Ulysses is certainly the greatest novel in the English language, and one might argue for its being the greatest single work of art in our tradition. How significant, then, and how teasing, that this masterwork should be a comedy and that its creator should have explicitly valued the comic “vision” over the tragic …
By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in Critical Inquiry, Summer 1976; reprinted in Contraries.
“Everything speaks in its own way.”
Ulysses is certainly the greatest novel in the English language, and one might argue for its being the greatest single work of art in our tradition. How significant, then, and how teasing, that this masterwork should be a comedy and that its creator should have explicitly valued the comic “vision” over the tragic—how disturbing to our predilection for order that, with an homage paid to classical antiquity so meticulous that it is surely a burlesque, Joyce’s exhibitionististicicity is never so serious as when it is most outrageously comic. Joyce might have been addressing his readers when he wrote to Nora in 1909: “Now … I want you to read over and over all I have written to you. Some of it is ugly, obscene, and bestial, some of it is pure and holy and spiritual: all of it is myself.”
After a few reluctant, abortive, and surely humiliating attempts on Joyce’s part to accommodate himself to others’ wishes—in regard to the initial publication of Dubliners most of all—Joyce was thrown back upon his own idiosyncratic genius, and was freed to invent works of a kind never before attempted in literature. Fortunately for him he had, as his brother Stanislaus ironically noted, “that inflexibility firmly rooted in failure.” Silence, exile, cunning—and failure: would a Joyce whose first novel was Stephen Hero and whose Dubliners had been sufficiently diminished (by its young author) to qualify for publication in Dublin have advanced to Ulysses? Had Stephen Hero been published, what of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, whose telegraphic, lyric, contemplative style evolves quite naturally into the early style of Ulysses? Such speculations are fruitless but irresistible, especially as they radiate out to touch upon all artists and all artistic endeavor. Early and continued success may be the destruction of all but the most ingenious or melancholy of writers: in any case, Joyce was never confronted with this problem. And he was further charged, as we know, by the zestful energies of revenge— a revenge all the more satisfying because it is never savage, but witty and graceful and so subtle as to nearly pass us by when we encounter it, as in this brief exchange between Buck Mulligan and Haines at tea in the “Wandering Rocks” episode—
—Ten years, he said, chewing and laughing. He is going to write something in ten years.
—Seems a long way off, Haines said, thoughtfully lifting his spoon. Still, I shouldn’t wonder if he did after all.
Conceived, perhaps, as a work enlivened by Swiftian satire, Ulysses must have evolved as the years passed and passages were written and rewritten (and always expanded) into a symphony of voices, a profane comedy of Dublin and Dubliners that—the Citizen of “Cyclops” not overlooked— is at bottom deeply sympathetic with each voice. The righteous indignation of satire is very difficult for a novelist to sustain, especially if the novelist is embarked upon a lengthy project in which each “voice” makes some claim for its individuality. The precarious formality and asceticism of tragedy is also difficult to sustain or, in fact, to take seriously, when one has written and rewritten and contemplated and rewritten again those climactic passages that affirm the “tragic sense of life.” With so much time to dream his paean to Dublin into being, with a certain relentless self-scrutiny that was no doubt cultivated in Joyce by his Jesuit teachers, Joyce could not have failed to see, as time passed, how greatly he had come to differ from the near-humorless Stephen of Portrait, how much more tolerant his own nature was; he is willing to share the lofty title of “artist” with his own Leopold Bloom (of whom it is said “There’s a bit of the artist about old Bloom”) and willing to risk mocking his own strenuous efforts to create a masterpiece, in such passages as this, from “Ithaca”:
What were habitually [Bloom’s] final meditations?
Of some one sole unique advertisement to cause passers to stop in wonder, a poster novelty, with all extraneous accretions excluded, reduced to its simplest and most efficient terms not exceeding the span of casual vision and congruous with the velocity of modern life.
