By Patrick Hastings
As we celebrate the centenary of the first edition publication of James Joyce's Ulysses on February 2nd, it is worth taking stock of the continued relevance of this novel to readers and scholars today.
Joyce famously claimed that he had “put so many enigmas and puzzles [into Ulysses] that it will keep the professors busy for centuries.” Indeed, the scholarly attention that this novel has attracted -- and the theoretical frameworks that have been erected to meet the challenge of explaining its innovative techniques and ingenious design -- have proven him right. Yet with each passing year, scholars introduce new methods of analysis and discover new meaning in the text. After a century of keeping us busy, it seems that this book has a few more centuries of academic interrogation ahead.
Aside from the professors, first-time readers of Ulysses encounter a remarkably familiar, modern world in the pages of this 100-year-old novel. The book’s central character, Mr. Leopold Bloom, works as an advertising agent. His society is urban, secular, and globalized. Mass media shapes the social discourse he encounters over the course of his day. He rides public transport and worries about his bank account. The son of a Jewish immigrant, Mr. Bloom encounters anti-Semitism and exclusionary nationalism. The novel’s treatment of the characters’ chief concerns, including social isolation, principled individualism, cultural disaffection, marital breakdown, and widespread gossip -- all feel relevant and engaging to readers today. Ulysses explores and expresses what it means to be a human in the modern world. Even after 100 years, this book still feels expressive of our contemporary existence. It remains the epic of the modern age.
At its core, timely as ever, Ulysses espouses empathy. Through Joyce’s innovative technique of inner monologue, we have access to Mr. Bloom’s thoughts and feelings as he wrestles with the challenges facing his marriage, as he mourns the death of his son in infancy, and as he confronts prejudice. The reader’s intimate access to the interiority of this character instills a call to empathy: having experienced the world through the thoughts of Mr. Bloom, and having gained an appreciation for the depth of humanity we all share, how can we not be careful and gracious toward the real people we encounter in our daily lives?
The writing style of the novel further emphasizes this spirit of acceptance and inclusivity in the way that Joyce absorbs so many different types of writing into Ulysses. We have a chapter written in the style of a gushy Victorian romance novel alongside a chapter written in the form of a surrealist play; we have chapters that contain literally dozens of styles -- from legal contracts to sports journalism, from medieval legend to Dickensian prose -- all demonstrating a democratic ideal that differences can coexist together and indeed can each inform and strengthen each other.
Now, it’s true that this novel has a reputation for being challenging (hence the usefulness of a guidebook like mine). Joyce himself said that “the demand I make of my readers is that they should devote their entire lives to reading my works.” But he also said that “if Ulysses isn’t fit to read, then life isn’t fit to live.” It seems I agree with him on both counts. This novel has enriched and informed my life; I can chart my maturation over these past two decades by the way that I react differently to certain passages and thematic elements in the novel. And the notorious difficulty of Ulysses -- its intricate systems of allusion and symbolism, the way that the book’s hundreds of characters are ingeniously networked and interconnected, and the disorienting effect of its vivid clarity in one passage and fuzzy obscurity in others -- all serve to humble even the brightest reader. But what I love most about Ulysses is its endless capacity to astonish and to amuse; the novel is apparently limitless in containing new revelations just waiting to be discovered, new details to notice and appreciate in the century ahead.