Musicality and Rhythm in Joyce’s Ulysses

Picture yourself walking down a noisy street, with the click-clacking of cars and footsteps jangling in your ears. All those kinds of jarring sounds that are so familiar that you tend to tune them out, or they just blend together. The only time that they seem to come across in a focused or separate manner is during times of increased sensitivity – such as a period of anxiety.

I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about James Joyce’s Ulysses, many of which I have trouble putting into words (which is a sensation that I’ve tried to integrate into my point here), but let’s see what we can do. What Joyce excels at perhaps above all (admittedly, narrowing down exactly what Joyce excels at best is tricky – as anyone who reads the book will come away with a different experience) is matching form with content. In the “Sirens” chapter, we find our hero Leopold Bloom stalking his wife’s lover through the streets of Dublin, and the chapter is incredibly noisy. By making use of discordant sounds, sentence fragments, and onomatopoeias – Joyce throws the reader exactly into Bloom’s shoes (sidenote: that OO sound, as in “Bloom” and “shoes” is one that echoes fairly prominently throughout the chapter’s opening overture…I stepped outside for a moment to listen to the sounds of the street, and it seems to me that OO is the sound I would most associate with all the various noises bleeding into each other). Due to his wife’s affair and encountering her lover in the street, Bloom is in just the kind of state of anxiety that makes all the sounds of the world louder. Bloom is rattled, so Joyce uses linguistic tricks to rattle the reader, thus connecting them to Bloom’s position.

However, it would be a disservice to refer to this section as purely “discordant” or “noisy.” Joyce’s strange little phrases have a very beautiful, evocative quality to them. “Wait while you wait. Hee hee. Wait while you hee” (Joyce 257). There’s something oddly universal to that, isn’t there? “The spiked and winding cold seahorn. Have you the? Each and for other plash and silent roar” (256). I can’t pretend that I understand what he’s saying here – but it seems like that’s the point. It has a certain emotional resonance nonetheless, just like listening to a symphony. One does not need to have a firm grasp of music to be moved by a piece, no matter how intricate. The same goes for Joyce’s writing. Not fully understanding may even add to the reader’s experience of the text – as it brings about a sense of subjectivity, which allows the reader to connect what’s on the page with their own life experiences and emotions.

This is not the only section where Joyce utilizes the sounds of the world in order to give the text a musicality. Take the chapter “Proteus” (my favorite section), which features the novel’s other main character, Stephen Dedalus walking on the beach. Like Bloom in “Sirens,” he is filled with a sense of confusion and doubt. “Am I walking into eternity along Sandymout Strand? Crush, crack, crick, crick, crick. Wild sea money…Rhythm begins, you see. I hear. A catalectic tetrameter of iambs marching” (37). Here, rhythm is not just evoked, but explicitly detailed and thought about. Stephen himself tries to form the world around him into poetic conventions (iambic pentameter). And, as the chapter goes on, he fails. This creates another reciprocal relationship with the reader, wherein they try to create order out of Stephen’s rambling thoughts (and perhaps forcing them to confront, like Stephen, their own failings to shape their life to a certain form).

Finally, in the most famous section of the novel, “Penelope,” Joyce forces the reader to create their own rhythm to the text through the use of one long unpunctuated 30 page sentence. The novels ends with “I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes” (783). This scene is narrated by Bloom’s wife, Molly, as she lays in bed and recounts their lives together and her doubts and disillusionments with the relationship (hence: the affair). By depriving the text of any punctuation, Joyce takes any sense of a safety-net for the reader to grasp onto. And the tone may shift from loving and beautiful, or resentful based on the way the reader chooses to give it rhythm (and, it may change with each reading).

Modernism can be seen to some extent as a response to the confusion faced by people in the wake of the First World War, and ever-changing structures of society. In his use of musical prose and rhythm in Ulysses, James Joyce instills that same sense of confusion in the readers, and creates a reciprocal relationship. And, to some extent, gives offers some sense of comfort by showing that the regular problems faced by regular people don’t really change that much, even as society does.


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