Richard Ellmann and Ulysses narrative structure

In his introduction of his book about Joyce, Richard Ellmann tells us:

Joyce introduced a “whole galaxy of new devices and stances and verbal antics [that were] extravagant, derisive, savage, rollicking, tender and lyrical” (Joyce ix). For scholars and general readers alike, “the decipherment of obscurities” within this new literary galaxy “has gone on apace”; the meaning and significance of Joyce’s narrative techniques continue to be analyzed long after Joyce’s death (Joyce ix). One of the areas of Ulysses that has often been overlooked, however, is that of the various functions played by the passage of time and awareness of time in the novel. A text that is ambitious both in its size and scope, the events of Ulysses actually unfold over the course of a single day: June 16, 1904. While many other traditional markers of organization and order were dispensed of by Joyce in Ulysses, there is an acute focus on the temporal setting of each major episode in the text, particularly in the first two parts of the novel, and this emphasis serves both critical narrative functions and affirms the psychological preoccupations that are at the thematic core of the novel.

As Ulysses opens, the narrator’s identity may be ambiguous, but the temporal setting of the scene and characters being described is not. While the narrator does not name the specific time of day, he does not need to do so; instead, he chooses to engage the reader and suggest the time of day by pointing out a variety of details that tell the reader the narrative begins in the morning. Buck Mulligan is introduced “bearing a bowl of lather…and a razor,” and “a yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air” (Joyce 3). Even the mountains outside are described as “awaking” (Joyce 3). On this first page of Ulysses, the reader feels immediately that he lacks orientation to many aspects of the setting. The characters have not been properly introduced according to the standard conventions of the novel, for instance, the physical location has not yet been identified, and the relationships among the characters have not been elucidated nor even suggested. The only certainty the reader can claim at this introductory point is that the time of day is morning.

Although it is Buck Mulligan who is shaving himself, the psychological importance of this quotidian morning ritual is emphasized when Buck passes his shaving mirror to Stephen Dedalus, saying “Look at yourself, you dreadful bard!” This is the first of many passages in which time will be used to underscore the psychological preoccupations of the central characters, particularly Stephen and, in Part II of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. Stephen does glance at himself in the mirror, and thinks, “Who chose this face for me?” (Joyce 6). His answer, “This dogsbody to rid of vermin” (Joyce 6), hints at Stephen’s rather gloomy view of himself, of the world he inhabits, and the relationship between the two. Stephen’s reaction of displeasure and even disgust to his own visage is an early indication of the characters’ profound sense of dissatisfaction with themselves and with their place in the world.

Just four years into the new century, there was a general sense that political, social, and economic stability would be achieved and that individuals would be able to benefit directly from such wider scale accomplishments (Rickard 92). The social zeitgeist, Rickard remarked, was that which is typical of any turn of the century moment: a spirit of possibility, of hope, and of change, signifying a break with the difficulties and failings of the past. For the main characters in Ulysses, however, the frequent episodes of self-reflection, such as the one with Stephen gazing at himself in the shaving mirror, suggest that the spirit of possibility is not experienced pervasively by all members of a society. In many other moments of self-reflection, especially those experienced by Stephen and Leopold, the daily rituals associated with time only sharpen their feeling that they are somehow outside of that sphere of possibility. While other characters, such as the schoolmaster Mr. Deasy, can thrive and prosper, both economically and socially, Stephen and Leopold are representatives of that group of people who are suspended in limbo between an idealized past, an inadequate present, and an imagined future.

Two related episodes that convey Stephen’s acute sense of his inability to seize the fin-de-siecle moment and better himself occur just a few hours after his shaving mirror epiphany of self-loathing. Stephen, a teacher, arrives at school, where between even the briefest pauses between the history questions he asks and the responses the students offer, Stephen reflects upon what he refers to as “the daughters of memory” (Joyce 20). Stephen describes time as “one livid final flame,” and asks himself rhetorically, “What’s left us then?” The dismal reverie is broken when a student responds to a question about where a battle occurred by answering not with the place, but with the year. This fact is significant because it underscores how much people use time to mark their place in the world and to understand their relationships to other people. In the classroom, as in the narrative, and as in life, there is little that makes sense, there is little that cohesive, but the concreteness of time helps, at the very least, to create some context. The history lesson he is trying to deliver to his students, somewhat ineptly, becomes a meditation for Stephen on the opportunities and ravages of time. “Time has branded [and fettered] them,” Stephen thinks, “[and] they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted” (Joyce 21). Although he does not use a personal pronoun, Stephen himself clearly feels branded and fettered by time, unable to access the possibilities purported to be available, though the reader still does not know at this juncture what possibilities may even be of interest to Stephen.

