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"Sing to Me of Our Time, Too" - James Joyce, Modernity, and Myth

James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses is often regarded as one of the most influential works of literature in the English language. While the book is replete with linguistic and formal innovations, this article will focus on one fundamental aspect of the novel that has earned it this critical reputation: a technique Joyce’s contemporary T.S. Eliot termed the "mythical method" behind Joyce’s writing (Eliot, 1923, p. 1). A product of the Modernist period, Ulysses was written serially between 1914-1922, a time of war, rapid industrialisation and technological development, as well as a shifting social order. The world became, in the eyes of many, increasingly difficult—if not impossible—to capture in realistic terms. All art forms, be they musical, visual or literary, struggled to represent the modern world in ways that sufficiently captured its chaos and frantic energy. The written word especially began to seem ineffective at depicting the dynamic, rapidly shifting society that had emerged by 1914. The new age seemed beyond verbal depiction. This essay will examine how Joyce managed to overcome this artistic crisis to produce perhaps the defining work of literary modernism, and to "make the modern world possible for art" (Eliot, 1923, p. 3). The keys to understanding this lie in two older foundational texts of the Western literary canon: Homer’s Ancient Greek epic The Odyssey and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Produced sometime in the 7th or 8th Centuries BC, The Odyssey tells the continuing story of Odysseus (it is from the latinised form Ulysses that Joyce takes the name for his novel) as he finds his way home from the Trojan War described in The Iliad. Presumed dead, Odysseus struggles to return home to his wife Penelope and son Telemachus who watch in vain as countless suitors attempt to usurp the missing lord’s kingdom. For ten years Odysseus sails the Mediterranean against the interventions of Gods, warriors and an assortment of mythical creatures and characters which have come to define and symbolise our images of Ancient Greek myth and history. As Odysseus wanders the world in forlorn hopes of reconnecting with his love and lost son, Telemachus sits in the castle rightfully his, stolen from under him, watching the horizon for his father:

First by far to see her was Prince Telemachus,
sitting among the suitors, heart obsessed with grief.
He could almost see his magnificent father, here…
in the mind’s eye—if only he might drop from the clouds
and drive these suitors all in a rout throughout the halls
and regain his pride of place and rule his own domains! (Homer, 1. 137—142)

Figure 1: "The Sorrows of Telemachus" (Kaufmann, 1783).

Narrative parallels to The Odyssey are a clear element of Ulysses, and one which Joyce himself made available to the public via notes and explanations provided to critic Stuart Gilbert in 1932. In these notes Joyce provided a schema for the novel, in which is detailed how each of the novel’s eighteen chapters finds its corresponding storyline in The Odyssey. The 'mythical method' that Eliot identifies is the use of this older story as a 'scaffold' or foundation for his own story set in modern Dublin (Eliot, 1923). By using this ancient and familiar story as a grounding base, Joyce can construct an elaborate superstructure which is both complex and dynamic enough to bear the frenetic pace and confusion of the modern world.

Narratively, Ulysses follows primarily the lives of two men in Dublin, Ireland over the course of June 16, 1904. These men are Leopold Bloom, a decidedly average middle—aged advertising canvasser, and Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter—ego introduced in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is intellectually gifted but impoverished and artistically stunted, living low since returning from a time abroad in Paris where he had hoped—and failed—to produce an epic of Irish literature, "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race" (Joyce, 1916, p. 228).

Bloom takes focus for the majority of Ulysses. He is a man of decidedly little importance; he is financially stable but not wealthy, he is accepted but unloved by most of his contemporaries, and his marriage to his wife Molly is failing. Molly and Leopold have experienced a broken marriage for close to eleven years, the time passed since a baby boy—Rudy—was lost in infancy. The pair have one other child, Milly, a girl of fifteen who lives away for schooling. Rudy lingers in Bloom's thoughts throughout the day as a psychic marker, a moment in time when he lost his boy and was forever separated spiritually from his lover. The time Bloom spends wandering Dublin over the course of June 16 is a pretence for Molly’s affair with her tour manager, Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan. Bloom accepts this state of affairs with resignation, finding solace in Molly’s happiness, even if it must be predicated on his absence. Meanwhile, Stephen has returned from Paris having failed in his artistic mission. He has produced no art of any merit and is now living penniless in Martello Tower, cheaply rented on the outskirts of Dublin with his friend Malachi Mulligan. An Oxford scholar named Haines—producing a study of Irish folklore and mythology—also lives rent—free in the tower, subsisting on Stephen’s little money. Having refused to pray at the deathbed of his mother, Stephen is ostracised by his father Simon.