And Molly’s ostensibly far-fetched idea of being the inspiration for Stephen Dedalus’s inevitable fame isn’t really—if one is aware of Joyce’s hopes for himself and Nora—so farfetched after all, but marvelously witty:
… they all write about some woman in their poetry well I suppose he wont find many like me … Im sure itll be grand if I can only get in with a handsome young poet at my age … Ill read and study all I can find or learn a bit off my heart if I knew who he likes so he wont think me stupid if he thinks all women are the same and I can teach him the other part Ill make him feel all over him till he half faints under me then hell write about me lover and mistress publicly too with our 2 photographs in all the papers when he becomes famous O but then what am I going to do about him though
Knowing what we do of Joyce’s tendency to lift from other writers situations and plots and themes and even bits of language—not to mention immense structures like that of Homer’s—it is significant that Bloom (who is in reality not a writer) should unwisely boast of “following a literary occupation” in the “Nighttown” sequence. It is not Bloom but his creator who is the “author-journalist” engaged in “just bringing out a collection of prize stories of which I am the inventor, something that is an entirely new departure.” He is subsequently denounced by Mr. Philip Beaufoy, who accuses him not only of plagiarism but of not being a gentleman (another of Joyce’s—and John Joyce’s—fixed notions):
BEAUFOY: (Drawls.) No, you aren’t, not by a long shot if I know it. I don’t see it, that’s all. No born gentleman, no one with the most rudimentary promptings of a gentleman would stoop to such particularly loathsome conduct. One of those, my lord. A plagiarist. A soapy sneak masquerading as a literateur. It’s perfectly obvious that with the most inherent baseness he has cribbed some of my bestselling books, really gorgeous stuff, a perfect gem, the love passages in which are beneath suspicion … . My literary agent Mr J. B. Pinker is in attendance.
Stephen has said to Lynch, in Portrait, that it is the artist’s personality that dominates the work of art, though the artist must be, of course, refined out of existence so that his shadow does not crudely fall upon his creation. This personality “passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea” and—in Ulysses certainly—it seems to blend with its material, to become ever more protean and magical as the long day progresses. The “voice” of the narrator conditions and is in turn conditioned by the fictional voices he recalls or re-creates—many of them, of course, living people; friends of Joyce’s and of his father’s—and Joyce has said in a letter that “each adventure (every hour, every organ, every art being interconnected and interrelated in the structural scheme of the whole) should not only condition but even create its own technique”: so that we have, in Ulysses as in no other work except Finnegans Wake, the alarming phenomenon of a novel continually “in progress.”
Comedy is never gracious to fixed forms; the comic spirit is by its nature youthful and irreverent and rebellious. Critical emphasis that has been placed upon the Homeric structure in Ulysses is misleading, then, at least for the reader who is relatively unfamiliar with Joyce’s way of going about things, for it thrusts into the foreground a kind of scaffolding, an ingenious apparatus, and asks us to admire it, when Ulysses might have evolved about any number of “myths” in the public domain. (Joyce did, in fact, think of using the “Faust” legend as a means of structuring his Dubliners’ adventures—indifferent to the radical discrepancies between an “Odysseus” and a “Faust”; the novelist is, surely, the most ingeniously pragmatic of all artists.) The gigantic structure of the work must have been felt by Joyce—consciously or half-consciously—as a real necessity, a way of protecting its creator from the sort of playful, fussy multiplication of details that spring to life in “Nighttown” and would have overloaded and cracked his narrative if not restrained elsewhere. The rebellious impulse does, after all, require a fixed and even rather tyrannical structure against which to rebel; playfulness is only italicized against someone else’s gravity. T. S. Eliot could not really have understood Ulysses or Joyce when he made his statement in The Dial (now famous, of course, as all Eliot’s statements seem to have become—the erroneous no less than the helpful) that the use of myth as a way of “manipulating a continuous parallel between modernity and antiquity” was a method which other writers must pursue, following Joyce’s example; one might argue that Joyce cared essentially little for whatever is meant by “modernity” and “antiquity,” and that, in any case, the Joycean method is not a method at all but a process of personality, inimitable. (When consciously imitated, as in The Waste Land, the method seems to be a means of fouling the present by a continuous and highly romantic if not somewhat mad “parallel” with various pasts and various traditions. Any slander upon life as it is routinely lived is antithetical to Joyce’s sensibility.) Eliot could respond to the intellectual qualities of Ulysses, and to its satirical passages, but he was not capable of responding to the heart of the work itself: a Mass or celebration of Dublin on June 16, 1904. One day being all days, one city being all cities, one “plot” doing as well as any plot, with characters, of course, continually walking through themselves (in Stephen’s words) “meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love,” but always meeting themselves. For God—whether the hangman God of Christianity or the ingenious Artist-God—is “doubtless all in all in all of us.” The highest and most spirited comedy is by necessity democratic—even anarchic. It celebrates life: the livingness of life, not its abstract qualities. Where Eliot saw the contemporary world as futile because disruptive of the past, Joyce, the realist-fantasist, the unparalleled mimic, gave life to these clamorous voices without passing judgment on them.
