Ulysses and The Law

As I have stated, Ulysses is not an easy book to read. It is brilliant and dull, intelligible and obscure by turns. In many places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider dirt for dirt’s sake.

Judge John M. Woolsey, US District Court

Ulysses changed not only the course of literature in the century that followed, but the very definition of literature in the eyes of the law.

Kevin Birmingham, Joyce biographer

Law is the contract that members of a society use to keep from hurting each other. Ideas and words can hurt, so sometimes The Law steps into their world to do some policing. From 1921 until 1933 copies of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses were routinely intercepted at ports around the world by government agents and destroyed before their words and ideas could enter the minds of the citizens under their rule.

Capturing the thoughts that pass through the minds of a handful of people in Dublin on June 16, 1904 seems like such a specific task that it would make for a relatively short novel but like so much in life once you peel off a layer you find a dozen more inside of it. For at least a dozen years some of those layers caused official disturbance to the appointed guardians of morality in the law. One of the uncovered layers was this one that stretched between the 18 year-old Gerty McDowell and Leopold Bloom, 20 years her senior, between the twilight and the fireworks over the beach:

The eyes that were fastened upon her set her pulses tingling. She looked at him a moment, meeting his glance, and a light broke in upon her. Whitehot passion was in that face, passion silent as the grave, and it had made her his. At last they were left alone without the others to pry and pass remarks and she knew he could be trusted to the death, steadfast, a sterling man, a man of inflexible honour to his fingertips. His hands and face were working and a tremor went over her. She leaned back far to look up where the fireworks were and she caught her knee in her hands so as not to fall back looking up and there was no one to see only him and her when she revealed all her graceful beautifully shaped legs like that, supply soft and delicately rounded, and she seemed to hear the panting of his heart, his hoarse breathing, because she knew about the passion of men like that, hot-blooded, because Bertha Supple told her once in dead secret and made her swear she’d never about the gentleman lodger that was staying with them out of the Congested Districts Board that had pictures cut out of papers of those skirtdancers and highkickers and she said he used to do something not very nice that you could imagine sometimes in bed. But this was altogether different from a thing like that because there was all the difference because she could almost feel him draw her face to his and the first quick hot touch of his handsome lips. Besides there was absolution so long as you didn’t do the other thing before being married and there ought to be women priests that would understand without your telling out and Cissy Caffrey too sometimes had that dreamy kind of dreamy look in her eyes so that she too, my dear, and Winny Rippinham so mad about actors’ photographs and besides it was on account of that other thing coming on the way it did.

And Jacky Caffrey shouted to look, there was another and she leaned back and the garters were blue to match on account of the transparent and they all saw it and shouted to look, look there it was and she leaned back ever so far to see the fireworks and something queer was flying about through the air, a soft thing to and fro, dark. And she saw a long Roman candle going up over the trees up, up, and, in the tense hush, they were all breathless with excitement as it went higher and higher and she had to lean back more and more to look up after it, high, high, almost out of sight, and her face was suffused with a divine, an entrancing blush from straining back and he could see her other things too, nainsook knickers, the fabric that caresses the skin, better than those other pettiwidth, the green, four and eleven, on account of being white and she let him and she saw that he saw and then it went so high it went out of sight a moment and she was trembling in every limb from being bent so far back he had a full view high up above her knee no-one ever not even on the swing or wading and she wasn’t ashamed and he wasn’t either to look in that immodest way like that because he couldn’t resist the sight of the wondrous revealment half offered like those skirtdancers behaving so immodest before gentlemen looking and he kept on looking, looking. She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her with brow the cry of a young girl’s love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! They were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!

Than all melted away dewily in the grey air: all was silent. Ah! She glanced at him as she bent forward quickly, a pathetic little glance of piteous protest, of shy reproach under which he coloured like a girl. He was leaning back against the rock behind. Leopold Bloom (for it is he) stands silent, with bowed head before those young guileless eyes. What a brute he had been! At it again? A fair unsullied soul had called to him and, wretch that he was, how had he answered? An utter cad he had been. He of all men! But there was an infinite store of mercy in those eyes, for him too a word of pardon even though he had erred and sinned and wandered. Should a girl tell? No, a thousand times no. That was their secret, only theirs, alone in the hiding twilight and there was none to know or tell save the little bat that flew so softly through the evening to and fro and little bats don’t tell.

It is the sex after all, more than the foul language and blasphemy, that drew the furious attention of the law. Before Ulysses there were only two ways to write about sex: as smut, or as allusion. Now, it could be given its proper place in the natural world. Or, as the judge who ruled that the book could not be banned put it:

In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.

Judge John M. Woolsey, US District Court
Nora Barnacle, the real-life Molly Bloom

For all the crudity of the book, centered as it is on the thoughts of Celtic men in Spring, there is a certain chivalry in giving the last word to the only prominent woman in the book. The final chapter belongs to Molly Bloom and it is the best one in the book. The fearless readers who hack their way through the tangled weeds of the first 700+ pages of Ulysses find themselves inside Molly’s quick-moving mind. Her train of thought, unchained from paragraphs and punctuation, pulls into the novel’s final stop with her memory of the day she agreed to marry Leopold:

and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where 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 though well as well him as another and the 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. 

James and Nora

2 responses to “Ulysses and The Law”

  1. Nice post. I attempted the first several pages of “Ulysses”, which is all about a man shaving, and gave up. I like “Dubliners” a lot and read it three times, but I can’t seem to endure “Ulysses”. Please show me the beauty that I cannot see in this book.


    • I did the same thing the first time I tried to read “Ulysses” – got about 50 pages in before giving up. It took me years to get around to my second attempt but a pandemic seemed like a good time to try again. It is the most difficult book I ever read but, for me, worth the work. Beauty is subjective, but where I see it in “Ulysses” is in the audacity of Joyce to not only break the rules of writing but to obliterate them, to deny their existence, and to mock them. Also, his use of language and his ability to get inside the heads of his characters are both spellbinding.


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