James Joyce's Novel of the Century "Ulysses
Prof. Dr. Katharina Rennhak / English Studies
Photo: Auen60 Photography

A core text of literary modernism

Prof. Dr. Katharina Rennhak on the completion of James Joyce's novel of the century "Ulysses" in 1922.

One of the founders of the modern novel was the Irish writer James Joyce, whose novel "Ulysses" was published in 1922. What is this work about?

Rennhak: The novel is set in Dublin on just one day, June 16, 1904, and meticulously presents the everyday actions, thoughts and perceptions of the two main characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. The paths of the two characters cross repeatedly, but Stephen and Leopold do not meet until the 14th (of 18) chapters.
The 22-year-old intellectual Stephen has recently returned from Paris because his mother was dying, and now works as a teacher. He no longer feels at home in his hometown, has renounced the Catholic faith, and is frustrated because he doesn't see how he can realize his ambitious plans to become a writer. In the first chapter, he decides not to return to the Martello Tower apartment outside the city that he shares with two other young men, with no clear plan of where his path will take him. Leopold Bloom, advertising canvasser for a Dublin daily and good-natured petit bourgeois in midlife crisis, is also an outsider in Dublin as a non-believing Jew. He also wanders restlessly through the city on this June 16. He is trying to manage his jealousy of Blazes Boylan, his wife Molly's lover. His thoughts keep circling back to his son, who died ten years earlier. At the end of the day, Stephen finds a father in Bloom, Leopold Bloom finds a son in Stephen. The notions of belonging and home for these two restless and homeless characters rearrange themselves.

The initial publication of Joyce's Ulysses proved difficult. What was the problem?

Rennhak: Yes, the publication history of Ulysses is really exciting. Joyce had actually planned the tale of Leopold Bloom as the last short story for his short story cycle Dubliners. But the manuscript grew to about 800 pages between 1914 and 1921. First excerpts appeared in serial form in the American magazine The Little Review from March 1918 to August 1920. Publication then had to cease, however, when a New York court fined the magazine's editors for publishing the texts. The court found the excerpts from Ulysses so obscene and objectionable that it deemed it unreasonable to publish the passages in question in full. Further excerpts then appeared in Harriet Weaver's journal The Egoist in England. Here, however, the printers already refused to even typeset the passages deemed too obscene. At first, no publisher could be found for the first edition of the book, either in England or in America, and so it was finally published in Paris in 1922 by Sylvia Beach's publishing house Shakespeare & Company. The edition was strictly limited, and of the 3,000 copies, the U.S. Post Office is said to have burned 500, with just under 500 more confiscated by customs at Folkstone. The novel remained banned in America, England, and Ireland until the 1930s.

But the success of Ulysses was unstoppable, wasn't it?

Rennhak: The media coverage had aroused the interest of many readers. A translation of the novel into German by George Goyert for the Zurich publishing house Rhein Verlag appeared as early as 1927, and a French translation in 1929. There was great interest throughout Europe. After all, the publication of excerpts in The Little Review and The Egoist, two important organs of the literary avant-garde in which T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, or W.B. Yeats, among others, also published, had established Ulysses as a core text of literary modernism from the very beginning.

What was so modern about this novel at the beginning of the 20th century?