“I do not think that any writer has yet presented Dublin to the world,” Joyce said in a letter of 1905 (accompanying the ill-fated manuscript of Dubliners). The Dublin of his short stories did not satisfy him, for its “paralysis,” its “special odor of corruption” were only a part of the Dublin he remembered. Thus Ulysses: an immense sanctification of the city and its inhabitants, a dizzying kaleidoscope of images, a cacophony of voices, an unlikely harmony. The artist’s wish to remember perfectly, to transcribe the “reality of experience,” is heightened by his intense love for his own background and for the fast-fading voices of his father’s world. The spirit of Dublin is the voice of Ulysses. All the narrators are aspects of this single voice: Dublin is important because it belongs to them, and it is through Dublin that the narrators achieve their own immortality. In Ulysses everything has its own way of speaking, its own music. People are not really distinct from the complex pattern of relationships that is the human world at any given moment nor are they distinct from the landscape itself, which will come more aggressively alive in Finnegans Wake.
Where tragedy demands a paring back of contingencies so that whatever fate overtakes the hero appears to be inevitable, comedy of the complex sort Joyce was attempting can appear to arise spontaneously out of accidents and misunderstandings—a good example being the “Throwaway” incident, when poor Bloom inadvertently gives Bantam Lyons a tip on the Gold Cup race and, hours later, finds himself an object of bitter resentment in Barney Kiernan’s pub. Comic fate is—as Bloom thinks in bed—”more than inevitable, irreparable.” It has more to do with local gossip than with the gods’ designs. There is something uncanny about Ulysses, the presence of ghost-narrators who impede or occasionally—as in the deadly “Eumaeus” chapter—actually distort the narrative, erecting a barrier between the reader and the characters, of whom he has become, rather fond as the long day unfolds. Had Ulysses ended with “Eumaeus” it would have been one of the most depressing works ever written, for in this chapter the narrator breaks down much of what the other narrators have created. Joyce, knowing himself a supreme stylist, is not afraid here to expose willfully his own methods by belaboring them. The overexplicitness of the chapter, quite apart from the chapter’s subjects of illusion and lies and “types” (W. B. Murphy and his tall tales; Bloom and his presentation of Molly as a “Spanish type”) risks undercutting all that has gone before. The brisk telegraphic “stream-of-consciousness” of earlier chapters is here slowed to a perverse, maddening tempo (“He began to remember that this had happened, or had been mentioned as having happened, before but it cost him no small effort before he remembered that he recognized …”) and the novel’s life-blood, its marvelously interrelated contingencies, is exposed and found to be commonplace after all (“Yet still, though his eyes were thick with sleep and sea air, life was full of a host of things and coincidences of a terrible nature and it was quite within the bounds of possibility that it was not an entire fabrication though at first blush there was not much inherent probability in all the spoof he got off his chest being strictly accurate gospel”). Is it possible that the anonymous narrators of Ulysses are meant to suggest supernatural presences, of the sort that are ubiquitous in Homer? If so, Athena in such chapters works a kind of counter-magic, undoing the splendors that have gone before. While tragedy must end at precisely the right moment, comedy can take us a little farther along; we are invited to observe the artist’s labor and even to comment upon it. Joyce populates a world and then shows it to be inside his head, a stratagem like one of Bloom’s.