The emphasis on time and related concepts continues before the class comes to a conclusion. When the students ask Stephen to tell them a story, he indulges their request by responding with a riddle: “The cock crew,/The sky was blue:/The bells in heaven/Were striking eleven./’Tis time for this poor soul/To go to heaven” (22). The students say they do not hear the riddle and ask for Stephen to repeat the riddle, which he does. They do not attempt to solve the riddle, though “[t]heir eyes grew bigger as the lines were repeated” (22). One student, Cochrane, asks, “after a silence,” “What is it, sir? We give…up” (22). Stephen’s answer—“The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush”—is even more cryptic than the riddle itself, and the students spill out of the classroom as they hear a rap on the door and the invitation to go outside and play hockey. Although the narrator does not indulge in any further meditation on the significance of the riddle, Stephen’s ponderings about time and its effect on him are not yet over. The school day provides still another opportunity for the theme to be repeated and explored from yet another angle.

After teaching his class, Stephen is approached by one of his students, Cyril Sargent, who stays behind to discuss a math problem that has stymied him while the other students eagerly leave to play hockey. Stephen observes to himself that Cyril Sargent is “ugly and futile,” with a “lean neck and thick hair and a stain of ink, a snail’s bed” (Joyce 23). The repulsion Stephen feels as he looks at Cyril, who is portrayed as a shy and fragile young boy, is palpable, and yet, Stephen begins to recognize that “someone had loved [Cyril], borne him in her arms and in her heart…. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own” (23). The realization gives Stephen pause, leading him to ask himself, “Was that [a mother’s love] then real? The only true thing in life?” (23). It is only after he asks himself these questions that Stephen admits he identifies with Cyril Sargent, though he does not demonstrate a total ability to empathize with the boy. “Like him was I,” Stephen thinks, with “sloping shoulders, this gracelessness…. Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both of our hearts” (Joyce 24).

The role time plays in this exchange between Stephen and his student is subtle, but it is vital to the development of the narrative and the psychological themes Joyce is exploring inUlysses. There is the suggested, but unarticulated, gulf of time that separates young Cyril from the older Stephen, who himself is separated by age from other figures in his life, such as the paternalistic and patronizing Mr. Deasy and even Leopold Bloom. There is also, however, the notion that Stephen has no time to reflect at length upon the rhetorical questions he asked himself as he looked upon Cyril. As soon as Stephen thinks about the similar secrets that their hearts harbor, the sum is declared done—much as the riddle was articulated and then abandoned– and Stephen quickly dismisses Cyril, saying “You had better get your [hockey] stick and go out to the others” (Joyce 24). From a psychoanalytic perspective, Stephen can not allow Cyril to remain at his side any longer, for to permit the student to do so would compel Stephen to ponder at length about his own ugliness, his secrets, his dissatisfaction, and his fears. The rapid dismissal of Cyril, along with Stephen’s condescending phrase, “It is very simple,” wards off uncomfortable thoughts, but permits the reader to intuit the thoughts and their importance to the overall development of the theme of Ulysses.

Stephen does not have to wait long, however, before he is confronted with another experience that compels him to reflect upon the passage of time and the dissatisfaction that he feels with his own life and its seemingly constricted possibilities. After dismissing Cyril, Stephen proceeds to the office of Mr. Deasy, the school’s administrator, who will dispense Stephen’s payment to him. In terms of actual time and the narrative function that the transition between his classroom and Mr. Deasy’s office performs, the scene in Mr. Deasy’s office marks mid-day. Stephen has finished with his teaching responsibilities for the day, and once he is paid, he will, the reader thinks, proceed to The Ship, a pub where he has agreed to meet Buck at “half twelve” (Joyce 19).

