‘Ulysses’ at 100: James Joyce’s epic transformed the form of novel

On June 16, 1904, a nondescript middle-class householder stepped out of his house to wander through the streets and alleys of Dublin, and like you and me, kept thinking all the while about the numerous issues that bothered him — this ranged from the choice of soap he had to buy, to more serious matters like the death of his son and the suspected infidelity of his wife. The innocuous happenings of this single day became the stuff of a modern-day prose epic, turning the central character Leopold Bloom into a modern Ulysses with the banalities of his middle-class existence being transformed into the singular experiences of an epic hero on his quest .

Ulysses by James Joyce was deservedly lauded as the epic of our times when it was published in 1922, although Bloom’s “adventures” as he walked up and down Dublin could not have been more remote from the adventuresed by the valorous hero of the Greek epic . This gargantuan book was to radically alter the literary topography of the West through its focus on the extraordinariness of the ordinary and its revolutionary stream-of-consciousness narrative technique that depicted the thought processes of its central characters without the mediation of the author-narrator. The result, admittedly, was rather confusing, as most readers were bewildered by the sudden unexplained jumps in thought in the rambling narrative that extended to hundreds of pages. The most noteworthy of all these mental rambles was the monologue of Bloom’s wife Molly. This largely unpunctuated “river run” of thoughts gave an insight into Molly’s mind as she guiltlessly thinks about her various extra-marital affairs; Understandably, the words she uses in the intimate privacy of her mind are not what can be publicly expressed in “decent” society. Although many feminists later hailed Molly Bloom’s monologue as a rebellion against the patriarchal order of words, this section caused outrage through what was perceived to be a scandalous and unapologetic espousal of a married woman’s adultery. It also added fuel to the claims of obscenity that the novel faced.

All these aspects of the novel are worthy of celebration, but in this centenary year of its publication, it must also be celebrated for rewriting the legal concept of obscenity in literature. The novel, before its publication in entirety, had been published serially in the American magazine Little Review from 1918 onwards when it began to face claims of obscenity. The issues which carried the chapters of “Lestrygonians”, “Scylla and Charybdis” and “Cyclops” were confiscated and burned by the US Post Office. The mid-1920 issue which had the “Nausicaa” chapter had to face a worse problem when the New York branch of the Society for the Suppression of Vice lodged a formal complaint against it in court. The Special Sessions Court, despite the testimonies of novelists like John Cowper Powys, declared the novel to be obscene and convicted the editors of Little Review. This effectively precluded the possibility of the novel being printed in the US.

Ulysses was rescued from premature death by Sylvia Beach, the owner of the well-known bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in Paris. What is now celebrated as the launch of a historic 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-American shores, the ban in the US managed to transform what would have been a highbrow work that daunted the faint-hearted into a controversial book that was sought out for its forbidden content.

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Taking advantage of the fact that Joyce did not have legal copyright over the novel in the US, some magazines began to publish excerpts that highlighted the sleaze rather than literary merit. It soon became a “bootleg classic” and continued to be so, till Random House publishers 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 court trial became a landmark in censorship cases worldwide, for its perspective on obscenity in literature, and how a book should be evaluated in terms of its effect on readers.

The prosecution contended that the novel was obscene as well as blasphemous; Joyce, it was pointed out, was not a believer and wrote with a distinctly anti-Catholic viewpoint. The defense lawyer Morris Ernst rightly pointed out that the concept of obscenity was variable, depending on the time and context. The perception of obscenity could change from one person to the other, and it was difficult to arrive at a comprehensive definition of the concept. However, what was to become a pivotal clause not just in this case but for later obscenity trials as well, was his argument that a literary work had to be judged as a whole and not on the basis of excerpts when it came to judging issues of obscenity. Judging the entire novel to be obscene merely on the basis of one chapter was being unfair to the novel and novelist.

Judge Woolsey’s decision was that the novel was not obscene; Despite the presence of words popularly perceived as dirty, it did not contain “dirt for dirt’s sake”. He felt that the novel was a “somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women”.

This decision radically altered the legal landscape for books accused of obscenity and led. years later, to the liberation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, another iconoclastic work by a maverick genius. It was also invoked in India to dismiss the charge of obscenity made against The God of Small Things in 1997.

The four-letter words that were thought of as obscenity in those days have lost their shock value and are quite liberally used not just in literary works but also in the more popular media of films and television serials today. So, when Leopold Bloom stepped out of his house on June 16th, the English novel too was stepping out of the confines of stuffy Victorian morality to breathe the pure air of freedom.

The writer teaches at IIT, Kanpur


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