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The Comic in Ulysses, Joyce’s Critique of the Irish Nativist Identity


The Comic in Ulysses, Joyce’s Critique of the Irish Nativist Identity

 Dr. Fedya Daas

ISLT University




This article explores the potential of the comic to criticize, revolutionize and redefine the contours of the Irish identity in James Joyce’s Ulysses. In a first instance, it explains how laughter becomes a subversive strategy of traditional heroism. Joyce uses laughter as a counter-monumental technique that figuratively shakes the invincibility of statues of memorialized heroes. Second, a conversation between Joyce’s protagonist Bloom and The Citizen, a prototype of the fanatic nationalists, exposes the contradictions, paradoxes, trivialities and randomness of the Irish nativist project. Third, Joyce also discloses the atrocities of patriarchy through comic gender shifts and the comic exaggerations and role reversals expose the dogmatism of the nativist nationalist discourse. The article concludes that the comic challenges authoritative conventions and promises emancipation from “all nets of nationality”.


Keywords: the comic; laughter; subversive; counter-monumental; emancipation




In his early essay “Drama and Life”, Joyce writes: “The great human comedy in which each has share, gives limitless scope to the true artist, today as yesterday and as in years gone” (Writing 28). In his “Aesthetics”, judging arts by their capacity to “excite in us the feeling of joy”, he deduces “that tragedy is the imperfect manner and comedy the perfect manner, in art…” (Writing 103). In “Fenianism”, Joyce calls Irish history “this sad comedy” (Writing 139) due to the intolerable conditions prevailing Ireland ranging from the successive failed risings and political disappointments and betrayals to a sterile clinging to “a narrow and hysterical nationality” (Writing 60). In the above-mentioned pronouncements, an emphasis on the comic as an inseparable aspect from the Irish life and as an artistic tool to combat the narrow conventions of nationality is unequivocal.


In another essay, Joyce links the comic and the witty in the all-encompassing phrase “the silver laughter of wisdom” (Writing 60). Through the laughable, truth is seizable. The joyful mood or mode of representation enlightens facets of realities, discloses new visions and exposes faults and dogmas to the critical eye. The oxymoron “sad comedy” in its turn draws attention to the contradictory nature of the comic itself. The comic and the serious are never opposites, they complement each other in a witty way that celebrates contradictions. Through exposing the “incongruity, inversion, random turns and shifting terms” (21) that define the comic according to Cynthia D. Wheatley-Lovoy, this article attempts at revealing the political role of the comic in Ulysses.


II-The Trope of Laughter as Counter-monumental:


Of all the episodes of Ulysses, “Hades”’s use of the trope of laughter is the most explicit. Rita Sakr sees that Mr. Power and Martin Cunningham laughter, when passing the Dublin Castle, an imperial monument is a countermonumental tactics. She explains that one of the main Joycean subversive gestures is laughter: “Since monumentalization essentially perpetuates an illusion of invincibility and immortality, the laughter that imaginatively shakes it by mocking it can momentarily break this illusion” (47). Joyce is in fact hostile towards any practice that freezes the now in statues or old and historical forms. Laughter is a celebration of the passionate life and the immediacy of experience. “It is a sinful foolishness to sing back for the good old times, to feed the hunger of us with the cold stones they afford” (Writing 28), Joyce says.


Mr Power’s collapsing in laughter when the carriage heading to Dignam’s funeral passed Gray’s statue is another telling example. Sir John Gray is credited with providing Dublin and its suburbs with a water supply; however, instead of remembering or praising the great deeds of the sculptured figure, Bloom and Martin Cunningham are telling the story of the man who saved Dodd’s son from drowning getting, only a florin instead of being monumentalized. Joyce insists on the heroism of this everyday man in his Martin Cunningham’s affirmation “Like a hero. A silver florin” (Ulysses 85). And Sakr asserts:


In Ulysses, gossip about ordinary life supplants official history. An anecdote about Dubliner’s everyday lives replaces the memorial of the official hero, hence, the foregrounding of the banal and the humorous in the narrative occurs at the expense of both the statue of the moderate nationalist M P, Sir John Gray, and the imperial monument, Nelson’s Pillar, all of which provides a critique of the politics of the construction of monuments by the dominant and emergent powers that competed to define Dublin’s landscape in the nineteenth- century. (47-8)

Since the Irish live at a time and in a society in which the essentialist model of nationalism is deeply ingrained and socially effective, the characters’ laughter at statues of historical heroes aims at the dislodgement of hard-and-fast ethics of heroism and already-conceptualized forms of identity. The very erection of some statues is an aestheticization of politics and a transformation of an ever-changing history and of a controversial present into chosen signs of a pre-defined collective identity. The strife for constructing collective national symbols defines the rhetoric of restorative nostalgia that preaches monological tropes of Irishness discounting the heterogeneity of the contemporary moment. Accepting Henri Bergson’s definition of laughter as “a sort of social gesture” (18), the laughter of Joyce’s characters negotiates the cultural construction of heroism as well as questions the nationalist foundational narrative thus contesting dominant models of representation and therefore it is a form of political participation.