Rennhak: Oh, that's a question that scholars write entire books to answer. If you want to answer the question as briefly and succinctly as possible, then I would say that central to modernist storytelling is basically the depiction of an intrinsically trivial everyday life from the subjective point of view of one or more characters. The focus is not so much on the characters' actions as on their perceptions of a highly complex and ceaselessly changing world in which the characters now and then experience brief moments of deeper insight. Joyce's Ulysses bubbles over with narrative and linguistic experimentation. Each chapter of the novel changes narrative style, adapting it to the experience and mood central to Stephen or Bloom in that chapter. "Each episode [...] should not only condition its own narrative technique, but virtually give rise to it," Joyce explains (in Italian in a letter to Carlo Linati in September 1920). Moreover, the complexity of the world is reflected in Ulysses in a complex system of encyclopedic allusions and literary references - to Homer's Odyssey, of course, but also to Shakespeare's Hamlet and the works of Dante. In addition, there are innumerable references to other intertexts, not only literary, but also theological, philosophical, or scientific, from the Middle Ages to modern times. The 13th chapter ('Nausicaa'), for example, in which Leopold Bloom revels on the beach in a voyeuristic contemplation of the coquettish Gerty, who flirts with him and lifts her skirt for him, parodies the style of a dime novel. The 14th chapter ('Oxen of the Sun'), in which Bloom pays a visit to the expectant mother Mrs. Purefoy at the gynecological clinic, offers a terrific pastiche of the major English prose styles from Old English literature to the neoclassical storytelling of Jonathan Swift, the self-reflexive gesture of Laurence Sterne, and the late Victorian narrative style of Oscar Wilde, to name but a few examples. The birth and development of a child are here analogized to the development of English language and literature.

Joyce works in his novel for the first time with the narrative technique of the stream of consciousness. What is that?

Rennhak: Joyce was not the very first. In Ulysses, however, the last chapter ('Penelope'), with Molly Bloom's associative flow of thoughts, is probably the most virtuoso attempt to depict the course of mental processes in language. The third chapter ('Proteus') already makes extensive use of this narrative technique and thus introduces the reader to Stephen's world of thought. Syntactically incomplete and unusual sentences as well as half-sentences give the impression that thought processes are mimetically depicted here. The intellectual Stephen's world of thought, however, is characterized by a certain clarity of thought and structure. In the 'Proteus' chapter, comprehensible chains of associations are thus unfolded in mostly short sentences, and a mediating narrative instance occasionally provides information about the character's movement in space. In the famous final monologue of Molly Bloom's novel, on the other hand, all orientation aids are missing. Molly is falling asleep, and in her mind's eye, fragments of memories - of events of the past day as well as of days long past, some of which are completely unrelated to each other - pass by in a completely disorganized fashion. Joyce does without any punctuation in this chapter. Only at the very end is there a period that underscores the life-affirming "Yes" with which Molly's inner monologue not only ends but also begins.

Joyce's Ulysses is often read as a novel significantly influenced by Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories. How do you explain that?

Rennhak: We've already talked about the many obscenities in Ulysses in connection with the publication history. Like Freud's patients, the characters in Ulysses are essentially dominated by their sexual desires and fears, some of which are unconscious. In keeping with Freud's conception of the relationship between id, ego, and superego in the human psyche, the repression of taboo violations of very different kinds produces a guilty conscience. Stephen's refusal, for example, to fulfill his mother's last wish and to kneel and pray at her deathbed haunts him throughout the novel. Traumatic experiences come to the surface of his mind only in fragments of memory. The climax of the novel, in the opinion of many readers, is the 15th chapter ('Circe'), in which Stephen and Leopold Bloom stop off at a brothel in Dublin's red-light district. This two hundred page chapter takes the form of a drama and consequently represents an extreme departure from the genre conventions of the novel. For long stretches here, it remains unclear what the reality value of the events depicted is. Does Bloom become a woman in Bella Cohen's establishment by donning women's clothes? Bloom and Stephen don't really turn into pigs after all? Is Bloom putting his masochistic fantasies into action here? Or are (consistently?) - drug-induced? - Dreams and hallucinations depicted? Axel Schmitt has aptly described this episode of Ulysses as a "Satanic mass of the unconscious set free." The unconscious, as is well known, resists any attempt to order it narratively. In this respect, the dramatic form of the 'Circe' episode can be understood as programmatic.

At one point Joyce says, "I have put so many riddles and mysteries into it that it will keep professors in dispute for centuries as to what I may have meant. It's the only way to secure immortality." Did this intention work out?