Elsewhere, the narrators’ voices are recognizable as distinct from Joyce’s and there is no danger of our confusing them, nor is there any danger of their intruding upon the reader’s sense of the novel’s worth. The Gerty MacDowell sequence is too famous to require comment; Gerty is less experienced and less pragmatic than Molly, but it might be instructive to read her voice as a variation of the voice of the “sane full amoral fertilisable untrustworthy engaging limited prudent indifferent Weib.” As Milly is a younger version of Molly (the similarity of their names suggesting the short-hand characterizations of comic opera), so Gerty may be a virginal type of Molly; and her romanticism, clotted and pathetic as it is, calls to mind the more effusive passages of Giacomo Joyce. The narrator of the chapter knows Bloom, however, whom he calls—as all the narrators do—Mr. Bloom (in contrast to their more familiar “Stephen”). The narrator of the entr’acte chapter, “Wandering Rocks,” has anticipated Gerty MacDowell and her involvement with Bloom. In this chapter simultaneous events, though dispersed in space, intrude casually upon one another; it is as if the narrator himself were the wanderer, moving freely about Dublin and environs and seeing (without valuing that he sees) a dizzying profusion of interrelationships, some of which are not made clear for hundreds of pages. (We learn the identity of the “flushed young man” and the young woman with “wild nodding daisies” whom Father Conmee blesses much, much later, and the knowledge is inconsequential.) That the presiding spirit of “Nighttown” forces upon Bloom and Stephen images, phrases, and epiphanies not their own argues for its being a spirit of place rather than a means by which the “inner lives” of the protagonists are dramatized. For instance, Cissy Caffrey and Edy Boardman appear early in the episode, and they assuredly do not belong in “Nighttown” or in either Bloom’s or Stephen’s imaginations. Bloom’s witty “Shoot him! Dog of a christian! So much for M’Intosh!” is really out of Stephen’s imagination; the gnomic prayers of the Daughters of Erin which run lightly through the chapters of Ulysses cannot possibly spring out of Bloom; and the nonsense about the “secondbest bed” relates back to Stephen’s hypothesis concerning Shakespeare and his relationship with Ann Hathaway, and has nothing at all to do with Bloom. The vision of Rudy with which “Nighttown” concludes is generally held to be a serious one, Bloom’s own image of his beloved son as he would be had he lived; yet it seems to me that the vision is a mocking one, a grotesque parody of Bloom’s fatherhood. How can this “Rudy” be anything other than the narrator’s stylized invention, with which he confronts the wonder-struck Bloom as if wishing to free him of his sterile obsession?—
Against the dark wall a figure appears slowly, a fairy boy of eleven, a changeling, kidnapped, dressed in an Eton suit with glass shoes and a little bronze helmet, holding a book in his hand. He reads from right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page….
Gazes unseeing into Bloom’s eyes and goes on reading, kissing, smiling. He has a delicate mauve face. On his suit he has diamond and ruby buttons. In his free left hand he holds a slim ivory cane with a violet bowknot. A white lambkin peeps out of his waistcoat pocket.
