James Joyce's "Ulysses", Homer's "Odyssey" and the burden of interpretation

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There is no doubt that reading Ulysses places great demands on the intellect of the reader. Joyce’s intentions in writing Ulysses, to present a totally realistic view of one day in the life of ordinary Dublin citizens, yet at the same time to weave into this a grand parallel with Homer’s Odyssey and on a smaller scale to deal with issues as complicated as those of Irish politics and religion, mean that before they come upon the novel, it is necessary for the reader to have a wide base of knowledge. The idea that these demands constitute an unwanted burden on the reader which thus in some way diminishes the value of Ulysses is a difficult question, for it is arguable that it is these complexities that allow the claims of greatness and value to be made for the novel.

One of the novel’s most impressive feats is the manner in which Joyce manages to ape the plot of Homer’s Odyssey without resorting to such simple methods as directly mirroring the plot of Homer’s work in his own. In each chapter the actions of the characters in Ulysses match something that happens in The Odyssey. Since Joyce has obviously taken great pains to adhere to this structure, it is clear that to read a chapter without appreciating the Homeric parallels would be to miss a great deal. However, Joyce’s parallels often take the form of bathetic instances during the day, contrasting the heroic exploits of Odysseus, with the more mundane everyday happenings of Leopold Bloom making them hard to find. Two instances in Ulysses are particularly worth looking at, as they also address some of the other problems of reader interpretation in the novel.

In the Odyssey, it is Odysseus capture and escape from the Cyclops Polyphemus that is detailed in the chapter of the same name. However, to find in the Cyclops section of Ulysses such obvious parallels is hard. For example, a reader with a knowledge of Irish politics would perhaps understand the significance of the character of the Citizen, whose single-mindedness of thought and ideology is compared subtly by Joyce to the single sightedness of the Cyclops. However, for the reader who is not aware of the importance of Joyce’s attitude to the Citizen’s views, there are other pointers to the significance of the Citizen/Cyclops, however these are no less demanding to find. The style of this chapter, narrated by a nameless character, is to have an ordinary narrative punctuated by sections of description in inflated stylised types. The description relating to the Citizen and his dog Garryowen is an overblown parody of an epic, depicting the Citizen as a kind of Homeric hero:

“The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freely freckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero.” (p.382)

Therefore, if the reader recognises the stereotypes Joyce is parodying, it is not hard to make the connection of the grossly egotistical Citizen with the powerful yet foolish Cyclops. However there is also the possibility that Joyce’s even handedness in dealing with most topics, politics included could allow the reader at this point in the text, when the full extent of the Citizen’s fanaticism has not been revealed, to think that Joyce is praising the commitment of men such as the Citizen who are willing to sacrifice everything to their cause. However, the ludicrous roll-call of “Irish” heroes, including Christopher Columbus and Ludwig van Beethoven among their number that the Citizen calls to mind soon dispels any likelihood of a sympathetic treatment of him. The argument then can be put forth however that it is this breadth of reference and degree of humour that makes the act of interpretation not a burden, but a rewarding exercise. The recondite nature of many of these allusions means that any didacticism of Joyce’s is not immediately noticeable, therefore the act of deciphering just what inflection Joyce wants put on certain situations allows the reader to escape prescribed readings of events.

Joyce further parodies the drama of Odysseus’ escape at the end of the section, when Bloom is carried away in a carriage, much to the annoyance of the Citizen. In this scene Joyce juxtaposes a mundane re-enactment of Polyphemus’ hurling of boulders at Odysseus “Blue-painted ships” where the Citizens attempt to throw a biscuit tin after Bloom with the sudden religious connotations of Bloom’s Elijah-like ascent on a fiery chariot. Undoubtedly mocking is the comparison between Polyphemus final oath to Poseidon “Here me Poseidon , Girdler of Earth , god of the sable locks. If I am yours indeed and you accept me as your son, grant that Odysseus, who styles himself Sacker of Cities and son of Laertes, may never reach his home in Ithaca.” And the Citizen’s final words “After him, Garry! After him, boy!” A similar and peculiar similarity can be found between Bloom’s taunting of the Citizen, unwise as his escape was by no means assured and the taunting of Odysseus as Polyphemus rages on the shore. That the normally mild mannered Bloom can be seen to be sharing some of the attributes of the “Sacker of Cities” is strange, and it is perhaps important to note that it is Bloom’s heritage that causes him to shout out “Your God was a Jew. Christ was a Jew like me.” The Citizen’s poorly chosen words “By Jesus I’ll crucify him so I will.” (both p.445) serve to yet again emphasise his foolishness.

Perhaps the most difficult section of Ulysses to understand is the Circe chapter, which also perhaps has the loosest Homeric reference. The drastic change in narrative technique that Joyce employs here, switching from conventional prose to dramatic form and from the language of realism to that of hallucination makes this a complex section to see in its entirety. The Circe chapter of The Odyssey tells of how Odysseus’ men, drugged and turned into swine by the Witch Circe are rescued by Odysseus who has to protect himself from Circe’s drug and prove to her his valour before he can gain the freedom of his crew. The hallucinatory imagery of this section is an obvious evocation of the hallucinatory effects of Circe’s drugs, which Homer states made the men “lose all memory of their native land”. Joyce’s change of form and of language attempt to convey in an experimental way this sense of being divorced from ones native land, and the setting of this scene in Dublin’s red light district, away from the genteel streets of the centre of the capital echo this. Also some of the more graphic imagery and language employed in this section evoke the bestialisation of the men. Perhaps the most clear instance of this is in Bloom’s imaginary trial when he is following Stephen into night-town.

