James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is generally considered to be one of the highest points of modern literature. But when it was first published, it was subjected to one of the more infamous book bans in all of literary history. The present sample essay provided by Ultius is the fifth part of an ongoing series of posts on the subject of banned books, and the focus of this essay will be the case of the banned book Ulysses. The essay will begin with an overview of the novel itself. Then, it will proceed to the controversy that produced a ban of the book. After this, the essay will consider the court case that overturned the ban within the United States. Finally, the essay will reflect on the relative merits and faults of the argument that was made by the people who wanted to prevent Joyce’s novel from reaching its intended audience.
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Overview of the Novel
Joyce was an Irish writer, and his novel Ulysses is set in the city of Dublin. It is a massive work whose main plot arc consists of one day in the life of Leopold Bloom. The title of the novel is a reference to Homer’s ancient epic of The Odyssey, which tells the story of the several-year journey of Odysseus trying to get back home from the Trojan War. Of course, what Joyce is narrating is the story of his hero simply navigating an ordinary day of modern life in the city of Ireland. There is thus a certain sense of parody inherent in the very structure of Joyce’s work, as if he were trying to say that this is what heroism has come down to, these days. Conversely, though, Joyce’s work could also be said to actually elevate everyday modern life itself to the level of poetry, conferring upon it the dignity that was once reserved for great heroes like Odysseus.
It would be difficult to give a thorough plot summary of Ulysses in the space available here, due to the simple fact that the novel is massive, sprawling, and episodic: the chaos within the structure of one day in the life of Bloom mirrors the chaos inherent in the modern world itself. For example, there is a chapter in the work called “Lestrygonians,” which the Rosenbach Museum and Library has summarized in the following terms: “The subject of food and eating is explored here with the detailed attention afforded death and decomposition two episodes ago. We follow Bloom through a panoply of lunchtime noises and smells and their associations in search of an aesthetically satisfying bite” (paragraph 8). This captures the general tone and flavor of much of Ulysses: it focuses enormous attention on seemingly mundane things, and thereby transfigures those things into extraordinary phenomena that potentially reveal incredible insights about human life and existence.
It is also worth pointing out that a character named Stephen Dedalus also figures prominently into the work as a whole: the first 50 or so pages of the novel are dedicated to his story, and he is recurring presence over the course of the work. Stephen is a kind of stand-in for Joyce himself. The character, for example, was the protagonist of a previous novel by Joyce called A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—a work that is clearly just a fictionalization of Joyce’s own experience of coming of age as an artist. There would seem to be an almost filial relationship between Bloom on the one hand and Stephen on the other. For example, in one chapter, “Stephen heads for the red-light district and is followed by Bloom, who is concerned in a fatherly way over Stephen’s well-being” (Rosenbach Museum and Library, paragraph 15). In any event, all of Ulysses is clearly about the epic adventures that befall Bloom over the course of one ordinary day in his life, and if Stephen is a prominent character in the novel, then this is primarily because he is a prominent part of Bloom’s life.
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Ulysses was initially banned in Great Britain, with the result that Joyce’s work was actually published in the United States before it was over there. A man named Archibald Bodkins was responsible for bringing about this ban; and his call for the ban was based entirely on the final chapter of Joyce’s novel, entitled “Penelope”—that is, the name of the wife of the ancient Odysseus. This whole chapter is written stream-of-consciousness style from the perspective of Molly Bloom, the wife of the hero of Joyce’s novel; and it contains sexually explicit material, due to the simple fact that Molly’s psyche sweepingly reflects over much of her life, the experiences she has had recently, and especially her feelings toward the men in her life. It is this sexual material that provoked the ire of Bodkins and led him the institute a ban on Joyce’s book within the nation of Great Britain.
Here is a relevant passage from a letter written by Bodkin himself in the year 1922 (qtd. in Onion):
It is in the pages above mentioned that the glaring obscenity and filth appears. . . . It is conceivable that there will be criticism of this attitude toward this publication on the ground that it is the production of a well-known writer; the answer will be that it is filthy and filthy books are not allowed to be imported into this country.
Bodkin also suggests that there are probably many other lurid and/or suggestive passages in the book as well (he would be right), but that almost no one could be bothered with actually reading the whole thing cover to cover. In a certain sense, Bodkin’s response can be seen as almost amusing, coming as it does from someone with an old-fashioned puritanical temperament and who has no apparent idea about the nature or purposes of modern literature. One could also make a parody of his remarks, if one wanted. But the actual consequences of Bodkin’s letter were very real: Ulysses was not published in Great Britain until the year 1936.