Rennhak: Yes, definitely. The math has worked out perfectly, at least in the last hundred years. Joyce's Ulysses is so dense and allusive that each new reading uncovers new contexts of meaning, at all levels of the text: in terms of Joyce's word creations, the intertextual references, the sometimes meticulously realistic depiction of Dublin life, the reflection of philosophical and theological concepts, the experimental play with genre conventions, the characterization and constellation of characters, etc., etc.
Joyce was also adept enough to provide friendly readers with guides through his complex work. The first and seminal literary study, Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses: A Study (1930), for example, is based substantially on a schematic outline Joyce left to Gilbert. The so-called "Gilbert Scheme" lists for each chapter a number of correspondences that shape style and generate meaning: the exact time and place of the action, a bodily organ, a dominant discourse system (e.g., theology, botany, or architecture), a color, a symbol, and a literary technique, as well as names and terms from Homer's Odyssey. Last but not least, this scheme provides the chapter titles that place the Dublin everyday experiences of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly within the epic reference horizon of the Odyssey. While Joyce chose for publication to merely number each episode consecutively, these chapter designations have become commonly accepted. I have used them here as well. While the first generation of literary scholars set out to decode the novel using Joyce's schemes, to uncover structural principles and understand intentions of meaning, from the late 1960s on literary scholarship abandoned the claim to want to decode Ulysses. Now, emphasis was placed on the linguistic experiments that were understood as endlessly generating meaning, the playful openness of the text, and the irresolvable ambiguity that pervades all levels of the novel. In this context, it was also noticeable that the various schemata Joyce distributed to his friends were so distinctly different from one another that they ultimately perhaps did less to create order and clarity than to add to the complexity of the already incredibly complex novel.

Joyce, after all, has become too comfortable in Catholic Ireland, which was ruled by the British until the early 1920s. He emigrated with his wife Nora in 1904 and has lived and written in France, Italy and Switzerland. Does that make the Irishman a European writer?

Rennhak: Joyce is just that: an Irishman in Europe. Joyce was repugnant to any nationalist ideas (even in the years of the Irish independence movement). Like his character Stephen, he turned away from the Catholic Church, and his texts resist any form of easy ideological appropriation. Ulysses is therefore by no means an apolitical text that delights exclusively with aesthetic language games and literary references and is interested only in the narrative representation of the psyche of individual characters. Research over the past 30 years has paid particular attention to the many material, social, and political contexts in which Joyce's novel has become involved. Ulysses, for example, can also be seen as a shrewd and sociologically detailed analysis of the workings of political communication in the public sphere in general and in early 20th-century Dublin in particular; or the story of Stephen and Bloom as a study of marginalized male identities in patriarchal society in Ireland; or as an analysis of modern consumer society (Bloom's occupation as an advertising canvasser for a Dublin newspaper is relevant here). Ireland's dual role-both as a victim of British imperialism, which peaks in the late 19th century, and as a country that participated in Britain's colonial projects in many ways-is an equally relevant context for reading the novel. In the 12th chapter ('Cyclops'), for example, which takes Bloom to Barney Kiernan's pub, there is an extended critique of colonialism in the form of a regulars' table conversation. The men joke, for example, about the British claim to have civilized the world in the course of their conquests, and blame England for Ireland's precarious economic situation. Here, too, Joyce avoids simple ideological determinations and sympathy distractions. Finally, the nationalist-thinking "Citizen" does indeed refer to ideas that can also be found in Joyce's cultural-political essay "Ireland, Island of the Saints and Sages." The same "Citizen," however, turns out to be a fanatical anti-Semite when he insults Bloom and throws a tea can at him.

What does this reading odyssey bring to today's readers?

Rennhak: Readers who are not put off by the resistances of the many experiments and set about reading in an unagitated manner will - then as now - be thoroughly entertained. For all the erudition contained in Ulysses, the novel is very funny in many places and offers many a thing to smile about and often to laugh out loud at.

Uwe Blass (Conversation from 21.01.2022)

Katharina Rennhak studied English and German at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich and at St. Patrick's College Maynooth, Ireland. From 1997 to 2009 she taught English Literature at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Since 2009, she has been Professor of English Literature at the University of Wuppertal. Katharina Rennhak is president of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS). She is also a member of the IASIL Executive 2016-19 and 2019-2022 (European Representative).

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