The ridiculing of monumental practices continues as Bloom for example ponders on one occasion “Poor Dignam! His last lie on the earth in his box. When you think of them all it does seem a waste of wood” (Joyce, Ulysses 98). On another occasion, “Mr Bloom walked unheeded along his grove by saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults, stone hopes praying with upcast eyes, old Ireland’s hearts and hands. More sensible to spend the money on some charity for the living” (Joyce, Ulysses 101). Soon afterwards he is critical of “rusty wreaths hung on knobs, garlands of bronzefoil. Better value that for the money. Still the flowers are more poetical. The other gets rather tiresome, never withering. Expressing nothing. Immortelles” (Joyce, Ulysses 102). Each of the above-mentioned instances discloses a similar anxiety, of a desire, however frequently aborted, to revolt against the tyrannies of old traditions, monuments and practices. The mockery of Joyce at monumentalism in its widest sense aspires for an escape, a line of flight from a dying society that nonetheless insists on serving the dead.


III-Reacting against the Vulgarity of Heroism:


That the very title of Joyce’s novel Ulysses promises a reworking of the mythic material to present no Ulysses or Odysseus in the text calls forth a subversively modern cultural fabric of the Irish society and reclaims the quotidian as the immediate reality of the Irish ineluctably ridiculing monumentalism and embracing the primacy of everyday experience. Joyce’s “textual tactics [of counter-monumentalism] participate in a form of cultural memory that exposes and subverts the process of forgetting that regularly affects the numerous nonmemorialized heroes of everyday life” (Sakr 48). While acknowledging that Ireland is an island of Saints and Sages in his essay of that title, Joyce recognizes that “another national temperament grew up” (Writing 114), necessitating different expectations of the notion of “heroism” itself.


 Many critics, like Asseel Addul-Latif Taha, actually describe Bloom as an “anti-hero” because of “his alienation…caused by the death in infancy of his son, Rudy, the suicide of his father and his humiliation as a cuckloded husband. He also suffers from the feeling of being, by virtue of his Jewishness, an outsider… He is frequently humiliated by the Irish citizens since he is regarded as a rootless recruit to the race and religion of Ireland, from which many traditionally national heroes sprang out” (9). Episode six, “Hades”, of the book asserts in detail this anti-heroic status of Bloom as it depicts “his relative isolation within a social group. Bloom is positioned as a latecomer, an outsider, and an anomaly in the cab with Dedalus, Cunningham, and Power; in the chapel service; and in the cemetery in relation to Menton and other attendees of Dignam’s funeral. …It is not clear how much Bloom recognizes his own exclusion” (“Spark Note on Ulysses”).


In much the same mode, David Hayman in his “Cyclops” depicts Bloom at a certain stage in the book as a “puny hero and the pathetic clown” (246). Joyce’s text asserts this clown framework designed by a stringently narrow-minded society as is evidenced by the various occasions where Bloom is derided. Chief among them is the newsboys and Lenehan’s imitation of his clumsy and awkward walk when he leaves the Telegraph offices in “Aeolus” episode:


Both [J.J O’Molloy and Lenehan] smiled over the crossblind at the file of capering newsboys in Mr Bloom’s wake, the last zigzagging white on the breeze a mocking kite, a tail of white bowknots.

Look at the young guttersnipe behind him hue and cry, Lenehan said, and you’ll kick. O, my rib risible! Taking off his flat spaugs and the walk. Small nines. Steal upon larks.

He began to mazurka in swift caricature cross the floor on sliding feet past the fireplace to J.J O’Molly who placed the tissues in his receiving hands. (Ulysses 116)


The passage is self-referentially comic using a cluster of words related to comedy: “smiled”, “mocking”, “risible” and “caricature”. The caricaturing of Bloom is achieved through words and the zigzag imagery, then the term “caricature” itself is employed to emphasize the effect of the comic. This intentional caricaturing of Bloom reveals the Irish refusal of the different, of the other and of any possibility of plurality; an attitude that Joyce laments and counteracts through his most daring gesture of shaping his hero in the image of the clown.