Joyce’s favorite chapter is “Ithaca,” the “ugly duckling” of the novel. Rather repulsive when first read, “Ithaca” undergoes a curious metamorphosis with repeated readings (as does the “Cyclops” chapter, another masterpiece); a kind of hidden spirit springs to life and one begins to hear, beyond the prose surface, a truly engaging, mesmerizing voice. The narrator of “Ithaca” is ingenious: not to be confused with the moronic narrator of “Eumaeus.” Despite the late hour and the fatigue of Bloom and Stephen, the narrator is fully in control of the situation, a dazzling virtuoso, almost too prodigious. Joyce said of “Ithaca” that in this chapter “All events are to be resolved into their cosmic, physical, psychical equivalents…. Bloom and Stephen become heavenly bodies, wanderers like the stars at which they gaze,” and though these are profound and beautiful words, they refer mainly to the first part of the chapter and do not indicate the depth of the narrator’s involvement with Bloom as adorer of his wife. (“He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmelonous osculation.”)
“Ithaca” lent itself to continual expansion since its structure that of a mock-catechismal question-and-answer—does not depend upon ordinary narrative movement. Movement as such is in the background, shadowy and flitting and quite unsurprising (Bloom makes Stephen hot chocolate; they sit together in Bloom’s kitchen and talk; Stephen leaves); the subject of the chapter is really its technique, the narrator’s skill at extracting from his heroes’ particularity a sense of the general, the universal, the cosmic, that is both dwarfing and enlarging. The question-and-answer structure is by its very nature comic. In catechism books the humor is possibly unintentional: “Who made the world?” “God made the world.” etc. (The young communicant memorizes questions and answers both; he comes to see that there are no questions without immediate, perfunctory answers, and of course there are no answers without proper questions.) Read as a brilliant parody of the naturalistic inclination in Joyce and others, “Ithaca” can also be read as a sympathetic commentary on Bloom’s inner life, for it has been Bloom’s strategy throughout the day to offer up his painful situation as representative of the human condition. In this he is, surely, a bit of an artist (as he is, also, in remembering inaccurately the effectiveness of his challenge to the anti-Semite in Barney Kiernan’s): he takes on the role of Athena herself in altering his appearance for the better and thus disguising his own possibly tragic dilemma. He is, after all, a man whose father has committed suicide and whose only son has died, and he has been exiled from his immensely attractive—and “fertilisable”—wife for ten years, five months, and eighteen days. Even “mental intercourse” has failed him with Molly for the past nine months. But the narrator accommodates Bloom’s stratagem by relating his situation to the general, the “objective,” and in so doing underscores the absurdity of the process. The suicide note To my Dear Son Leopold is nearly smothered by an accumulation of miscellaneous junk—old postcards, old tickets, a recipe for the “renovation of old tan boots,” a prospectus of the Wonderworker, the world’s greatest remedy for rectal complaints. Bloom can also take heart that things are not worse than they are, for the narrator is quick to supply him with numerous unfortunate possibilities—
Reduce Bloom by cross multiplication of reverses of fortune, from which these supports [i.e., certain of his financial arrangements] protected him, and by elimination of all positive values to a negligible negative irrational unreal quantity.
Successively, in descending helotic order: Poverty: that of the outdoor hawker of imitation jewellery, the dun for the recovery of bad and doubtful debts, the poor rate and deputy cess collector. Mendicancy: that of the fraudulent bankrupt with negligible assets paying 1s. 4d. in the £, sandwichman, distributor of throwaways, nocturnal vagrant, insinuating sycophant, maimed sailor, blind stripling, superannuated bailiff’s man, marfeast, lickplate, spoilsport, pickthank, eccentric public laughingstock seated on bench of public park under discarded perforated umbrella. Destitution: the inmate of Old Mans House (Royal Hospital), Kilmainham, the inmate of Simpson’s Hospital for reduced but respectable men permanently disabled by gout or want of sight. Nadir of misery: the aged impotent disfranchised ratesupported moribund lunatic pauper.
(So brilliant is the narrator-technique of “Ithaca” that one can understand Faulkner’s having appropriated it, in part, and with his own necessary alterations, as one of the “voices” of Yoknapatawpha that has come to sound most Faulknerian.)
