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Relations: Ethics and the Modernist Subject in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves,” and Djuna Barnes’s “Nightwood” (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 375-376 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0064

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AnnKatrin Jonsson begins Relations: Ethics and the Modernist Subject in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves,” and Djuna Barnes’s “Nightwood” by discussing Emmanuel Levinas’s ethical concept of the self and the other. He claims that when a subject encounters an other, that subject is faced with his or her difference and the boundaries of his or her identity are challenged by a responsibility to the other.1 As Jonsson states,

for Levinas the ethical originates in a face-to-face relation, and most importantly in discourse between self and other—with an other who resides outside me, and who cannot be reduced to or integrated into the self as same, into the traditional notion of the self as self-contained and autonomous. Ethics arises in a relation that always demands responding to the other, being responsible (responsable) for the other.


While Jonsson is accurate in describing Levinas’s ethical project, I could not get past the fact that her contentions, especially when it came to relating Levinas to Ulysses, seemed all too familiar.

Marian Eide, in her book Ethical Joyce, makes much the same argument,2 and Jonsson barely acknowledges this earlier text. The usual inherent delays in publishing a book might account for this neglect, except for the fact that Jonsson does include a few references to Eide’s text, which indicate that she knew about Eide’s work. In her “Concluding Remarks,” Jonsson states, “In Ethical Joyce, Eide argues that Joyce’s literary project was also an ethical one; she sees in Joyce an emphasis on the subject’s decentralization and openness to the other. To highlight the ethical possibility within Joyce’s work, she falls back on the work of Levinas and of post-structuralist critics” (185). In her footnote to this comment, she argues that Eide’s text “does not present a full-fledged Levinasian reading of Joyce” (185), presumably in an effort to make her text seem sufficiently different from Eide’s. Her discussion of Ulysses hardly opens up new ground; rather, it seems a pale comparison to a work that has already established most of the ideas she raises. I found nothing new of note in her chapter on Ulysses, in which she argues, much like Eide, that, “by indicating and acknowledging the dissonance or otherness within the subject, Ulysses sketches an ethical subject, a subject who can encounter an other without making it a part of itself, without converting the other into a content of its knowledge and will” (93). A Joyce scholar examining this text to discover new ideas about Joyce and ethics will most likely be disappointed.

The other two chapters, however, do contain insightful ideas about both Woolf’s and Barnes’s texts, and they represent the best part of the book. In her discussion of Woolf’s The Waves, Jonsson notes how the characters in the novel have their identity questioned by the presence of others. She argues that “the moments of coherence and stability—I am—that the ‘characters’ in The Waves experience in between the moments of change and indeterminacy—Who am I?—are the poles of this wavering between sameness and selfhood. This means that any stable and permanent identity, any sameness, is continuously undone or negated” (103). Jonsson looks at the way Woolf creates the narrative of the text in a series of moments from different characters’ points of view and discusses how this style delineates and questions the stability of identity. Jonsson’s examination of Woolf’s text is successful and intellectually exciting. Her best material, however, occurs in the chapter that considers Barnes’s Nightwood. Although it begins with a plodding and unnecessary recounting of both the publication history of Nightwood and the arguments of several critics about the text, it then turns to a discussion of the novel and its ethical approach, creating an insightful consideration of the work. Jonsson argues that, “[i]n fact, Nightwood not only re-conceptualizes subjectivity, it also de-conceptualizes it. Barnes’s novel suggests an ethics also through the interdependence and/or struggle between representation and anti-representationalism that it displays, a seeming paradox, as the novel is given to...

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