Monday, August 30, 2010

Ulysses Read-along, Week 1: Episodes 1-4

Congratulations! You've survived your first week/experience with Ulysses!! How was it? Did you make it all the way through the first four episodes?

First, some notes on the novel as a whole.

The action of Ulysses follows Leopold Bloom through one day in Dublin - June 16, 1904. The novel begins around 8 a.m. and concludes later that night. Fans of Ulysses and Joyce celebrate Bloomsday on June 16 each year.

Joyce based this novel off Homer's The Odyssey, the story of Odysseus' journey, wanting to show life as a journey. Whereas Odysseus runs into all sorts of epic dangers and intrigues - gods, monsters, massive storms - Bloom's "journey" is full of the dreariness and humdrum events of the everyday - eating lunch, getting drunk, etc.

A few things to think about throughout the novel:

1) Parallels to The Odyssey
2) Mocking of religion - Joyce was raised Catholic and educated by Jesuits, but he gave up the faith once he reached adulthood
3) The Irish identity - The late-19th and early-20th centuries brought a renewal of interest in Irish nationalism, folklore and history
4) The search for a father/son
5) Remorse
6) Compassion as a heroic quality

There are many, many more themes and motifs and things to think about throughout this novel, but these are some of the biggies that I've run into in both my reading thus far and my research on this novel. Any others that you think should be added to the list?

Now, I'll give some of my thoughts on the episodes individually. Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts!

Episode 1: Telemachus

The first thing I noticed when stepping into this novel was how different the Stephen Dedalus we meet here is from the Stephen Dedalus we've left at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. That Stephen is overconfident, bohemian, and atheistic. We left him ready to take on the art world in Paris, but he has apparently failed to do just that in the two years between the close of Portrait and the opening of Ulysses, leaving him feeling a failure. In addition, Stephen has been rocked by the death of his mother, who asked him to pray over her deathbed. Stephen, no longer adhering to the church or any religious tendencies, refuses, leaving him with guilt that he still carries into the action of Ulysses.

There are a lot of references to Shakespeare's Hamlet in this episode, with direct parallels between Stephen and Hamlet. I just love any kind of Shakespeare references in literature. But where Hamlet broods over his uncle's murder of his father, Stephen broods over the loss of his mother. His mood isn't helped any by the cajoling of Buck Mulligan, who jokes that Stephen killed his mother by refusing to pray over her.

Perhaps the thing I noticed the most in this episode was the constant references to Irishness and Irish poets/history/folklore. Yeats is referenced constantly (Another thing that makes my geeky heart glad!), and Buck sings or quotes a few Irish folk songs. The Irish nationalism movement was big around the turn of the century, with Yeats leading the way trying to create a national literature. Sometimes, the constant referencing makes the narrative a little inaccessible, especially for anyone completely unfamiliar with Ireland, but a good annotation, and even an Internet search, helps a lot!

Episode 2: Nestor

Whew. Talk about an overload of things to think about! Two pages in, and I sat back in my chair and contemplated a little Aristotelian theory for a few minutes, mostly brought on by passages such as this:
It must be a movement then, an actuality of the possible as possible. Aristotle's phrase formed itself within the gabbled verses and floated out into the studious silence of the library of Saint Genevieve where he had read, sheltered from the sin of Paris, night by night. By his elbow a delicate Siamese conned a handbook of strategy. Fed and feeding brains about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my mind's darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds. Thought is the thought of thought. Tranquil brightness. The soul is in a manner all that is: the soul is the form of forms.

In the course of Stephen's lesson to his students, he thinks a bit about whether or not Pyrrhus and Julius Caesar were destined for greater things had they not been cut down in the prime of their lives. Was their destiny (and the destiny of others like them) just to become quickly rising stars snuffed out at the peak, or did one happenstance rob the world of the potential great things that could have happened?

There was a repeat of the near-constant focus on Irishness and maintaining and Irish identity in this episode, especially as Stephen talks with Deasy. Deasy babbles endlessly about historical events, blaming all the wrongs in the world on two major groups -- Jews and women. Instead of looking and moving forward, Deasy is stuck in the past (Not somewhere Stephen wants to be), remembering the famine and blaming everyone under the sun. I know that the anti-Semitism is going to come back to haunt us later on in the book (Leopold Bloom is a Jew, after all), so I'll have to get used to it, but I just could not wait for Deasy to get out of the picture. He just strikes me as one of those people that I don't like to be around in real life: Everything's everyone else's fault, never their own.

Episode 3: Proteus

Wow, was there ever a massive focus on death and decay in this episode, mostly because we're getting the entire episode (With the exception of one line of dialogue) through Stephen's mind. There's brown and decay and death and drowning men all over the place, which speaks a lot to Stephen's mindset. As I said before, this is a very different Stephen from the one we saw in Portrait: He's downtrodden and feeling like a failure, and he's watched his mother die. It's no wonder, then, that his thoughts while walking down the beach turn toward death.

There's also a lot of shifting in this episode, which is convenient since Proteus was a shape-shifting god (See what I did there? All nice and neat!). One of the major shifts is in Stephen's perception of his surroundings. The episode begins with Stephen contemplating his own reactions and perceptions of his surroundings. Since we're getting all of this through Stephen's interior monologue, we only get Stephen's perceptions as well. However, as the episode progresses, Stephen begins to perceive his surroundings in a much more real fashion, leading up to actual physical actions -- urination, picking his nose, etc. Stephen then uses this shift in perspective to actually create something: A poem inspired by the cocklepickers.

Episode 4: Calypso

Finally, Leopold Bloom arrives on the scene. We've returned again to the beginning of the day, and Joyce has Stephen and Leopold both observe the same cloud to give the reader a clue that Episodes 4 and 1 are taking place simultaneously. There are also a few other correlations between Stephen's and Leopold's narratives, including that both men fix breakfast for others, both are dressed in mourning, and both leave the house without their keys.

However, for all the similarities Joyce creates between the two episodes, there also are some striking differences. For one, Leopold is obviously a much more sympathetic, likable character than Stephen: He prepares Molly's and the cat's breakfasts before he makes his own without complaining, whereas Stephen almost angrily helps serve Haines his breakfast. There's also much more focus on Leopold's physical movements than there is on Stephen's -- Most of Stephen's narration is thought-driven. The two men's perceptions of things also differ. Where Stephen's perception of an object leads him to ponder some abstraction, such as the observation of the passing cloud leading Stephen to think of death, and that abstraction tends to lead right back to Stephen, Leopold's perception of an object causes him to ponder much larger concepts outside himself. In other words, even the way that Leopold thinks about things shows that he's a much more sympathetic, other-centered character than Stephen.

So, that's the end of the first section. How are you feeling? Are you still in this to win this?

What was your favorite/least favorite part of this first section? Did anything completely stump you? What are your thoughts overall about Joyce's writing? 


Shelley (Book Clutter) said...

I forgot about this! I'm going to go to the library to get the book and see if I can catch up. It all depends on jury duty!

Aths said...

Oh no ... I forgot to bookmark the schedule in the middle of all the mess I was in. Never mind. I will be a week late, but I'll try to catch up!

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