The narrator patronizes Bloom’s fascination with Woman, which is of course Joyce’s as well, and one of the novel’s central moments unites Bloom and Stephen as they gaze at the mystery of the “invisible” Molly, “denoted by a visible splendid sign, a lamp.” It is difficult to deduce Stephen’s attitude toward either Bloom or Molly. Some readers have felt that the young man is temporarily but sincerely “united” with Bloom, so that the fatherless son and the sonless father achieve a genuine intimacy, a communion; others have felt—perhaps cynically—that Stephen declines Bloom’s offer of a bed for the night because he is bored and impatient with Bloom. Certainly he has been rather curt with the older man; but Stephen is, as Buck has pointed out, an “impossible person,” not easy to love. His reaction to the photograph of Molly as a “Spanish type,” proudly shown him by Bloom in the cabman’s shelter, is equally difficult to interpret. He says the photograph is “handsome” but he is, perhaps, only being diplomatic; it is quite likely that he is embarrassed by her “symmetry of heaving embonpoint.” (The subtlety of this scene calls to mind the dramatic ironies of a similar scene in Proust: lovers showing photographs of their mistresses to each other and being quite astonished at the fact that neither woman is at all attractive to the man not her lover; i.e., not deranged in his judgment by love.) In Bloom’s garden, in the presence of the heaven-tree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit, and in the presence of the invisible mystery of Woman, each is silent, “contemplating the other in both mirrors of the reciprocal flesh of theirhisnothis fellowfaces.” But a moment later Stephen has gone and it seems quite likely, despite their plans, that they will not meet again. Alone, Bloom feels “the cold of interstellar space”: he is once again Bloom, a quite ordinary mortal.
Moonstruck, womanstruck, Bloom has no choice but to accept his situation. His “slaying of the suitors” is his greatest stratagem—he destroys them by destroying in himself (in contrast to Odysseus’ lust for violence) any desire for revenge; he makes of his wife’s lovers mere heavenly bodies, impersonal, inhuman, as deluded as he himself has been, each imagining that he is the sole lover when he is, in fact, only the “last term of a preceding series.” But Bloom’s philosophizing is continually mocked or at least qualified by the ghostly narrator who presides over “Ithaca.” Surely the list of Molly’s lovers is an unlikely one—? In her soliloquy she dwells upon only a few of these men and it isn’t at any time clear what her relationship has been with them—even Blazes seems to be new to her, adultery itself possibly a new experience, since she says “anyhow its done now once and for all with all the talk of the world about it people make its only the first time after that its just the ordinary do it and think no more about it.” Bloom, however, teases himself with or is teased by a catalogue of lovers—
Assuming Mulvey to be the first term of his series, Penrose, Batell d’Arcy, professor Goodwin, Julius Mastiansky, John Henry Menton, Father Bernard Corrigan, a farmer at the Royal Dublin Society’s Horse Show, Maggot O’Reilly, Matthew Dillon, Valentine Blake Dillon (Lord Mayor of Dublin), Christopher Callinan, Lenehan, an Italian organgrinder, an unknown gentleman in the Gaiety Theatre, Benjamin Dollard, Simon Dedalus, Andrew (Pisser) Burke, Joseph Cuffe, Wisdom Hely, Alderman John Hooper, Dr Francis Brady, Father Sebastian of Mount Argus, a bootblack at the General Post Office, Hugh E. (Blazes) Boylan and so each and so on to no last term.
Which leaves the matter quite unclear: genuine acts are smothered by masochistic (or perhaps self-serving) fantasy.
The voice of “Ithaca” contrasts sharply with the voice of Molly in the novel’s concluding chapter. Molly is matter-of-fact, not very mysterious to herself, highly perceptive in ways that relate to her marriage, frequently comic but without a sense of humor; she is an Earth Goddess of sorts, but really an ordinary heavy-set woman in her mid-thirties, whom the men of “Ithaca” have interpreted according to their own needs and who is therefore “invisible” to them. Some of Joyce’s most compelling prose is launched in the service of this misapprehension; does the poetic impulse itself depend upon imaginative projection, a defiant remaking of earthy reality into something rich and strange? Joyce’s well-known remark to Frank Budgen in a letter about Molly as the transpersonal Weib suggests that he stands with Bloom in the garden, under the spell of the unattainable female:
What special affinities appeared to him to exist between the moon and woman?
