The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit • Ulysses, James Joyce - Breaking With Tradition • 1900–1945

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit • Ulysses, James Joyce
Breaking With Tradition • 1900–1945




Stream of consciousness


1913—27 Marcel Proust, in his seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, delves deep into memory and the free-floating associations that help to shape the content of consciousness.

1913—35 Fernando Pessoa labours on The Book of Disquiet, the existential meanderings of a Lisbon clerk — illuminating fragments of thought and art.


1927 In To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf moves back and forth between narrative omniscience and stream of consciousness.

1929 William Faulkner uses stream of consciousness in The Sound and the Fury, entering the minds of three very different brothers.

Literary critic and poet Ezra Pound declared 1922 to be the start of a new era, asserting that the old one had ended when James Joyce wrote the last words of his novel Ulysses. The “year that changed everything” was bookended by the publication of Ulysses and of T S Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, two towering achievements of Modernist literature.

Exploding the genres of realist fiction and poetry, both works mined, out of the depths of their authors’ astonishing originality and serious artistic and moral purpose, a new kind of literary ore. In the bleak years after World War I, Joyce, Eliot, and other writers set about forming a new culture out of the fragmented remains of the old. Literature would never be the same again.

"Dislike that job. House of mourning. Walk. Pat! Doesn’t hear. Deaf beetle he is."


Stream of consciousness

One approach Modernist writers adopted to disrupt narrative realism was stream of consciousness. In fiction, stream of consciousness is a representation of the flow of a character’s thoughts, perceptions, and feelings. While long passages of introspection can be found in much earlier works such as the epistolary novel Pamela (1740) by Samuel Richardson, fiction at the turn of the 20th century went further. Henry James and Marcel Proust moved towards greater subjectivity of viewpoint, in terms of both subject matter and its formal treatment.

The first full-blown use of interior monologue in fiction is thought to have been in a short novel, Les Lauriers sont coupés (“The laurels are cut down”), by Édouard Dujardin, published in 1887. Joyce famously picked up a copy of this book at a Paris railway station kiosk in 1903.

The style has been linked with the rise of psychology as a science, and indeed the phrase “stream of consciousness” was coined by the philosopher and psychologist William James (brother of Henry) in The Principles of Psychology (1890).

The term was first applied in a literary context to an early stream-of-consciousness novel in English, Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs (1915), which used the technique to explore the idea of a feminine prose.

With Ulysses — the most famous and influential example of stream-of-consciousness writing — Joyce made the sustained literary leap out of traditional narrative techniques into conveying the mind of the character directly, unmediated by the author. Virginia Woolf, too, began experimenting with stream of consciousness soon after, notably in Mrs Dalloway (1925).

To register the complexity and subtlety of the interior mental process, from conscious to almost unconscious thought, these writers followed loose, often metaphorical, associations of words and phrases, as well as inserting ungrammatical constructions and omitting definite or indefinite articles.

Joyce abandoned complete coherence for the realism of the interior monologue, although the flow of thoughts may indirectly evoke action. “Postal order stamp. Postoffice lower down. Walk now” suggests that Leopold Bloom, walking through the city in Ulysses, is reminding himself of what he needs to buy and where to buy it.


Ulysses takes place on a single day, 16 June 1904, in Dublin, in the course of which its three protagonists cross paths with each other and a variety of other characters the city.

"Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love."


A June day in Dublin

The entire action of Ulysses takes place in and around Dublin on 16 June 1904 (now celebrated as “Bloomsday”), as three main characters cross paths: Stephen Dedalus, a teacher and would-be writer, aged 22; Leopold Bloom (usually just referred to as Bloom in the text), an advertising canvasser, half Hungarian-Jewish and half Irish, aged 38; and his wife Molly, a singer, aged 34, whom Leopold rightly suspects of having an affair with a man-about-town known as “Blazes” Boylan. The novel teems with other characters, too, and a kaleidoscopic portrait of Dublin emerges out of the inner lives of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly, in a quarter of a million words of microscopically detailed invention.

