Tag Archives: Is Ulysses really a novel? — is it even a novel? Is it a good story?



The introduction to Ulysses in the 1934 Random House advertisement got me to thinking. To quote from the introduction: Ulysses “is essentially a story and can be enjoyed as such. …. one of the greatest novels of our time.”

Is Ulysses really a novel? — is it even a novel? Is it a good story?

The parallels to The Odyssey and the characters are explained schematically. Leopold Bloom is Odysseus and Stephen Dedalus is Telemachus. Stephen is the young James Joyce, the artist as a young man. Simon Dedalus (Stephen’s father) represents Joyce’s father.

My therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp Jr., and I discussed Joyce quite a lot. It began, as I recall, because I was reading Richard Ellman’s definitive biography of Joyce. Around that time I also read Stephen Hero, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, some but not all of Dubliners, and a few of Joyce’s poems. I also read My Brother’s Keeper by Stanislaus Joyce. Dr. Colp and I discussed Joyce’s epiphanies; and epiphany became a sort of code word between us on all sorts of subjects.

Dr. Colp recognized and acknowledged Joyce’s genius. He said to me, could you imagine if I had him for a patient?

I also took a course on Joyce at Columbia University with Joyce scholar William York Tyndall. The course was devoted solely to Ulysses. I have read and am familiar with a good part of the book, but have never read it in its entirety or straight through.

I told Dr. Colp that I found Stephen Dedalus to be boring. A self absorbed character whom one would not find interesting in real life. Dr. Colp agreed with this assessment.

Professor Tyndall said several times in his lectures that Joyce had “a medieval mind.” I did not quite understand what he meant by that. Now I think I do. He also mentioned scholasticism and Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Leopold Bloom is everyman. Molly Bloom is everywoman. The book happens on a single day in Dublin and is about Bloom, Stephen, Molly, and the people they encounter during that day. It could be any day, the point being the commonality and universality of human experience as described by Homer, by Joyce, by the giants of literature, as experienced by you and I, by Leopard Bloom making his breakfast of kidneys on a particular morning, by my own father toasting marshmallows in the fireplace when I was a boy, by your father or mother, by all of us.

Bloom is everyman and his life could be ours. The Odyssey is an epic for all time with universal applicability. Ditto for Ulysses. There is a great continuity from Homer through Beowulf, Chaucer, Mallory, Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, and I forget who else. See Ulysses, Chapter 14.

Joyce belongs in this company. But Ulysses is more like a treatise than a story or novel. An exegesis. A treatise by an Aquinas, a medieval doctor. I understand Professor Tyndall’s comment now.

Can you imagine, Dr. Colp said to me, that Joyce said: “The only demand I make of my reader, is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works” (and had given scholars enough to keep them busy)?

Joyce was a genius and his use of the interior monologue, indirect discourse; Freudian insights; stream of consciousness are brilliant and unprecedented. It’s like Beethoven. Literature post Joyce will never be the same.

But let’s take characters. Charles Dickens’s are unforgettable. Realer than real. The major and minor ones: Pip; Joe Gargery; Mrs. Joe, Pip’s sister; Biddy; Magwitch; Estella; Mr. Jaggers; Wemmick, Mr. Jaggers’s clerk; the Aged, Wemmick’s father, who toasts sausages and repeats himself in conversation.

Huckleberry Finn is a novel about boyhood. You can say that this is its theme, boyhood. Two memorable characters: Huck and Jim. A damn good yarn.

What about Theodore Dreiser? His first novel, Sister Carrie? Intellectually, and as a writer, one could say, Dreiser, compared to Joyce, is a pygmy. There is no comparison. Sister Carrie is a “plain” tale drawn from real life. While Joyce was a genius of language, Dreiser in his maturity was still struggling to write acceptable English prose and showing off by using obsolete “literary” words such as “vagrom” and “distrait.”

Sorry, dear readers, but I can get into Sister Carrie, whereas I can’t manage to finish Ulysses. And, An American Tragedy, which is several hundred pages longer than Ulysses, carried me through from beginning to end. So did Moby-Dick, which is the work of a genius which tells a good story.

This is an egregious understatement: Ulysses impresses one. But does it engage the reader the way a novel by an “inferior” writer like Dreiser does, the way Mark Twain, Steinbeck, and, by comparison, “plebeian” writers like James T. Farrell do? I would answer in the negative.

But Ulysses, as Dr. Colp noted, will continue to challenge and delight readers and scholars. As it should.

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   July 2022