Having read Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and also Dubliners, I decided last summer to tackle his novel Ulysses, to which several literary associations have deemed the greatest twentieth century novel. Today's sophisticated younger reader may ponder the accolades professors and scholars have showered upon a novel that rambles for well over 700 pages, but there are significant reasons that I would like to briefly elucidate.
First, as many have pointed out this is a book of language, and specifically one that attempts to import all of English lexicon in order to examine where its vocabulary leads us and where we ultimately run up against road blocks. This monumental task had never been accomplished in the English language since the likes of Shakespeare and Chaucer.
Second, this is a novel of experimentation. A 19th century staple, the novel was overdue for an update that would capture the complexities and anxieties of the 20th century. For too long, the novel reflected a mathematical plot line divided evenly into clear physical events, which, frankly, failed to detail the organics of human thought and development. Ulysses does the unthinkable: Our thoughts and actions cannot be explained away by chronology;there is a real-time universal presence to them, as some would later read in Faulkner's works.
Third, there is an authentic examination of the individual. Reading his biography and Ireland's history, Joyce repeatedly hammers home the colossal battle between individuality and social conformity. In Ulysses, outside forces such as the Catholic church, parents, ignorance, politics, and peers attempt to squelch the voice of the individual by attempting to dictate what happiness and contentment are. It is through allusions to the mythological story of the Odyssey that our most heroic feat today is learning how our voice can Bloom in a world that too often expects us to conform.
Fourth, it is an honest, realistic story about life in general. Whether we want to admit it, much of life is spent within ourselves, as Joyce unearths through the three characters' streams of consciousness. We do talk to ourselves; our thoughts are random, not linear; we scrutinize ourselves hoping to make connections among scraps of thoughts that only we and God have access to. No novelist up to this point had created what amounted to a confessional that was unafraid of society's taboos and mores. Where else could a young modern reader, for example, read about a character's sexual acts in unadorned detail?
Finally, contrary to what critics have stated--i.e. several novelists of Joyce's age called the work a mess--there is a compelling story. At the time of its publication, virulent anti-semitism consumed not only colonized Ireland but the rest of the world. So enters our modern day Ulysses, Bloom, a baptized Jew who exhibits the attributes of Christ but is condemned by his society for alleged ancestral sins. And then there is poor Stephen, whose triumphant announcement to the world that he is an artist contrasts sharply with his doldrum existence, refusing to pray for his dying mother, rejecting his largely absent father, and holding a teaching position that is less than inspiring.
There's Molly, a singer by trade who is blazed into sleeping with a talent agent so that she can further her career and can also help provide for Bloom when money is tight. Molly and Bloom may be jovial in name, but underneath is the tragic loss of their infant son who managed to live only eleven days. To me, this is an unflinching look at real life. And yet, epiphanies still happen, and new friendships such as what Stephen and Bloom display provide us with what really matters most: love and acceptance. Bloom is the father who unconditionally accepts Stephen, and Stephen is the son Bloom has dreamed of since Stephen clearly needs guidance.
Many readers have pointed out that the traditional literary community has hailed Ulysses as the seminal novel of the twentieth century, and, therefore, today's reader must adhere to its proclamation. If Joyce were alive, I think he would be appalled simply because freedom of expression was his guiding principle. Joyce's main point is that the path toward freedom is not merely a straight line or even a winding one; rather, it is a confluence of thoughts, feelings, and relationships that eventually crystallize into an overarching personal epiphany. Ulysses certainly is a challenge, but then again so is life. Each day is worth a seven hundred page book--Joyce's merit is that he actually proved it.