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Ulysses | Context


Early Invasions of Ireland and English rule

England and Ireland have had a long, tempestuous relationship that continues to modern times. This is the backdrop to James Joyce's Ulysses and permeates the narrative throughout. The 8th century saw the first large-scale raids of Ireland by Norsemen or Vikings. In the 12th century, England's King Henry II, at the urging of Pope Adrian IV, invaded Ireland to strengthen the position of the Anglo-Norman nobility there. Attempts at self-rule by the earldoms of Kildare, Desmond, and Ormonde and by the Anglo-Irish—the families of Anglo-Norman nobles who had intermarried with the Irish—continued until 1541, when the Irish Parliament recognized England's King Henry VIII as the sovereign of Ireland. This consolidation of English political and economic rule fueled centuries of resistance and struggle for Irish independence, and by the time Joyce was born it seemed as if the goal might be at last within reach.

Modern Irish History

The Act of Union, passed in 1801, was an attempt to quell Irish discontent and entrench English rule. The Irish Parliament was abolished, and Ireland was represented in the Parliament of the United Kingdom in Westminster, England. Over the course of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution and the Great Famine drastically changed the face of Ireland. The famine (1845–49), also called the Irish Potato Famine and the Great Hunger, came about after the island's staple crop, potatoes, developed a blight that destroyed the plants. The British reaction was inadequate, and landlords evicted their starving tenants. Poor rural farmers either died, went to work in the cities, or left Ireland altogether. Emigration continued after the end of the famine, and by 1911 the population of Ireland was half what it had been before the famine.

Meanwhile, Irish resentment against England grew into rebellion. In the 1870s and 1880s a more open movement for Home Rule—Irish control of Ireland—began. However, this effort suffered a major defeat when its leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, was ruined by an adultery scandal, an event that left a lasting impression on the young James Joyce. The parliamentary route to home rule remained stymied for decades, and on Easter Monday 1916, the Irish Republican Brotherhood openly rebelled and declared a provisional Irish government. After a week of street fighting, the leaders were forced to surrender. The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 split Ireland in two: six northern counties would become Northern Ireland, and the other 26 counties would become the Irish Free State. However, discontent remained high and civil war soon broke out again. Today, Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom.

Irish History in Ulysses

Ulysses was published in 1922; it is set in 1904, before the establishment of the Irish Free State. Ulysses reflects many of the passions and frustrations of Irish nationalists. The character Stephen Dedalus is prickly about English domination. He resents the condescension of the Englishman Haines, who speaks Gaelic (the language championed by Irish nationalists) and treats Stephen as a font of native Irish witticisms. Stephen is also critical of Haines's fatuous way of shrugging off English responsibility: "We ... in England ... have treated you rather unfairly," he says, but then adds, "It seems history is to blame." However, Ulysses also presents a critical portrait of Irish nationalists in the seething, demented, anti-Semitic "citizen" of the "Cyclops" episode. The style of the "Cyclops" episode also sends up Irish mythology and thus promotes a skeptical view of contemporary Irish nationalism. Ulysses has much to say about Irish history and politics, but it refuses to offer any simple, straightforward perspective on them.

Modernism and Ulysses

Modernism was a late 19th- and early 20th-century movement in many arts, including music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and literature. It especially flourished after World War I, predominantly in Europe and North America, though there was also a modernismo movement in Latin American literature. Modernism rejected the styles and forms of the past and sought to invent new ones, featuring characteristics such as

  • a focus on innovation and science as it changed the future and illuminated the past that combined with a growing skepticism regarding its potentially dangerous power;
  • an experimentation with accepted styles of art that yielded revolutionary new techniques such as stream-of-consciousness writing;
  • an interest in psychology; and
  • an interest in urban living and other forms of experimental art such as jazz music.

Joyce is considered one of the central authors of the movement, along with T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, and W.H. Auden. Mirroring the apparatus of footnotes in T.S. Eliot's 1922 poem The Waste Land, Joyce attempted to fulfill the modernist tenet to make the old new by circulating to his friends a dense and complicated "schemata" for Ulysses, detailing each episode's Homeric parallels as well as its central art, color, and so on. Ulysses also makes a mockery of traditional popular fiction. For example, the character Bloom times his defecation with the climax of a short story he reads called "Matcham's Masterstroke." Stephen parodies the pleasures of a dramatic fictional climax when he thinks to himself, "I have often thought ... that small act ... determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives."

Of Ulysses, T.S. Eliot wrote, "It is a book to which we are all indebted and from which none of us can escape." Ulysses is a monument of modernist literary invention. Joyce explores the consciousnesses of an ordinary man and woman as well as that of an educated, artistic young man. None of the three are heroic, however, and a climactic plot is avoided in favor of a meandering development. The novel eschews the dramatic resolution of conventional narratives for an ending that relies on hints, possibilities, and suggestions.

Stream of Consciousness

Ulysses is sometimes seen as the modernist masterpiece of a literary technique called stream of consciousness. Stream of consciousness represents a character's thoughts and sense impressions without using quotation marks or tags such as he thought to himself. The technique can include interior monologue, in which a character narrates thoughts to himself or herself. In the "Calypso" episode, for instance, Bloom thinks to himself, "Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry." The narrator does not say, "Bloom thought to himself, 'I'll have a cup of tea soon; that's good, because my mouth is dry.'"

Stream of consciousness, however, goes beyond an interior monologue of thoughts alone. It can include sensory impressions, such as Stephen's on the beach: "A point, live dog, grew into sight running across the sweep of sand." Nor is Ulysses limited to stream of consciousness as a narrative technique. Its later episodes branch out into increasingly radical experiments in style. One episode imitates a musical fugue; several passages are formatted as play scripts; and the "Wandering Rocks" and "Oxen of the Sun" episodes run through numerous styles, from translated medieval Latin prose to modern slang. The novel also parodies many styles from English literary history.

Treatment of Episodes

Ulysses was initially published without chapter numbers or chapter titles. The 18 chapters (called "episodes") still appear without titles in newer editions. However, Joyce named the episodes after people and events in Homer's Odyssey and sent this information to his friends. This study guide uses those episode titles and follows Joyce's division of the book into three parts: Telemachiad, Odyssey, and Nostos.

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