Figure 2: James Joyce (Abbott, 1926).

The narrative parallels to The Odyssey are clear. Both Stephen and Bloom are depicted in states of loss, having been stripped of things rightfully theirs and left ultimately alone: a father without a son, a son without a father. Much like Telemachus watches the horde of suitors occupying his father's castle and denying him his birthright, Stephen is preoccupied with the ongoing control of the foreign British monarchy over his native Ireland, a relationship personified by the condescending Oxford student Haines' lingering presence in the home Stephen can scarcely afford. Bloom is left to wander the streets of Dublin while another man makes love to his wife, with nothing to keep him company but thoughts of his only lost heir.

Bloom and Stephen’s intersecting wanderings throughout the day will consciously mimic the adventures of Odysseus and Telemachus. Each serialised episode of Ulysses corresponds in title to a significant moment in Odysseus’ mythical journey home to Ithaca. These mirror—images are the form that Eliot so praises as having structured the great chaos of the modern world (Eliot, 1923). The episode entitled ‘Cyclops’, for example, in reference to the legendary one—eyed creature of The Odyssey, in Ulysses plays out instead as Bloom’s encounter with myopic nationalist arguments in a pub. The episode entitled ‘Oxen of the Sun’—so-called after symbols of fertility sacred to the Greek Gods—centres on contemporary debates of abortion and contraception. Episode 13, ‘Nausicaa’ refers to the the classical ideal of nubile beauty; Joyce renders this episode through a mocking imitation of cheap, pulpy women’s magazines he found demeaning to the female reader, lampooning the stereotypical ways in which female characters are othered and spoken for in fiction. Each of these topics—nationalism, the feminist movement, contraception—were manifestations of the immense societal shifts taking place in the modernist era. By tying them to old symbols of classical literature, Joyce has allowed the confounding changes to remain a comprehensible thematic concern. While each section of the novel is elevated by these self—contained references, the book as a whole operates on a larger foundation constructed on The Odyssey’s more basic storyline. All of these inherently dynamic and difficult topics are rendered increasingly abstract by Joyce’s idiosyncratic shifting writing styles. By marrying the dizzying events of his modern age to a mirror image in an ancient text Joyce allows the inscrutable panorama he has painted to become decipherable (Gilbert, 1952).

Figure 3: The original leaflet from Shakespeare & Company advertising the publication of "Ulysses" in Paris (Beach, 1921).

The connection between Ulysses and Hamlet is certainly less clear—cut than that which the novel shares with Homer’s The Odyssey, though it is no less significant. The Greek epic sees its characters and situations transcribed into individual characters, and the story is mirrored and parodied by the varying extents to which the correspondences can emulate their forebears. The method by which Hamlet is invoked operates differently, in that it is often possible to fit several characters into corresponding roles, and each can illuminate different aspects of Joyce’s text. Let the principal character of Hamlet be used to elaborate. In most examinations of Hamlet as an influence on Ulysses it is Stephen who is deemed to be the most direct correlation to Denmark’s troubled prince. It is he who is plagued by the returning ghost of a parent as he grapples with decisions and his conscience. Stephen is ponderous and pedantic, and endlessly wrestles with guilt and his own self—definition. Mulligan’s playful naming of Stephen as a ‘bard’ invites the association as Stephen’s story opens with his brooding in the tower rightfully his, which has been usurped from under him (Joyce, 1922, p. 8). The connections between Stephen and Hamlet are manifold and are cemented by his theory (elaborated at length in the episode ‘Scylla and Charybdis’) on Shakespeare and Hamlet. Stephen himself "thinks he is playing Hamlet", regardless of the more apparent ties the reader may see with Telemachus (Levine, 1990, p. 122).

