What the Hell did I Just Read?

A Review of James Joyce’s Ulysses 


“I don’t get it,” is probably the response I have heard most when people are talking about reading stream of consciousness authors.  I have to admit that I struggled with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, when I read it in high school.  I got lost in the shifting tides of imagery and thoughts.  When discussing it in class I did poorly because I failed to hold onto any of the content that I had read because I was so overwhelmed by it all.

By the time I encountered Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner in college I was able to use my experience with Joyce to approach them with more patience and so I tread water instead of flailing around wildly.  This allowed me to look around and take in the environment I found myself in.  I felt Mrs. Dalloway’s depression.  I saw in Peter Walsh some of the emotions I was dealing with at the time and wrote an essay about him that was one of my favorite pieces of writing that I did in any class.

Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is also a book that I remember fondly from that class.  I even laughed out loud in a couple of spots.  Who knew the terror I felt in high school during my stream of consciousness reading would change to delight in so short a time?

Fast forward to late July in the summer of 2014.  My family is planning a 2 week trip to Nashville and Orlando and I need a book to read on the beach.  I decide on the James Joyce masterpiece, Ulysses.  My cousin thought I was crazy.  She told me I should instead be reading smutty romance on the beach.

For the record, Ulysses is plenty smutty.

My advice to all students and/or lovers of literature that are being compelled by professors or by the yearnings of their own hearts to read James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, or any other stream of consciousness authors, is to be patient.  Understand what you are doing.  Don’t panic and flail about.  You don’t even have to tread water, really.  Just stand up.  Turns out you are a few yards from the shore and the water doesn’t even come up to your waist.

Stream of consciousness isn’t a linear path through the woods.  It curves about.  Let it.  Don’t go barreling through the trees to get to the end of the path more quickly.  You are destroying the scenery and getting cuts and scraps all over your body.  Enjoy the imagery.  Experience the emotions.  It isn’t what the characters are doing or saying or what is happening to them.  The whole purpose in the experiment of stream of consciousness writing is to try to fully illustrate the emotions that the characters are experiencing.  Turns out that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is just that—a portrait.  It is, in fact, a semi-autobiography in which James Joyce creates the character Stephen Dedalus as a fictionalized version of himself.

I hope this helps!  Enjoy reading these classic novels that are still influencing pop culture today.

By Dan Stump


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