12 Winters Blog

Joyce’s Ulysses as a Catalog of Narrative Techniques for MFA Candidates

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 22, 2022

(The following paper was presented at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Feb. 26, 2022, moderated by Yasminda Choate, Seminole State College.)

I must say regarding the title of this talk: what it lacks in cleverness it at least makes up for in near-childlike self-explanation. I’m going to discuss why focusing an entire course on a single daunting text like Ulysses is worthwhile, at least in the setting of an MFA program; and I’m going to offer some specific suggestions for reading focuses and writing assignments. (It’s not one of those papers you run into at conferences sometimes, a paper that purports to be about how waxed fruit influenced the writing style of Gertrude Stein, and ten minutes in the presenter hasn’t yet mentioned waxed fruit, Gertrude Stein, or writing style, or, for that matter, writing.)

First some further context: I teach in an MFA in Writing program that has both on-campus and online courses of the two traditional varieties: workshop and literature. I teach online literature courses exclusively. Nevertheless, I do think this course, or this kind of course, could work just as well in-person. I have the luxury of designing my own courses. Maybe three years ago, I decided to pitch a course with a singular focus: James Joyce’s legendarily difficult novel Ulysses. My thinking was that it would be a great text for discussing a wide array of narrative techniques, all gathered together in one unruly place. Also, for people planning to be fiction writers (meaning probably novelists) and perhaps wanting to be college teachers themselves, being familiar with the book that many consider the greatest English-language novel of the twentieth century, if not of all time, would be beneficial—if for no other reason than to avoid embarrassment at some future department mixer.

I’ve now taught the course several times (four?), and it’s scheduled again for this summer. From my perspective it’s been a success, and also a blast to teach. Student evaluations support my perspective. (Pro tip: I call the course “Joyce’s Ulysses” to try to avoid confusion; nevertheless, I do get the occasional student hoping to take a deep dive into Homer—which would also be a great course.) The course attracts students with a variety of motives, but a common one is that they’ve tried reading Ulysses before—and have had to limp, defeated, from the field of battle (a nod to Ulysses’ first publishers, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson). Or, often, it sat on a shelf, untouched, glaring arrogantly at its owner for years. Now, with some guidance and the motivation of a grade hanging in the balance, they hope to slay the beast, or at least land a scratch.

I can relate. I’m among those who tried and failed a few times to read Ulysses before finally getting through the text in its entirety. So as a recovering Ulysses failure, I can speak to the students on their own level of self-loathing, and offer them the sort of encouragement they need to not drop the course after seeing the reading requirements. When I started teaching Ulysses we had eleven-week sessions; then the program was revised to offer eight-week sessions. The book was a bear to teach in eleven weeks, so eight is extra challenging. Yet doable.

We look at two episodes per week, and tackle an inhumane amount of material the penultimate week, episodes 16, 17, and 18; that is, Part III, “Eumaeus,” “Ithaca,” and “Penelope,” some 150 pages—which isn’t unusual in a typical grad course, but it’s 150 pages of Ulysses, capped off by Molly Bloom’s nearly punctuation-free, stream-of-consciousness monologue. To accommodate the move from eleven weeks to eight weeks, I basically cut Part I, the three opening episodes that focus on Stephen Dedalus, and begin in earnest with Leopold Bloom starting his day in Episode 4, “Calypso.” I provide a summary of those opening episodes and encourage students to read them even though they aren’t required per se.

I stress—again and again—that our purpose is not to unlock all the literary mysteries of the novel. Joyce specialists (of which I am decidedly not one) devote whole careers to the book, or only individual episodes. Rather, we want to achieve a basic understanding of what happens in the book, yes, but more importantly we want to lift the hood and see what Joyce was up to in individual episodes, and in the structure of the novel as a whole. In other words, we’re reading the novel as practicing writers, not as literary scholars. I hope to spark an interest in Joyce so that later in life students may feel warm and fuzzy enough about Ulysses to return to it, and to engage with other Joyce texts. Typically I do have a few students who’ve been bitten by the Joyce bug by the end of the session, and they ask for recommendations about where to go next, unaided. Finnegans Wake?, they sometimes ask. God no. I generally recommend Dubliners, and even more specifically “The Dead,” which is available in stand-alone critical editions if a reader is so inclined.

