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Ulysses | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Ulysses | 10 Things You Didn't Know


James Joyce's Ulysses, first serialized in 1918 and published as a book in 1922, follows a day in the life of Leopold Bloom—one specific day, to be exact: June 16, which is now celebrated by Joyce fans around the globe as "Bloomsday." Bloom acts as an observer figure, leisurely walking the streets of Dublin while reflecting on his existence. Joyce brilliantly frames Bloom's narrative as a parallel to Homer's Odyssey, which tells of Odysseus's voyage home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. Just as the Odyssey has been held as a standard of classical literature for well over a millennium, Joyce's Ulysses is praised as the crowning achievement of the modernist movement, giving rise to stylistic techniques such as stream-of-consciousness writing and the use of psychology to define characters.

In Ulysses, Joyce employs a wide array of literary techniques that define the movement of modernism—a break in the established literary tradition that occurred in the 20th century. Ulysses has been called a "demonstration and summation" of modernism itself but has not been without controversy. Scholars still argue about the underlying meanings in Joyce's prose, particularly his use of multilingual puns, political references, and personal disclosure, and certain sexually explicit passages in the novel scandalized readers when it was published.

1. Joyce's inspiration for Ulysses came from a children's book.

As a child, Joyce was fascinated by Greek mythology and Homer's Odyssey and The Iliad, in particular. Long before he modeled a novel on the Greek hero's ordeals, he studied the tales of the Trojan War extensively. Joyce was particularly fond of a children's book about the Greek hero Odysseus titled Adventures of Ulysses, written by Charles Lamb. The Ulysses in Lamb's book was portrayed as an "everyman" figure who had to use his wits to maneuver around dangerous obstacles and situations in order to get home to Ithaca. Although depictions of Ulysses are varied in Western literature, Joyce was most fixated on Lamb's portrayal, calling the hero the only "complete all-around character presented by any writer ... a complete man ... a good man."

2. The character of Bloom in Ulysses was inspired by one of Joyce's closest friends.

Joyce incorporated personal experiences and acquaintances extensively in Ulysses. Some critics have argued that Joyce's character Leopold Bloom was written to be a literary manifestation of Joyce himself, but others claim Joyce modeled him on a close friend, Ettore Schmidt. Schmidt, who wrote under the pseudonym "Italo Svevo," was a fellow writer and good friend of Joyce. Bloom and Schmidt shared Jewish heritage, a sense of marginalization in European society, and the determination to navigate a culture they did not entirely feel a part of. Scholars also note that Schmidt was someone who Joyce felt genuinely encompassed the "good" qualities in humanity. After Schmidt's death, Joyce remarked that, "Before being a great writer, he was a great man."

3. Hundreds of copies of Ulysses were burned by the U.S. Postal Service.

Ulysses was not warmly received in the United States upon publication. The novel first appeared serialized in a magazine called The Little Review in 1918, but this publication faced swift obscenity charges due to the graphic content of the "Nausicaa" episode. The U.S. Postal Service burned copies of The Little Review and continued this trend when the text appeared in book form in 1922. During the early 1920s the Postal Service burned any copy of Ulysses that arrived on American shores.

4. Joyce set Ulysses on a specific, single day for his own romantic reasons.

Ulysses is set entirely during one day—June 16, 1904, to be exact. While this day was meant to hold a great romantic significance for Joyce's protagonist Leopold Bloom, it was also a memorable day for Joyce himself. The date that would later become the annual celebration of Bloomsday (a holiday dedicated to Joyce's writing, wit, and impact on Irish culture) was also the day Joyce first went walking with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. Although they wouldn't marry for 27 more years, Joyce recalled describing his literary dreams to Nora that day and proclaiming, "Is there one who understands me?"

5. The first publisher of Ulysses in book form almost went bankrupt because of the novel.

Ulysses was first published in book form by Sylvia Beach, owner of the renowned Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, in 1922. Before this the novel had been available in snippets to members of the Paris literary circle, and it had already generated a buzz among famous expatriate literary figures such as Ernest Hemingway. Beach was dedicated to publishing Ulysses and was a good friend of Joyce, but the costs to print the 730-page volume nearly bankrupted her—to the point where she created a subscription list in advance to offset costs. When New York's Random House bought the rights to the novel in 1932, Joyce did not share his hefty advance with Beach whatsoever, despite her help over the years. Beach reflected on her time working on Ulysses, stating:

I understood from the first that, working with or for Mr. Joyce, the pleasure was mine—an infinite pleasure: the profits were for him.

6. Ulysses was the subject of a landmark legal case in the United States.

In 1933 Ulysses was the subject of an obscenity trial targeting Joyce's sexually explicit "Nausicaa" scene, in particular. The judge, John M. Woolsey, declared Ulysses could not be banned on grounds of obscenity, setting a legal precedent that great works of literature could not be banned in the country for obscene content. After the ruling, a spokesman for Joyce relayed his opinion of the verdict, noting that, "Mr. Joyce finds the judge to be not devoid of a sense of humor."

7. Joyce actually lived in the Martello Tower that serves as a home for Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses.

In Ulysses protagonist Stephen Dedelus lives in the Martello Tower in Sandycove, Dublin, with roommate Malachi "Buck" Mulligan, an aspiring doctor. Joyce himself occupied the tower briefly while he was composing Ulysses, drawing a great deal of inspiration from his time there. He even lived with a medical student—Oliver St. John Gogarty, who would become a respected Irish surgeon and politician—during his stint in the tower. The Martello Tower is now known as "Joyce Tower," and it serves as a small museum honoring the author, with his small, cramped bedroom arranged just as it was while he was writing Ulysses.

8. A 1986 revised edition of Ulysses caused a literary scandal.

In 1986 an edition of Ulysses titled Ulysses: The Corrected Text, edited by Hans Walter Gabler, became the standard edition in print. This "corrected version" caused a great scandal in the literary community, as it made many changes and revisions that scholars felt Joyce would have resisted. One unfortunate change was that the name "Harry Thrift," who appears briefly during a bicycle race scene, was changed to "H. Shrift." Harry Thrift was a real person who Joyce knew and, like many of the author's acquaintances, had been included as a character in the novel for personal reasons. However, the editors lacked any input from Joyce on their edition, and therefore had no reason to resist such nominal alterations. The new edition also features changes to spellings of words that Joyce had used the contemporary forms of, changes in dates and times, and changes in grammar and syntax. Scholars still remain divided over the legitimacy of Gabler's edition, and the earlier edition has been reprinted and made available to readers.

9. The actual door to the Blooms' residence in the novel is on display in Dublin.

Joyce's protagonist Leopold Bloom and his wife, Molly, lived at No. 7, Eccles Street in Dublin, according to the novel. The actual door to this residence has been cherished as an artifact of great significance by Joyce scholars and fans, and it is on display at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. There was, at one point, controversy regarding the door. An "imposter" was put on display in New York, with one scholar claiming he'd stolen the door knocker from Dublin, as the building itself was deteriorating. The original door's validity was confirmed by the presence of its knocker, which matches Joyce's description.

10. A full radio play reading of Ulysses took more than 29 hours.

On Bloomsday—June 16, the holiday celebrating Joyce's achievements—1982 RTÉ Radio premiered a full-length reading of Ulysses to celebrate the centenary year of Joyce's birth. The radio reading of the novel took an astounding 29 hours, making it the longest radio program ever made at the time. The project's director, William Styles, explained the challenges of the recording, noting:

Then there were the logistical challenges—like recreating songs that existed only in Joyce's head and what to do with a held note sung by Simon Dedalus at the Ormond hotel lasting over two and a half pages in the text but five minutes on radio.

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