By naming his novel Ulysses, Joyce leads his readers to align this novel with Homer's epic; however, early readers didn't get it, so Joyce let Stuart Gilbert know that the chapters could be thought of with particular episodes of The Odyssey in mind. This game of implying and inferring makes for a sleuthing experience that frustrates many (who often give up in Chapter Three) and fascinates those of us enter into an imaginative pact with a writer who thought himself the equal of Dante and Shakespeare in being the genius of his age.
The novel is so ambitious that readers of Joyce 's novel often narrow the reader's task by focusing on one point of view, its realism, its satire, its feminism, its mythologizing, its psychology, its narratology, its philology. As we read and discuss Ulysses, you may find it fruitful to focus on one of these ways of thinking about the novel.
Over the years that I have taught Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, I have engaged in this narrowing by encouraging students to focusing on four contrasts that Joyce uses again and again to develop his fictions. I plan to use these four contrasts to focus my reading this time through Ulysses. I welcome those who wish to join me in this method and look forward to those who use one of the other, above-mentioned or a completely different focus:
Isolation and Community
Characters in Dubliners such as the young boy of the opening three stories, Fr. Flynn of "The Sisters," and the queer old josser of "An Encounter" seek counterparts as the central action of the stories. Similar isolates--Eveline of "Eveline," Jimmy of "After the Race," Lenehan of "Two Gallants," Bob Doran of "The Boarding House," Chandler of "A Little Cloud," Maria of "Clay," James Duffy of "A Painful Case" make less than satisfying pacts with others in lieu of isolation. Farrington of "Counterparts," Mr. Kernan of "Grace," Mrs. Kearney of "A Mother," and the politcoes of "Ivy Day" isolate themselves from others as does Joyce's most developed isolate of Dubliners, Gabriel Conroy of "The Dead."
Communal acts and symbolic communities abound in these stories. Characters find themselves participating in or refusing eucharistic moments throughout Dubliners and the tension between the pain of isolation and the dissatisfactions of various types of communities. The narrative schema of Portrait is of course a reflection of this tension. Young Stephen chooses to be among others in Chapter One and Three and embraces, for good or ill, his isolation in Chapters Two, Four and Five.
What Joyce does in his earlier works finds its way into Ulysses. The extent to which the Stephen Dedalus of Portrait is a continuation of the Stephen of Ulysses is obvious. Even in Dubliners one can see Joyce moving toward Ulysses. Farrington of "Counterparts" is a urUlysses in that he too engages in an odyssey as he moves from pub to pub while ironically triumphing over the pawnshop keeper of Fleet Street, but succumbing to the sirens from London and the mere stripling, Weathers, that he meets in the pub. Upon returning home, the Ulysses beats his son and finds his Penelope away in the chapel.
Awareness and Blindness
Sight to Joyce and to Stephen Dedalus of Portrait and to the little boy and Gabriel Conroy of Dubliners is an ideal state in Joyce's pre-Ulysses fiction. When he breaks his glasses on the cinderpath in Portrait or closes his eyes in the romantic prayer "O,Love" in "Araby" Joyce's pre-Ulysses exposes himself to the same dangers as the lesser characters in the ficitons: the sisters' succumbing to the cover story and cliches about their pedophile-brother, the drunkenness of Simon Dedalus in Portrait. Again and again the characters eschew the dangers of seeing what actually exists and choose blindness as do Eveline, Bob Doran, Corley, Maria and Gabriel Conroy. If Gabriel changes significantly in the concluding moments of "The Dead" he does so in the darkness on the night of the Epiphany in the Gresham Hotel when Gabriel learns of his passionate rival, Michael Furey and accepts that he is not the hero of his own story but one member of a very inclusive community like the snowflakes falling to their final and inglorious end.
Growth and Stasis
This contrast could just as easily be stated and Movement and Paralysis. Probably the most paralyzed character--except the literal paralytic, Fr. Flynn of "The Sisters"--is Eveline, who must choose a life with Frank who will perhaps take her to the romantic land of Buenos Ayres and a life as her mother's surrogate to be abused by her father until the end of her days. She is among the living dead of Dubliners that "The Dead" reprises in the culmination of that short story collection so like a novel. Images of decay abound in the stories--Fr. Flynn's snuff-stained coat, the pervert's decaying garment, the rusted bicycle pump and yellowing pages of the romances of "Araby," the crumbling of Little Chandler's dream, the ubiquitous dust and the broken harmonium of "Eveline," the shriveled-apple like face of Aunt Kate and the graying hair of Aunt Julia. Some characters like Corley of "Two Gallants" and the Christian Brothers of Portrait move to no avail; most move in repetitive patterns that cover the meaninglessness of the movements. Those who grow are characters who move toward a moment of epiphantic joy that links them with some meaningful community, like the Stephen of Chapter Four who observes the bird girl of immortal youth and beautyon the strand, like Stephen moving through the maze of the Jesuit residence of Chapter Two. These moments are fleeting and rare.
Reality and Romance
Romance is not the only blinding agent in Joyce's stories, but it is one of the most pernicious. The tears the boy of "Araby" sheds when he realizes how his unrealistic romantic, newly pubescent fantasies have led him to be a "creature driven and derided by vanity" are repeated again and again throughout Dubliners and Portrait. How often are characters tearfully blinded by romance? However, Eveline's fears lead her to mistrust the romance that Frank the sailor really offers, so romance in and of itself is not a bad thing. Michael Furey's passion certainly seems superior to Gabriel's insufferable arrogance. And the irony of the title Two Gallants seems to suggest that true gallantry is preferable to the egocentric, mistrusting predatory taking of the biscuit of life's possibilities. Romance, like the other ideals of Portrait, is fleeting and rare. Romance, like the failings of the sisters to honestly appraise their brother, exacerbates falls like the fall of Lucifer like Stephen when he feels abandoned by Ellen after his performance in Chapter Three of Portrait.
The other three contrasts seem to offer clear ideals--sight, insight, epiphany rather than blindness, ignorance; a comic community rather than a confining community or horrible isolation; growth, improvement rather stasis, enervating and meaningless, repetitious movement or paralysis. However, though a literary realist, Joyce seems to view the fourth contrast as a more complicated dichotomy.