Since it first appeared in The Little Review in 1918, James Joyce’s Ulysses has been categorized as a masterwork of European literature. Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Samuel Beckett placed it in the tradition of Homer, Dante, and Gustave Flaubert. Valery Larbaud, whose lecture on Ulysses launched its reception in France, claimed that with the publication of Joyce’s novel, Ireland made a marvelous reentry into European literature. Even Wyndham Lewis stressed the importance of the European cultural context for understanding the novel. So why now, after nearly eight decades of Joyce criticism, are we hearing about the Irish Joyce? And how does this change our perception of the novel as a work of European modernism?
One answer can be found in the pages of Enda Duffy’s provocative book, The Subaltern Ulysses. Duffy presents the arresting thesis that Ulysses is a postcolonial novel; it is “the text of Ireland’s independence” (3), written during the years of violent anticolonial struggle and published on the brink of Ireland’s political independence. As such, it can be understood as a “national allegory” (3) reworking in narrative form the ideological forces at work in a colonized community imagining and forging a new identity.
Duffy’s thesis rests on the parallel he draws between the time of Ulysses’s composition (1914-21), and the political events in Ireland during this period, which include the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. Following the lead of Richard Ellmann and Dominic Manganiello, Duffy builds his argument on the biographical facts surrounding Joyce’s intense preoccupation with Irish politics during these years while he lived in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris. Writing from the condition of exile on the continent, Joyce, according to Duffy, lived through the violent events in Irish history in his imagination and sought forms to express this experience in writing Ulysses.
The traces of these violent events can be found in the “homologies” that exist between the narrative strategies of the text and the “forces in conflict during the revolution” (167). In a series of five chapters, each focusing on a specific episode in the novel, Duffy analyses these homologies by showing how Joyce invents “narrative forms complex enough to characterize independence for the citizens of the postcolonial state” (190). Using the tripartite Homeric structure of the novel as a guide, Duffy explores the way Ulysses “employs a whole series of modernist strategies of defamiliarization to represent aspects of this community in all its diversity” (190). [End Page 182]
In addition to his use of postcolonial theory and marxist analyses of narrative, Duffy draws on a wealth of information regarding Irish history and politics. This historical information is supplemented by documents and photographs from the archives of the British government and from the history of medical photography. The latter provides a shocking photograph of an “Irishman in top hat with a lump on his neck” (94) that is a chilling reminder of the racial theories of the Gael prevalent in Victorian England.
Reminding the reader of Ireland’s colonial subjection and its narrative representation in Ulysses appears to be Duffy’s main objective, and in that he succeeds. However, despite the advantages to Duffy’s method, the book often fails to provide persuasive readings of the text. I find this most evident in his analysis of the Cyclops episode, to my mind the most controversial in the book. To argue for a “split identity” (96) in both the text and in Irish culture does not resolve the issue of how Joyce represents anticolonial violence in his portrait of the Sinn Fein Citizen espousing nationalist violence and racism in Barney Kiernan’s pub. It merely underscores it. Joyce’s rejection of violence, like Bloom’s rejection of history, grows out of a realistic awareness of Ireland’s bloody past. Like Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, the Cyclops episode refuses to side with the Irish cause. Both Joyce and O’Casey satirize the violent tendencies of their own culture. By stressing the way Joyce’s novel is a national allegory...