How Not To Read Ulysses

By Spencer Cawein Pate

Ever since Dr. Richard Steven Turner, my high school AP English teacher, encouraged me to explore the works of James Joyce and William Faulkner beyond what we read in class, I’ve considered James Joyce my favorite writer and Ulysses my favorite novel. In honor of Bloomsday–June 16, the day on which Ulysses is set in 1904–I thought I’d write an essay on the subject of “How Not To Read Ulysses,” a topic that might prove useful to new readers of James Joyce’s masterwork. Please note the title carefully–I intentionally wrote “How Not To Read” rather than “How To Not Read” not only to avoid splitting an infinitive, but also because we hardly need any instruction in how to avoid reading challenging literature! (Although Ulysses is not nearly as difficult as it’s made out to be–I suspect it’s often confused with Finnegans Wake.) What follows, then, is a guide for prospective readers to help lead them away from less productive readings of the novel and toward readings that will increase one’s enjoyment of the text.

1. Don’t read Ulysses without having read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man first (and perhaps Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners as well). Ulysses is in part a sequel to the earlier novel–both works center on the same character, Stephen Dedalus–and the plot and themes of Ulysses can only be fully appreciated if one is familiar with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Just as importantly, A Portrait also serves as an excellent but less demanding introduction to Joyce’s unique prose style.

2. Don’t bother with any critical commentaries. A basic plot summary or outline of Ulysses (and a map of Dublin) will prove far more useful than literary criticism, which will only make reading Joyce’s narrative a less immediate and pleasurable experience. The various  approaches toward interpreting the novel–psychoanalytic, marxist, mythopoetic, intertextual, historical / biographical, and postcolonial–must be subordinated to what Vladimir Nabokov called “aesthetic bliss.” Joyce is quite simply the finest prose stylist in the English language since William Shakespeare.

3. Don’t worry about the schema / structure of the novel. While the narrative parallels to Homer’s Odyssey undoubtedly assisted Joyce in organizing and writing Ulysses, the allusions don’t really illuminate much for the reader. They’re certainly interesting and amusing, but they’re hardly a prerequisite.

4. Don’t read Ulysses straight through from beginning to end. Ulysses is not a traditional linear novel, so there’s no need to read it in a linear fashion. On your first read, it’s okay to skip and skim and jump around, as some sections are more likely to be of greater interest than others.

5. Don’t read it silently. Ulysses (and Finnegans Wake, too) greatly benefit from being read aloud, which better conveys the music, humor, earthiness, surprise, and dazzling playfulness of Joyce’s writing. Speaking of Finnegans Wake, why not continue with Joyce and read it next? It’s definitely a tougher read than Ulysses, but it’s still far more viscerally enjoyable than its reputation suggests. (See also: Joyce’s lovely recording of “Anna Livia Plurabelle.”)

In general, all of these pieces of advice can be summarized as “Don’t let any ideology come between you and Joyce’s prose.” I defend a radical thesis regarding James Joyce: not only should everyone read Ulysses, everyone can read Ulysses: it is a materialist masterpiece for the masses. To paraphrase the philosopher Slavoj Zizek (who was speaking about the work of Jacques Lacan, another great admirer of Joyce), “If anyone tells you Joyce is difficult, this is class propaganda by the enemy.”

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3 Responses to How Not To Read Ulysses

  1. Emily says:

    Happy Bloomsday! Just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading this. Thank you so much for pointing out that you have to read it aloud; I couldn’t agree more! You miss so much of the delicious and difficult and ridiculous use of language if you don’t bring it to life!

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