‘Ulysses’ at 100: James Joyce’s epic transformed the form of the novel
On June 16, 1904, a nondescript middle-class householder walked out of his house to wander the streets and alleys of Dublin and, like you and me, kept thinking of the many problems that preoccupied him – ranging from choice of soap he should buy, to more serious matters such as the death of his son and the alleged infidelity of his wife. The innocuous events of that single day have become the stuff of a modern prose epic, transforming central character Leopold Bloom into a modern Ulysses, the mundaneities of his middle-class existence transformed into the singular experiences of an epic hero in his quest. .
James Joyce’s Ulysses was rightly hailed as the epic of our time when it was published in 1922, although Bloom’s “adventures” as he roamed Dublin could not have been further from the adventures encountered by the brave hero of the Greek epic. . This gargantuan book was to radically alter the literary topography of the West by emphasizing the extraordinary from the ordinary and its revolutionary stream-of-consciousness narrative technique that described the thought processes of its central characters without the mediation of the author-narrator. The result, admittedly, was rather confusing, as most readers were baffled by the sudden, unexplained leaps of thought in the rambling narrative that spanned hundreds of pages. Most notable of all these mental ramblings was the monologue by Bloom’s wife, Molly. This largely unpunctuated “river” of thoughts provided a glimpse into Molly’s mind as she thinks guiltlessly about her various extramarital affairs; naturally, the words she uses in the privacy of her mind are not what can be expressed publicly in a “decent” society. Although many feminists later hailed Molly Bloom’s monologue as a rebellion against the patriarchal word order, this section sparked outrage with what was seen as an outrageous and unapologetic embrace of adultery. ‘a married woman. It also fueled the claims of obscenity the novel faced.
All of these aspects of the novel are worth celebrating, but in this centenary year of its publication, it should also be celebrated for rewriting the legal concept of obscenity in literature. The novel, prior to its publication in full, had been serialized in the American magazine Little Review beginning in 1918 when it began to face allegations of obscenity. The issues which bore the chapters “Lestrygonians”, “Scylla and Charybdis” and “Cyclops” were confiscated and burned by the American post office. The mid-1920s issue that had the “Nausicaa” chapter faced a bigger problem when the New York branch of the Society for the Suppression of Vice filed a formal complaint against it in court. The Court of Special Sessions, despite testimony from novelists like John Cowper Powys, declared the novel obscene and condemned the editors of Little Review. This effectively ruled out the possibility of the novel being printed in the United States.
Ulysses was saved from an untimely death by Sylvia Beach, the owner of the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. What is now being celebrated as the launch of a landmark book was a low-key Parisian event that coincided with Joyce’s birthday on February 2, 1922. Although strict censorship laws prevented the possibility of Ulysses reaching Anglo shores Americans, the ban in the United States was successful. turning what would have been an intellectual work that intimidated the faint-hearted into a controversial book sought after for its banned content.
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Taking advantage of the fact that Joyce had no legal copyright to the novel in the United States, some magazines began publishing excerpts highlighting sordidness rather than literary merit. It quickly became a “bootleg classic” and continued to be so, until the publishers at Random House decided to test the waters by publishing the entire novel in 1930.
As expected, the novel was confiscated on the grounds that it was obscene. The ensuing lawsuit has become a landmark in censorship cases worldwide, for its perspective on obscenity in literature and how a book should be assessed in terms of its effect on readers.
The prosecution argued that the novel was obscene and blasphemous; Joyce, it has been pointed out, was non-religious and wrote from a distinctly anti-Catholic perspective. Defense attorney Morris Ernst rightly pointed out that the notion of obscenity varied, depending on the time and the context. The perception of obscenity can change from person to person and it is difficult to arrive at an overall definition of the concept. However, what was to become a pivotal clause not only in that case, but also in subsequent obscenity trials, was his argument that a literary work should be judged as a whole and not on the basis of excerpts when it it was about judging matters of obscenity. To judge the entire novel as obscene simply on the basis of one chapter was unfair to novelist and novelist.
Judge Woolsey’s decision was that the novel was not obscene; despite the presence of words commonly perceived as dirty, it did not contain “dirt for filth’s sake”. He felt the novel was a “somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women.”
This ruling dramatically changed the legal landscape for books accused of obscenity and directed. years later, with the release of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, another iconoclastic work by a maverick genius. It was also invoked in India to dismiss the obscenity charge brought against the God of Little Things in 1997.
The four-letter words that were considered obscenity at the time have lost their shock value and are quite widely used not only in literary works, but also in the most popular media of movies and television series today. today. So when Leopold Bloom walked out of his house on June 16, the English novel too was stepping outside the confines of stifling Victorian morality to breathe the pure air of freedom.
The writer teaches at IIT, Kanpur