Another piece of advice I offer at the outset: The novel features a cast of thousands, and trying to synthesize all of the characters into your gray matter for easy recall later is probably one of the reading habits that leads to so many normally successful readers giving up in a hailstorm of self-condemnation. Instead, I say, there are just three main characters—Stephen, Bloom, and Molly—so keep an eye out for them. As long as you have a sense of what they do in the novel, from episode to episode, until you reach the Promised Land of “Yes” at the end of 18, then you’re doing just fine.

(We do get into some literary analysis, and one of the aspects we talk about is the novel’s unusually encyclopedic nature, and that Joyce didn’t intend, probably, for it to be read like a typical novel. There’s just too much data to try to hold in one’s head from start to finish. I will admit that in spite of reading the novel from stem to stern at least twice, and some sections multiple times, and even having published about it, plus taught it multiple times, it’s not uncommon for me to read an article or hear a presentation on the novel, and think, “That happens in Ulysses? Really? That sounds interesting.”)

Students are required to write weekly discussion posts based on the episodes, and I give them something concrete to glom onto. I share with them the famous Ulysses schemas, the Gilbert and the Linati, and ask them to write about how two of the elements operate in the week’s readings. Again, I don’t pretend that this an approach that will help them penetrate to the core of the novel’s meaning. Rather, as writers we’re looking at ways that Joyce tried to unify eighteen episodes, or chapters, that use increasingly experimental techniques of storytelling and shift point of view frequently. The schemas are one method, as are the running parallels with Homer’s Odyssey (which are often hard to spot even when one knows to look for them). Another unifying element is Joyce’s attention to chronology, with the narrative unfolding in more or less accurate time over 24 hours. Finally, there is Joyce’s attention to the point of obsession regarding the geography of Dublin in June 1904.

The novel is famous for its stream-of-consciousness narration, which nowadays isn’t exactly revolutionary. Joyce is, however, a master of the technique so a closer examination of almost any episode can lead to a fruitful discussion of how it’s working in detail. “Penelope,” of course, is the example par excellence of interior monologue. To mimic the randomness of one’s thought process, Joyce uses almost no punctuation for more than 30 pages, a section broken into only eight “sentences.” Nevertheless, we can isolate specific thoughts and images. How does Joyce manage it, without the traditional use of punctuation?

Every episode offers a multitude of techniques that could be of value to fiction writers, but in the interest of time here are some approaches that stand out to me.

Episode 4, “Calypso.” The opening three episodes, focused on Stephen Dedalus, establish a realistic chronological approach in the novel, from the start of Stephen’s day at the Martello tower to his meeting with Mr. Deasy to his walk along the strand. Then, abruptly, in this fourth episode time is reset to around 8:00 as we’re introduced to Leopold Bloom. From then on time in the novel unfolds consistently. The lesson: Don’t be afraid to break your own rules.

Episode 6, “Hades.” Bloom takes a carriage ride with three men who are also attending Paddy Dignam’s funeral. Bloom is both part of the group and yet set apart from his companions because of his Jewish heritage and being seen as a quasi-foreigner. This feeling, of being alone in a crowd, is exquisitely human and has obviously been explored by writers and artists throughout history, but no one does it better than Joyce in this iconic episode. The lesson: How to create a character who is both accepted into a social circle while simultaneously being excluded from it.

Episode 7, “Aeolus.” Bloom visits the Freeman newspaper offices, where he has a series of encounters, including with Stephen for the first time in the novel. This episode initiates Joyce’s more overtly experimental techniques as he breaks up the narrative with frequent headline-like insertions throughout. These headlines were a relatively late addition to the episode as it was published without them in The Little Review. Lesson: Don’t be afraid to play with narrative techniques and step from behind the curtain as the storyteller.

