Dear reader, if you have continued to this point in the journey then I will work
under the assumption that I have not yet talked you out of embarking upon the
ultimate literary adventure of Ulysses. If you are in fact still seriously considering (if not fully committed to)
reading Ulysses and are simply waiting for my last installment before you get started (that
means you, Jesse), then welcome to the final leg of the preparatory expedition.
You may consider this the ferry ride to Hades and I your Charon. Or, should you
prefer a more upbeat metaphor, in closer keeping with the text: you may
consider me the goddess Athena in the guise of Mentor assisting you, young
Telemachus, in the gathering of provisions to outfit your ship preceding the
search of your long absent father, Odysseus. In any event the goal here is to
get you on your way with at least a compass, machete and a reasonable ration of
fresh water (or perhaps a flask of wine). Tied metaphors be damned, onward.
As I have stated in these pages (screens?) before, I am not an expert on Ulysses or James Joyce, and what I don’t know about the former and latter fills large sections of large libraries. That
said, if you have not read Ulysses before, or even if you have but have only read it in a surface manner and
non-critically, chances are I know a fair amount more about this text than you,
and I would like to impart the sparse but (I believe) useful wisdom of my
experience. Truth be told there isn’t a whole lot to tell you, but what there is to tell will hopefully save you a
little time and a lot of frustration, although I confess that frustration is an
essential part of the enjoyment of the text, but there’s more than enough of that to around. As I shared in the first section of this
trilogy, Viva Bloomsday – The Ulysses Sage, Part I, I came to
Ulysses in skepticism and complete ignorance and had to make my way through the text
naked and unaided (I’m not braggin’ here, just sayin’); thus I figured it out as I went along and, not being a quick study, I
experienced my fair share of confusion and vertigo.
The first big hurdle in reading Ulysses is unraveling the points of narration, or the Who Is Saying What, When. Joyce
incorporates three main points of narration: third person omniscient, first
person interior, and direct address between characters. These three narrative
styles are consistent throughout the book, but there is a fourth that finds its
way into Episode 12 (Cyclops) which I can only describe as interrupted or
usurped third person narrative. In this particular episode the over-narration
or third person account of the story is repeatedly wrested away from the main
narrator by various forces unknown to the reader, and a new, usually
fantastical narrative spin is put on the events at hand. Knowing this in
advance would have been very helpful for me as a first time reader. I warn you
so that you are not ambushed by this eventuality. By the way, Cyclops, largely
because of this unique narrative innovation, is one of the funniest sustained
pieces of writing I have ever read.
Back to the main narrative points: We can begin with third person since it is
the most straightforward. Joyce’s third person operates like any third person: a voice disconnected from the
action, but in the know, describes what is happening. Pretty simple, right?
Right. Not a trick question. It is as it seems. But, third person narration
becomes very confusing with the introduction of first person internal
monologue. This is where the thoughts of characters are presented to us on the
page as text, unmarked by a third person pre or post clarifier such as he
thought to himself. For example, on the very first page of
Ulysses we encounter a simple instance of this with the word ‘Chrysostomos’ as in,
“He peered sideways up and gave a long low whistle of call, then paused awhile in
attention, his even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points.
strong shrill whistles answered through the calm.”
This appears on the surface to be a perfectly straightforward third person
account, but what is that ‘Chrysostomos?’ Chrysostomos is the fleeting thought that Stephen Dedalus has as he peers at
the glistening gold points on the teeth of his flat mate Buck Mulligan. This
single word thought is a prime example of how Joyce uses interior monologue,
inserting it undifferentiated into the general narrative. Interior monologue is
extremely important not only because it gives us an intimate portrait of the
characters, but because Joyce can imply or impart a great deal of information
economically thorough this method. Joannes Chrysostomos (AD 347-407), the
archbishop of Constantinople, was known for his ‘golden-mouthed oratory,’ i.e. he was a skilled and persuasive speaker, but he was also accused of
treason and ultimately exiled. Joyce, in making this link between Buck Mulligan
and Chrysostomos in Stephen’s mind, is establishing Stephen’s attitude toward Mulligan. Certain themes will emerge that give more meaning to
that initial internal monologue that Joyce bothered to share with the reader.
The point I want to drive home, however, is that Joyce’s method of incorporating internal monologue is confusing for the reader because
nothing differentiates internal narrative from the third person narrative, and
you, dear reader, must be on constant guard for this as Joyce weaves the two
methods indiscriminately throughout the text to the extent that it is not
always clear if we are reading thoughts of characters or third person accounts.
This becomes particularly true of Leopold Bloom who narrates much of his own
day’s journey in his mind.
To put a fine point on this topic I will refer you to Episode Three (Proteus),
an episode dominated by Stephen Dedalus’ stream of conscious, interior monologue. In the Proteus episode, beginning at
line 1891 in the online Ulysses Concordance (which I highly recommend
bookmarking, http://www.doc.ic.ac.uk/~rac101/concord/texts/ulysses/) or in the
corresponding part in your hard copy text, you will find a very confusing
internal monologue which reads like a third person account of a real time
dialogue between characters. If you read it as a dialogue you will wonder, in
your own internal monologue, How in the hell did I get from the beach to this
house with these people?, but don’t be fooled! What you are reading are the thoughts of Stephen Dedalus as he
imagines how this interaction would likely play out. In other words Stephen,
and, by extension, we as readers, have never left our wanderings on the strand,
we are simply partaking in Stephen’s interior narrative.
