Book Review: Ulysses by James Joyce

How do I count the ways that Ulysses by James Joyce challenged me? It seems like a fleeting task trying to condense a 933 page book into a blog post, but I’ll try. While reading Ulysses, I went on a roller coaster ride of enjoyment, confusion, and outright dread. Many moments in the novel, I was captivated by the style Joyce used, especially in the newspaper scene. However, not everything was as enjoyable as that. There were many instances in this novel where I felt like I couldn’t really get a hold on what was happening. In Joyce’s labyrinth of words, I got lost several times. His long descriptions, and ambitious prose, made it difficult to enjoy this book completely. If this novel edited out 200 pages, it would still be as intense and interesting. The sheer length of it makes it unbearable to pick up, especially if there’s this uncertainty of what’s happening.

Obviously, I have many thoughts on this novel. In short, it is perfect if you want to practice your critical thinking and analytical skills. If you love researching, and diving in deep into books, this is the one for you. If you do not hold value in any of those things, this book will end up being a paper weight on your desk. Joyce does not hold back on description, dialogues, obscure references, or anything for that matter. It is no wonder that it took him multiple years to write Ulysses. Although it was dense at times, I enjoyed the ways Joyce explored writing in stream of consciousness. I felt that the inner monologues of Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom made perfect sense, and didn’t seem completely out of the ordinary. People’s thoughts jumble and jump throughout the day. The mind isn’t an organized linear thing, so conveying it as anything else would be unbelievable. Yet, it did get confusing at times because the narration was juxtaposed with these inner monologues. Many times I wasn’t sure if I was reading narration or someone’s thoughts.

I think what Joyce does best within Ulysses is his stylistic creativity. Every episode, or chapter, is a new exploration of literary form, while also mimicking the various episodes in Homer’s The Odyssey. One episode is written as a play, while another is written in character vignettes. Although not all of the episodes worked for me, I thought some, like Aeolus (episode 7), were brilliantly executed. Aeolus was written as various newspaper headlines of what was happening within the chapter. That one was a lot of fun to read, and is full of literary devices. The last episode, Penelope, was also very interesting in the way it showed Molly Bloom’s thoughts before falling asleep. You do not have Molly’s perspective of things until the last chapter, which completely changes your perception of Leopold. It is also the chapter with the longest sentence written in a book, with no punctuation. I think if you’re not interested in the entire novel, I would recommend reading these episodes: Aeolus (episode 7), Scylla and Charybdis (episode 9), Wandering Rocks (episode 10), Circe (episode 15), and Penelope (episode 18).

To approach reading Ulysses, I think you need to have multiple sources of research, and even an audiobook to follow along with. My understanding and appreciation for the novel is indebted to the research I did along with it. There where many points in the novel where I got completely lost, that if I didn’t look things up I would never have understood. I found an amazing website, Ulysses Guide, which is full of resources, and episodes guides. It helped me getting a deeper understanding of each episode, and it thoroughly explains pretty much any question you have while reading the novel. I also found the RTÉ audiobook of Ulysses on YouTube. It is a fantastic reading of the novel, and I think it enhanced my reading and understanding of Joyce’s work.

Even with the Joyce’s creative retelling of The Odyssey, Ulysses fell flat for me. It didn’t have the same energy that I would associate with the Greek poem. I haven’t read The Odyssey, but I have watched a film adaptation, and read summaries online. It’s an epic of a man’s journey home after the Trojan War, and the various encounters he has along the way. The poem is action packed, yet you don’t see that in the novel. Joyce flips the epic into an ordinary day in Ireland, where nothing eventful happens. (Unless you count Molly having an affair). I did enjoy myself with a couple of the episodes, like the ones listed above, but the majority of the novel didn’t live up to the hype of the book. On my edition, the back cover has a quote from Anthony Burgess stating: “…Ulysses is the greatest novel of the century.” For me, it wasn’t that, but I can see how important a novel Ulysses was, and will still be in the future. I think I’ll revisit Ulysses in time, but only to reread the episodes I enjoyed.

So readers, what do you think? Will you be picking up Ulysses, or is this an epic you can easily pass on?