While confirming that Bloom “becomes a typical modern anti-hero”, J. Arthur Honeywell explains that this qualification goes back to the title of the novel Ulysses that “suggests at the beginning the perspective in which to evaluate Bloom; he is to be judged against Ulysses, a traditional hero. Seen in this perspective, Bloom is at first evaluated as a timid, inept, ignorant, vulgar, and overly docile character, lacking all the virtues of a traditional hero like Ulysses” (34). He adds that because of new kinds of modern plots, there is “a reversal of perspective and evaluation” (34) that moves from appearance to reality explaining that modern protagonists work on two aspects: the public and the private side. “In terms of the publicly accepted and traditional conventions, Bloom is a nobody; in terms of his private aspirations and convictions, he is something of a modern hero” (Honeywell 35). Seen from this perspective, the concept of anti-heroism challenges any standardized, canonized and conventional definition of heroism. It is a reaction against the vulgarity of heroics. Declan Kiberd in “The Vulgarity of Heroics” quotes Joyce’s words in a letter to his brother Stanislaus in 1905:


Do you not think the search for heroics damn vulgar?... I am sure however that the whole structure of heroism is and always was a damned lie that there cannot be any substitute for the individual passion as the motive power of everything” and concludes that: “The very humility of Bloom becomes a reproach to the myth of ancient heroism and… man’s littleness is seen to be the inevitable precondition of his greatness”. (157)


 Joyce’s scathing attack on immutable models of heroism brings about Kiberd’s conclusion in “The Vulgarity of Heroics” that Joyce’s “hero was a nobody who had no desire to be a somebody” (159).


IV-Revolting against the Tenets of Essentialist Identity:


Joyce continues his derision of nativist constancies of heroism and nationality in a dialogue in a pub between his protagonist Bloom and a character called the Citizen. The conversation looks much more like a farce that Joyce sets to mock the contradictions, paradoxes, trivialities and randomness of the Irish nativist project. The Citizen is loosely modelled on Michael Cusack, founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884 and thus the Citizen unfolds the nativist identity with its reliance on purity of race, Catholicism, the Irish tongue, absolute heroism and the cherishing of folklore as well as the revival of ancient traditions. Before the conversation takes place, Joyce engages in a lengthy description of the citizen-hero in the style of a heroic legend:


The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero(Ulysses 266-7).


Hayman remarks that “the arranger introduces humour even when the action is not intrinsically funny” (qtd. in Wicht 143). The citizen also exalts the memory of Ireland’s greatness: “And our potteries and textiles, the finest in the whole world! ...and our Foxford tweeds and ivory raised point from the Carmelite convent in New Ross, nothing like it in the whole wide world!” (Ulysses 294-5). Such a chauvinistic attitude that takes pride in the past is ridiculous because it serves Ireland nothing. Joyce mocks the clinging to a golden, yet vanished, history: “If it were valid to appeal to the past in this fashion, the fellahins of Cairo would have every right in the world proudly to refuse to act as porters for English tourists (Writing 125)”. And affirms that “[j]ust as ancient Egypt is dead, so is ancient Ireland. Its dirge has been sung and the seal set upon its gravestone (Writing 125).”


The negotiation of the meaning of a nation and nationality in the Bloom/ Citizen conversation allows Joyce to unleash other than conventional ethics of identity that would move beyond narrow nationalism to liberation:


-A nation? Says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.

 -By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I am living in the same    

 place for the past five years.

 So of course everyone had a laugh at Bloom …

-What is your nation if I may ask, says the Citizen.

-Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland. (Ulysses 299)


The laughter of “everyone” at Bloom pictures the proponents of an essentialist national identity as duplicators of the very colonial ideology they seek to repudiate, an eliminatory ideology par excellence. A nation according to the group in the pub is based on the conformity of its individuals. Bloom, a Jew, becomes irresistibly ridiculous when he thinks of himself as an Irish.


The parameters of an anti- colonial nationality are, for Joyce, no longer a feasible medium to define Irishness, namely Catholicism: notions of “absurdity”, hypocrisy and profanity are associated to religion by Joyce. And apart from Stephen’s consistent attacks on religion, throughout the book, Joyce ironically foretells in his essay “Ireland: Island of Saints and Sages” written in 1907:


Perhaps in time there will be a gradual reawakening of the Irish consciousness and, perhaps, four or five centuries after the Diet of Worms, we shall witness a monk in Ireland throw off his cowl, run off with a nun, and proclaim aloud the end of the coherent absurdity that is Catholicism, and the beginning of the incoherent absurdity that is Protestantism. (Writing 121)


Unless the Irish renounce the equation of Irishness with religion, there will be no real awakening of the Irish consciousness. Bloom Joyce’s protagonist in Ulysses thinks of the church as a “[n]ice discreet place to be next some girl” (Joyce, Ulysses 71), transforming the church from a sacred place to a space for the voyeuristic as well as amorous experiences. Exposing the myths of the church to the scrutiny of analytic reason, Bloom mocks the Latin of the Church: “Makes them feel more important to be prayed over in Latin” (Joyce, Ulysses 93) and wonders why the priest uses wine and not any other drink: “Wine. Makes it more aristocratic than for example if he drank what they are used to Guinness’s porter or some temperance beverage Wheatley’s Dublin hop bitters or Cantrell and Cochrane’s ginger ale (aromatic) (Joyce, Ulysses 72).”