Stephen appears to be deeply uncomfortable in Mr. Deasy’s presence, particularly because Mr. Deasy controls the length of their meeting, its content, and the narrative itself. “First, our little financial settlement,” Mr. Deasy says at the beginning of the meeting (Joyce 24), taking his time to gather Stephen’s wages from a mechanized savings box, an important symbol representing the technological and ideological advances of the modern age. Mr. Deasy seems to represent normative social and economic progress, and Stephen’s recognition of Mr. Deasy’s power and apparent self-satisfaction makes him feel uncomfortable. Stephen notes the setting: “The same room and hour” as previous encounters with Mr. Deasy, and, he adds, “I the same. Three times now…. [N]ooses round me here” (Joyce 25). Although Stephen thinks to himself that he could break the nooses “at will” (Joyce 25), he shows no signs of doing so.

Stephen accepts his wages with “shy haste” and is eager to leave, but he is restrained from doing so by Mr. Deasy, who prevails upon Stephen to convey an editorial he has written to Stephen’s acquaintances at a local newspaper. As Mr. Deasy begins to type out the last portion of his editorial, Stephen looks at the framed pictures on the wall, noticing “images of vanished horses” and the date, 1866, stamped on the photographs. The way in which the narrator conveys Stephen’s impressions of the photographs suggests that the images that are depicted represent a past that is much more distant than just 42 years, and the subsequent exchange in which Mr. Deasy and Stephen engage similarly underscore just how temporally disoriented Stephen feels, both with his elders and his contemporaries. Mr. Deasy, who holds predictably antiquated views of money, religion, and history, is shocked by Stephen’s utterance, “History… is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” and his opinion that God is “a shout in the street” (Joyce 28). Mr. Deasy concludes that he is happier than Stephen, but what the reader concludes is something far more profound and relevant: the gap between Mr. Deasy and Stephen is not merely a chronological generation gap; it is an ideological, social, and psychological gap that Stephen and a certain group of his contemporaries felt just after the turn of century in Dublin.

Among those contemporaries in Ulysses is the character Leopold Bloom. Throughout the course of the novel, the narrator, narrative voice, and focus on specific characters will change; however, even as these transitions occur, the emphasis on establishing the time at which the narrated event is happening—both the actual time and the context within a larger historical framework– is never diminished. Leopold Bloom is preoccupied with many of the same philosophical musings about time and possibility that plague Stephen Dedalus’s thoughts. This fact is not immediately evident, however. As Part II opens and Leopold is introduced, the reader notices a dramatic change in the narrative voice. The details that are offered by the narrator regarding the setting are both more precise and more exquisite than was the case in Part I; furthermore, the way in which Leopold is described portrays him as an individual who appears to have a happier constitution than Stephen.

Leopold is introduced while he is preparing a breakfast tray for his wife. His attention to the precise arrangement of the tray and the significance of the simplest, most mundane movements are detailed by the narrator, conveying a sense that Leopold is a man who derives more pleasure from his life than Stephen. The time to which the description of Leopold is devoted seems to suggest—somewhat deceptively—that Leopold Bloom is a man whose relationship with time is healthier and more positive than Stephen Dedalus’s relationship with time. The narrator details the kinds of foods Leopold enjoys “with relish” (Joyce 45). He describes in rich detail Leopold’s recognition of the cat, which he “watched curiously [and] kindly” (Joyce 45). Leopold clearly enjoys the sight of the cat, which is described as “Clean to see” (Joyce 45). She is more than pleasing to the eye, though. Leopold recognizes that although other people call cats stupid, “They understand what we say better than we understand them,” and they have the capacity for a range and depth of emotions that some of the characters can not summon up (Joyce 45).

