Reading James Joyce's novel Ulysses helps to understand Western culture

The fascination of James Joyce's (1882-1941) work stems from its use of language, its high evocative capacities, and its relationship with the psyche. February 2 marks the centenary of his birth.

Reading James Joyce's novel Ulysses helps to understand Western culture
James Joyce. Image: Public domain

James Joyce's novel Ulysses, which narratively begins at eight o'clock in the morning on June 16, 1904, in Dublin, Ireland, deals with only one day in the lives of three characters, hence James Joyce himself allegedly asserted, "It is to keep the critics busy for 300 years."

"It is a journey, it is an adventure, 20th century, very modern, because it is a day in the life of a character, and in others that intersect in that sequence, and in the mental, physical, moral evolution of Leopoldo Bloom (protagonist)," says Mario Murgia Elizalde, Ph.D. in English Literature from the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters (FFyL) of the UNAM.

James Joyce's Ulysses would be among the essential books of the 20th and 21st centuries; it must be read to understand the development of literature and Western culture, he affirms about the centenary of the literary work that will be commemorated on February 2, which in its original English language has a total of 267,000 words and a vocabulary of more than 30,000, in a little more than 800 pages.

The fascination it awakens comes in principle from the use of language, but also its high evocative capacities, and therein lies its complexity and also its attractiveness. It is a novel that, since it has to do with the psyche, can speak to us about our psyche in the modern and contemporary world and the way it develops and relates to the psyche of others.

It was published in 1922 and, at the time, it was a surprise in its place of origin and others, such as the United States, because it was an unexpected publication in terms of its form, style, themes, and narrators. Ulysses is one of the best examples of what has come to be called Stream of Consciousness, (a narrative style that attempts to capture, in a realistic way, a character's way of thinking, like an interior monologue).

It is surprising in several ways because it can be everything: obscene, funny, serious, and that makes it immensely enjoyable. "You have to make a kind of commitment to the novel, you have to make a pact to be able to approach it because reading it requires attention."

James Joyce (February 2, 1882 - January 13, 1941) was an Irish author and poet.
James Joyce's bust in front of his former university at Newman House. Image by William Murphy via Flickr

The complexity of James Joyce's novel Ulysses

Murgia Elizalde recognizes that fewer and fewer readers concur on the final page of the work, perhaps because of its complexity, because of the literary outbursts developed, but it should not, therefore, be a "work of forced reading".

"Joyce always had these pretensions of literary and linguistic complexity, of the course bordering on the poetic in several sections of Ulysses, but not without a considerable degree of irony, because Joyce was always aware of the scope of this project and the difficulties that this form of writing would have in developing a work of such magnitude and length," he argues.

Even though in terms of the narrative time we only have 24 hours, it is the mind of the characters that overflows the temporal limits of the chronological, in the narrative, and in the reading time invested in this monumental work.

And although the day in the life of an inhabitant of the city of Dublin in the early twentieth century may seem distant or impossible to receive, as we advance we will become closer to the characters because it involves a valuable activity of acquiring knowledge and developing aesthetic, literary, human and social sensibilities.

"The novel Farabeuf, by Salvador Elizondo, is in more than one sense part of Ulysses; authors such as Octavio Paz considered Joyce to exemplify one of the great authors of the twentieth century. Borges said that if we had to save two literary works from that period, one would have to be precisely Ulysses," he concluded.

The 1st edition of James Joyce's novel Ulysses at Farmleigh House.
James Joyce Ulysses 1st edition at Farmleigh House. Photo by Catherine Cronin via Flickr

Fragment from James Joyce's novel Ulysses

"Shadows of thicket floated silently through the peace of the morning from the stairwell toward the sea at which I looked. On the shore and further inland, the mirror of water whitened, trodden by light footsteps of hurried feet. White bosom of the shadowed sea. Tied strokes, two by two. A hand plucking the harp strings, combining slurred chords. Linked words of white wave shimmering in the shadowed tide".

In an interview about his work, James Joyce stated, "I want to give a vision of Dublin so complete that, if the city should one day suddenly disappear from the face of the earth, it can be reconstructed thanks to my book."