The principal settings are a habitable defensive tower, a school, a beach, a house, a butcher’s shop, a graveyard, a newspaper office, a library, a funeral parlour, a concert room, a tavern, a hospital, a brothel, and a cabman’s shelter, as well as Dublin’s city streets.

Laying bare the multiplicity of thoughts, emotions and actions (including bodily functions) that take Stephen, Bloom, and Molly through their day and night, Ulysses makes the private public on a scale never before undertaken in fiction.

The opening chapters form a bridge with Joyce’s earlier, auto-biographical novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is the story of Stephen Dedalus gaining the confidence to liberate his talents from the conformist pressures of the Catholic Church, his upbringing, and country. In Ulysses, Stephen is first shown in the morning, verbally jousting with cynical quasi-friend Buck Mulligan, in the tower where they live on Sandycove. He thinks back to his mother on her deathbed and guiltily reflects on his refusal, on atheistic principle, to pray for her. He then teaches a history lesson and walks on the beach.

The novel then shifts back in time to 8am and enters full “stream-of-consciousness” mode as the reader follows Leopold Bloom planning breakfast at home, shopping at the butcher’s, and then cooking the meal and taking a tray upstairs to Molly. Joyce uses stream of consciousness to varying degrees to relate the experiences of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly, although to move the action forward in any particular passage, he skilfully interweaves stream of consciousness and third-person narrative.


Bloom and the real world

Naturalism, or “scientific” realism, had become the lifeblood of the novel in mid-19th-century France, especially in the fiction of Émile Zola, who presented life’s seamier aspects in meticulous detail. Later French writers such as Henri Barbusse, in Under Fire (1916), deployed brutal realism to describe the appalling horrors of World War I.

Ulysses, which Joyce began writing in 1915, belongs to this tradition of novelistic candour — although Joyce’s spiritual ancestor was less Zola, whose naturalism was pessimistic and didactic, than Zola’s 16th-century compatriot François Rabelais — a writer whose broad comedy and fascination with the excesses of the carnival Ulysses parallels in certain sections.

Leopold Bloom is one of the most fully realized characters in all fiction. He is what the French call “un homme moyen sensuel” — an average man with the usual appetites — intelligent but far from intellectual. He has a genial character and shows a liking for comfort and a desire to avoid confrontation. When he is first introduced, the easy relationship he enjoys with his own bodily functions and with at least some people within his social milieu sets him apart from the cerebral, spiky Stephen, whose monologue on the beach in the third episode begins: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more.” Compare the first sentence of Bloom’s stream of consciousness: “Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full.”


The Martello Tower with its “gloomy, domed livingroom” is where Stephen Dedalus pursues a writer’s life with “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” and “ponderous Saxon” Haines.

Panoply of styles

As the novel progresses, many other prose styles interweave with stream of consciousness and naturalism. Episode 13, for instance, parodies sentimental women’s fiction, beginning with the words, “The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace”. Bloom, relaxing at dusk on the beach, masturbates at the sight of a young woman knowingly revealing her legs. The narrative’s formulaic, rose-tinted romanticism provides an ironic counterpoint to his seedy voyeurism.

In the following episode, when Bloom visits a maternity hospital, Joyce uses a sequence of different literary styles, a pastiche of English literature that draws on Anglo-Saxon, Chaucer, Samuel Pepys, and Thomas De Quincey. For some readers, this is Joyce at his most alienatingly erudite.

Episode 15 is a phantasmagorical play set in Dublin’s red-light district, Nighttown, where Bloom’s repressed masochistic fantasies and Stephen’s guilt over his mother are reflected in vivid, dreamlike tableaux. In its dissolution of space and time and its rapid succession of hallucinations — for example, Bloom giving birth to “eight male yellow and white children”, and the poet Tennyson appearing in a Union Jack blazer and cricket flannels — the fantasy is deeply unsettling. In a nightmarish scene, Bloom acts as Stephen’s protector when he is gripped by a petrifying hallucination at a brothel.

