Monday, May 17, 2010

What is Ulysses about?

James Joyce's Ulysses is a stylistically epic novel about a single day in Dublin, Ireland in 1904. Joyce experiments with every known literary style throughout this novel from Irish legends to children's primers from Dickensian prose to penny dreadful romance novels. In structure, Joyce mimics the heroic Greek tale of Odysseus. Each of the 18 chapters has a corresponding episode in the tale of Odysseus but Joyce's hero is Leopold Bloom, a middle class Irishman whose wife is having an affair. The story takes place on June 16, 1904 and covers the entirety of Leopold Bloom's day in Dublin from the frying of his morning breakfast to his drunken stumble into bed with a goodnight kiss to his wife's bottom.

Bloom is a turn of the century half Jewish Irish Bohemian with artistic inclinations, presently making a living selling newspaper advertisements. His wife Molly, a semi-professional singer is having an affair with her singing partner Blazes Boylan. His daughter Milly is away at photography camp. He knows his wife has a meeting with her lover that day so he stays away from the house all day and night. Molly and Bloom haven't slept together in ten years since their infant son Rudy died but he has a famously high libido and as a young man styled himself after Lord Byron.

Bloom's day starts by attending his friend, Paddy Dignam's funeral, he then runs around trying to get some work done, stops by the newspaper office, meets a few acquaintances along the way, sends a letter to his pen pal lover, has lunch, farts, is thrown out of a pub by the Citizen an anti-Semitic Irish nationalist, visits a friend's wife at the maternity hospital where he finally meets up with Stephen Dedalus, a young penniless poet with big ambitions and the third major character in the novel.

Stephen Dedalus actually opens Ulysses and in fact the first three chapters are devoted to him. The reading public first meets Stephen as the hero of James Joyce's novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In Ulysses, Stephen is a few years older. His mother recently died and as an atheist, he famously refused to pray at her deathbed. A recent graduate of University, he is attempting to establish himself as a writer. At present he is a school teacher and lives with his friend Buck Mulligan at the Martello Tower by the sea. The novel opens at the Tower and the first chapter ends with Stephen deciding not to live there so annoyed is he by his friend Mulligan and their houseguest Haines, a Brit obsessed with Irish culture. In chapter two, we see Stephen at school with his student and with an anti-semitic older teacher who asks his help in publishing a letter. Chapter Three is a monologue devoted entirely to Stephen. He and Molly are the only two characters to have a full chapter devoted to their stream of conscious thoughts.

Bloom is a father figure to Stephen. Stephen's own father, a gifted tenor, is an unemployed drunk responsible for the family's penury. They visit many of the same spots during the day, the newspaper, the beach, the streets of Dublin narrowly missing each other until they both find themselves at Holles Street Maternity Hospital in the evening. Together they get drunk and wander very late in the night into Nighttown, Dublin's red light district and into the whore house of Madame Bella Cohen. The episode is written through the drunken eyes of its two male leads.

Eventually, Bloom and Stephen make their way to Bloom's house, stopping to piss on the road together, but Stephen refuses Bloom's offer of shelter and heads out into the night as Bloom crawls into bed with Molly. The chapter describing the end of Bloom's day is written in question and answer format mimicking a Catholic Catechism. The final chapter is Molly's 8 sentence 3 hour monologue about her day, her life, her love for Bloom.

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