Richard John Davis
Virginia Woolf had a love/hate relationship with James Joyce’s Ulysses.
If you read Virginia Woolf’s diaries, and indeed her letters, on the subject of James Joyce’s Ulysses, you would think that she despised the great man’s exercise in early modernist experimental giganticism. But look a little deeper and the story becomes more complicated. Woolf had, in outpourings of thoughts seemingly less noted by researchers, such musings as for instance regarding Joyce’s book as “an act of revolution”, no less. Indeed, some have found significance in the fact that Woolf’s first encounter with Ulysses was actually in 1918, a full four years before it was published in complete form (Joyce had released excerpts to friends and potential publishers as he went along, in what would turn out to be an excellent example of literary revolt by way of cerebral titillation – a foreshadowing of today’s advance downloading for the privileged or worldly-wise). When she did get round to acquiring the full version, she went out and bought it. Woolf’s expenditure of four pounds on the book’s eventual official release, in 1922, was a significant amount of money for the time, although she later joked that she hoped to sell it for £4.10.
In her diary, Woolf wrote, about Ulysses, that it was as if produced by a “queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples”. And this is merely what is probably the most famous of her many criticisms of the novel. However, it would seem that the effect of Ulysses on Woolf was to take other profound forms. Woolf’s friend, TS Eliot, was an admirer of Ulysses, and this in the views of some helped bring about feelings of failure in Woolf. But others have seen what they see as evidence of a more transformative and, perhaps, inspirational influence.
In a book on the subject called The Ulysses Connection: Clarissa Dalloway’s Bloomsday, the author Harvena Richter highlights some more-than-coincidental similarities between Ulysses and Woolf’s equally renowned Mrs Dalloway. As have others. In terms of the detail of characters, particularly with regard to early drafts of Woolf’s novel, Richter moves on to ineluctable confirmation, with several concrete facts that bring the two works together in a seemingly eternal entwining. She also moves beyond glaring truths, choosing to examine less manifest associations, such as the ghostly parallels concerning the relationships between characters, ostensibly unconnected.
With or without such scholarly evidence, you don’t have to look far in order to spot parallels. The action (and I use the term loosely) of both books is confined within a period of a single day. Woolf’s originally intended name for her character, Septimus Smith: Stephen, seemingly after Joyce’s likewise Shakespeare-obsessed creature, Stephen Daedelus. Joyce’s template haunted Woolf, despite her protestations. Other unavoidable correlations are: the dual plot structure; three main characters; the setting in terms of time of year – mid-June; the analogous sexual humour, inter alia. Until this point, Woolf was, the argument goes, at a literary dead-end. Ulysses showed her a way forward.
The source of this epiphany was Joyce’s illuminating of a method entailing engineering connections between ostensibly disparate characters, by way of contrasting their minds and patterns of thought. Septimus and Clarissa Dalloway are diametric opposites, complementing each other nonetheless. They are brought together by their difference; twinned by discrepancy. Mrs Dalloway jump-cuts back and forth between the two, with other characters shoving in from time to time.
Others, though, have taken issue with those who find too much equivalence. Some, for example, have drawn attention to the fact that many writers have sourced Homer’s Odyssey. Indeed, some have retraced these steps further by drawing on that wellspring for her passages on the eroticism of Mrs Dalloway. What is clear, however, is that Woolf was indebted to Joyce’s door-opening in terms of literary eroticism, albeit in terms of her rather more rarefied and straightforwardly English manner of approach. Eventually, even those seeking to deny similarities concede that there is an undeniable bond between the two early twentieth-century novels, albeit if merely by way of a shared debt to antiquity.
Malcolm Bradbury has sought to define the progress of the novel into a mode of being that is more concerned with the inner workings of the head than what is going on outside it. Referring to Woolf’s own writing on the subject, homing in on a paragraph devoted to the expression of the writer’s wish to be “free and not a slave”, he proposes that her “high” novels are examples of her practising what she has preached, transmogrifying theory into the mechanism of creation. “Her works are thus like Joyce’s Ulysses … they constitute a total universe and sustain themselves within the completeness of their own vision.” Thus, both Woolf and Joyce are rendered as one, in terms of insularity of being. There are various layers of interpretation of this reading. Both books’ confinement to a single day is an insularity of purpose that relates to structure primarily. Joyce’s adherence, on the whole, to what is in his characters’ minds, is reflected in Woolf’s acknowledgement of that fact and amounts to a thematic insularity of sorts. Woolf’s focusing on the inner workings of characters’ psyches, as she moves her examinations of which, in a manner akin to a sort of brain scanner, pointing this way, now that, marks her out as Joyce’s fellow traveller in this respect. And the two works’ self-sufficiency in terms of rejection of many of the existing mores of novel-writing stands self-evident. Further layers are possible, but the point is made: in the early part of the twentieth century the novel became a more introverted concern, with Joyce and Woolf the major protagonists of this dramatic metamorphosis.
It is arguable that Ulysses can be linked back, rather than radically marching forward, to the symbolist period, thereby harking back to an earlier movement more commonly associated with high decadence and Oscar Wilde than modernism. This comparison is seemingly augmented by the book’s preoccupation with the mixing up of sensory realms and the interest in time and space, both matters that concerned Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud and Valéry’. Woolf, too if this train of thought is followed, must be included in this category, by extension. But this, of course, would entail a closer bonding, not merely a marriage of convenience, as well as no small leap of faith with regard to the symbolist legacy, in what might be argued to be a rather tenuous stretch. What can be said is that, more often than not, the two works are cited in close company, which reflects more lucidly the nature of the books’ companionship in the critical canon than their dual relationship to any particular school or literary period; this despite both novels’ irrefutable standing as modernist masterpieces.