“Yes I said yes”: James Joyce’s Ulysses at 100
The first edition of Ulysses / Geoffrey Barker (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0).

On James Joyce’s 40th birthday, Sylvia Beach in Paris published his now most famous work, Ulysses, written in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris, 1914-1921. That was on February 2, 1922. Excerpts had appeared in the U.S. magazine The Little Review between 1918 and 1920. But deemed obscene, it was banned in the English-speaking world. The modernist novel immortalizes in its nearly one thousand pages a single day in Joyce’s home town of Dublin—June 16, 1904, the day he met Nora Barnacle, then a chambermaid from Galway, working in Dublin. Bloomsday, named after the main hero Leopold Bloom, has been celebrated in Dublin and the world over ever since Ulysses was published.

Joyce was born in 1882, the eldest of ten children, into a lower middle-class family in Dublin, which rapidly became impoverished due to his alcoholic and financially inept father. A turbulent youth was followed by language studies and first literary attempts, as well as efforts to gain a foothold in Paris. After the death of his mother in 1903, the family fell apart, and Joyce persuaded Nora to leave Ireland with him a few months after they met. Following their own odyssey, Joyce found employment teaching English mainly to naval officers in Pola, an Austro-Hungarian naval base, now Croatia. He gave up this post soon afterwards in favor of employment at the Berlitz language school in Trieste, in 1905. From Trieste (then Austro-Hungary), where by 1915 he was considered an enemy alien, as a British citizen, he moved to neutral Zurich. In 1920, the family moved to Paris, where they lived until 1940. After the invasion by the Wehrmacht, the Joyce family hoped to return to Zurich, but this was only possible in December 1940 after months of great effort. Joyce died just weeks later, on January 11, 1941.

At its most succinct, Ulysses is about how three characters, the advertising seller Leopold Bloom, the teacher Stephen Dedalus, and the singer Molly Bloom, spend the day. Stephen Dedalus teaches in the morning and gets paid for it; in the afternoon he attends a discussion at the National Library; in the evening he gets drunk and goes to a brothel. Leopold Bloom prepares breakfast for his wife, goes to a funeral, worries about selling an advertisement, wanders around town, and also ends up in a brothel. At night, Stephen and Leopold go to Bloom’s house together and have a drink. Then Stephen leaves and Bloom goes to bed. Molly, who had received her lover during the day, lies in bed thinking.

Joyce’s acquaintance with the Odyssey came via English translations based on the Latin version (Ulysses), hence this title. A thorough knowledge of Homer’s text is unnecessary to understand Joyce’s book. He alludes to the Homeric epic in the light of an archetype, a symbolic expression of human experience, and uses the contrast between a heroic past and an unheroic present ironically. The setting is dilapidated Dublin, Ulysses is not a king but an advertisement seller for a newspaper, and he returns home not to a loyal queen but to a woman he knows has cheated on him that day. Bloom is no Greek hero. He passively accepts Molly’s/Penelope’s infidelity. This puts both past and present into perspective. In addition to the Ulysses epic, other myths are invoked, that of the Wandering Jew (Bloom is a Hungarian Jew), the Eternal Feminine (Bloom is a man with many feminine qualities), as well as Jesus’s love of humanity (Joyce himself was an atheist).

Joyce’s image of Dublin paints a society in hopeless decay, exploited and ruined by the Catholic Church and the British Empire. There is a lack not only of heroism, but of productivity in general. There is hardly a worker in the book. Despite its setting in the colonial backyard of Britain, however, Joyce, writing in the years of World War I, creates the peaceful life 10 years before the outbreak of that war, in which three characters of the petty bourgeoisie simply go about their day. The plot remains set in the (partially impoverished) petty bourgeoisie.

One of the novel’s leitmotifs, Stephen’s refusal to pray at his mother’s deathbed, is related to his rejection of “The imperial British state…and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.” He rejects both England and colonial Ireland. Casualties of the Boer War are seen in the streets, as is the representative of the English Crown, Viceroy Dudley.

Taking Chapter 10 as an illustration, the opening and closing scenes with Father Conmee and the Viceroy not only add to the richness of the Dublin milieu, but also have symbolic significance: they represent the Church and the State, both of which Stephen refuses to obey. The chapter provides a cross-section of Dublin life between 3 and 4 p.m. Most of the episodes concern minor characters who appear in other episodes in the book. Father Conmee notices the stately smile on Mrs. McGuiness, who has in her pawnshop a large part of the Dedalus household; Dilly Dedalus meets her brother at a bookstall; a one-legged sailor is blessed by Father Conmee and receives money from a corpulent lady in the street as well as from Molly Bloom, who tosses a penny out of the window as she prepares for her lover Blazes Boylan’s visit. In the final section, the Viceroy makes his only appearance.

Random, unnamed characters such as the sandwich-board men who turn up throughout the book also make an appearance. There are references to the past and the future: the flushed young man Father Conmee sees emerging from a gap in the hedge with his girl will reappear as the medical student Vincent in the hospital scene; Stephen notices a “sailorman, rustbearded,” who will resurface late at night in the cabman’s shelter.

Seemingly unrelated phrases link this episode to others, at once evoking and reminding us that characters continue to exist in the background, even if they are not present at that moment. Thus, in the middle of Mulligan and Haines chatting over a snack and tea, there is a sentence about the one-legged sailor and the words “England expects….” There is more here than a mere reminder of the seemingly unrelated existence of the sailor hobbling down Nelson Street. It also points to the Viceroy. Thus, on the surface, a feeling of crowded Dublin life emerges in this chapter, and at the same time a sense that a reality exists independently of individual consciousness.

Joyce’s style is at pains to recreate the thought processes of the characters. Here Bloom leaves his house in the morning:

“On the doorstep he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there. In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have. Creaky wardrobe. No use disturbing her. She turned over sleepily that time. He pulled the halldoor to after him very quietly, more, till the footleaf dropped gently over the threshold, a limp lid. Looked shut. All right till I come back anyhow.” There is an unusual multi-layered interweaving of first and third person narration.

Etching of James Joyce by Josepha van den Anker, 2000. | Courtesy of Eric Gordon

The famous Molly soliloquy in the last chapter is different. By dispensing with punctuation altogether, Joyce attempts to reproduce actual stream of consciousness. The thoughts are now no longer interrupted by a third person narrator, but move into each other. The long soliloquy ends:

“O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around Him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

As well as ironizing the epic, the novel also contains humor, such as Bloom’s thoughts at the funeral:

“Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rusty pumps: damn the thing else. The resurrection and the life. Once you are dead you are dead. That last day idea. Knocking them all up out of their graves. Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job. Get up! Last day! Then every fellow mousing around for his liver and his lights and the rest of his traps.”

Anyone planning to tackle this work—which is, after all, Jeremy Corbyn’s favorite book—should read uninhibitedly and simply skip the passages that seem difficult on first reading.

Onward to Ulysses’ second century!


Jenny Farrell
Jenny Farrell

Dr. Jenny Farrell is a lecturer and writer living in Galway, Ireland. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare. She is an associate editor of Culture Matters and also writes for Socialist Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Ireland.