Posted by: Nathan | February 22, 2006

Reflections Upon Finishing “Ulysses”

I have recently finished James Joyce’s Ulysses, though it took me almost 4 months to read. It would be foolish to try to recapitulate all that Joyce packs into his novel; it is truly a masterpiece. At many points, it is difficult (bordering on incomprehensible) reading, the method buried deep in the madness. In other sections, the narrative soars and Joyce’s genius is on full display.
I could not read Ulysses without being impressed by the scope, depth and completeness of detail, but many times (especially in certain sections) the work becomes so chaotic that the reader must slow down to understand or skim ahead to comprehensibility. This raises an important question that I think is rarely discussed when reading the “big” authors: does genius excuse writing that is exceedingly difficult to understand? If one can tell that a writer is a master, does that permit the author to dispense with easily accessible meaning?
I do not suggest that authors like Joyce should “dumb down” their work so that the general public can read it easily, but neither should an author completely forget that they write to be read and understood, not to overwhelm the reader with difficulty. With Ulysses, I know that multiple readings would yield much more insight, but a little more accessibility wouldn’t compromise the novel’s integrity.
Now to the best and worst of the novel (Note: these sections titles are absent in the actual book, but they are how Joyce structured the novel).

The Best Sections:
#6 “Hades”: Bloom’s visit to the funeral of his friend is poignant and profound. Joyce explores death’s effects on the living.
#10 “Wandering Rocks”: Joyce’s ability to write from different points of view is on display in this section (the only one that does not correspond with a passage from The Odyssey). No fewer than 19 different perspectives are explored in brief vignettes.
#13 “Nausikaa”: One of the most sexual sections of a very sex-driven novel, “Nausikaa” none-the-less is fantastic to read. The writing is clear and crisp, and the sections climaxes just like a sexual encounter in such a way that it becomes beautiful though the scene is anything but. Though the subject matter is lewd, the writing is breathtaking.
#18 “Penelope”: After spending just about the entire novel either in Stephen’s or Bloom’s mind, Joyce ends his work in the near-sleeping thoughts of Molly Bloom. This section boasts absolutely no punctuation, but Molly’s meandering reflections reveal so much about her broken relationship with Leopold, life, love, memory and loss. A tremendous ending the novel.

The Worst Sections
#3 “Proteus”: The last of the three-section introduction to the book featuring Stephen Dedalus,
this portion of the book is thick and lofty as the reader follows (though often I didn’t follow) Stephen’s irractic and academic thoughts. I didn’t get much out of it, and it was a bear to get through.
#14 “Oxen of the Sun”: This chapter is an excellent example of my genius vs. comprehensibility question. Joyce begins “Oxen” using Olde English that slowly becomes Modern. Very hard to read while understanding the vague hints that Joyce drops about the actual plot. I got lost here.
#15 “Circe”: Bloom’s endeavor into “Nightown” a.k.a. Dublin’s red light district is written in play format. “Circe” took me a over a month to get through because the entire long chapter is written as series of encounters with phantoms, memories, fantasies, and real people. Best of luck deciding when Bloom is stumbling through a hazy dreamworld and when he’s talking to characters that really exist.

Does Ulysses merit the attention it receives, frequently lauded as the novel of the 20th Century? It’s a tremendous achievement, that’s certain. Joyce essentially crafts a book about life in general by focusing it on mainly one guy during one day. Bloom is the anti-hero; the reader loves him not because he’s extraordinary, but because he’s just an average bloke trying to scrape by. Joyce’s writing is as disparate as is imaginable, but his style is meant to mimic life: it’s confusing and rarely the same. It’s the scope of Ulysses that I admire most, the ability to synthesize thought, emotion, action, ideas, memories, and all that seemy stuff that we don’t like to mention into one novel. I didn’t enjoy all of it, but the best sections are truly unparalleled. It deserves its hype, and I will probably read it again, though it won’t be any time soon.



  1. As someone who is neither a novice nor an expert, I can grasp your genius/comprehensibility question with particular vigor. I do not think that genius should excuse incomprehensibility. As you said, something written is meant to be read (wether that be a diary or a manuscript or a novel). It is particularly annoying to a middle-of-the-roader like myself when genius seems to “invite” incomprehensibility. This doesn’t just happen in literature. An author that says, “I’m going to make this particularly difficult and murky BECAUSE I am a genius, and therefore only other geniuses will understand it” is annoying. We shall further discuss at a later date, I am sure.

  2. […] Inaccessibility. This debate is one I’ve touched on before: if a work of literature is dazzlingly brilliant but no one can understand it, is it good? This is […]

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