It’s the month of June and in Dublin on June 16th there’s a yearly celebration called Bloomsday that honours the enigmatic novel Ulysses written by James Joyce. Many consider it to be the greatest work of fiction of the 20th century. I’ve been to my hometown of Dublin many times for Bloomsday and the carnival atmosphere and street theatre makes for an intriguing day. It’s also a lot of fun to be around the city on that day as so many people get into the festive mood by dressing up in Edwardian clothes as a way of participating in the occasion.
Although Joyce lived most of his adult life on the European continent, after his own self-imposed ‘exile’ from Ireland, he set his epoch-making novel in Dublin, the city of his birth. The entire action in the book takes place on just one day, June 16th 1904. This date has gone into literary history and is known as Bloomsday after the hero of the novel, Leopold Bloom. The choice of the date for the novel’s setting was no arbitrary selection. The young James Joyce first met Nora Barnacle on June 10th 1904 on a Dublin Street and their first date was a few days later on June 16th – Joyce set his great work on that day as a tribute to Nora and the important role she played in his life. Joyce left Ireland in October 1904 with Nora and they eventually settled in Trieste, Italy. They lived together as husband and wife but did not formally marry until 1931 and then only because Joyce was concerned that Nora and their two children would have problems inheriting his copyright.
Ulysses is a tricky and difficult novel to read, which probably accounts for it being sometimes referred to as the great unread novel of the 20th century. I’ve lectured and taught courses on it and can attest to the challenge it often presents to interested readers and students. Many readers give up after an initial effort. That’s a pity really because the novel is actually laced with witty characters and comic scenes. It’s also a celebration of the fluidity and richness of Hiberno-English. Ulysses is full of puzzles, symbols, enigmatic Irish historic references, meanderings and a host of other ambiguities that can bewilder and frustrate the reader. But all this is not an arbitrary occurrence either. Joyce planned it that way. He said of his novel:
“I have put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”
Yet even though the novel itself is a complicated, complex work Ulysses at its core is a very simple tome about love and human commitment – both to each other on a personal level and to the wider community in which we live. Joyce was actually a very sentimental man and his work reflects this. In a scene in Barney Kiernan’s pub Bloom declares that love should be at the centre of the human experience. Bloom explains his philosophy in this way:
“It’s no use force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it is the very opposite of that that is really life.
What? Says Alf.
Love, says Bloom, the opposite of hatred.”
The popular contemporary sentimental ballad, Love’s Old Sweet Song, is a recurrent theme throughout the book. The song is mentioned several times in the novel and has been called the theme song of Ulysses.
Ulysses broke new ground when it was published in that it was not like the prevailing traditional novels that followed a story line about characters over a period of time and followed them throughout their many experiences and life changes. Although there are many divergent strands in the novel the central theme is organized around one day in the life of the main character, Leopold Bloom, as he strolls and meanders around Dublin encountering friends and foe alike. Joyce highlights many inner thoughts and seemingly small commonplace details in his characterisation of Bloom. The amount of meticulous minutiae, both in inner thoughts and casual observations by Bloom as he journeys around Dublin can sometimes be a challenge to read but as Joyce explained to his brother Stanislaus: “It is my idea of the significance of trivial things that I want to give the two or three unfortunate wretches who may eventually read me”. In a similar observation Oscar Wilde once said: “One’s real life is very often the life one does not lead”. In other words, our inner world of our own thoughts, imaginings and memories are often more real to us than the physical world we occupy. This inner world of private thoughts and memories is highlighted in Ulysses and used as a tool to develop our knowledge and understanding of the main characters. Once the reader masters the concept of the importance of what can appear to be trivial in everyday fleeting thoughts and associations, it makes the novel a really fascinating read.
In Dublin there are guided walks that trace the footsteps of Leopold Bloom on his odyssey around the city. There are also brass plaques placed on the pavement in the streets that recall Bloom’s fictional journey. On Bloomsday itself there are readings throughout the city and scenes from the novel are re-enacted at some of the sites that the novel is set in. But all fall short of the tangible characters that Joyce gives us in Ulysses. The novel should be read to be truly appreciated. Bloom is a father figure, a good father who is loyal and responsible to all those in his life. Joyce created him Jewish so as to make him somewhat of an outside observer of the society he lives in yet, as the reader realises, Bloom is no outsider. He is the quintessential Dubliner. Bloom is a representative of Joyce in his older years as he views Dublin from his exile. The younger character Stephen Dedalus – who appears early in the novel – represents the young Joyce when he lived in Dublin. Their relationship is where some of the symbolic complexity enters. In an early chapter Stephen is walking on the beach at Sandymount Strand close to Dublin city and contemplating the words of the Nicene Creed. He repeats the line “consubstantial with the Father” and this is the subtle clue to his relationship with Bloom. They are the same person in that they represent the younger and older Joyce while also symbolically relating as father and son.
Yet for all the importance of the father son theme in the novel Joyce gives the last words to Bloom’s wife, Molly Bloom. Her words, delivered as a long unpunctuated soliloquy, loom large in the closing pages of the book. At the end of the day husband and wife are united in their marital home and their marital bed. Molly’s soliloquy is Joyce’s final affirmation of the importance of human life and love and he gives this critical declaration to her. In rejecting the shallowness of her lover Blazes Boylan in favour of the world of her home and husband, she shows herself to be a wise and thoughtful woman in need of a more durable bond. Molly’s words are an affirmation of commitment to life and love as she utters the final words in the novel that Joyce uses as a universal declaration – “Yes I said Yes I will Yes”.