Time is established in Part II in much the same way as occurred in Part I. It is early morning on the same day, June 16, 1904, and again, it is not the time itself that is announced with the indication of an hour; instead, the narrator establishes the temporal setting by noting that “the sun was nearing the steeple of George’s church” (Joyce 46). The rising of the sun provokes a pleasant stream-of-consciousness reflection from Leopold, but the reader soon learns that Leopold is as preoccupied by the passage of time and his seeming dislocation within time’s larger panorama than he initially appears. Following a beautiful young woman in the street—“Pleasant to see first thing in the morning,” he thinks to himself—he is quickly reminded of his age by the “sting of [her] disregard” for him (Joyce 49). Just after this incident occurs, a cloud begins to obscure the sun, “slowly, wholly. Grey. Far” (Joyce 50). The change in weather precipitates Leopold’s depressing and almost obsessive litany about death, which ends with the depressing finale, “Dead: an old woman’s: the grey sunken cunt of the world,” a thought which “seared his flesh” (Joyce 50).

Leopold returns home, only to look upon his wife and “her bulk,” her breasts sagging “like a shegoat’s udder” (Joyce 52). Other details in the scene—yesterday’s incense, for example—mark the division of time but also hint at how the passage of time wears away at one’s pleasure and sense of what is possible. One way in which time has affected Leopold is the degree to which he feels passion and love for his wife. He seems to find her unattractive and even repulsive. Perhaps he derives meaning in his life from her dependence upon him; perhaps he is simply anesthetized by routine. Discerning why he feels as he does, however, is not as important as noting what he feels. When his wife asks him what the word “metempsychosis” means, he replies “that we live after death” (Joyce 53). The idea, he seems to suggest, is an attractive one, but living during life is challenging enough.

In fact, all of the evidence that the reader discerns suggests that Leopold is slowly dying before he has really achieved any true sense or purpose of meaning in his life. The kidney he enjoys eating so much is burning on the stove. After cutting away the kidney’s blackened exterior, eating the remains, and throwing the offal to his cat, Leopold begins preparing to dress for the funeral of an acquaintance. “A soft qualm [of] regret” courses “down his backbone, increasing” (Joyce 55). Significantly, while using the bathroom, he thinks about the mundane exchanges he has with his wife—“Timing her. 9.15. Did Roberts pay you yet? 9.20. What had Gretta Conroy on? 9.23. What possessed me to buy this comb? 9.24. I’m swelled after that cabbage”—and he rips a section of a story about a prizewinner out of the newspaper, wiping himself with it. Just as he does, the bells of the church ring out, and Leopold wonders what time the funeral is (Joyce 56). From this point forward, any vestiges of Leopold’s happy countenance have largely disappeared. The passage of time and the mark it has left—and is leaving—on Leopold is evident, not only to the reader, but to Leopold himself.

As was the case with Stephen, Leopold’s daily routine, is punctuated with numerous reminders that life just keeps ticking on and he is incapable of harnessing it for his true benefit. His wife orders him about as if he is her manservant. He raises the blind for her, he delivers her correspondence to the bed, tucking the letter under her pillow and asking “[Will] That do?” before returning to the kitchen to “Hurry up with that tea!” as his wife demands (Joyce 50). When he returns, she complains about the length of his absence—“What a time you were!”—not, presumably, because she missed him, but because she wants to ask him a question (Joyce 51). Leopold’s experience of the funeral is another event that provokes him to meditate on the aspects of life that are not so pleasant or tinged with a sense of opportunity and the hope of the future. During the service he thinks about the heart, that “seat of the affections. Broken heart. A pump [that] [o]ne fine day gets bunged up; and there you are” (Joyce 87). After the funeral, at noon, Leopold goes to the newspaper office, where he discusses an advertisement. An ad man, he is always interested in developing a new and more effective advertisement. In fact, it is in this section of the novel that the reader observes Leopold at his most enlivened—he moves with a quickness and awareness of time that is sharpened by his passion for advertising. Yet he is thwarted again; his creativity meets the resistance of his supervisor, who prefers a more traditional approach and tells Bloom to tell the advertiser “He can kiss my royal Irish arse” (Joyce 121).

