Ulysses is one of the most difficult novels I have ever tried to read. I probably could re-read it thirty or forty times, read all the most important pieces of literary criticism, and still miss tons of ideas and references in the novel. As if stream-of-consciousness wasn’t difficult enough, Joyce goes far beyond this in his narrative, which includes copious amounts of other languages such as Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, not to mention Irish dialects and slang, chapters in unusual formats and with experimental styles (such as one told in the form of a continuing series of question and answers, or one told with interrupting news headlines, or one that parodies different literary styles of different famous writers in historical order of authorship). There was even musical notation thrown in between sentences at one point. Nevertheless, it is possible to make sense of all this and I do think, while a difficult novel that will leave you frustrated and sometimes wondering what sadomasochist tendencies are causing you to do this to yourself, it is a rewarding novel.
By patterning his novel on an ancient epic, Joyce gives structure to what can often seem a chaotic sea of words and images. Besides providing a structure to his experiment novel, it also allows Joyce to explore contrasts between the ancient characters and the modern ones: where Penelope is a dutiful wife, her counterpart, Molly, is an adulterous one, where Circe is a magical sorcerous who turns Ulysses’s crew into pigs, her counterpart, Bella Cohen, is a whore who Bloom imagines turns him into a pig and then rides upon him as a type of humiliation during a mental fantasy.
The structure goes much deeper than providing structure and contrast between characters, but gives us our biggest hint on what Joyce is getting at with his novel. In the earlier chapter, Stephen Dedalaus tells us that he wants to escape the nightmare of history, which I identified as one of the central themes of the novel. Everything is haunted by the past in this story. Stephen is haunted by his dead mother. Bloom is haunted by his dead son, his dead father, and the impending affair his wife is about to engage in with Blazes Boylan. By structuring the novel on one of the great literary works of the past, Ulysses the novel mirrors this theme; the novel itself is haunted by the literature of the past. It is both new in that nothing quite like it has ever been written before, but is delimited and contained by the past inherit in structuring the novel on an ancient epic.
While Ulysses is hard to describe, its basic story can be summarized as this: a day in the life of Leopold Bloom as he works a thankless job, puts up with constant snubs for being of Jewish descent, suffers psychologically from the knowledge that his wife is having an affair, and goes about town doing ordinary things. Basically it is the story of the life of an ordinary man going about his business in the modern world who has to put up with a lot of crap and still manages to demonstrate moments of virtuous behavior. Joyce is trying to show us that our ordinary everyday experiences are just as epic as the experiences of the ancient heroes of old. We don’t need to go looking for adventure or purposefully look for deeper meaning, but when I walk out the door and go to my job each day, it might seem ordinary, but the ordinary everyday problems I face really are the stuff of epic. Joyce is showing us the ordinary experiences of Leopold Bloom during a single day and attempting to reveal its epic qualities.
Like many other Modernists, Joyce holds no punches and wants to show the modern world is squalid, racist, sexist, contradictory, confusing, horrible, and sometimes messy place, and although Bloom sometimes succumbs to the depressing nature and vices of the modern world, he also manages to overcome them and his general behavior stands in stark contrast, representing the possibility of virtue in such a world. As Molly points out in the final chapter, Bloom takes care of his family and possesses a real sensitivity to other people in contrast to the other men of Dublin who spend their money on booze and neglect their families. Leopold Bloom shows us that heroism and virtuous behavior are still possible in a corrupt and alienating modern world.