James Joyce, Ulysses - Reading with Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

James Joyce, Ulysses
Reading with Literary Theory

Reader Response * Cultural Studies * Poststructuralism

Each of the eighteen chapters ofJames Joyce's Ulysses (1922) is written in a different style and each invites different kinds of critical and theoretical attention. For a Reader-Response critic, the sheer diversity of styles, together with the often extreme experimentation that characterizes many of them, poses a major obstacle to even the most “informed” literary reader. The careful reader is caught off guard in the opening pages of the first episode, “Telemachus,” in which Stephen Dedalus and his friend, Buck Mulligan, eat breakfast and go for a swim. At one point, Mulligan is berating Stephen for not asking their English friend for “a guinea” in exchange for a witticism he had made about Irish art. In between two blocks of Mulligan’s reported dialogue we find the phrase, “Cranly's arm. His arm” (6). What is the reader to make of this enigmatic phrase interrupting an otherwise realistic passage of dialogue? ReaderResponse theory calls for an active intervention at this point; the reader must become a participant in the process of making meaning. Specifically, the reader must decode this fragment that appears to come from nowhere. It is not part of a third-person narrator's exposition of the scene. As Ulysses throws up more of these fragments, the reader soon realizes that they are bits (or streams) of conscious thought, the unmediated report of Stephen's own thinking process. The “ideal reader” implied by the styles of Ulysses would know that this phrase refers to Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), at the conclusion of which Stephen's friend Cranly tries to convince him not to leave the Church to pursue his artistic vision. Stephen regards this moment, like the moment in “Telemachus,” as an instance of betrayal. In both cases, betrayal comes in the form of glib attempts at intimacy. By solving the puzzles presented by textual gaps and complex knots of allusion, the reader grasps the narrative situation: Stephen has returned home from abroad to find his family fragmented and his place in society usurped by his friends.

A Cultural Studies approach to Ulysses is confronted with an embarrassment of riches. The novel depicts the actions of a single day, but the events of that day are drawn so vividly that the reader is tempted to believe Joyce's boast that Dublin could be rebuilt out of the pages of his book. It is not that Joyce describes Dublin scenes or landscapes particularly well - he does very little describing, actually - it is a question rather of reproducing cultural DISCOURSES within the texture of his narrative. A good deal of the stylistic innovation across the episodes has to do with this appropriation and parody of cultural codes. For example, in the first part of the “Nausicaa” episode, Gerty MacDowell is lounging on the strand and her experience is represented entirely in the language of fashion magazines, local folklore, and popular romance. She is a “sterling good daughter,” “a ministering angel too with a little heart worth its weight in gold” (291); she is “Greekly perfect” with hands of “finely veined alabaster.” But she also worries about “those discharges she used to get and that tired feeling” (286). Rather than present a character with the usual subjective “depth,” Joyce parodies depth in the mimicry of cultural codes. Gerty is in fact an advertisement for the products she uses, the magazines she reads, and the shops she patronizes. But even more than this, she advertises an attitude and by so doing becomes a symbol of new possibilities for young women in the West at the turn of the twentieth century. She becomes an icon of the independent, risque “seaside girl,” made famous in product advertisements and music hall songs. One of these songs, “Seaside Girls” (1899) by Harry Norris, wends its way throughout the narrative of Ulysses: “Those girls, those girls, those lovely seaside girls, /All dimples, smiles, and curls - your head it simply whirls!” It is a leitmotif, a thematic thread, but it also indexes cultural trends. Gerty is emotionally invested in the cultural image of the seaside girl, as is Leopold Bloom, who observes Gerty as she lounges on the strand, masturbating and meditating on the erotic representation of women: “Do they snapshot those girls or is it all a fake? Lingerie does it. Felt for the curves inside her deshabille. Excites them also when they're. I'm all clean come and dirty me” (301-302). It should come as no surprise that cultural codes are gendered, that Bloom's commentary on and critique of Gerty's sexual roles is riddled with pornographic stereotypes and projections.

The appropriation of cultural codes in Ulysses is a specific effect of Joyce's more general critique of language, specifically as it is used in realistic fiction. On this view, the stylistic innovations of Ulysses deconstruct realism by exploiting the inherent playfulness of language. The Derridean conception of PLAY governs the text's stylistic DIFFERANCE. Freed from the burden of MIMESIS, of anchoring language to a referent outside the context of the narrative, Joyce's text is able to explore the possibilities of anchoring language in language itself. Another facet of Joyce's experimental style is INTERTEXTUALITY, a complex web of relations with other texts and traditions that is neither referential (or cita- tional) nor influential. Joyce contrasts these different kinds of relation in a passage that relies on intertextual links to Shakespeare:

Urbane, to comfort them, the quaker librarian purred:

- And we have, have we not, those priceless pages of Wilhelm Meister. A great poet on a great brother poet. A hesitating soul taking arms against a sea of troubles, torn by conflicting doubts, as one sees in real life.

He came a step a sinkapace forward on neatsleather creaking and a step backward a sinkapace on the solemn floor. (151)

This passage, at the beginning of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, introduces a reference to Goethe's novel, in which the influence of Shakespeare is a dominant theme, as well as a citation from Hamlet (“a sea of troubles”). The final sentence, with its evocative “sinkapace” and “neatsleather,” registers through intertextual echo two other Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar. There is no sense that the narrator who “speaks” such lines is referring to the external world. In keeping with the intertextual polyphony of the later episodes of Ulysses, Joyce here severs textuality from an existential ground. The final episode, “Penelope,” Molly Bloom's monologue, returns us not to an original ground, Molly's consciousness, but rather to another scene of representation, where language and identity become one and the same.


Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1990.