Voices in the Text
Joyce employs a wide variety of voices in Ulysses, so it helps to have a basic understanding of a few of the techniques and stylistic innovations that appear in the text. I’ll offer deeper and more specific explanations in the episode guides that are immediately relevant to these voices, but this page offers a few of the big ideas.
Inner Monologue/Stream of Consciousness
The final six pages of A Portrait take the form of Stephen’s personal journal, thereby granting access to his thoughts (although filtered and edited). From the outset of Ulysses, Joyce strips away even that thin veneer, allowing the reader unfettered access to Stephen’s inner monologue (and, later, to that of Mr. Bloom, Molly Bloom, and others).
The text will quickly shift between inner monologue and narration or dialogue, posing a challenge for readers until they get the hang of it. Here, in an example from the “Nestor” episode, I have italicized Stephen’s inner monologue and bolded narration (Joyce, of course, will do us no such favors):
It must be a movement then, an actuality of the possible as possible. Aristotle’s phrase formed itself within the gabbled verses and floated out in the the studious silence of the library of Saint Genevieve where he had read, sheltered from the sin of Paris, night by night. By his elbow a delicate Siamese conned a handbook of strategy. Fed and feeding brains about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my mind’s darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds. (U 2.67-74)
And here, another example, this time of Mr. Bloom’s inner monologue spliced with narration. Again, I have italicized inner monologue and bolded narration:
He strolled out of the postoffice and turned to the right. Talk: as if that would mend matters. His hand went into his pocket and a forefinger felt its way under the flap of the envelope, ripping it open in jerks. Women will pay a lot of heed, I don’t think. His fingers drew forth the letter and crumpled the envelope in his pocket. Something pinned on: photo perhaps. Hair? No. (U 5.76-81)
The jumps between 3rd person narration and inner monologue (not to mention the absence of quotation marks to make explicit the separation of dialogue from interior thought!) surely contribute to the challenge of reading this book. However, Joyce trains us in how to read this novel as we go, and you’ll get the hang of it.
The Uncle Charles Principle
The style of the narration in Joyce’s fiction is like a chameleon, shifting in tone, diction, and syntax to fit the most prominent and present character at that moment in the book. Hugh Kenner introduced the Uncle Charles Principle to designate that “the narrative idiom need not be the narrator’s” (Voices 18).
Kenner coined the term “the Uncle Charles Principle” based on Wyndham Lewis’s criticism of Joyce’s prose in A Portrait. In one moment, the novel reads: “Every morning, therefore, Uncle Charles repaired to his outhouse.” Lewis scoffed, saying “people repair to places in works of fiction of the humblest order” (qtd. in Voices 17). Lewis did not understand that “repair” is Uncle Charles’s word, not Joyce’s. In pursuit of the most accurate realism possible, Joyce was determined to use the language and patterns of speech most accurate to his characters without regard for whether those words are vulgar, stodgy, or ludicrous. To sustain that linguistic realism beyond dialogue and inner monologue to 3rd person narration was revolutionary.
In this way, we can learn about Joyce’s characters by attending to the way in which the narrator describes the movements and worldly surroundings of a character. For Joyce, then, narrative style serves as a device of characterization rather than a fixed element of the author’s prose.
A brief application of the Uncle Charles Principle to Ulysses: when the narrator is around Stephen, the voice is hyper-aware, emotionally detached, and academic; when around Mr. Bloom, it assumes a humored and engaging tone.
The scholars Hugh Kenner and David Hayman provide readers of Ulysses with a useful way of identifying and discussing the voice, distinct from the narrator, that increasingly dominates the text from the “Wandering Rocks” episode on. This voice, identified by Hayman as “the Arranger,” expresses a reader-like awareness of every detail and every character in the book. Indeed, the Arranger might be most simply described as the witty and omniscient mind of the book itself, knowing what words it uses where, what each character is doing when, and what is the essence of each moment. Therefore, the voice of the Arranger capitalizes on the hyper-attention to detail paid by Joyce himself while displaying a mischievousness with language, “irreverently but consistently distort[ing] the rhythm of the narrative voice” (Hayman 98).
Joyce sprinkles throughout the text of Ulysses seven instances of the phrase “retrospective arrangement,” signaling the significance of this idea to the understanding of the way the book works. In the “Oxen of the Sun” episode, he offers the most striking, hand-waving use of this phrase: “in a retrospective arrangement, a mirror within a mirror (hey, presto!)” (U 14.1044-45). I read the “hey, presto!” parenthetical as a note of announcement (look here! I did it!), and the “mirror within a mirror” conveys the notion that the voice of the Arranger serves as a mirror that can look back on the novel, which itself is a mirror into the essence of human life, thought, and feeling.
Hugh Kenner makes clear the distinction between the novel’s more traditional narrator and the Arranger: “he exists side by side with a colourless primary narrator who sees to the thousand little bits of novelistic housekeeping no one is meant to notice: the cames and wents, saids and askeds, stoods and sats, without which nothing could get done at all. Lounging in this drudge’s shadow, the Arranger may now and then show his hand when Bloom is observed: when [...] the narrative sequence is being responsive to what the character is conscious of” (Ulysses 67).
From Kenner, I love imagining the Narrator as diligent, responsible, and buttoned up, sitting at a desk and carefully making sure everything is moving forward. Meanwhile, the brilliant, impish Arranger loafs on the couch, popping up and nudging aside his colleague to add something eccentric to the telling of the story of June 16th, 1904.
Free Indirect Discourse
Less unique to Joyce’s writing than the other types of voices explained on this page, free indirect discourse is when the narrator relates to the reader the thoughts, feelings, and/or spoken words of a character. For example, Father Conmee “thought, but not for long, of soldiers and sailors, whose legs had been shot off by cannonballs” (U 10.12-13). Here, the narrator has access to inner thoughts of a character but not his inner monologue.
Hayman, David. Ulysses: the Mechanics of Meaning. University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.
Kenner, Hugh. Ulysses. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
--- Joyce’s Voices. University of California Press, 1978.