The last words of Joyce’s Ulysses are not, in fact, “yes I said yes I will Yes.” They are “Trieste-Zurich-Paris / 1914-1921.” Joyce’s insistence on ending his books with the dates and times of their composition vividly reminds the reader that Ulysses was composed during the Great War and in its midst; moreover, the bulk of Ulysses, and in particular the episodes that break out of what Joyce termed the “initial style,” were composed between March 1918 and October 1921 during a period when Joyce’s own life was deeply affected by the War. Joyce himself explained that he was interested in Odysseus because he was a war hero, but one whose story does not end when the war is over. Nonetheless, and despite the criticism he faced for neglecting the political events taking place around him, Joyce set Ulysses in the year 1904 and so relegated war to the South African (‘Boer’) War of 1899-1902, an imperialist blip that seemed as irrelevant to his own time as it does to us now. Joyce further reduces war to a matter of old men’s stories by highlighting the battle of Plevna, recalled by Molly’s father, Major Brian Tweedy, although it was a battle Tweedy could not possibly have fought. As far as Joyce’s attitude towards war is concerned, Tom Stoppard, in Travesties, seems to describe it best: “And what did you do in the Great War, Mr Joyce?” “I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?” Or, as Declan Kiberd put it: “Joyce chose for a hero not the militarist Cuchulain but the draft-dodger Ulysses, for he believed that the ordinary was the domain of the artist, adding the ironic observation that the extraordinary could safely be left to journalists.”
Recent criticism has tended to dismiss Joyce’s use of the Odyssey as mere “scaffolding,” thus neglecting a major element in the now widely studied field of Joyce’s relation to Irish nationalism and the Great War. In fact, Ulysses’ relation to the Odyssey goes far beyond a general outline and a few clever correspondences. Thematically, the same problem lies at the heart of both works: you can never go home again, because the “you” that returns is no longer the “you” that left. The reprise also adds an element of critical importance to a generation that saw the War as marking the arrival of an era unlike any before. In exploring Bloom, Stephen, and Molly’s struggles as, each in his or her own way, they attempt to reconcile their past and present identities, Joyce reflects how this basic dilemma was also faced by Odysseus, Telemachus, and Penelope, and in doing so comments on his own generation’s sense of a seismic break in history.
Joyce makes a similar point by minimizing the importance of war; he declines to notice the condition that divided Odysseus from his home and family and that tore apart the world of his novel. The omission is, in all senses of the word, polemical. As Stephen famously puts it: “History … is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” (Ulysses 2.77); or, as Bloom says: “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women …” (Ulysses 12.1481). Joyce, unlike Homer, and unlike the writers of his generation, refused war the dignity of being real life for men and women. His epic ends not, as the Odyssey does, with Odysseus reconnected to his father and son and engaged in the masculine world of violent conflict, but at the Odyssey’s penultimate point, with his hero in bed with his wife. In thus repositioning war Joyce deliberately set his Irish “national epic” (Ulysses 9.309) against the British influence that had, in his view, co-opted the Irishman’s language, literature, and sense of identity. And in so doing he managed to write the first post-war epic that omits war altogether.
Refracting the Great War