Friday, 5 November 2010

Seminar paper: James Joyce’s Ulysses

James Joyce was an Irish writer and poet born in 1822 in Dublin. He came from a modest background since his father was a terrible businessman. Joyce’s parents wanted their son to enter priesthood, but the author rejected religion in his teenage years. Joyce studied French, English and Italian at university. In 1902, he attempted to study medicine in Paris but quickly gave up because he could not understand French. He went back to Dublin, but soon after his mother’s death, he moved to Trieste (Italy). During these years, Joyce taught English, wrote Dubliners – which is a collection of fifteen short stories about the Irish middle class life. He never moved back to Ireland and died in Zurich in 1941.

The American literary magazine The Little Review serialised James Joyce's Ulysses from 1918. The journal published it until 1921, which is when the Post Office censored the magazine because its content was declared obscene.

Ulysses depicts an ordinary day in the life of Leopold Bloom, 16 June 1904. If it was not for Joyce trying to write a full and honest account of human consciousness, this novel would actually be an easy read. But unfortunately (for us) Joyce decided that he would make his work extremely difficult to understand - as he famously said: “I have put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.”

The novel’s title refers the Odysseus hero, Homer’s most famous work. Many elements in Ulysses have a link with the Odysseus, including characters and chapters’ titles.

The book is divided in eighteen chapters, this is as far as the structure goes. Any kind of structure within the chapters appears to be non existent, as the author often used a stream-of-consciousness technique. This is a particular narrative mode that goes trough a character's thought, whether coherent or not.

Joyce went very far into describing every detail of human life. Maybe too far sometimes – do we need to read a book that describes what we experience every day as human beings?

“He allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read [...] Ah! Costive one tabloid of cascara sagrada [...] Print anything now. Silly reason. He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell.”

Since not many authors tried to describe life as it is before Joyce did, his book is very interesting from a literate point of view. The way he described the characters' thoughts in short sentences is quite disconcerting at first:

“Mr Bloom glanced from his angry moustache to Mr Power's mild face and Martin Cunningham's eyes and beard, gravely shaking. Noisy selfwilled man. Full of his son. He is right. Something to hand on. If little Rudy had lived. See him grow up.”

This succession of short sentences shows how we inwardly think. There is no structure, no proper sentences, only non elaborated thoughts and feeling.

Chapter 15: Circe

I haven't found anything that explains why chapter fifteen was named Circe. Circe is a goddess of magic in Greek mythology. The myth says that she gave a magical potion to her enemies in order to transform them into animals. Since chapter fifteen relates drunken events and hallucinations, my guess is that the magical potion here in the novel is alcohol, and that Circe is personified by Bella Cohen, the owner of the brothel.

Joyce used different styles of narrative throughout the novel. Surprisingly, this chapter takes the form of a play script.

Stephen, Lynn and Bloom go to a brothel. Bloom is very drunk, and most of the chapter relates his hallucinations. This makes Circe one of the most Freudian part in the whole novel. Everything in his hallucinations could be analysed from a Freudian point of view.

Let's take an example: Bloom's dead child appears. Here Freud would simply say that Bloom has a strong desire to resuscitate his son.

In another hallucination, Bloom has an hallucination where he's facing a trial, being accused of forgery and bigamy. Here, Freud would probably say that even though Bloom is an honest person, his Id confronts him to his worst fears through his hallucinations. In the early twentieth century, anti-Semitism was growing, and Bloom being Jewish, he unconsciously feared that he would be persecuted at some point because of his religion.

The chapter also depicts how stupid drunken men can be. Stephen smashes a chandelier with a walking stick, gets in an argument with a soldier for insulting the King, and finally get knocked down.

The whole chapter seems to be written in a drunken way. Once again there is no structure, but this reflects the story. The style is messy and not coherent, but it is very visual as well. The reader can imagine the scene happening as he reads.

My personal opinion is that Joyce has clearly succeeded in depicting human consciousness, but personally I don't know whether it is enjoyable from an entertainment point of view to read a book that relates ordinary events.


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