A Day in the Life

Reading Joyce’s Ulysses as a guide to urban living



Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece by Declan Kiberd, W. W. Norton, 410 pp., $28.95

Fifteen years ago, as an undergraduate at Cornell, I enrolled in a seminar devoted solely to James Joyce’s Ulysses. About 12 of us gathered for the first day of class, each anticipating a great journey, yet intimidated by the task that lay before us—for what other book was so forbiddingly complicated as to necessitate an entire semester for its study? (Finnegan’s Wake was not a course option.) Ulysses, so we all assumed, wasn’t a book to be read; it was a text to be deciphered. To discover every secret buried within, one needed to study it in conjunction with many other books, helpful guides offering explication of the impenetrable. No: mere “reading” was far more passive an activity than what we had all signed up for, eager young deconstructionists and poststructuralists that we were.

To be sure, few other books demand to be studied more closely; with its conflation of styles, experimental forms, rich allusiveness, and dense interior monologues, Ulysses requires and rewards patience. But, as Declan Kiberd, professor of Anglo-Irish literature at University College Dublin, argues in Ulysses and Us, Joyce had wanted his book to be accessible to everyone. All people in a true democratic culture, Joyce believed, should be able to read and derive pleasure from Ulysses. So how did the book end up missing its intended audience, finding favor instead with only a select group, a kind of priestly sect of the academy?

Joyce certainly didn’t help matters when he authorized the publication of detailed schemas that illuminated the Homeric structure underpinning Ulysses. These charts associated each of the book’s 18 episodes with a different character or section of the Odyssey (“Telemachus,” “Circe,” “Wandering Rocks,” “Penelope”), as well as with particular colors, artistic endeavors, scientific methods, and organs of the body. It was as if Joyce were inviting all the scholars into the fun house, tempting them with trick mirrors and trap doors. As a consequence, explication became the order of the day, and the common reader simply gave up.

Ulysses and Us is, among other things, a passionate plea for the amateur to reclaim Joyce’s epic. For one thing, Ulysses is eminently readable—something an earlier generation seemed to know better than we do. “My father loved Ulysses as the fullest account ever given of the city in which he lived,” Kiberd writes. “There were parts that baffled or bored him, and these he skipped, much as today we fast-forward over the duller tracks on beloved music albums. But there were entire passages which he knew almost by heart.” This suggests a more liberating way to read the book: since it isn’t possible to understand everything, it does no good to get mired in what frustrates us. Most important, we should not forget that the book contains deep wisdom. Joyce’s story of two Irishmen, the young Stephen Dedalus and the older Leopold Bloom, navigating through Dublin on a single day in June is an epic celebration of the common, of the everyday, of our mundane routines. And in it Joyce has a great deal to say on how to live a better life.

How to Walk the Streets

Much of Ulysses is devoted to Bloom’s encounters on a typical day. (The ordinary incidents will, by the end, gain mythic significance, but this is Joyce’s point: that the routine, the typical can be endowed with heroic potential.) Bloom goes to pubs, visits a library, attends a funeral, drops in at a chemist’s shop, talks to friends on the street. In other words, he lives a very public life, one that allows for fulfilling random meetings with other residents of the city. “The streets,” Kiberd writes of Joyce’s Dublin, “are the dwelling-place of the collective: and the street people, many of whom are unhappy at home, are enthusiastic users of public space.”

When Bloom says that “the Irishman’s house is his coffin,” Joyce is highlighting the distinction between private and public. At home, Bloom may be a cuckold, stuck in a marriage gone wrong. But these failures might be redeemed by venturing beyond and engaging in an active, vigorous civic life. And so, he wanders the labyrinthine streets with his eyes and ears open, receptive to all the stimuli of his modern urban setting. The more Bloom exhibits “a willingness to talk with those who might seem different,” Kiberd notes, the richer is his experience as a citizen.

Though our culture is distinctly more suburban than urban—blame crime, the shopping mall, white flight, or suburbia—Joyce would want us to embrace city life, to walk more slowly through crowded streets, to linger, to act the part of the flâneur. Indeed, Joyce frequently uses devices to ease the tempo of his prose. Take, for example, the following sentence from the “Proteus” episode, which is filled with Stephen Dedalus’s difficult interior musings as he strolls along Sandymount Strand: “Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells.” Read the sentence aloud, treat it like a metered line of iambs, and you can actually feel Joyce’s hand slowing you down:

–        /       –        /            /           /             –
to hear / his boots / crush crack / ling
/            –       /
wrack / and shells

The spondaic substitution in the third foot (in which both syllables are stressed) brings the rhythm to a near dead halt. The alliterative “crush crackling” is difficult to pronounce, and the assonance of “crackling wrack” further elongates the sense of time. I don’t think I’m making too much of this. To Joyce, Ulysses was a bardic epic, meant to be read aloud, and he would surely have been aware of the effect that his words had on his readers’ senses.