Blamires cites Macbeth as a precedent for the cruelty and ridiculousness of some of the ideas and characters that appear in this trial scene, equating the appearance of Brini, papal Nuncio and the veiled Sybil with the apparitions in the witches cave. A straight comparison here can be made between the doubts that assailed Odysseus as he walked through the forest to rescue his men, and the fluctuating mental condition of Bloom as he wanders through the unfamiliar Dublin streets to rescue Stephen, perhaps drugged already with Absinthe at the end of the Oxen of the Sun. The immediate correlation between the drunken Stephen and Odysseus crew, drugged and turned into swine is fairly apparent, Bloom later commenting on how unseemly it is for a man of Stephen’s wit and upbringing to be consorting with prostitutes, however this perhaps best demonstrates the sense of degradation that Joyce seeks to evoke in this chapter, as even a man with Stephen’s high-blown literary theories is willing to debase himself through drunkenness and prostitution.

The obvious problems this complex chapter presents for the reader is that in its experimental nature there is by definition no precedent for interpreting the kind of images and techniques that Joyce uses. Seemingly out of nowhere come shouts such as the chorus of:

“Moses, Moses, King of the Jews,
Wiped his arse in the daily news.“ (p.586)

Which serve mostly to undermine the reader’s sense of the linear and familiar, as do the sudden cameos by King Edward VII and others. Similarly the apparition of Stephen’s mother at the end of the chapter and the unhinging effect this has on his already muddled mind brings about a sense of horror in the reader at the graphic and gory nature of her representation.

“(She raises her blackened withered right arm slowly towards Stephen’s breast with outstretched fingers.) Beware! God’s hand! (A green crab with malignant red eyes sticks deep it’s grinning claws into Stephen’s heart.)” (p.682)

Equally the sight of this terrible ghoul reciting Catholic exhortations to God such as “O Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on him! Save him from hell, O divine Sacred Heart.” Creates a difficult set of counter feelings in the reader as they have to reconcile traditional beatific sentiments such as those expressed in prayer with the terrible figure reciting them. It is the burden of having to sort all of these different ideas into a coherent whole that makes this chapter so complicated.

It is perhaps this chapter more than any other that comes closest to actually weakening it’s self through its wilful recondity, however that is not to say that the burden of interpretation here is not worthwhile bearing, for the way in which Joyce goes about suggesting mental instability and lack of certainty is so effective precisely because of Joyce’s innovation. Trying to explain an unconventional situation through conventional narrative methods would not yield the same effective results, and although having to adjust to the difficulties of Joyce’s experimentation takes time and asks a great deal of the reader, the rewards for perseverance are perhaps on balance sufficient to justify dealing with the complexities of the text.

The Proteus chapter of Ulysses has some of the most difficult language and ideas in the text to deal with, and is similar to Circe in that Joyce uses language techniques to echo in Ulysses what are instances of plot in The Odyssey. Joyce evokes the shapelessness and intangibility of the sea-nymph Proteus by using a long stream of peculiar words that seem not to ever really coalesce together into a whole, yet do contain the basic parts of the ideas expressed in the chapter:

“Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space.”

The chiasmus is the above section echos the ideas in this chapter of fluctuation and change but also in the end of stability, as just as Proteus managed to change shape to evade capture, eventually Menelaus bested him and forced him to keep his form. The mirroring of the final sentence of the quotation demonstrates change, but through the use of the same words also demonstrates immutability.

We have established therefore that Ulysses does present the reader with some sizeable challenges in interpreting the subtleties of the text. However it seems to be the contention of the title of this essay that interpretation must necessarily be a burden and that just as Joyce is traditionally alleged to have tried to create an everyman character in Leopold Bloom, thus everything in Ulysses must be instantly accessible to every reader. Therefore it seems pertinent to ask the question of for whom was Joyce writing Ulysses? The most likely answer seems to be that since in the character of Bloom Joyce was trying to create an “everyman” figure, he was addressing his novel to everyone, hence the sidelining of the more personal character of Stephen Dedalus who is more a reflection of Joyce. What this attempt at universality also requires however is that Joyce address many ideas in his novel and adopt many styles, to the end that his work should be appreciable by all. To this end he is almost an encyclopaedist in his approach, if he is going to be Homer in his writing then he must be Shakespeare as well, hence the inclusion of experiments such as Circe. If he is to talk of politics then he also has to talk about science and literature in order to maintain equilibrium. The fact that the novel contains so much, perhaps enough so that every reader can find something potentially addressed to them does mean that interpretation must come into the remit of the reader. The level of detail in Ulysses means that one potential analogy would be with that of the artists palette. Joyce has included so much in his text that the reader through using their discretion in picking up on certain of Joyce’s allusions and discussions sees their own version of the text. Therefore the act of interpretation becomes not a burden but an essential part of the act of reading Ulysses for without it the reader might not gain the sense that they are one of the people that the novel is addressed to, rather than just an observer of a finite experience.

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