Category Archives: Ulysses Thoughts and Comments

I wrote Ulysses, what did you do?

It’s time for a little show-and-tell.  Matt from my Thursday group visited Dublin recently and shared several pictures from his trip.  This is my favorite, taken at the James Joyce Centre.  It’s a reference to the Tom Stoppard play, Travesties.  During an interrogation by the character Henry Carr, James Joyce is asked what he did during the Great War, and this is his reply: “I wrote Ulysses, what did you do?”

What a statement!  Let me pose another question: What did you read in the past year?  Answer: I read Ulysses, what did you read?


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Heading Toward the Finish Line

I am never going to run a marathon.  Even if I changed my mind one day, my knees would never agree to go through with it.  Though I’ll never join their ranks, I certainly admire marathon runners for their ability to power through physical pain and mental exhaustion.

I’ve always likened Mission Impossible: Ulysses to running a marathon for pretty obvious reasons: it’s  difficult (plain and simple), we’re pacing the reading over a relatively long period of time, and it’s easy to feel like giving up.  Plus, if you finish, you’ve won some bragging rights.

But alas, here we are with a few miles left to go on our reading marathon.  You might feel like these folks in the picture here, tired and wondering why you ever started the race in the first place.   I want to encourage you not to give up at this point.  There’s still time to pick up the novel and power through it.  For me, reading Ulysses has always been a discipline, not a warm, fuzzy, feel-good exercise.  My mind has been stretched and challenged.  Themes and ideas have lingered in my thoughts.  I’ve had flashes of joy, sadness, hope, and sheer hilarity.

I know that the only reason I’m 92% done with Ulysses is that I’ve had a lot of reading partners to keep me going.  Group meetings have been the best part of this journey, and the people I see each time are the reason I’ll be 100% done in a little more than a week.  After all, how many people finish a marathon alone?

So, my fellow readers, it’s time to run the last and hardest few miles of our journey.  I hope to see you at the finish line.


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Happy Birthday!

One of our group members reminded me that today marks the birth anniversary of James Joyce.  He was born in Dublin on February 2, 1882 – 129 years ago today.  Check out this article from to read more about his early life.

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An Island Where Long-Suffering Readers May Rest (As Long as It’s Not Aeolia)

Although this seems like a most depressing quote for us as we journey further into the belly of the beast, it resonated with me, and I wanted to share it with all of you.  It’s from a paper on Ulysses written by Carl Jung in 1934.  Thank you for sharing it with me, Jody.

“As far as my glance reaches, there are in those seven hundred and thirty-five pages no obvious repetitions and not a single hallowed island where the long-suffering reader may come to rest.  There is not a single place where he can seat himself, drunk with memories, and from which he can happily consider the stretch of road he has covered, be it one hundred pages or even less.”

Yet, unlike Dr. Jung, we fellow travelers on this journey do have an island upon which to catch our breath, share a laugh, and take a rest.  For some lucky travelers, that island happens to serve beer and a warm meal, and for others, it’s within a library.  So take heart and keep reading.  It’s not all suffering, and the tough few who make it through to the last page can share a fond memory of our year of Ulysses.

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Making Sense of Scylla and Charybdis

There’s no doubt that Episode 9 is amongst the most difficult we’ve encountered thus far.  I’ve read numerous analyses of it, only to find its meaning ever more elusive.  While I’m perfectly comfortable accepting the idea that I’ll never truly get it, I’d hate to just dismiss it as impossible and move on.  That’s why I’d like to offer a few random thoughts on it and hope it makes more sense.

  • Stephen only briefly alludes to the Scylla and Charybdis of The Odyssey.  Between all of the articles I’ve read, it seems that everyone has differing opinions on where these allusions pop up.  Some say A.E.’s philosophy is like a whirlpool, or it’s Shakespeare’s psyche, or whatever.  I’m not going to spend much time on this; instead, I’ll let the collective mind hash it out this week.
  • Other smart people had a lot to say about the significance of paternity in this episode, and how it was the central theme.  I can see that.  Think about it: Hamlet and his dead father; Shakespeare’s dead son, Hamnet; Stephen and his deadbeat dad; Bloom and his dead son, Rudy.
  • Then there’s a whole other thing about Shakespeare and how he inserted his life into his plays.  Richard Ellmann talks about how the characters in Hamlet were all projections of Shakespeare’s desire for revenge on his unfaithful wife.  Both Stephen and Bloom are like Joyce himself.  Perhaps in some ways, all the characters in this episode represent some fragmented aspect of Stephen’s own personality: he’s his own worst enemy.  Or maybe not.
  • Consider the theme of sundering and reconciliation.  Stephen suggests that reconciliation is not possible without a sundering.  But let’s consider sundering in more general terms.  An article I read – “Sundering and Reconciliation…” by John S. Hunt – speaks of sundering and reconciliation in terms of exile and return, “an alienation of the self from the world in which it lives, from other human beings […] while reunion signifies a process of projecting selfhood back into the empirical world and seeing its preoccupations and desires reflected and consummated there” (298).  This episode further demonstrates how Stephen is an outsider.  His writing was unwanted, his opinions were not shared by the scholars, and his former companion Buck treats him with scorn.  The question is How will Stephen be reconciled with himself and with the world?”

I wish I could offer something more coherent and connected, but I’m afraid this episode embodies its title.  To stray too far toward either interpretation seems unwise, so perhaps it’s time to do as Odysseus did: sacrifice a few sailors and move on.

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The Music of Joyce

While studying Stuart Gilbert’s analysis of Episode 11: The Sirens, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Joyce’s other love: music.  According to Gilbert, Joyce himself was a vocal prodigy of sorts, and if he hadn’t chosen the path of literature, he would have had a promising career in voice.  In fact, he came from a family of talented singers.  Episode 11 is certainly evidence that Joyce didn’t just abandon his musical gifts.  Throughout, you’ll find music everywhere:  his specific choice of words, the cadence of his prose, the episode structure, and the plot of the episode.

Chamber Music: James JoyceJoyce’s music lives beyond Ulysses.  When he was a young man, he penned a collection of love poems called Chamber Music.  According to Gilbert, Chamber Music “has been set to music by all classes of composers over and over again; one of the poems no less than seven times.”  Even today, Chamber Music continues to resonate in the music scene.  As I attempted to search for recordings of these poems, I stumbled across an NPR story covering a project to put all 36 verses of Chamber Music to, well, music.  The result of the project is a two-disc CD set that features the verses put to music by an assortment of independent musicians.  You can even listen to clips of this aptly titled compilation – Chamber Music: James Joyce – on  Listen to the full NPR story on All Things Considered via NPR’s website.  Just click on Listen Now.  If you’d like to peruse the pages of Chamber Music, we do own a copy here at the Main Library.

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A Diversion

To distract myself from reading, I created this for your amusement.  Enjoy.


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