Joyce’s Redefines Modern Fiction

Criteria of fictional form, orthodoxies of fictional content, and conventions of literary taste were revolutionized by the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the twentieth century’s most controversial literary works.

Summary of Event

Not only does the conception of the twentieth century’s most influential work of prose fiction owe a good deal to tales of mythological wanderings—it is based in part on Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614)—but the story of its execution has also acquired semimythological trappings. These, too, have to do with origins and survival, with wartime dislocations and the travail of exile, with steadfastness and luck. Ulysses (Joyce)
[kw]Joyce’s Ulysses Redefines Modern Fiction (Feb. 2, 1922)[Joyces Ulysses Redefines Modern Fiction (Feb. 2, 1922)]
[kw]Ulysses Redefines Modern Fiction, Joyce’s (Feb. 2, 1922)
[kw]Fiction, Joyce’s Ulysses Redefines Modern (Feb. 2, 1922)
Ulysses (Joyce)
[g]France;Feb. 2, 1922: Joyce’s Ulysses Redefines Modern Fiction[05560]
[c]Literature;Feb. 2, 1922: Joyce’s Ulysses Redefines Modern Fiction[05560]
Joyce, James
Beach, Sylvia
Pound, Ezra
Weaver, Harriet Shaw

Such is the status of James Joyce as an embodiment of the artist that it seems almost natural that he should, as he said, have felt attracted to the character of Odysseus while still a schoolboy and that he should have used the title “Ulysses” in the first place for a short story that he planned to add to his collection Dubliners (1914). Dubliners (Joyce) That story drew on the author’s experience and memory of his native city and pivoted (as the novel Ulysses would if it possessed anything so conventional as a plot) around a cuckold and his unfaithful wife. Morever, because Ulysses includes the autobiographical protagonist Stephen Dedalus from Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, A (Joyce) a case can be made that Ulysses represents to some degree a thematic coalition and an artistic transcendence of Joyce’s early works. The peculiar degree of integrity with which both Joyce’s life and writings are invested can make it seem that the whole of his life was a rehearsal for the publication of Ulysses. Perhaps something of Joyce’s own awareness of this book’s status in his life is reflected on his superstitious insistence that Ulysses be published on his fortieth birthday.

James Joyce.

(Library of Congress)

Bringing the book to publication was an epic feat carried out on various levels by a number of people. Joyce began writing Ulysses in 1914 in Trieste, a city that was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and is now in Italy), where he was employed as a teacher of English. The onset of World War I, however, required the writer and his family to flee to neutral territory, which brought them to Zurich, Switzerland. It was there that the conception of Ulysses matured and that substantial amounts of the manuscript initially took shape. Joyce’s work on the book was greatly facilitated by the financial support of Harriet Shaw Weaver, an English philanthropist on whose generosity Joyce continued to rely for the rest of his life. Encouragement also came from the sustained attentions of the American poet Ezra Pound, who had already been instrumental in arranging the serialization of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1914-1915. The Zurich Ulysses began serialization in The Little Review. Little Review, The (magazine)

It is necessary to distinguish between what appeared in The Little Review and the Ulysses published in book form. Part of the drama of the publication of Ulysses, and the source of the many controversies surrounding the state and status of the work’s various manuscripts and typescripts, arises from the fact that Joyce composed much of the text when it was in the galley-proof stage. Part of the novel’s notoriety, in terms of both its difficulty and its alleged obscenity, was the result of its serialization, which was eventually discontinued by court order—the first of the work’s numerous encounters with the law. In view of its reputation for complexity and poor taste, and given Joyce’s early history of difficulty with publishers, finding a publisher for Ulysses was no easy task, and the decision to issue the work in book form remains notable as one that required courage and enlightenment.

This decision was made by Sylvia Beach, an American who owned and operated a bookstore in Paris, named Shakespeare and Company, that provided a focus for both the artistic avant-garde and the expatriate literary community. Not a publisher as such, Beach showed a good deal of enterprise in ensuring the eventual completion of the text, the location of a printer, and the delivery of the book in an edition of one thousand numbered copies. Delivery was complicated by the fact that the printer was located in Lyons, in central France, and publication was to some extent hampered by the fact that none of the printer’s typesetters knew English—although this may have been an advantage, given the work’s verbal innovations.