The character of Stephen is certainly developed and delineated via association with Hamlet. Knowledge of Hamlet is deemed ‘indispensible’ to understanding not only Ulysses as a whole but Stephen’s role especially (Johnson, 2008, pp. 827—8). Yet, this calls into question just how a schematic rendering of the text would work in this way. How, for example, does Bloom fit into such a structure? He cannot fit as Hamlet’s father, as this role would be filled by Stephen’s own mother, whose ghostly reappearances are

one of the chief signifiers that Stephen is to play the role of the prince. Nor would Bloom suit the role of Gertrude, as the ‘wrongdoing’ spouse of the constructed family is Molly. Such an association would figure Bloom as the usurping Claudius, a role surely more thematically befitting Boylan, Molly’s secret lover.

Figure 4: "Bottles and Fishes" (Braque, 1910-1912).

Consider then how Bloom would operate as Hamlet. Bloom is reminded in ‘Hades’ of the death of his father, and the stigma of his suicide continues to haunt Bloom just as Hamlet famously wrestles with thoughts of ending his own life. More significantly, Bloom offers an inverted understanding of Hamlet’s position. Bloom is instead a father haunted by the ghost of his son: several times throughout his day Bloom’s thoughts return to his lost Rudy. For all of Hamlet’s pondering of his father, of action and inaction, Bloom is caught in a similar cycle: as we are told at Dignam's funeral in 'Hades' and throughout the remaining chapters, he could do nothing to save his son and must now continue to wonder endlessly about alternative possibilities and what may have been (Joyce, 1922, p. 373).

The ceaseless contradictions of Bloom’s character are of great importance to Hamlet’s recurrence throughout the novel. The inability of other characters and readers to pinpoint Bloom is, paradoxically, his most defining trait. He is a non—practicing Jew, yet still ostracised for his religious background; in an Ireland of fierce sectarian resentment he has been both Catholic and Protestant; born and raised in Ireland, no one else seems to accept him as Irish. Bloom is a foreigner in his own country. Hamlet’s duality is mirrored throughout Ulysses by the inscrutability of Bloom: "Bloom is able to hold simultaneous perspectives, to imagine being other" just as Hamlet sways constantly between thoughts and states of being (Cheng, 1995, p. 177). Bloom’s story may have more direct correspondence to that of Odysseus, but in his inherent being he is understood fully only by considering Hamlet as an equally important foundation. Shakespeare’s heir to Denmark represents a similar polarity: he eternally debates his course of action; he is both heir to the throne yet deposed; deposed yet remains alive. The question of whether Hamlet is sane or insane has existed in criticism for centuries. Stephen may exhibit the overthinking of the prince, but if there is one character in Ulysses who struggles with whether "to be or not to be" it is not Stephen, but Bloom (Shakespeare, Act 3, Scene 1, l.59).

Figure 5: James Joyce (centre) with Modernist writers Ford Madox Ford (left) and Ezra Pound (right) in Paris (Beach, 1923).

Hamlet’s famed third—act soliloquy questions the nature of the suicidal act, a concept which haunts Bloom via the legacy of his father. When he asks "what dreams may come" in that unknown sleep, Hamlet touches upon a great many themes which resonate also in Leopold Bloom (Shakespeare Act III, Scene 1, l.69). When Bloom merely accepts Molly’s unfaithfulness, it is often taken as an ironic take on the importance of fidelity in Odysseus’s mind. This passivity has a more important reflection in Hamlet’s acknowledgement that it is better to suffer the known pains of life than to submit to the chance of something worse after death. When Bloom chooses to maintain his current plight rather than gamble on the unknown alternative, he is dogged by the same dilemma which frames Hamlet’s most celebrated passage.