This specific case of Ulysses being banned within Great Britain ties well into the broader points regarding the reasons for banning a book that have been made in a previous post in the present series of essays. It was specifically banned on the grounds of immorality; and as Begley has pointed out, sexual explicitness is one of the main categories of immorality for which books are often banned. There was something deeply threatening to Bodkin (and people like him) about the frankness with which Joyce portrayed sexual matters; he felt that if Ulysses were to get a broad readership, then such frankness would exert a corrupting influence on the public as a whole. The dichotomy structuring Bodkin’s response is made extremely clear by the very language that he uses. According to Bodkin, morality would be associated with cleanliness, whereas immorality would be associated with filth; Joyce’s book is undeniably filthy (as even its strongest fans would agree); therefore, in the mind of Bodkins, Joyce’s book was immoral. This was his justification for his call to ban the book.
The American Case
In the year 1933, a legal decision regarding Joyce’s Ulysses was reached within the United States; and this decision can only be celebrated as a major victory for the principle of freedom of expression. The question at hand was whether the novel was “obscene” and thus deserved to be banned from the nation. The judge presiding over the case, John M. Woolsey, concluded that the work was not obscene, on the grounds that the purpose of Joyce’s work—including the sexually explicit material in the final chapter clearly was not to excite lust, but rather just to portray the inner lives of human beings with as much fidelity as possible, which of course often includes vulgar words and preoccupations with sex. Woolsey concluded that the general effect of the work as a whole was not pornographic but rather tragic, and that it would be absurd to take the sexually explicit material out of the context of the work as a whole.
The following passage written by Woolsey is utterly brilliant and deserves to be quoted in full here:
It is because Joyce has been loyal to his technique and has not funked its necessary implications, but has honestly attempted to tell fully what his characters think about, that he has been the subject of so many attacks and that his purpose has been so often misunderstood and misrepresented. For his attempt sincerely and honestly to realize his objective has required him incidentally to use certain words which are generally considered dirty words and has led at times to what many think is a too poignant preoccupation with sex in the thoughts of his characters. (paragraph 13)
In other words, Woolsey understood that everything that Joyce has done within Ulysses is fully justified by real aesthetic reasons, and that it would thus be absurd to condemn the work at a moral level for having so magnificently achieved its aesthetic purposes. More generally, Woolsey’s decision can be interpreted as a general defense of the prerogatives of art against the judgments of narrow morality. As such, the decision transcended the case of Ulysses itself and constituted a more general victory for freedom of expression in general.
Reflection on Merit
The above discussion has more or less clearly revealed that the people who once called for a ban of Joyce’s Ulysses, chief among whom was Bodkin, just self-evidently had no idea of the real purposes of the novel in particular, and of modern literature in general. Joyce was attempting to portray the inner lives of his characters with the greatest fidelity possible; and any “filth” or obscenity present in the novel is simply a natural result of this commitment to psychological realism. In a certain sense, then, to condemn Joyce’s novel for containing sexually explicit material would be tantamount to condemning the human soul itself for containing sexually explicit material. Of course, this is exactly what puritanical people like Bodkin have always done: they have never been comfortable with the seedier side of reality that is inherent in human nature itself, and they would much rather just pretend it does not exist.
The much wiser judgment in this regard was reached by Woolsey, who understood that for all the ribald comedy present within it, Joyce’s Ulysses is a fundamentally tragic work—a point that is not countered but rather merely underscored by the sexual aspect present within the work. Joyce’s novel clearly achieved its aesthetic objective of presenting the kaleidoscopic panorama of human consciousness in as vivid and accurate a way as possible; and in the final analysis, it would not be possible to condemn the work for its “filth” any more than it would be possible to condemn the human condition itself for its filth. As is usually the case, then, the call to ban Ulysses has a self-revelatory character: the people who call for such a thing are really saying more about themselves than they are about the book under consideration. In this particular case, what they are saying about themselves is that they are only capable of seeing sex as inherently filthy in and of itself, and not as a more subtle, integrated part of human consciousness and destiny.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of the banned book case of Joyce’s Ulysses. The essay has developed an overview of the novel, considered the British ban on the book and the American refusal to ban the book, and concluded that the decision reached by Woolsey was by far wiser than the one reached by Bodkin. This concludes the present part of this ongoing series of essays on the subject of banned books. The previous post considered Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and the current post has consisted Joyce’s Ulysses. The next post will conduct one further banned book case study. And the subject of that post will be none other than J.D. Salinger’s controversial novel The Catcher in the Rye.
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Begley, Sarah. “Here Are the Top 10 Reasons Books Get Banned.” Time. 2 Oct. 2015. Web. 4 Apr. 2016. .
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Joyce, James. Ulysses, New York: Oxford U P, 2011. Print.
Onion, Rebecca. “The Sniffy, Scandalized Letter that Sealed the UK Government’s Ban of Ulysses.” Slate. 12 Jun. 2014. Web. 5 Apr. 2016. _s_book.html>.
Rosenbach Museum and Library. “Ulysses Plot Summary.” Author, 2016. Web. 8 Apr. 2016. .
Woolsey, John M. “United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses.” Leagle. 1933. Web. 8 Apr. 2016. .