How to Eat Well

“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.” So begins the fourth episode, “Calypso,” which introduces us to Bloom. His tastes reflect a time when offal was widely consumed, but they also prefigure our own age, when chefs such as Fergus Henderson and Mario Batali are embracing innards and putting them back on restaurant menus.


Bloom is a true gourmand, though his tastes are hardly extravagant. For his breakfast, he prepares a pork kidney, frying it in butter with lashings of black pepper. He takes time to eat his meal, enjoying it—in marked contrast to his wife, Molly, who dispatches with her breakfast without ceremony, and to Buck Mulligan and the Englishman Haines in “Telemachus,” who carelessly consume their food. Later, in “Lestrygonians,” the sight of men devouring plates of meat at the Burton restaurant will even turn Bloom temporarily vegetarian, as he escapes to the more civilized interior of Davy Byrne’s pub for a cheese sandwich and glass of burgundy.

But why does Bloom love offal? For one thing, the less desirable parts of the animal are actually quite delicious. They also happen to be the parts that most often get thrown out. Practical, frugal Leopold Bloom despises nothing more than waste—wasted food, yes, but also wasted lives. Seeing Stephen, who has the potential to be a great artist, waste his life away in melancholy self-absorption, Bloom recalls “instances of cultured fellows that promised so brilliantly, nipped in the bud of permanent decay, and nobody to blame but themselves.” Surely at the back of Bloom’s mind is a more poignant waste—the death of his son, Rudy, whose ghostly figure appears to him at the end of the phantasmagoria of “Circe.” And isn’t Bloom’s masturbating in “Nausicaa,” while gazing at young Gerty MacDowell, the ultimate expression of wasted life, the spilling of seed in the absence of healthy relations with his wife, Molly? Not surprisingly, Bloom’s thoughts in the aftermath immediately turn to Molly, as if he is serving some sort of mental penance.

How to Be Compassionate

Though a Dubliner through and through, Bloom remains an outsider, his Jewish heritage keeping him at a distance from many of the city’s residents. Some of the ugliest moments in Ulysses involve the anti-Semitism of its characters, nationalists looking for a scapegoat for the problems that beset Ireland. “We want no more strangers in our house,” says the Cyclops-like Citizen in Barney Kiernan’s pub.

During the climax of the “Cyclops” episode —with the taunting of Bloom, the nationalist fervor, and the race baiting reaching a froth—Bloom does something extraordinary. Continually labeled and categorized by others, Bloom here takes possession of an identity he had been reluctant to embrace. This “non-Jewish Jew who has been baptised by both Catholics and Protestants,” as Kiberd describes him, brandishes a burning cigar at the Citizen, and declares, “Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.”

That Bloom would identify himself with Jesus is not surprising; Joyce has been casting his hero as a Christ figure from the very beginning. In “Cyclops,” as if to confirm the role, an enraged Citizen leaps after Bloom, crying out, “I’ll crucify him.” As Kiberd explains, Bloom is “more Christlike than any of his fellow citizens, being constantly willing to put himself in the other fellow’s position.” He shows tremendous compassion, and not just for Stephen, whom he will rescue from the Nighttown brothel in “Circe.” He helps a blind person cross the street, feeds the gulls swooping over the River Liffey, tries to console a woman whose husband has gone mental, and sympathizes with another man’s domestic problems.

Bloom’s capacity for forgiveness might seem like weakness to some readers. The Citizen could well have bludgeoned Bloom if he’d been quicker of foot, but in “Nausicaa,” Bloom generously thinks, “Perhaps not to hurt he meant.” More poignant is his attitude toward Molly, who will be consummating an affair with Blazes Boylan that June afternoon (as Bloom well knows). Kiberd writes that “Bloom says absolutely nothing” to Molly or her paramour “for he wishes to free sexuality of all traces of possessiveness. Instead of anger, he shows tender lover-like concern for Molly.” He serves her breakfast in bed, puts away her dirty linens, adjusts the blinds in the bedroom so that the sunlight doesn’t stun her eyes. Weakness? Perhaps. But if the Blooms’ marriage is to finally succeed (and there are indications that it will: Bloom remembers her tenderly at key moments in the novel, and Molly’s virtuosic soliloquy in “Penelope” offers the glimmer of redemptive sexual love), Bloom’s sensitivity and compassion—and his refusal to exact revenge—will be central.

