.
‘Ulysses Remastered Centenary Edition’ by Robert Gogan is in bookshops now