The combination of energy, dedication, good fortune, perseverance, and enterprise—along with the somewhat unlikely international community that provided these qualities—makes the story of the making of Ulysses a peculiarly human one. Such an emphasis is consistent with the work’s significance. Composed while Europe was engaged in a war that would have profound repercussions for the continent’s culture and heritage, Joyce’s work represents an alternative set of engagements. These denote an attempt to rehabilitate the European tradition by restructuring a story that is one of its keystones, Homer’s Homer
Odyssey, Odyssey (Homer) in such a way as to speak to contemporary civilization. Homer’s story has its origin in war, but it much more crucially confronts issues of aftermath and reconstitution. Joyce’s adaptation subtly, persistently, and skeptically addresses similar issues.

In addition, the distinctive presence of Joyce himself has an exemplary force in the saga that produced Ulysses. Joyce overcame critical neglect, artistic isolation, and periods of abject poverty, uncertainty, and ill health, and his achievement is rather more than the sum of the parts that compose the seven years’ effort that went into the work. As though to exemplify the Odyssean qualities of “silence, exile and cunning” with which Joyce’s fictional alter ego Stephen Dedalus identified, the author’s dedication to his art has become synonymous not only with individual integrity but also with the resources of the imagination in the face of the dislocations of historical reality. Such an example, articulated with rare imaginative freedom and critical intelligence, makes the publication of Ulysses a landmark in the development of a distinctively twentieth century sensibility.


The publication of Ulysses in 1922 decisively influenced the conception of what literature might represent and achieve. In that sense, the novel is a work that is at the heart of the aesthetic revolution that occurred in the West between 1880 and 1930, a revolution that affected every area of artistic endeavor. More for the sake of convenience than for reasons of accuracy or clarity, this revolution is known as modernism. Its cultural, historical, and philosophical origins and consequences continue to be analyzed and assessed, and its achievements in literature, painting, and music constitute an ongoing critical challenge.

Ulysses is central to any consideration of what modernism, which is neither a school nor a program, might be thought to signify. The most obvious reason for the work’s status is its formal daring. The idea of a single piece of fiction being written not only in different styles but also in different forms, and of these differences being both valid and distinctive in their own right as well as, at another level, lending themselves to eventual coordination, was a radical departure from previous conceptions of fiction. Even Ezra Pound, commenting on the work’s complex later sequences, remarked brusquely, “New style per chapter not necessary.”

Moreover, as though to reinforce the shock of the new that the form of Ulysses produced, Joyce also represented scenes from ordinary life that had previously been considered beneath the novelist’s gaze. These scenes basically deal with the intimacies of personal and conjugal life. So rarely had such realities been addressed in literature that the scenes in question were responsible for the novel’s reputation as a salacious production, dangerous to morals and good taste. That view of the work began to be reconsidered only after a U.S. district court ruled in 1933 that the book was not obscene and could be freely published in the United States, thereby guaranteeing the work access to a wide audience.

While the notorious reputation may have earned Ulysses an unexpected audience, it also may have delayed reaction to the book’s intellectual achievements. The most obvious of these, consistent with the work’s overall daring, is its use of Homeric correspondences. Not only are events in Homer’s original adapted—the one-eyed cyclopean giant of the Odyssey becomes a monster of ideological single-mindedness in Ulysses—but also the spirit of the original is recommissioned, however eliptically and despite a marked degree of skepticism.

The protagonist, Leopold Bloom, as Odysseus, is heroic not because of his extraordinary skills or exotic adventures but because of his persistence, integrity, and openness. Nothing human is alien to Bloom. Thus, in a paradox typical of Joyce’s vision, Bloom embodies the largeness of the little man, and his wanderings around Dublin exemplify the presence of universal tropes of experience within what appear to be strictly local and personal circumstances. Joyce, however, takes care not to patronize or sentimentalize his hero by making him of Jewish ancestry, thereby ensuring, among other things, that he will be perceived as an outsider, detached, vulnerable, and singular. Bloom thus may be perceived as modern man, sustained by nothing more than his own slightly comic doggedness and fragile yet resilient self-respect. In his treatment of the other major characters, Stephen Dedalus and Bloom’s wife, Molly, Joyce is equally unsparing—notoriously so in the case of Molly, who is portrayed with a degree of unromanticized earthiness unseen before Ulysses.

One important reason the Blooms make such an impact is that more of them is made available to readers than is common in novels. Through Joyce’s development of the technique of stream of consciousness, the thoughts and thought structures of Leopold and Molly, and also to a lesser degree of Stephen Dedalus, are represented in all their uncensored unpredictability. The unmediated immediacy with which these characters’ mental landscapes impinge on the reader creates an impression that Ulysses is not so much “about” something as it is a discrete entity in its own right. Joyce made of the text a world, and of the world a text. This world is present not merely in the work’s superficially forbidding frame of encyclopedic reference but also in the reader’s experience of its variety and scope.

