“Ulysses” by James Joyce (I), John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, p. 202–204
At first we might be wary of looking at Joyce’s “Ulysses” to learn techniques of great storytelling, precisely because many people consider it the greatest novel of the twentieth century. Its incredible complexity and brilliance would seem to take it far beyond the grasp of us mere writing mortals, and its intentionally obscure references and techniques would seem to make it totally unfit for those wishing to write popular stories in the form of films, novels, plays, and television scripts.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Although Joyce may have had tremendous natural talent as a writer, he was also one of the most trained storytellers in history. Even if he opted to use that training to write with a complexity that you might want to avoid, for all kinds of legitimate reasons, the techniques he used have universal application for great storytelling in any medium.
“Ulysses” is the novelist’s novel. Its secondary main character, Stephen, is a man struggling to become a great writer. It uses a wider, mora advanced array of storytelling techniques than any book ever written (the possible exception is Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”, but no one has actually read it from beginning to end, so it doesn’t count). In myriad ways, Joyce challenges other writers, saying, in effect, Can you figure out what I’m doing, and can you do it yourself? Let’s give it a try.
As a modern version of the “Odyssey”, the story form in “Ulysses” is a combination of myth, comedy, and drama. The overall arena is the city of Dublin, but the story primarily takes place not in a home but on the road. As in many myths, the main hero, Leopold Bloom, goes on a journey and returns home. But because this is a comic, or “mock heroic”, myth, little or no learning is apparent upon the hero’s return.
Like so many other advanced stories, “Ulysses” is set at the epoch-changing turn of the twentieth century, amid the shift between town and city. Dublin has many elements of the town but also many elements of the city — even the advanced, oppresive city. From the very beginning, we are deep inside the guilt that is so common in stories set in a town: Stephen has a housemate who makes him feel guilty for refusing to pray at his mother’s deathbed.
The primary hero, Bloom, is both the everyman hero of the city and the bumbler of the advanced, oppresive city. Where Odysseus is a frustrated warrior , Bloom is a frustrated nobody. He is Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown, Seinfeld’s George Costanza. He’s also a timid cuckold who knows that his wife and her lover are doing but does nothing to stop it. In many ways, Joyce’s story world doesn’t come from the usual combination of elements. For example, Dublin is an oppressive city not because of increasing technology, the slavery of the future, but because of the stultifying power of the past, primarily English rule and the Catholic church.
Besides using the myth of the Odyssey and the shifting society, Joyce builds the story structure on the technique of the twenty-four-hour day. This circular time matches the circular space of the myth and comedy forms, further defining the everyday quality of its hero and highlighting and comparing the actions of a vast web of characters in the city.
Joyce also uses the twenty-four-hour day to set up the character opposition between his primary and secondary heroes. The opening three sections of the story, which track the journey of the secondary hero, Stephe, occur from 8 a.m. to about noon. Joyce then returns to the 8 a.m. start to track his primary hero, Bloom. This time comparison constantly triggers the reader to imagine what these two men are doing at approximately the same moment, and Joyce provides a number of parallels between them to help the reader compare and contrast them.
Joyce comes up with a number of unique techniques when depicting the minor characters of his story world. Because so much of his theme concerns the slavery of this world, he gives many of his minor characters a weakness and need of their own. Usually it is some variation of being tied too strongly to the Catholic church, going along with the dominance of England, or placing too much faith in the heroes of Ireland’s past and its comfortable but ultimately debilitating stereotypes.
The character web of “Ulysses” is among the most detailed in story history. Along with the key ficctional characters are a number of real people who lived in Dublin at the time the story is set, 1904. Intermingled with these real people are many fictional minor characters that Joyce has used in other stories (most notably in his short story collection, “The Dubliners”). All of this gives the story world a rich texture of reality that is at the same time deeply grounded, because each of these real or imagined people has a detailed character and history that have already been defined, whether the reader is familiar with them or not.
Joyce is a master at connecting key structure steps to the visual subworlds of the story. One of the benefits of founding a modern-day journey through the city on Odysseus’s travels is that it lets Joyce create identifiable subworlds within an amorphous city. It also allows him, in this incredibly complex story, to imbue each subworld with one or two main structure steps.
This technique anchors the reader in the storm and flow of a huge epic and highlights the two heroes’ main lines of psychological and moral development no matter how complex things get.