How to Write the Book of Your Life

Mingling high culture and low, Ulysses records the minutiae of daily life—the witticisms, wisdoms, offhand remarks, and off-color jokes. It isn’t a coincidence that three different characters (Bloom, Molly, and Haines) express the wish to create a book of another character’s sayings and phrases. Theirs is a desire for permanence, and by immortalizing the ordinary things that happen to them, Joyce gives legitimacy to our own manic compulsion to be seen and heard. In this way, then, Ulysses is an idealized forebear of such contemporary phenomena as Facebook, MySpace, and reality TV. And though he would have been shocked that our mass culture does not include Shakespeare or the Latin Mass, Joyce might well have embraced other parts of it. Ulysses, as Kiberd notes, “celebrated elements of popular culture (handbills, advertisements, posters, jingles, radio phrases, newsprint) and incorporated them all into his book.”


How to Be a Good Father

Ulysses arguably has more to say on the subject of paternity than anything else. Though plagued by the recent death of his mother, Stephen is haunted by a series of false paternal figures: his own father, Simon Dedalus; Mr. Deasy, headmaster at the school where he teaches; even England, itself, the master of colonized Ireland. Holed up in the Elsinore-like Martello tower and clad in his mourn­­ing clothes, Stephen resembles Hamlet—depressed, emotionally stunted, paralyzed by an intellect that offers not a moment’s peace.

What he needs most is a mentor, someone who can teach him the value of engaging with the world. “He must grasp life through the flow of actual experience,” Kiberd writes, “rather than through academic concepts.” (“Flow” is an important word here, since so much of Ulysses depends on the flow of water, whisky, stout, cider, music, urine, and menstrual fluid—a suggestion of a life dynamic, endlessly moving, coursing through the veins of the city.) Only in “Aeolus” does Stephen show the first signs of acknowledging that all the book learning that his Jesuit education has given him might not be enough to sustain him through life. “Dublin,” he thinks. “I have much, much to learn.”

But what kind of teacher will Leopold Bloom be? In “Calypso,” Molly, lying in bed, asks her husband to explain a word she has encountered in a book—“metempsychosis,” which she pronounces as “met him pike hoses”:

—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.
—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.

In Molly’s great soliloquy in “Penelope,” we learn how Bloom’s subsequent explanation falls flat: “That word met something with hoses in it and he came out with some jawbreakers about the incarnation he never can explain a thing simply the way a body can understand.” Bloom attempts to appeal to Molly’s intellect, but she is a corporeal, not an intellectual, woman, a creature of the senses, and his failure with her recalls Gabriel Conroy’s misstep with the caretaker’s daughter in the beginning of Joyce’s short story “The Dead.”

So Bloom will clearly not be an intellectual mentor for Stephen. But there’s more to being a good father than the intellect. Bloom will guide Stephen with practical advice about the value of work and a solid meal. He will show Stephen the pleasures of reaching out to the world while still dreaming of the heavens above. The relationship will benefit the pupil, but it may ultimately prove more important for the teacher. Bloom’s real son may be dead, Kiberd writes, but “he has another youth to look after now and so can let the sad memory of Rudy rest.”

When Bloom shepherds a drunk and emotionally wrecked Stephen to the cabman’s shelter in “Eumaeus,” he provides the young man with a cup of coffee (wretched as it is) and a bun (however unsavory). Stephen claims not to have eaten all day, and Bloom’s offer is like an invitation into a different kind of life, one in which even the humblest things can be enjoyed. The world has other simple pleasures to offer, of course. Coffee and bread are but the first step.

The idea that a book like Ulysses can suggest better, more humane ways in which to conduct ourselves might come across as simplistic to some, revolutionary to others. But the idea of seeking wisdom in literature goes back to Shakespeare, Dante, and the Bible. Before embarking upon a beautifully argued, episode-by-episode reading of Ulysses, Kiberd presents us with this call to arms: “The need now is for readers who will challenge the bloodless, technocratic explication of texts: amateur readers who will come up with what may appear to be naïve, even innocent, interpretations.” Such an approach may not find favor with many Joyceans, but ultimately, to understand what a book has to say means trusting one’s own innate critical equipment. Of course, a guide like Kiberd’s book—lucid, learned, free of jargon and pretension—can make for a wonderful companion along the journey through Joyce’s wondrous epic.“Tell me”—these are the first words Stephen Dedalus utters in “Telemachus.” “Tell us in plain words,” Molly Bloom echoes later. Sometimes, in our quest for meaning in an unfamiliar world, all we need is a gentle hand to send us on our way.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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