In part, Joyce was inspired by Dada — a surrealist movement that rejected reason and logic, which the young artists of the Cabaret Voltaire founded in Zurich (Joyce’s home at the time) in 1916. The influence is particularly evident in this episode. Like the Dadaists, Joyce set out to shock the public with a deliberate offensive against conventional standards of taste and propriety.

There follows an episode that takes the form of a catechism — an extended question-and-answer dialogue — that is used to convey an account of Bloom and Stephen repairing together to Bloom’s house for cocoa. It is here that Bloom and Stephen come closest to empathy. The analytical, exhaustively cataloguing manner in which events are related acts as a counterpoint to the subtle affinity the two feel towards each other.

"Id have to get a nice pair of red slippers like those Turks with the fez used to sell or yellow and a nice semitransparent morning gown that I badly want like the one long ago in Walpoles only 8/6 or 18/6…"


Molly Bloom’s soliloquy

The final chapter of Ulysses is a masterpiece of stream-of-consciousness writing. It reveals the intimate thoughts of Molly Bloom in the night, lying in bed on the verge of sleep. Until this point, Molly has been seen through the eyes of her jealous husband, Leopold. The shift in viewpoint, to the feminine, is one of the most brilliant in modern literature.

Having depicted the city’s patriarchal culture, in which women play an indispensable role as wives, mothers, and prostitutes — sources of emotional nourishment and physical satisfaction — without their voices being heard, Joyce now restores the balance by giving Molly her own voice. Allowing his female protagonist to have the last word (an affirmative “yes”, repeating the connective “yes” she starts with) is a testament to Joyce’s all-inclusive imagination. However, some feminist critics see Molly, in her passivity, as a creature of male misconceptions.

As Molly lies in bed, away from all stimuli, the interior monologue can attain its purest form, without narrative interruptions. Punctuation is abandoned. Recollections jostle together. Frank language, with earthy colloquialisms, gives way to a memory of her youth in Gibraltar and her later passionate courtship by Bloom, expressed in the style of romantic fiction. This style is not purely a literary device but part of the inner language of Molly’s romantic, though fleshly, sensibility.

"Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, oos."


Myth and modernity

Linguistic experimentation is not the only literary technique that underpins this multi-layered book. The title, Ulysses, is the clue to an elaborate symbolic sub-structure. “Ulysses” is the Latin-derived name for Odysseus, the Greek king of Ithaca, who, in Homer’s epic the Odyssey, spends 10 years after the Trojan War as a wandering adventurer, before returning home. Joyce identifies Leopold Bloom with Odysseus, and equates Stephen with the king’s son, Telemachus, who in the first four books of the Odyssey searches in vain for his lost father. He associates Molly with Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, who believes that her husband is still alive and will return to her.

Each of the 18 episodes of the novel (sometimes called chapters) corresponds with an adventure from Homer’s epic. The first three episodes focus on Stephen, and follow a structure that echoes the Odyssey. In the third episode, Stephen questions the institution of fatherhood while thinking about a discussion in a library. The passage translates Telemachus’s predicament as a son without a father into an abstract debate on modern notions of the father—son relationship.

In episode 12, the Cyclops, a one-eyed giant from whom Odysseus escapes in the Odyssey, takes the form of an aggressively xenophobic patriot who argues vociferously with Bloom. The narrow chauvinism of the “citizen” mirrors the Cyclops’ limited vision. Later, the unnamed narrator tells of a chimney sweep who “near drove his gear into my eye”.

