Every year in Dublin on 16 June, people celebrate James Joyce’s 1922 novel, Ulysses, by re-enacting the journeys of its central characters, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. With many participants dressed in Edwardian period costumes, the day has an eccentric, circus-like quality to it. The precise setting of the novel is 16 June 1904, so this year promises to be the most extravagant celebration yet.
Many might be tempted to ask why. The novel features one day in Dublin at a time when it was a depressed regional city of the United Kingdom. Nothing very extraordinary happens to its characters: Stephen Dedalus, a recently bereaved young man with a poorly-paid teaching job, gets drunk with medical students and then has a violent encounter with British soldiers; Leopold Bloom, an early precursor of the media sales executive, attends a funeral in Glasnevin, calls in to his newspaper office, has lunch in Davy Byrne’s, gets into a row with some dreaded Dublin ‘characters’ and meets up with Stephen later on.
On the face of it, it’s hardly the sort of material that would light up the eyes of a commissioning editor in any publishing company. Readers who have cast this tome aside after the first couple of chapters constitute the majority among those who have picked the book in the first place. ‘Difficult’ and ‘boring’ are the chief reasons for failing to finish. And yet this novel has stood the test of time, towering over modern literature, inspiring generations of lesser mortals. The question is ‘why?’
One of Joyce’s most vociferous and eloquent advocates in Ireland is Senator David Norris, former lecturer at the English department in Trinity College Dublin. For him, Ulysses is a constant source of wonder and celebration:
‘It’s probably the greatest novel written in the 20th century – certainly in English – and one of the greatest works of the creative imagination ever. It’s a great humane, comic novel, which endorses wonderfully human values and celebrates the ordinary man.’
The ordinary man in this instance is Leopold Bloom. The title of the book derives from the Latin name of Homer’s hero, Odysseus; every episode of Bloom’s day corresponds to an event in Homer’s Odyssey, thus making heroic an ordinary man’s progress through mundane reality. One of the episodes in Ulysses, which Senator Norris points to as central to the construction of Bloom’s heroism, is the protagonist’s encounter with the barroom republican, the Citizen. Here, Bloom’s argument against a myopic, bigoted world-view, corresponds to Odysseus’s strike against the one-eyed monster, the Cyclops. In the midst of a heated debate on world politics, Bloom states:
‘It’s no use…force, history, hatred, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred…Everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life…Love.’
Senator Norris reads this statement as still depressingly relevant to Ireland today: ‘It’s the kind of message that we, in this country, are very slowly and painfully beginning to learn. Bloom is right: insult, injury, revenge, hatred – all these things are pointless and enmesh people in endless feuds and bloodshed. To understand the common humanity of people, struggling to make their relationships, their homes and families, to survive and create social networks and an understanding of the arts…I think Joyce’s message in that is very clear.’