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Webs of Meaning of Light in Ulysses

Monday, November 16, 2009; 04:24 am Leave a comment Go to comments

The Sparknotes of Ulysses that we have been using in class identifies Lightness and Darkness as a central motif in the novel. While the analysis is very basic, he argument in that the traditional binary of light = good and dark = bad breaks down in Ulysses, with the two main characters being associated with dark through their mourning dress and Boylan, one of the closest characters to an antagonist, is associated with light through his name and manners. While this argument fits well the symbolic correlations I laid out earlier, it also makes an interesting subliminal point, which is that in the scope of the novel, Bloom and Stephen are good and should therefore be associated with light in the traditional sense. However, I think this is a point better left to another discussion. Light in Ulysses is not used to denote good and evil meant to draw on the traditional and archetypal significance of the imagery, but instead as symbols for the characters. The function of light imagery as not only representational of the characters in a single instance but also creating a web of complicated symbolism that gives the characters almost inscrutable depth. This symbolic representation is the main function of light in novel as far as I can recognize, rather than articulating the good/evil dichotomy above or to denote religious imagery.

This is not to say that the light imagery in the novel does not draw on established tropes; the idea of femininity being related to the moon is not a new one, but rather than for example, simple relations like black = bad, the interpretations are much more complicated and nuanced. Bloom and his relation to darkness is a prime example.

Throughout the novel Bloom (and Stephen) is characterized by his black clothing, but this image goes miles beyond the traditional dastardly villain dressed all in black. For Bloom, the meanings of his association with darkness are many, varied, and at times contradictory. For one, his black clothing is a sign of mourning, meant to be a physical manifestation of his respect for Dignam. However, this analysis is challenged by the fact that on several occasions Bloom assures those he meets that it’s nothing, it’s just Dignam. But to add another level to this image, we soon see that Bloom is still very much still in mourning for his son Rudy who died over a decade ago. Complicated yet? Bloom’s connection with darkness has many other layers as well. It is representative of his Jewishness, which marks him as an outsider (Gerty sees him as the dark foreigner, he describes himself as olive skinned) and therefore separate from his Irish brethren. Darkness also associates him with Haines’ black panther, which could be interpreted as anything from a nationalist threat to Buck’s impression of Bloom as an older, threatening, homosexual male. Similarly, his unintentional connection with Throwaway, the black horse who appears from behind to win the race, possibly hinting at the arguably hopeful ending of the novel in which Bloom returns as a contender for Molly’s bed and happiness. In terms of other characters, Molly is also characterized as having a dark complexion, but she does not appear to be ostracized by society and instead is characterized almost exclusively by her sexual appeal. Stephen, who also wears black, but in this case specifically for his mother who has been dead for almost a year, is hailed as a priest, which connects to the web of Catholic imagery around him.

This example illustrates that the interpretation of light imagery often does not begin from the cultural representation and then progress to the character, but instead starts with the character and moves outwards in a web of meaning that overlaps with many other ones. Of course Joyce could not be so simple as to have one image mean one thingJ

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