This brings us to the third narrative point of intra-character dialogue. This is
simply two or more people engaging in conversation. Like third person narrative
this is pretty straightforward; the only thing to get used to here is the fact
that Joyce marks his dialogues with hyphens, and that he splits character’s spoken words with third person clarifiers:
- He was raving all night about a black panther, Stephen said. Where is his
- A woeful lunatic, Mulligan said. Were you in a funk?
Thus we see ‘Stephen said’ and ‘Mulligan said’ occurring in the middle of direct character quotes from those characters.
Stephen didn’t say ‘where is his guncase’ as may be interpreted, he was quoting the raving lunatic of whom he was
speaking. And obviously Stephen didn’t say ‘Stephen said’ in the middle of his own remark, so we quickly figure out that these are third
person markers or clarifiers. A bit confusing but you get used to them quickly.
The last thing to be alert for in reading intra-character dialogue is the same
trap that happens in the third person narrative: the incursion or intrusion of
interior thoughts. They sometimes get mixed within dialogue though if you look
closely, Joyce does differentiate these two forms by spacing them away from one
another on the page. Episode Nine (Scylla and Charibdis) has many good examples
of this as Stephen shifts frequently and quickly from dialogue to interior
monologue and back.
After narrative there are three other points of difficulty I will direct you to
and briefly address: style, plot, and allusion/quotation. Oh, and I should
throw in language too. So there’re four more points to cover. I’ll try to be brief.
The most logical place to begin this portion of the discussion is with plot, or
lack thereof. Ulysses is not a plot driven story in traditional sense of having a specific, fairly
explicit point of action or conflict directed toward some resolution, yet there
do exist points of conflict which are in need of resolution. They just aren’t explicit. Ulysses reads, on the surface, as the story of two men, one young, one older, going
about their business through the course of an average summer’s day in Dublin. Nothing in particular seems to happen in this story, they just
walk around thinking, encountering friends and acquaintances, and having some
food. But Ulysses is an adventure, and an epic one at that, and the conflicts and the action
takes place in the psyches of the characters. It would be unfair and
anticlimactic for me to tell you what those conflicts are, and it is your task
to discover them through a close reading of the text. I will confess that I did
not discover the real story of Ulysses after my first reading. I was too busy trying to work my way thorough the basic
elements of narration and allusion to pick up on the story. This is the real
frustration of many failed readings of Ulysses: readers don’t always know what the story is and they are impatient to get to it. This is one
of the reasons I recommend reading Ulysses with a small group, so you can discuss and share ideas and interpretations on
what you are reading. Initially it doesn’t matter if your interpretations and ideas are on or off the mark, the important
thing is that you attempt to make sense of the text and invest what you are
reading with meaning. The challenge, and I would argue the strength of Joyce as
a writer, is that he does not prepackage meaning for the reader as virtually
every other writer does. When the story is apparent and has been provided, the
reader need not invest the text with meaning since the author has done the work
for them. Joyce makes the reader do the work. While this is frustrating in the
short term it is of great value in the long run because the reader comes away
with a more intimate connection to the text, and a real sense of accomplishment
to boot. I know Joyce’s
Ulysses like I know no other text (and better than I know some friends) not because I’ve read it so many times, but because I was required to wrestle with it and
delve into it in order to understand it. But I digress...
That’s the point of Ulysses: it’s hidden in plain sight and is there to be discovered by you. Next on the docket
is style, which will lead us into allusion/quotation.
The beauty and one of the difficulties of Ulysses is its multiplicity of styles. This is more an aspect of the text to get used
to rather than to decipher. As mentioned in Part II of The Ulysses Sage, Joyce
writes each episode in a different literary style adding to the already
disconcerting effect of multiple points of narration. However, once you get
used to this reality, it is only a matter of navigating a given style that
might give you trouble. The first two episodes (Telelmachus and Nestor) are
short and relatively straightforward in terms of style; after that all hell
breaks loose. The aforementioned Proteus will likely throw you for a complete
loop, as the narrative is basically all stream of consciousness, internal
monologue musings of Stephen Dedalus’ overly educated mind. I will not give an overview of each of the episode styles
here as that would take a great deal of time and, quite frankly, you can, and
will, discover each on your own. What I will say is that as you encounter a
given style and find it hard to penetrate, or boring, just push through it.
There are a couple of episodes that I find tedious every time I read
Ulysses (I won’t tell you which ones so as not to prejudice you). Yet, I know it is essential
that I read them as they contain important information that lends coherence to
the story. Furthermore the styles are not there as a whim of the author or as
merely a clever device, they are part of a conscious effort on the part of
Joyce to realize an important thematic objective central to the story of the