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Stuart Gilbert’s “James Joyce’s Ulysses”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009; 07:45 pm Leave a comment Go to comments

First published in 1930, Stuart Gilbert’s “James Joyce’s Ulysses” is often referred to as a pioneer in Joyce studies. Though more current guides to Ulysses are available and perhaps preferable to the twenty-first century reader, Gilbert’s guide remains unique not only for being the first of its kind, but also for the context in which it was written. Gilbert wrote at a time when, as he recounts in the preface to the second edition, “most readers and many eminent critics regarded Ulysses as a violently romantic work, an uncontrolled outpouring of the subconscious mind, powerful but formless.” Gilbert takes issue with these claims, saying that he admires Ulysses for its “structural, enduring qualities” and does not object to the shocking aspects of the book that older critics were not able to look past. An additional unique aspect of Gilbert’s guide was the relationship it shared with James Joyce, who consulted Gilbert on various points of uncertainty throughout Gilbert’s reading of the novel and gave an overall stamp of approval to “James Joyce’s Ulysses” upon Gilbert’s completion of the project.

Gilbert organizes his study in two parts. Part One is a general introduction to Ulysses as a whole, divided into chapters like “Paternity” and “Ulysses and The Odyssey,” key topics that remain relevant to studying Joyce’s complex text. Part Two provides an episode-by-episode guide to Ulysses, often quoting extended passages of the novel with minimal interjection from Gilbert. We might think of Gilbert’s episodic guide as a metanarrative, since Gilbert’s own narrative depends so heavily on the various voices of Ulysses. When he is not directly quoting the novel, though, Gilbert’s summations and analyses are clear and useful.

Though scholarly updates have certainly been made, “James Joyce’s Ulysses” is still a helpful supplementary Ulysses text. And given what we know about the critical conversation surrounding Ulysses at the time as well as what we know about Joyce’s direct assistance, Gilbert’s guide to Ulysses can be viewed not only as supplementary but also as historical artifact, especially when we consider the public reception and general understanding of Joyce’s work in the years immediately following the controversial publication of Ulysses.

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