Her antiquity in preceding and surviving successive tellurian generations: her nocturnal predominance: her satellitic dependence: her luminary reflection: her constancy under all her phases, rising, and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning: the forced invariability of her aspect: her indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation: her potency over effluent and refluent waters: her power to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite to and aid delinquency: the tranquil inscrutability of her visage: the terribility of her isolated dominant implacable resplendent propinquity: her omens of tempest and of calm: the stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence: the admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence: her splendour, when visible: her attraction, when invisible.
Bloom and the rhetoric his infatuation inspires slip into unconsciousness; the “unusually fatiguing” day comes to a close. Consciousness itself, the activies of Dublin’s men, is woven daily and then unravelled by the night, only to be taken up again the next morning … and unravelled again the next night. It is hardly an accident that Joyce, with his conventional mistrust of “the female,” should assign to Molly the comic last word of Ulysses. What better way to level the pretensions of men than by having the most ordinary of Dublin voices carry us out of the novel? Molly slips into sleep and then awakes, slips into sleep and again awakes, seven times, and the eighth time falls asleep and into a dream of her seduction of Leopold Bloom (“well as well him as another”), which seems to have taken place while her mind was far distant: “I wouldnt answer first only looked over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didn’t know …” and the novel comes to an end on a note that is both tender and comic, mildly cynical and sentimental.
* * *
The impulse of comedy is gregarious; it is really comedy, rather than tragedy, that “breaks down the dykes” between people (to use Yeats’s expression) and unlooses a communal music. Inherent in a multivoiced composition like Ulysses is the sense that individuals are most themselves when fulfilled in relationships with others: Leopold Bloom and Simon Dedalus, for instance, two “fathers” of a sort, become Siopold and are consumed/consummated in the most musical chapter of Ulysses, the “Sirens,” through the power of music. It is the human voice, regardless of what it says, that is important to Joyce; he gives to Simon Dedalus a remark that was probably John Joyce’s—”It [music] was the only language.”
Many voices, many intonations; many narrators struggling to impose upon the world their own interpretations; an opera-like work that is best appreciated if read and reread, aloud if possible, with an awareness of the “jocoseriousness” that underlies each passage. What does Ulysses mean… ? A fabulous artifice. A stratagem. A novel to complete the tradition of the novel. As Stephen instructs himself while trying to impress his skeptical audience in the National Library: “Local color. Work in all you know. Make them accomplices.” Magnificent as it is structurally, it lives in its passages, its speeches, its moments of harmony and collision. Perhaps it is a masterpiece of gossip; Joyce might have been most pleased to hear his readers, so many decades later, still asking questions about his characters. Out of the din of so many voices there arises, irresistibly, a sense of the hilarious nature of the universe. Much is suggested, very little is actually stated. We come away from the novel as we are likely to come away from life itself, with numerous teasing, maddening, unanswerable questions—
How many lovers did Molly Bloom really have?
Who was M’Intosh?
What happened in Westland Station?—did Stephen fight with Buck Mulligan and hurt his hand?
Where does Stephen sleep after leaving Bloom?
Was Bloom really—as the mean-spirited narrator of “Cyclops” says—involved in some sort of illicit “Hungarian lottery”?
Can it be true—as Molly says—that Bloom sent Milly away so that she and Blazes could become lovers at 7 Eccles St.?
If Molly is “fertilisable” will she have another baby?
Will she really take Italian lessons from Stephen?
Whose “fault” is it that Bloom has been sexually estranged from Molly for over ten years?
Is Bloom really a Freemason?
What did Molly and Bartell d’Arcy do together on the choir stars?
Who was M’Intosh and who was the dead lady he loved?
Will Molly really bring Bloom eggs for breakfast?—more than once?