James Joyce's Ulysses encapsulates the tempo of life in early twentieth-century Dublin through the straightforward device of tracing the peregrinations of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom around the city on June 16, 1904. In chronicling the experiences of Bloom and Stephen interacting with Dubliners as they move—first separately and then together—across the metropolitan area, the narrative of Ulysses offers insights into the dysfunctional elements of Irish home life, the fractious consequences of Ireland's political upheavals, the chaotic layout of Dublin's typography, the alternately exhilarating and suffocating elements of Roman Catholic beliefs and rituals, and a host of other topics of local and, ultimately, of universal interest.
With its freewheeling referentiality to Dublin's individuals, places, and events, Joyce's work stands as an unmistakably Irish novel. It uses heavily allusive snapshot encounters to convey a strong sense of how middle- and lower middle-class individuals lived in Dublin at the beginning of the last century. Its very specificity has a wide-ranging appeal that has engaged readers around the world. In depicting these idiosyncratic lives, Joyce articulates a unique environment that is nonetheless imaginatively accessible to a wide audience. Joyce himself acknowledged this phenomenon in a comment to his friend Arthur Power: "I always write about Dublin because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world."1
Readers agreed, immediately proclaiming Joyce's work a monumental achievement. At a time in literary history when the rise of Modernism and the trauma of the First World War challenged the efficacy of the novel, Ulysses presented a unique way of seeing the world. With its resolute detail, Joyce's novel revitalized conventional perceptions and came to dominate the consciousness of the twentieth-century literary scene. Its eclectic thematic concerns, from the erotic to the emetic, established new parameters for narrative discourse. Its wide-ranging stylistic approaches—which reflected a consciousness of literary [End Page 41] forebears, yet asserted an attitude uninhibited by the restrictions of cause-and-effect logic or the tradition of linear construction—presented a form of fiction unlike anything since Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. The cultural effect of Ulysses, a distinctly Irish novel with near universal appeal, proved to be immediate, profound, and lasting.
In our time, the achievement of articulating a uniquely Irish experience with widespread imaginative resonance has become more and more difficult for artists to replicate. The nature of being Irish, particularly among the middle class, has lost much of the distinctiveness it enjoyed as recently as a generation ago. Simple dichotomies that for generations had been commonly and comfortably applied to articulate the features of Irishness—religious versus secular, provincial versus metropolitan, republican versus Unionist, and numerous other polarities—no longer provide a stable foundation for understanding the parameters within which the national identity exists. The concept of an overarching, defining public character has become anachronistic. David McWilliams, in discussing the contemporary Irish adults whom he calls "the Pope's Children," probes the ways in which economic and social growth over the past few decades—particularly in an expanding middle class—have radically transformed traditional reference points. At present, the qualities that the Irish middle class privileges seem hardly distinguishable from the identifying features of middle-class communities across Europe and North America.
McWilliams hammers home this point in a series of contrasting images of the old and new aspirations of the middle class in Ireland:
The Old Irish Dream—which was mother's milk to their parents and previous generations—was of Catholicism, nationalism, community, chastity, the Brits, the six counties, the Irish language, the famine, the underdog, getting a good job in the bank and the glamour of Grace Kelly. Things were offered up, sacrificed in this life for fulfillment in the next...