James Joyce’s Ulysses: Remixing The Homeric Myth

From the lecture series: Joyce’s Ulysses

By James A. W. Heffernan, PhD, Dartmouth College

James Joyce’s Ulysses is a masterwork that has become a giant in the world of modern literature for two main reasons: its tumultuous history and its intricate link with a classic of ancient Greek literature.

Bloomsday image. Celebration of James Joyce
(Image: BeataGFX/Shutterstock)
photograph of James Joyce, author of Ulysses
James Joyce, the Irish Author (Image: By Alex_Ehrenzweig/Public domain)

Ulysses is a book famous for its obscurity. Joyce himself said of it, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant. That’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.”

Professorial arguments over what Joyce meant are unlikely to help you as you work your way through this book. Our chief aim is to see that, despite its reputation for obscurity, Ulysses is one of the most vitally human books ever written: It is a novel of flesh and blood, and pain and passion, and music and laughter; a great symphony of human voices.

A Work of Inconceivable “Foulness”

When Ulysses was first published in Paris in 1922, it sparked a blaze of arguments because of its obscenity, for which it was banned in America until 1933. Some critics saw Ulysses as nothing but a gigantic cesspool. Alfred Noyes, a noted English poet and professor of poetry, spoke about Ulysses before the Royal Society of Literature. “There is,” he reportedly declared, “no foulness conceivable to the mind of madman or ape that has not been poured into its imbecile pages.” The foulness of Joyce’s language supposedly proved that he was monstrously ill-bred.

Picture of first edition of Joyce's Ulysses.
Ulysses was first published in Paris in 1922. (Image: By James Joyce/Public domain)

The foulness of Joyce’s language supposedly proved that he was monstrously ill-bred.

George Moore, an Irish writer much older than Joyce, talking about Ulysses shortly after it appeared, said, “How can one plow through such stuff? I’ve read a little here and there, but, oh my God, how bored I got! Probably Joyce thinks that because he prints all the dirty little words, he is a great novelist. Joyce, Joyce, why he’s nobody! From a Dublin ox. No family. No breeding.” No family, no breeding. Just genius.

This is a transcript from the video series Joyce’s Ulysses. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

Three Early Champions for Ulysses

Scarcely a month after Ulysses first appeared, Ernest Hemingway wrote to Sherwood Anderson, “Joyce has the most goddamned wonderful book.”

For if Joyce’s novel repels some of its earlier readers, it captivated and dazzled others. Its most fervent champions included three notable Americans. Scarcely a month after Ulysses first appeared, Ernest Hemingway wrote to Sherwood Anderson, “Joyce has the most goddamned wonderful book.”

Ezra Pound photographed in 1913 by Alvin Langdon Coburn
Ezra Pound, the American poet and critic, was an early supporter of Joyce’s Ulysses. (Image: By Alvin Langdon Coburn/Public domain)

Likewise spoke Ezra Pound, the fiercely iconoclastic poet and critic who had made himself the very voice of Modernism. Pound turned right on its head the charge that Joyce was underbred. “All men,” he wrote, “should unite to give praise to Ulysses. Those who will not may content themselves with a place in the lower intellectual borders.”

Not long after, in the first major critical essay on Ulysses, T. S. Eliot wrote, “I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found. It is the book to which we are all indebted and from which none of us can escape.” Eliot then went on to say precisely why he thought Ulysses important. “Joyce,” he wrote, “had made the novel obsolete by replacing the narrative method with the mythical method.”

Learn more about Joyce’s short story technique in Dubliners

Parallels Between Mythic and Modern Worlds

Instead of telling a story from a particular and consistent point of view, as 19th-century novelists had done, “Joyce,” said Eliot, “manipulates a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity.” That is, between life in early 20th-century Dublin and the mythic episodes of Homer’s ancient epic, the Odyssey. “In Ulysses,” said Eliot, “Joyce used ancient myth as a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”

Learn more about Joyce’s great masterpiece, Ulysses

A Single Day in June

Ulysses tells the story of what takes place in Dublin on a single day: June 16, 1904, a day that has come to be known as Bloomsday. It’s called Bloomsday because it revolves around the life of the character named Leopold Bloom. Bloom is one of three main characters in this novel—three of the most fascinating characters ever put on a page.

Bloomsday, is also the day on which Joyce had his very first date with Nora Barnacle, who shortly eloped with him to the continent…

Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom are the three chief characters. Ulysses tells the story of what they do, feel, think, imagine, and fantasize about in Dublin on this single day in June. This day, Bloomsday, is also the day on which Joyce had his first date with Nora Barnacle, who shortly eloped with him to the continent and then lived with him for the rest of his life.

Where can we find, in these three Dubliners, the reanimated souls of their Homeric originals? It’s impossible to answer that question all at once, but let’s start by remembering that Joyce’s Ulysses squeezes the story of Homer’s Odyssey down to a single day: Bloomsday.

Learn more about what Joyce perceived as the paralysis of Dublin

Bloomsday Begins

Leopold Bloom leaves his house and his wife in the morning, wanders the streets of Dublin, survives many adventures, bears witness to death and birth, withstands both temptation and menace, outwits an obnoxious drunkard, finds in young Stephen Dedalus a surrogate son, and at last returns to his house and the bed of his wife, even though he knows that another man has invaded both of them during his absence. To know just that much about Joyce’s Ulysses is to begin to see how it re-creates Homer’s Odyssey.

Examining the novel further, as you follow the footsteps of Bloom and Stephen as they make their way through Dublin on Bloomsday, you can use Homer’s epic as a guide to their movements, chapter by chapter, even as we try to see all the new steps they take to the incomparable music of Joyce’s language. Using this tool, we can open the door to his world, to the thoughts, feelings, and fantasies of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly, as they drink up the myriad sites and infinitely various sounds of Dublin. Joyce brings the city to life—a rich and pulsingly vital human city of words. Don’t be afraid. Turn the key, swing open the gate and step out onto the sunlit terrace of a tower overlooking the sea, for that is where chapter one begins.

Learn more about Joyce’s first novel

Common Questions About James Joyce’s Ulysses

Q: Is James Joyce’s Ulysses worth reading?

Yes. James Joyce’s Ulysses is an epic work about memory, human logic, thinking and the moves we make in day-to-day life reflected in the minds and memories of the characters.

Q: Is Ulysses important in popular times?

Ulysses is the most written-about book since the Bible and therefore imbedded in popular culture in many ways.

Q: How long did James Joyce’s Ulysses take to write?

James Joyce wrote Ulysses between 1914 and 1922, over roughly eight years.

Q: What killed James Joyce?

James Joyce was killed by a perforated ulcer after many operations.

This article was updated on August 20, 2020

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