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  • James Joyce's "Ulysses" is widely considered to be both a literary masterpiece

  • and one of the hardest works of literature to read.

  • It inspires such devotion that once a year on a day called Bloomsday,

  • thousands of people all over the world dress up like the characters,

  • take to the streets,

  • and read the book aloud.

  • And some even make a pilgrimage to Dublin

  • just to visit the places so vividly depicted in Joyce's opus.

  • So what is it about this famously difficult novel

  • that inspires so many people?

  • There's no one simple answer to that question,

  • but there are a few remarkable things about the book

  • that keep people coming back.

  • The plot, which transpires over the course of a single day,

  • is a story of three characters:

  • Stephen Dedalus, reprised from Joyce's earlier novel,

  • "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man";

  • Leopold Bloom, a half-Jewish advertising canvasser for a Dublin newspaper;

  • and Bloom's wife Molly, who is about to embark on an affair.

  • Stephen is depressed because of his mother's recent death.

  • Meanwhile, Bloom wanders throughout the city.

  • He goes to a funeral,

  • his work,

  • a pub,

  • and so on,

  • avoiding going home because Molly is about to begin her affair.

  • Where it really starts to get interesting, though,

  • is how the story's told.

  • Each chapter is written in a different style.

  • 15 is a play,

  • 13 is like a cheesy romance novel,

  • 12 is a story with bizarre, exaggerated interruptions,

  • 11 uses techniques, like onomatopoeia, repetitions, and alliteration

  • to imitate music,

  • and 14 reproduces the evolution of English literary prose style,

  • from its beginnings in Anglo-Saxon right up to the 20th century.

  • That all culminates in the final chapter

  • which follows Molly's stream of consciousness

  • as it spools out in just eight long paragraphs

  • with almost no punctuation.

  • The range of styles Joyce uses in "Ulysses"

  • is one of the things that makes it so difficult,

  • but it also helps make it enjoyable.

  • And it's one of the reasons that the book is held up

  • as one of the key texts of literary modernism,

  • a movement characterized by overturning traditional modes of writing.

  • Joyce fills his narrative gymnastic routines

  • with some of the most imaginative use of language you'll find anywhere.

  • Take, for instance,

  • "The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower

  • was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired

  • freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced

  • barekneed brawnyhanded hairlegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero."

  • Here, Joyce exaggerates the description of a mangy old man in a pub

  • to make him seem like an improbably gigantesque hero.

  • It's true that some sections are impenetrably dense at first glance,

  • but it's up to the reader to let their eyes skim over them

  • or break out a shovel and dig in.

  • And once you start excavating the text,

  • you'll find the book to be an encyclopedic treasure trove.

  • It's filled with all manner of references and allusions

  • from medieval philosophy to the symbolism of tattoos,

  • and from Dante to Dublin slang.

  • As suggested by the title, some of these allusions revolve around Homer's "Odyssey."

  • Each chapter is named after a character or episode from the "Odyssey,"

  • but the literary references are often coy, debatable, sarcastic, or disguised.

  • For example, Homer's Odysseus, after an epic 20-year-long journey,

  • returns home to Ithaca and reunites with his faithful wife.

  • In contrast, Joyce's Bloom wanders around Dublin for a day

  • and returns home to his unfaithful wife.

  • It's a very funny book.

  • It has highbrow intellectual humor,

  • if you have the patience to track down Joyce's references,

  • and more lowbrow dirty jokes.

  • Those, and other sexual references, were too much for some.

  • In the U.S., the book was put on trial, banned, and censored

  • before it had even been completed

  • because it was originally published as a serial novel.

  • Readers of "Ulysses" aren't just led through a variety of literary styles.

  • They're also given a rich and shockingly accurate tour

  • of a specific place at a time:

  • Dublin in 1904.

  • Joyce claimed that if Dublin were to be destroyed,

  • it could be recreated from the pages of this book.

  • While such a claim is not exactly true,

  • it does show the great care that Joyce took in precisely representing details,

  • both large and small, of his home city.

  • No small feat considering he wrote the entire novel

  • while living outside of his native Ireland.

  • It's a testament to Joyce's genius that "Ulysses" is a difficult book.

  • Some people find it impenetrable without a full book of annotations

  • to help them understand what Joyce is even talking about.

  • But there's a lot of joy to be found in reading it,

  • more than just unpacking allusions and solving puzzles.

  • And if it's difficult, or frustrating, or funny,

  • that's because life is all that, and more.

  • Responding to some criticism of "Ulysses,"

  • and there was a lot when it was first published,

  • Joyce said that if "Ulysses" isn't worth reading,

  • then life isn't worth living.

James Joyce's "Ulysses" is widely considered to be both a literary masterpiece

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B2 US TED-Ed joyce ulysses dublin literary bloom

Why should you read James Joyce's "Ulysses"? - Sam Slote

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    Jerry Liu posted on 2019/01/25
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