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01378--Realism and Anti-Realism in the works of James Joyce


In turning to Joyce’s Ulysses, we confront a paradox: Although Joyce is in many ways the ultimate Realist, famed for his ability to capture the smallest details of daily life, he is not afraid to present himself as an enthusiastic anti-Realist. In the later chapters of Ulysses, Joyce experiments with radically different styles.  One chapter is set up like a newspaper, complete with boldface headlines; another recapitulates the history of the English language, taking us from the Middle Ages to modern times; yet another takes the form of a catechism. By devising and discarding so many different styles, Joyce undermines the authority of representation itself. It is this paradox, this simultaneous affirmation and negation of Realism, that sets him apart from other novelists and makes him one of the most important figures in our course.

Is Ulysses best described as a realistic work? What is its relationship to the tradition of Realism, and what is its place in the larger history of the novel?  To answer these questions, we will need to know more about the composition and publication of Joyce’s great novel.  Joyce began work on Ulysses when he was still in his early 30s. He and his wife had two small children—a boy, aged 9, and a girl, aged 7.  At this point, Joyce had not yet become a famous author. Indeed, he had only recently begun to find publishers for his fiction.  Four years passed between Joyce’s initial work on Ulysses and the publication of the first episode in The Little Review. Several of the early installments were confiscated and burned, and the entire work did not appear until February of 1922.


In turning our attention to the novel itself, we might consider its curious title, especially given that Ulysses doesn’t feature a character by that name.  Ulysses or Odysseus is an epic hero, the king of Ithaca and the central figure in Homer’s Odyssey.  As a schoolboy, Joyce had enjoyed reading a child’s version of the Odyssey, and he later described Ulysses as the “most human” figure in Western literature—a father and a son, a lover and a husband, a comrade and a king. Critics have found a similar humanity in Joyce’s central character, Leopold Bloom. Although Bloom is just an advertising salesman—not a king or a general—he is, like Ulysses, many-sided.  At times, Bloom is ridiculous and disgusting. At other times, he seems to be possessed of genuine courage.

 Because Bloom is Jewish, he is also a kind of outsider or misfit in Dublin. Neither Catholic nor Protestant, he has no particular stake in the quarrel between the Irish and the British. The parallels between Joyce and Homer can be extended well beyond the title of the novel.  Indeed, every character in Joyce’s novel has a counterpart in the Odyssey. For example, Molly Bloom can be likened to Penelope, wife of Ulysses.  Because these parallels are almost endless, they have inspired a number of critical questions. Was the story of Ulysses the only myth that could have served Joyce’s purpose? In drawing the parallel between his characters and Homer’s heroes, is Joyce pointing out a sad discrepancy between present and past?

The mythic parallel is not the only important structuring device in the novel.  The story is centered on a single day—June 16, 1904—now known as Bloomsday. Many later authors,  including Virginia Woolf, have followed Joyce in focusing on the events of a single day.  Because the opening chapters focus on Stephen Dedalus, Ulysses appears to begin as a sequel to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Since the end of A Portrait, Stephen has been to Paris and back. He is now working as a history teacher in Dublin.  Over the first few chapters, we watch as Stephen quarrels with his roommates, teaches his class, and walks on the beach. We also see that he is coming to terms with the recent death of his mother.

Later, the focus shifts to Bloom, who is in many ways the antithesis to Stephen.  Where Stephen is brittle, anxious, and unforgiving, Bloom is tender, comfortable, and generous.  We see Bloom first in his kitchen, following him around the corner to the butcher shop and, eventually, into the outhouse.

There are many connections between Stephen and Bloom, and the aim of the plot is to bring the two men together. Their paths nearly cross a few times, and they finally meet in a brothel, where a drunken Stephen provokes a fight with an English soldier.  After the police come to break up the fight, Bloom takes charge of Stephen, offering him a place to stay for the night. Stephen declines the invitation, and the two men part.

Ulysses ends not with Stephen or Bloom, however, but with Bloom’s wife, Molly, whose drowsy monologue consists of eight sprawling sentences.  Molly considers the possibility that her husband no longer cares for her, but she ends by recalling their first lovemaking, and her closing words (“yes I said yes I will Yes”) are unmistakably affirmative. Reunion and reconciliation, understanding and acceptance—all the familiar chords—are struck in this final chapter. The result is Joyce’s highly idiosyncratic version of a comedic ending.

Ulysses is a paradoxical work, especially in its attitude toward Realism.  In many ways, Ulysses is the ultimate Realist novel.  Through many years of work on Ulysses, Joyce constantly referred to maps, city directories, and newspapers. He also relied on his mother’s sister, writing to her for information about particular places in Dublin.  Joyce challenges himself to take in every aspect of life, including masturbation and menstruation. How realistic can earlier novels have been, he asks, if they excluded so many different things?

Joyce’s Realism takes in the mind as well as the city.  In his portrait of Bloom, he is especially eager to capture the mind’s quickness, to show how rapidly we take in and process new information.  Instead of presenting Bloom’s thoughts in complete sentences, as writers from Austen to James had done, Joyce works with short fragments. The scene at the butcher shop offers a good illustration of this technique.

Much later, Joyce moves in the opposite direction, working with run-on sentences instead of fragments. As we’ve noted, Molly’s monologue includes only eight sentences, yet it runs for more than 40 pages.  Despite the differences between Bloom’s fragments and Molly’s run-ons, Joyce’s project remains the same: to capture the workings of the mind. Yet although Joyce expands our understanding of Realism, he also presents himself as an “artificer,” or anti-Realist.  As he moves into the later chapters, he experiments with radically different styles. One chapter is set up like the pages of a newspaper, while another traces the development of the English language from the Middle Ages to modern times. By developing and discarding so many styles, Joyce undermines the authority of representation itself.  When reading a novel, Joyce reminds us, our relationship to reality is never immediate or direct. With his paradoxical attitude toward Realism, Joyce looks back to novelists from Richardson to Lawrence and points ahead to experimental writers, including Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, and Thomas Pynchon. There can be no doubt, then, that he deserves a central place in our understanding of the novel form and its history.


[Courtesy: Professor Timothy Spurgin]

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