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Joyce received the first copy of Ulysses, with its blue binding and white lettering, on his 40th birthday, in 1922. It was his most exhaustive attempt yet to collapse the distinction between literature and life.
First of all, Joyce tossed out most of the narrative techniques found in 19th century fiction. Ulysses has no discernible plot, no series of obstacles that a hero or heroine must surmount on the way to a happy ending. The book offers no all-knowing narrator, a la Dickens or Tolstoy, to guide the reader--describe the characters and settings, provide background information, summarize events and explain, from time to time, the story's moral significance.
With so many traditional methods of narrative abandoned, what was left? Perhaps the clearest and most concise description of Joyce's technique came from the critic Edmund Wilson: "Joyce has attempted in Ulysses to render as exhaustively, as precisely and as directly as it is possible in words to do, what our participation in life is like--or rather, what it seems to us like as from moment to moment we live."
A first reading of Ulysses can thus be a baffling experience, although no book more generously rewards patience and fortitude. Stephen Dedalus reappears, still stuck in Dublin, dreaming of escape. Then we meet Leopold Bloom, or rather we meet his thoughts as he prepares breakfast for his wife Molly. (We experience her thoughts as she drifts off to sleep at the end of the book.)
Ulysses is the account of one day in Dublin--June 16, 1904, Joyce's private tribute to Nora, since that was the date on which they first went out together. The book follows the movements of not only Stephen and Bloom but also hundreds of other Dubliners as they walk the streets, meet and talk, then talk some more in restaurants and pubs. All this activity seems random, a record of urban happenstance.
But nothing in Ulysses is truly random. Beneath the surface realism of the novel, its apparently artless transcription of life's flow, lurks a complicated plan. Friends who were in on the secret of Ulysses urged Joyce to share it, to make things easier for his readers. He resisted at first: "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of ensuring one's immortality."
Joyce later relented, and so the world learned that Ulysses was, among many other things, a modern retelling of Homer's Odyssey, with Bloom as the wandering hero, Stephen as Telemachus and Molly as a Penelope decidedly less faithful than the original. T.S. Eliot, who recognized the novel's underpinnings, wrote that Joyce's use of classical myth as a method of ordering modern experience had "the importance of a scientific discovery."
Ulysses made Joyce famous, although not always in a manner to his liking. When a fan approached him and asked, "May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?" Joyce said, "No, it did lots of other things too." But more important, Ulysses became a source book for 20th century literature. It expanded the domain of permissible subjects in fiction, following Bloom not only into his secret erotic fantasies but his outdoor privy as well.