Both Bloom and Stephen therefore can conceivably be ‘cast’ in the role of Hamlet. This is subtly encapsulated in a brief moment of ‘Circe’: gazing into a mirror in Bella Cohen’s brothel, both Stephen and Bloom see reflected back at them "the face of William Shakespeare" (528). No further indication is given as to the significance of the appearance. The inference can be made that both men simultaneously embody the presence of Shakespeare in the text. Assigning either to a specific role would fail to provide a satisfactory correspondence for all characters, as can be made from The Odyssey. Yet this is precisely the difference in how the two texts operate in Ulysses. Jennifer Levine pinpoints the most legitimate model of Ulysses as being "a vast symbolic project whose logic is metaphorical and allusive rather than narrative" (1990, p. 129). Hamlet provides a broad thematic level of association which can inform and be informed by all characters, and permeates the philosophical and existential examinations of the novel as a whole. It is the symbolism and themes of Hamlet which offer a more direct translation into Joyce’s work than does the straightforward narrative.

Figure 6: A depiction of the Oxen of the Sun from Chapter 14 of "Ulysses", reference to the holy animals on the island of Helios in "The Odyssey" (Arroyo, 2022).

The correlation between Ulysses and Hamlet is thematic rather than schematic. This is true not only of how the characters and ideas are developed and understood, but also in how we may grasp Joyce’s thoughts in creating the novel. The employment of Hamlet instils meaning into all the themes of the novel, and not only those it mirrors in particular characters. The means by which Joyce addresses certain issues, ostensibly unrelated to Hamlet, are further developed by understanding the centrality of Shakespeare’s play to Ulysses’s wider context.

Hamlet therefore provides an informative background for much of the material Joyce explores in the novel. Hamlet is used in Ulysses to inform the abstract elements of the text. Invocations of the play do not always possess direct correspondences, and act instead as what Nicholas Royle terms "textual phantoms" (2003, p. 280). Hamlet lingers behind the text via its themes and legacy, informing wider thematic and experimental concerns. Ideas which permeate Ulysses rely on Hamlet to make us aware of intentions and implications without ‘solid’ or explicit allusion (Taylor-Collins, 2017, p. 242). Hamlet instead lingers in the background of the novel, acting as an oblique thematic counterpart to The Odyssey’s physical formatting of Ulysses (Jimenez, 1996, p. 3). Joyce hints at this methodology in the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ episode. In an episode dedicated to attempts at assigning roles and theories to Hamlet and Shakespeare, Russell comments on the futility of such ventures. Texts such as Hamlet inform works of art at a deeper level, and the exposition of such a view through Russell lends weight to Joyce’s use of the play:

All these questions are purely academic... I mean, whether Hamlet is Shakespeare or James I or Essex. Clergymen’s discussions of the historicity of Jesus. Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is how deep a life does it spring... the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom... all the rest is speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys. (Joyce, 1922, p. 177)

In a text replete with self—commentary, it is not unreasonable to assign such a passage to Joyce’s own views. The implicit meaning is further emphasised when one considers the semi—autobiographical use of Stephen in Joyce’s fiction. Numerous exchanges in the episode discuss how ‘our young Irish bards have yet to create a figure which the world will set beside Saxon Shakespeare’s Hamlet’ (Joyce, p. 177) or how "Ireland’s national epic is yet to be written" (p. 185). Stephen’s presence exemplifies the conflation of his literary ambitions with those of Joyce himself: to emulate Shakespeare and immortalise himself in the literary canon. The episode in which Stephen attempts to outline his grand theory on Shakespeare and Hamlet thinly masks Joyce’s vision of the play and its relation to his own magnum opus.

Figure 7: The Bloomsday Festival in Dublin on June 16 commemorates the literary legacy of Joyce's famous novel and the date on which it takes place (Byrne, 2018).

