Four years ago, Sorcha Ashe ’22 enrolled in the seminar “Complexity in Works of Art: Ulysses and Hamlet” with a lofty goal: read one of the most challenging novels in the modern English canon.
“‘Ulysses’ has kind of a lore around it as being an impossibly complicated book, and I definitely thought that it was going to be beyond me when I started,” said Ashe, an integrative biology concentrator from St. Paul, Minnesota. “But I had always wanted to read it because my father is Irish and it’s his favorite book.”
Guided by instructor Philip Fisher, Felice Cowl Reid Professor of English, Ashe and her classmates journeyed together through James Joyce’s Irish modernist classic, which was first published in book form in February 1922. The rewards were equal to the task.
“I found it to be one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve ever had,” Ashe said. “To get to talk about those challenging parts and the enjoyable parts with other people made the experience so much more valuable than it would have been if I had read it on my own. It was such a joy to hear different people’s takes on the same set of words.”
Ashe’s struggle and delight with the novel echo century-old refrains from Joyce’s contemporaries. Fellow modernists including Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot reacted with confusion and envy to the author’s combination of rich prose, shifting perspectives, and Homeric allusions in a meandering interior story that spans but a single day.
“Virginia Woolf was quite defensive about ‘Ulysses’ when it came out, because she said it was boring and overrated,” said Beth Blum, an assistant professor of English and Joyce scholar. “But after sitting with it more, she saw what he was trying to do and appreciated it. She began to see that Joyce was, as she put it, trying to get thinking into literature.”
Eliot lamented: “It is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.”