The thematic value of the Homeric parallels is strongest in the mythic roles given to Stephen and Bloom. Stephen is unconsciously seeking a supportive father figure, so he can become a father himself, both of children and of art. Passages on the Holy Trinity, which contains the most complex of all father—son relationships, and on Shakespeare’s Hamlet — torn apart by vengeful thoughts about his father’s murderer, who is now his own stepfather — add layers of meaning to Stephen’s quest. Conversely, Bloom (whose son, Rudy, died 11 years earlier, a few days after his birth) has a deep psychic need for a son. This adds poignancy to the Odysseus—Telemachus dynamic.

Bloom and Stephen, after several near-misses, encounter each other by chance at the Holles Street Maternity Hospital; the associations of the place with birth and parenthood are no accident. Bloom in due course saves Stephen from getting arrested after a fracas in Dublin’s red-light area. When, later that night, they sit drinking cocoa together in Bloom’s kitchen, Stephen glimpses the past in Bloom, while Bloom sees the future in Stephen. It is typical of Joyce’s fictional subtlety that this mutual recognition is a fleeting suggestion rather than an obvious climax.

Joyce’s Homeric framework, as well as providing a set of symbolic correspondences, also allowed him to imply that Bloom, the ordinary man and good citizen, could be credited with a heroic dimension. This is the heroism, or antiheroism, of the everyday, conducted largely within the mind, the arena of an individual’s fears and longings. It is here that he combats jealousy, anger, boredom, shame and guilt, and cherishes the hope and love that give life its meaning.


In Odysseus and Circe (1590) by Bartholomeus Spranger, the witch goddess uses her powers to seduce the hero — paralleled by Bella Cohen’s teasing of Bloom in Ulysses.

"He heard then a warm heavy sigh, softer, as she turned over and the loose brass quoits of the bedstead jingled."


Exile and belonging

After the closing paragraph of the novel, Joyce left a reminder of his own Odyssean journey as its writer: “Trieste—Zurich—Paris, 1914—1921”. While aware of himself as an artist operating in a cosmopolitan milieu, he also felt the tug of exile. Living abroad made it possible for him to recreate Dublin in all its vulgarity and vibrancy as the home of his imagination. Back in 1904, when the book is set, political feelings were running high, after the failure of Home Rule — an attempt to make Ireland self-governing. In the year of Ulysses’ publication (1922), after a bloody civil war, the Irish Free State was formed. Reflecting these political realities, the characters of Joyce’s fictional Dublin are full of anxieties about their relationship with institutions: Irish nationalism, the British Empire, the Catholic Church, and the Irish Literary Revival. While Ulysses presents the details of individual experience with unprecedented frankness, it is also unflinching in its portrayal of a restless microcosm of Irish society.

However, all themes in Ulysses are subordinate to the living richness of its fictional world. The vitality of the novel comes from the life invested in it, which fights back against the book’s elaborate literary artifices. At the core of this — the most self-consciously artful novel since the playful experiments of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in the mid-18th century — are the lives and loves of Dubliners, realized with amazing verisimilitude.




Born in a suburb of Dublin, Ireland, in 1882, James Joyce was brought up in poverty after his father lost his job as a tax collector. Joyce read English, French, and Italian at University College Dublin, then moved to Paris, intending to study medicine. He returned to Dublin after his mother died, scraping a living reviewing and teaching. Joyce eloped with Nora Barnacle in 1904 and the couple moved to Zurich. Later, he got a teaching job in Trieste. His book of short stories, Dubliners, was published in 1914, the year before he began writing Ulysses. When sections of this novel appeared in the US journal The Little Review, the magazine was put on trial for obscenity. In 1920, Joyce moved to Paris, where he lived for 20 years. Here he wrote his dream-like late masterpiece, Finnegans Wake. In 1940, Joyce fled the Nazi invasion and went to Zurich, where he died in 1941.

Other key works

1914 Dubliners

1916 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

1939 Finnegans Wake

See also: OdysseyThe Waste LandIn Search of Lost TimeA Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManMrs DallowayThe Sound and the FuryThe Book of Disquiet