James Joyce – an overview and Ulysses

James Joyce

This is an overview of James Joyce from Professor Cóilín Owens.   

Owens is a dedicated Joycean scholar, and a native of Roscommon. His lecture is excellent, combining vast knowledge and entertaining insight with his own earthy Irish qualities.


Ulysses is one of the master works of modern literature. It is an original book. Born 1882 – 1941. Irish middle-class, Catholic family. Educated in Clongowes Wood. Majored in French and Italian in UCD. Tried studying Medecine in Paris. Gave it up. Lived in Trieste, Zurich, Rome briefly, then Paris. Took him 7 years to write Ulysses, the book appeared in 1922 on his 40th birthday. ‘ I have now invented myself as a full-scale writer’. A coming of age, and Ulysses is about that.

Joyce modelled his life on Dante. Studied Dante in college. He thought Dante wrote according to the Gold-standard. Dante believed that we are emanations of a divine order.

Joyce was recognised from childhood, as having enormous gifts, musical and lingustic in particular. Spoke many languages, fluent in 5 or 6 but knew over 20 to varying degrees. Loved Opera. Total recall of Dante, Opera, Yeats. Extraordinary memory.

Ulysses is the relationship between youth and middle-age. Stephen age 22 represents how Joyce saw himself. Bloom is 38, is a real man, has suffered life’s knocks, a whole person. Not a hero, but is a hero of Joyce’s book. Bloom has survived. The book is about maturing. Growing up. The dialogue between Joyce’s past and present. Also about the relationship between Father and Son. Stephen is looking for a Father figure. To become a man.

Bloom cannot be typecast as an Irish man. He is an international figure. Does not belong to a tribe. Bloom represents the intelligent, sensual, responsible man. A good person. An advertising salesman. Molly Bloom represents the body.

Joyce is writing a democratic book, one that celebrates any one of us. He is suspicious of heroes. The virtues of the ordinary person are relevant to us. And Joyce had this very much in mind when he created the character of Leopold Bloom. Religious belief AND unbelief is another theme of Ulysses. The Stephen/Bloom comparison.

Joyce wants to make Dublin the centre of the world. Freeing Ireland. We all live in a real place. It is as authentic and credible a place as any other. 16 June 1904, the day Nora Barnacle said ‘ Yes ‘. Ulysses is his wedding ring to Nora. Joyce would go to the Opera, even if the children were hungry. Ulysses is fully true to the events of the day. Greek blue cover. Ulysses is the Irish epic, as Homer to Greece and Virgil to Rome, but in modern terms.

Joyce discovered the Gospels were unreliable. They didn’t all agree with one another. This contributed to Joyce’s crisis of faith as a young man. Parallels and mimics the Odyssey by Homer. Odysseus is an all-round man – as is Bloom. A pacifist though. Bloom is a Humane, kind, thoughtful person.

The concealed narrator. No accidents with Joyce, never chaotic, everything has an explanation. 90,000 different words in Ulysses. Neologisms. The Isle of Dreadful thirst = Ireland. Ringsend = broken barrels. Human shells.

So many narrative structures. It can be read on different levels. This a real poet writing. Original. Highly intelligent. When asked about the apparent trivial nature of some of the detail of Ulysses, Joyce replied .. ‘ Yes, some are trivial, and more are quadrivial ‘ .

Joyce changes the game. Old and new testaments. Greek and biblical structures. Joyce is not telling us how to live. You have to make judgements all the time. The book as a whole has meaning, has order – like the universe. Ulysses is extremely smart. Literary judgements, enabled by your knowledge of literature. For example, the Shakespeare scene.

Ulysses is learned and elite. A universal book and an internationalist book . The book of the 20th century. Ulysses is Joyces contribution to Irish Freedom. He is liberating us from ignorance and complacency. He wants to make Ireland european, make us world citizens. He is guarded against any types of mass-movement – Catholicism, Nationalism, Marxism, Feminism etc.

He has set out to rival the bible, to write a book that is equally complex. There is no obvious plot or plot solutions in the book. Unresolved issues, like our own real lives. Joyce is sceptical about conversion stories or changes of heart. The slow processes of daily life. How we chip away at problems we have, improving on one area, but slip back then in another. It is universal in that sense.

He was vastly read, but he had narrow actual experience of life. Hardly travelled. Stream of consciousness. Interior monologue. Highly inter-textual. A book of quotations. Built by a master tactician. Highly disciplined book. Deep orders. Imitating the divine creator of the world. Mercantile language and the language of the literary tradition. Stephen-Bloom.

Joyce respected the poetry of the working classes. The art of the illiterate. They have the same conflicts as everyone else. Everyone has the dignity of their suffering and their loves. All people are dignified human beings in that sense. Very democratic. That is one of the themes of the book. All respected in different ways.

Joyce really loved Wagner, and Verdi. He regarded Wagner as a serious artist, like himself. Ulysses is full of all kinds of language, from grafitii to the highest level of intellectual discourse. Not chaotic, not cynical, not a leg-pull. Very funny book.

Joyce is such an encyclopedic writer. He has put as many puzzles in the book as will keep the professors busy for centuries. Joyce leaves certain things out. The final mystery of why we exist is unknown to us. We can fill in that gap with God, or we can take the agnostic view that it is unknowable. To believe or not believe. Joyce leaves it poised – you can decide. Bloom was a deep sceptic. Bloom is not Joyce’s answer to the question, but part of the dialogue. The spirit of the novel is something other than, Stephen/Bloom/Molly. That arranger or organiser of the thing, is the equivalent of God. You can’t quote Bloom and say that’s Joyce.

Ulysses brings us into contact with all the fundamental questions that serious people worry about, but in a way, that no one has matched. The linati schema, and he also had a map of Dublin, moving all the characters around, knowing where every character was at all times. He had schemas.

Joyce had an astonishing memory. Jealous and competitive, stinging in his praise of other artists. Felt threatened by Proust. Despite the appearance of the word ‘fuck’ in Ulysses, Joyce was very gentlemanly in his own speech and conversation. Joyce thought about becoming a Jesuit himself, was invited to, but declined. Joyce’s work is the highest emulation or expression in human culture of mystery. His work is an emulation of that. A divinely empowered book.

The joke about Ireland being the only place in the world with 2 capitals, and neither of them in it – London and Rome.

– Deireadh –