Penelope is the last chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. That’s why we’re reading it in my class on modernism. I’m not sure why we’re reading the ending, but I suppose I would find out.

In writing to a friend, Joyce once wrote that he put so many enigma’s in Ulysses that he would keep professors arguing about what it mean for a long time. That’s only way to ensure that your work will be immortal, it seems. It’s no wonder the Joyce industry has become so popular. This novel seems to concern Joyce’s contradictory attitude toward realism. What’s its place in the larger history of the novel.

Most of Joyce’s patrons were women. It took some daring to get involved with publishing Ulysses. Many of them risked arrest–and in fact the book was banned in many places. Publishers were fined for publishing Joyce’s work. Ulysses was eight years in the making, and first sold by prescription. Among the first subscribers were Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill. The year, 1922, both featured the first modernist poem by Eliot, the Wasteland, and also DH Lawrence’s novel “Women in Love”.

Although this work is titled Ulysses, it doesn’t use that name anywhere in the book. Ulysses is the epic hero in Homer’s Oddyssey and the King of Ithaca, the smartest and shrewdest of all the Greek Generals. The Trojan Horse was his idea. Odysseus’s goal is to come home to Ithaca, where his son Telemachus and wife Penelope are waiting for him. Odysseus has no way to know it, but his home has been taken over by a number of other men, always described as suitors to Penelope, but she never takes interest in them. The ending is where Odysseus defeats the suitors and resumes the thrown of Ithaca, after 10 years. A comedic ending of sorts, then, with poetic justice being served, and social rebirth being forecast.

Odysseus is not only to be found in Homer, but also in Dante’s 8th Circle of Hell, and subject and speaker featured in the poem “Ulysses” by Alfred Tennison where he convinces the mariners to take on one last adventure–legend has it that he succeeded in doing so, ending in death for Odysseus and the other mariners. That’s why he’s found in Dante’s 8th circle, reserved for false counselors.

Odysseus is a false counselor, definitely worth noting for Odysseus’s many-sidedness and wrecklessness but he’s also resourceful and smart. By the time Joyce was working on Ulysses, he was familiar with Odysseus’s exploits. Joyce described Ulysses as his favorite hero, and the most human figure in Homer.

Leopold Bloom is the central figure in Joyce’s Ulysses. Bloom, like Ulysses, is many-sided, a father and a son, a lover and a husband, a comrade and a king, kinky, smart, resourceful, possessed of genuine courage. He’s an advertising salesmen however. He’s also Jewish, letting him stay above the fray by not getting involved in the Catholic-Protestant conflict or Irish and British. Molly Bloom can be likened to Homer’s Penelope. She is the counterpart to Penelope.

She waits while her husband proceeds into dangerous territory. Molly is also pursued by suitors, except that her faith is not always trusted. Penelope is absolutely faithful. Ulysses has a son, and Stephen Dedalus is like the son. We know, even though that the Bloom’s do not, that they’ve lost a son. The Blooms also have a daughter, but she is off studying photography in another town. Joyce seems to think fatherhood is a necessary evil, even though he pursues it as some kind of answer.

Joyce needed a structure to his novel. But did he choose Ulysses randomly? Was that structure just some structure that Joyce needed? But, the choice of Homer has to have held precedent over others, Faust, say, or the book of Job.

Perhaps Joyce is saying there were real heros back then, whereas now we just have salesmen and students. Modern men choose to stay away from conflict. Or is he saying that his characters are real heros, just like the old one? But whereas the epic hero comes home to slay the enemies and replenish his youth with his wife, the modern hero, Bloom, avoids conflict–choosing to be away from home when suitors may be at home with his wife. But although Joyce points out discrepancies, he doesn’t make it out to be cause for alarm. He sometimes uses it as the base for ironic humor even. The important thing about Ulysses is not his physical strength, but his many-sidedness, which he passes on to Bloom. Instead of going home and beating up Molly’s lover, he possesses random qualities it seems.

June 16th, the day the novel takes place, is not arbitrary because Joyce fell in love with a certain woman, Nora, and had his first date with her. It’s funny to think of this avant-garde artist being so sentimental.

Because the opening chapters focus on Stephen, I thought the book would have been about Stephen. However, it appears to be about Bloom. Stephen is coming to grips with the death of his mother. He refused to pray with his mother when she died. The focus shifts to Bloom. Stephen is brittle, anxious and unforgiving. Bloom is tender, comfortable and generous. We see Bloom first in his kitchen, following him upstairs for a brief conversation. Then he goes into the butcher shop and asks for a kidney.

Stephen and Bloom don’t meet for a long time. This seems to be most of the plot. Then they finally meet after a scene where Stephen gets into a fight in a brothel. A drunken Stephen starts a fight with a British soldier. Bloom offers Stephen a place to stay for the night. Stephen declines, and the two part.

But Ulysses ends with Molly, not Stephen or Bloom. Molly recalls their first love-making. “Yes I said Yes,”drowsily, “I will, Yes. Our unmistakably affirmative.” Joyce seems to fill all the familiar novelistic chords, where there’s resolution and reunion, acceptance and understanding. It’s Joyce’s highly qualified, assuredly idiosyncratic version of the comedic ending conventional.

Reading this, I was blown away by its intricacy and complexity. I was surprised that some other human being had gone through the complexity and details and take the time to put together all the parallels. The most fascinating thing about Ulysses is the paradoxical attitude towards realism.

What do I mean by this? Joyce’s realism includes the mind, the city, sexual and reproductive cycles like menstruation. Instead of presenting Bloom’s thought in complete sentences, Joyce presents them in brief, staccato bursts. Bloom notices that the butcher has only one kidney left, and he speculates that she will buy it before he can. He says quick thoughts, and short descriptions and ideas. Molly’s thoughts are longer, but they’re more like run-on sentences.

Sometimes the styles of the chapters–which seem to have different style for each chapter–don’t add anything new to the understanding of the characters themselves. But the pleasure seems to come from Joyce’s complete mastery of the older forms of the novel: the catechismic form. Just think about this sequence of words, “promptly, inexplicably, with amicability, gratefully…” it seems like it could go on forever. In developing and disregarding so many styles, Joyce undermines the authority of representation itself. In reading a novel, Joyce reminds us, our relationship to reality is never immediate or direct.