The ambiguity which runs through Hamlet is an equally defining trait of Ulysses. Joyce’s novel seems to contain everything within its pages except a core. It contains no definitive statement nor moral standpoint, and the conclusion—without temporal or spatial definition—is even more ambiguous than the rest of the novel. Come the end of the novel, are any definitive conclusions attainable for any central character? Has Stephen reached any insight into his personal or artistic crises? What is to become of the Bloom marriage? The binding paternal link between Stephen and Bloom seems to offer little resolution to either men or the novel as a whole. The cyclical nature of the work continues, no closer to closure from where it began. The very language of the novel, experimental as it is, cannot be said to diverge from any particular style. The narrative style "never occupies a standard position from which to deviate" (Levine, 1990 p. 140). It is in a constant state of transition and parody, as Hamlet's famous 'play within a play', never settling on any one point of view or voice long enough for it to be deemed the ‘central’ perspective of the text. In this sense, the novel cannot be resolved. Hamlet’s hamartia is his ceaseless thinking, his inability to reach conclusions or act decisively. This ambiguity plagues not only Hamlet but also the audience who must unravel the truth behind his distorting perspective. The uncertainty which underpins Hamlet paradoxically provides the only formal stability contained within Ulysses. While the story makes certain explicit allusions to Hamlet but they are simply less important than the broad legacy of the play as a whole, which permeates Joyce’s novel at all levels.

The innovation of Ulysses is primarily found in its ‘mythical method’, its revolutionary framing of the modern world on the classical tradition. Where The Odyssey gives physical shape to the characters and their respective paths, Hamlet represents the haunting presence of the literary tradition that has gone before Joyce. The integration of both of these texts is what gives Joyce the stage from which to unleash his other linguistic and formal experimentation. Just as Stephen and Hamlet are haunted and motivated by the ghosts of those who have created and gone before them, Joyce’s novel is overtly concerned with its legacy and those who have created it. Ulysses itself can be seen to parallel Stephen’s struggle against his formative past. The form and content of the novel are shaped not only by the themes and ideas of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, but by its looming presence in the literary tradition. Joyce’s experiments in form, language and technique are a struggle to rebel against and overcome the lingering presence of what has gone before, but what Ulysses’ acknowledged debt to Hamlet reveals is the inescapable nature of legacy and tradition. Ulysses' greatest innovation may lie in the ability to recognise these inevitabilities and to utilise them to the further extension of literature's possibilities.

Bibliographical References

Cheng, V. J. (1995). Joyce, Race, and Empire. Cambridge University Press.

Eliot, T.S. (1923). Ulysses, Order and Myth. The Dial.

Gilbert, S. (1952). James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’: A Study’. Faber & Faber.

Homer. (n.d.) The Odyssey. Oxford Classics 2016 edition.

Jimenez, M. A. (1996). To Be and (or?) Not to Be: Joyce's Rewriting of Shakespeare. Papers on Joyce 2, pp.3-17.

Johnson, J. (2008). Introduction in Ulysses. Oxford World Classics Edition.

Joyce, J. (1916) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Granada 1964 Edition.

Joyce, J. (1922). Ulysses. Wordsworth Classics 2010 Edition.

Levine, J. (1990). Ulysses in The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce. Ed. Attridge, D. Cambridge University Press

Taylor-Collins, N. (2017). ‘“Remember me”: Hamlet, memory and Bloom’s poiesis’. Irish Studies Review, Vol. 25, No. 2 pp. 241-258

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Monsiau, N. (1779). Ulysses Returning to His Palace. Montreal Museum of Art.

Figure 1: Kaufmann, A. (1783). The Sorrows of Telemachus. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Figure 2: Abbott, B. (1926). James Joyce, Paris. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Figure 3: Beach, S. (1921). Ulysses Cover. British Library

Figure 4: Braque, G. (1912). Bottles and Fishes. Tate Modern Art Gallery.

Figure 5: Beach, S. (1923). Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce and Ezra Pound in Paris. British Library.

Figure 6: Arroyo, E. (2022). Oxen of the Sun from Ulysses: Illustrated Edition. Other Press.

Figure 7: Byrne, C. (2018). Bloomsday celebration in Dublin. {Photograph}. The Irish Times.


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Seán Downey

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