Leopold Bloom is often interpreted by literary scholars as a character who is more evolved than Stephen Dedalus—slightly older, striving more earnestly and with a greater sense of purpose, and still believing in his potentialities. Evidence is cited to support the claim, as was made above, that, at the very least, Bloom has a passion and seems to squeeze meaning out of it, while Dedalus is more aimless. Nonetheless, such an interpretation neglects the significance of the smaller details of Leopold’s daily life. Instead, literary analysts have tended to prefer the interpretation that Stephen is an angst-ridden young man seeking a father figure, albeit unconsciously, in Leopold Bloom. One of the few scholars to build an argument that Stephen and Leopold are more alike than they are different was Williams, who asserted that Leopold Bloom clearly exhibited symptoms of “hunger and anger” in response to the passage of time, both real and imagined (87). It is a hunger and anger that Williams describes as consumptive (87). There’s a constant reflection on the past—Leopold remembering a special moment with his wife—inability to live in/accept/re-shape the present—always desiring nostalgically to capture the past.

Stephen and Leopold are brought together in the carriage on the way to the funeral for their mutual acquaintance. Although both men, and their other companions in the carriage, commiserate lightly over their common difficulties related to age and the passage of time, they do not discuss these difficulties in a serious tone. Instead, they make jokes, only regaining their composure when they reflect on the fact that their deceased friend passed away unexpectedly and in the prime of his life. The sober moment does not prompt the men to be more intimate with one another and sharing their feelings, but once again the reader intuits the fact that whatever the larger zeitgeist of the turn of the century moment is, these men feel themselves to exist outside of it, so far outside, in fact, that it is not only impossible for them to seize and embody that spirit, but perhaps even to believe they should want to do so. Although the turn of the century offered new promise for society at large and certain segments of the population, each of these characters appears to be trapped within a predestined trajectory of his own life narrative.

What is interesting, however, is that Joyce, through the development of these characters and their psychological preoccupations with the passage of time—which they themselves feel acutely but are unable to articulate fully—was able to embody the turn of the century spirit that always facilitates the birth of new creative genres (Rickard 91-92). As Rickard observed, “the turn of the century was much more hospitable to models of mind that transgressed or violated” conventional narratives (91). Joyce was able to finally step outside of the narrative constraints by which he had felt himself to be bound previously with the writing and subsequent publication of Ulysses. Joyce was wholly cognizant of the novel’s uniqueness, and even questioned whether a traditional publisher would be willing to acquire the rights to the book and attach its name to Ulysses (Gilbert 112). In fact, a European literary magazine published the novel in serial format, prompting Joyce’s American publishers to burn “the entire May issue and [threaten] to cancel their license [that of the Little Review, in which the serial was published] if they continue to publish Ulysses” (in Gilbert 137). About this incident, Joyce was apparently non-plussed, writing, “This is the second time I have had the pleasure of being burned while on earth so that I hope I shall pass through the fires of purgatory as quickly as my patron [Saint] Aloysius” (in Gilbert 137). Thus, James appeared to have been free from the kind of pervasive, nearly crippling ambivalence that afflicted his characters, particularly Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Although Bloom and Dedalus seem to have recovered some of their equilibrium upon the novel’s conclusion, the question remains: What will they do with the time that has been given to them?

What, then, to make of the effect of Ulysses and its notions of time upon the reader? Williams again offers a compelling and persuasive argument to propose an answer to this question. Ulysses, he contends, does not “endorse a passive acceptance of the status quo or advocate the patient awaiting of the end of time” (87). Instead, Williams suggests, Joyce’s novel “both embraces the past and faces the unknown without fear” while simultaneously demonstrating “how each day must be ‘digested,’” and “how each person who enters that text has the duty, on returning to this world, to interrogate the given universe of discourse” (87). One aspect of that discourse involves the effect that time has upon human beings’ perceptions of possibility. Although it is common to feel that the passage of time is ravaging, it is important to acknowledge time’s real effects while living fully and meaningfully.

Works Cited

Gilbert, Stuart. Letters of James Joyce. New York: Viking Press, 1957.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage, 1986.

Rickard, John S. Joyce’s Book of Memory: The Mnemotechnics of Ulysses. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Williams, Trevor. “‘Hungry Man is an Angry Man’: A Marxist Reading of Consumption in Joyce’s Ulysses.” Mosaic 26.1 (1993): 87.