Episode 9, “Scylla and Charybdis.” Here Stephen expounds on his theory regarding Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the National Library with a group of fellow literati. His theory has been alluded to previously in the novel. Intertextuality—bringing other texts to bear on the narrative’s primary text—happens frequently in Ulysses. Indeed, Homer’s Odyssey serving as a structural apparatus is itself intertextual. But the use of Hamlet as a well-known literary figure (perhaps the best-known literary figure) to amplify the novel’s own concerns about parent-child relationships, among other issues, is worthy of careful study. Lesson: Bring other texts into conversation with your own narrative.

Episode 10, “Wandering Rocks.” In this scene our attention wanders between a host of different characters and objects. Very little happens in terms of advancing the novel’s plot, but Joyce brings together many of the characters and items of significance we’ve already encountered. Many see this odd episode—with its cinematically sweeping point of view—as a way to tie the earlier (more conventional) chapters of the novel to the later (more experimental) chapters. Lesson: Chapters can have principal objectives other than to advance the plot or evolve characterization; they can serve more purely artistic functions.

Episode 12, “Cyclops.” We join Bloom in Barney Kiernan’s pub, but from the point of view of a new anonymous, first-person narrator. Besides the switch in POV, Joyce also plays with various prose styles, including Irish mythological, legalistic, journalistic, and biblical. This episode, then, breaks two cardinal rules young writers often learn in workshop: to be consistent when it comes to (1) point of view and (2) voice. Without warning, Joyce switches from third- to first-person, and then injects some thirty different prose styles into the telling. Lesson: Know the rules so that you can break them; or, the only rule when it comes to telling a compelling story is that there are no rules.

Episode 14, “Oxen of the Sun.” Joyce takes the technique of Episode 12—the use of multiple prose styles—and goes even further by emulating the evolution of the English language, from its Latin/Germanic roots to Anglo-Saxon to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Defoe to Lamb, and many more. The plot advances at the Holles Street maternity hospital, but it does so via this history of the stages of the English language. Lesson: Have fun. Don’t be afraid to toy with voices and styles within the same piece.

Episode 15, “Circe.” We find ourselves in Nighttown, Dublin’s red-light district, but now the storytelling mode is dramatic. The episode unfolds as a play script, complete with character names and stage directions. The lesson: Go ahead. Begin in one mode and switch to another; then back again, or whatever you feel like doing.

Episode 17, “Ithaca.” Bloom and Stephen walk to Bloom’s residence, an important plot advancement, especially in light of the novel’s Odyssey subtext, but now it’s told via a series questions and answers, resembling, most say, either catechism or Socratic dialogue. Lesson: Why the heck not?

And like Bloom, we return to Episode 18 and No. 7 Eccles Street.

A quick word or two on other kinds of writing assignments one might assign, besides the weekly posts tied to the schemas. For their final project, I have students try their hand at one or more experimental techniques they’ve encountered in the book, creating their own original scene. It’s a two-part assignment. There’s the creative writing itself; then there’s an analytical element in which they identify the episodes and techniques they used as inspiration, quoting and citing from the novel as needed.

In the original eleven-week version of the course, I attempted an ambitious midterm paper. I had students access an episode as it first appeared in either The Little Review or The Egoist (using the Modernist Journals Project online), and compare it to the 1922 book version, identifying Joyce’s revisions and speculating as to why Joyce may have made the changes (almost always additions) that he did. That is, what did he gain through revision? I think it’s a terrific assignment, but, as I say, ambitious, and students were not terribly successful with it. It is perhaps too labor intensive when up against the amount of reading students have to do just to keep pace with the syllabus. So when we went to eight-week sessions, I dropped the assignment. My main purpose was to emphasize the importance of revision and how much care Joyce took in revising his work. I think it’s a potentially fruitful exercise, and maybe given a longer time frame and the right students, it could be a reasonable assignment. (By the way, I did the activity myself, based on Episode 9, “Scylla and Charybdis,” and the brief article was published at Academia Letters—if you want to see an example of what I have in mind with the assignment.)

It’s especially interesting to be teaching Ulysses during its centenary year—an event that will add even more resources from which one might draw (not that there was a shortage previously). If you teach in the right circumstances, I encourage you to consider a course on Ulysses. Or if not that large, loose, baggy monster, maybe another long, challenging text. I’ve thought about War and Peace, but in eight weeks that would be quite a battle. I welcome suggestions.  

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