Equally radical is Joyce’s treatment of time in Ulysses. The fictional duration of Homer’s original work is condensed from ten years to less than twenty-four hours. The substitution of one sequence of waking hours for an epic span implicitly raises questions about the relative nature of the experience and perception of time. These questions receive detailed subtextual attention in the course of the work and also relate to more general cultural shifts introduced by a growing acceptance of the notion of relativity. Joyce’s conception of narrative time had a particularly enduring impact on some of the most significant of his literary successors in Europe and the United States, foremost among whom are William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, and Claude Simon.

In addition, the condensation of epic time to what might be termed civic time expresses the mundane and constricted nature of the characters’ existence. The view in Ulysses of fragmented consciousness and humankind in the face of it hapless and impoverished is both acknowledged and redeemed. Despite their various constraints, the characters are not belittled. Against the odds, it seems, they constitute a fundamentally informal polity. Given this, and given the understanding that Joyce considered the work to be a comedy, Ulysses becomes what Stephen Dedalus terms, in a celebrated phrase, “the uncreated conscience of my race.” Ulysses (Joyce)

Further Reading

  • Beach, Sylvia. Shakespeare and Company. 1959. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991. Anecdotal autobiography of the original publisher of Ulysses devotes much attention to the author’s ownership of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris and to the literary luminaries who crossed her path there. The material on Joyce is fascinating, and the work as a whole will please the general reader.
  • Budgen, Frank. James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses.” 1933. Reprint. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973. Written in an accessible and unpretentious style by an English painter who first made Joyce’s acquaintance in Zurich when Ulysses was in the making. Dwells largely on Joyce’s Zurich years, offering many rewarding insights into Joyce’s mind, art, and personal circumstances.
  • Devlin, Kimberly J., and Marilyn Reizbaum, eds.“Ulysses”: En-gendered Perspectives—Eighteen New Essays on the Episodes. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. Collection of critical essays written in the late twentieth century focuses on the concept and treatment of gender in each of the novel’s eighteen episodes.
  • Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Revised edition raises to a further level of excellence a work (first published in 1959) that is not only the definitive Joyce biography but also a model of modern biographical scholarship. Draws directly on the words of many members of Joyce’s family and personal circle. Exhaustive in scope and judiciously sympathetic in tone.
  • _______. Ulysses on the Liffey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. An intellectually elaborate discussion of Joyce’s various conceptions of form in Ulysses. Develops an overview based on “three propositions” that underwrite Ulysses. Concludes with charts delineating the organization of the book’s last six episodes; reproduces and compares Joyce’s two conceptual schemes for Ulysses.
  • French, Marilyn. The Book as World: James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. A sophisticated academic anatomy of Ulysses. Focuses primarily on the proliferation of narrative styles in Ulysses, but offers a wide-ranging discussion that deals with much more than stylistic concerns.
  • Gibson, Andrew. Joyce’s Revenge: History, Politics, and Aesthetics in “Ulysses.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Examines the novel from a historical point of view, placing it in the context of Anglo-Irish relations—both cultural and political—in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
  • Hart, Clive, and David Hayman, eds. James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: Critical Essays. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Collection of eighteen essays, each by an eminent Joyce scholar and each devoted to one of the eighteen episodes in Ulysses. No overall or unified conception of Joyce’s work emerges, but a good number of the essays raise issues larger than their immediate occasion.
  • Kenner, Hugh. Ulysses. Rev. ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Particularly helpful, as well as impressive, short study of Ulysses. Includes a brief but telling essay on Ulysses criticism and an annotated bibliography.
  • Litz, A. Walton. The Art of James Joyce: Method and Design in “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake.” 1961. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Sophisticated introduction to some of the textual problems associated with Joyce’s masterpieces. In view of developments since this book’s original publication, the discussion of some of the different versions of Ulysses is particularly relevant. Provides fascinating insight into the evolution of an extremely complicated text. Intended for the serious student.
  • Pound, Ezra. Pound/Joyce. Edited by Forrest Read. London: Faber, 1968. Collects in one volume both Ezra Pound’s numerous essays on Joyce’s works, which economically sketch one of the most influential acquaintanceships in the history of modernism, and the extensive correspondence between the two writers. Many of the letters have a direct bearing on the gestation, progress, and publication of Ulysses.

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