These comic attacks at Catholicism paves the way to highlight the absurdity of linking religion and nationality together. Bloom vexes the Citizen: “… Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me (Joyce, Ulysses 309)”. Christ was naturally a Jew, therefore basing Irish nationalism on such a fluid category as religion seems ridiculous. The Citizen, confronted with such a reality, has no arguments but violence to defend his fanatic nationalism: “By Jesus, says he, I’ll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I’ll crucify him so I will. Give us that biscuit box here (Joyce, Ulysses 309).” He would rather live in mythology, in his own fantasies of Irishness than open himself to argumentation. Bloom pushes the irony a bit further by linking Christ not only to the Jew category but also to himself “Christ was a jew like me” (Joyce, Ulysses 309) which exacerbates the Citizen even further.


            With his usual wit for irony, Joyce depicts the throwing of the biscuit box by the Citizen at Bloom in an extended hyperbolic exaggeration that starts as follows: “The catastrophe was terrific and instantaneous in its effect. The observatory of Dunsink registered in all eleven shocks, all of the fifth grade of Mercalli's scale, and there is no record extant of a similarseismic disturbance in our island since the earthquake of 1534” (Ulysses 311) and ends with the even more ridiculous inquiry of the Citizen: “Did I kill him, …, or what?” (Ulysses 312). David Hyman in his article “Cyclops” stresses the comedian stance of Joyce in this particular scene: “In terms of his role, the action is a swelling and a false release: the unsatisfactory ejaculation of a tired old man. In relation to this development, the ex-shotputting citizen is a cosmi-comic figure” (245).While the group in the pub laugh at Bloom and try not to miss any opportunity to make of him the object of their ridicule, Joyce contrives the scene particularly to evoke the readers’ laughter at the Citizen and what he stands for. “Our laughter is always the laughter of a group” (12), says Bergson. The group of fanatics laugh at Bloom the outsider, the group of the revolutionary nationalists’ sides with Joyce and laugh at the narrow-minded Citizen and his proponents. Therefore, as Bergson theorizes: “However spontaneous it seems, laughter always implies a kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with other laughers, real or imaginary” (12).


The exaggeration in describing the nativist hero that runs over two pages as well as in depicting the effect of the throwing of the biscuit tin on Bloom touches upon the comic “[f]or exaggeration to be comic”, Bergson explains, “it must not appear as an aim but rather as a means that the artist is using in order to make manifest to our eyes the distortions which he sees in embryo” (21).


V-Revealing the Atrocities of Patriarchy:


Joyce also creates a phantasmagorical space in “Circe” episode which enables Bloom’s comic role-reversal shifting his gender identity from a man to a woman. In fact, “[t]he whole of history had been a story of mistaken identity in which the participants could never be themselves” (Kiberd, Ulysses and Us 38) because “[h]istory becomes weary with repetition, as the old plot overwhelms the new one. But when a true revolution began, the people would not mistake themselves for historical actors” (Kiberd, Ulysses and Us 39). This actually applies to gender roles as they are historically determined. Bloom again in his revolutionary fantasy turns Bella, the brothel Keeper into Bello; thus representing women's marginality and their occupation of the place of the “other” and “acting out the feminine vulnerability of his epicene nature [that] gives voice to iterations of female helplessness, subservience, and sexual humiliation” (Henke 61).


In the drama of “Circe”, Joyce insists that it is “gender role” rather than “biological sex” that interferes in cultural representation of identities. Bello in his patriarchal role orders: “Feel my entire weight. Bow, bondslave, before the throne of your despot's glorious heels, so glistening in their proud erectness” (Joyce, Ulysses 464) and Bloom in his female identity “promise[s] never to disobey” (Joyce, Ulysses 464). While Bloom “puts out her timid head”, “Bello grabs her hair violently and drags her forward”, “twists her arm” (Joyce, Ulysses 465) then “slaps her face” (Joyce, Ulysses 466). Bello also lists the cultural roles of a woman taken to be natural: “you will make the beds, get my tub ready, empty the pisspots in the different rooms, including old Mrs Keogh’s the cook’s, a sandy one. Ay, and rinse the seven of them well, mind, or lap it up like champagne” (Joyce, Ulysses 470).


A woman is also treated as a sex-object that must be, in Bello's words, “wigged, singed, perfume sprayed, rice powdered, with smooth shaven armpits” (Joyce, Ulysses 467). They are also feeble-minded creatures who need man's guidance. Bello addresses Bloom, the woman: “I only want to correct you for your own good” (Joyce, Ulysses 465) and on another occasion “I'll lecture you on your misdeeds” (Joyce, Ulysses 470). The whole scene is comically mad, confusing and full of incongruities, yet “the comic spirit has a logic of its own, even in its wildest eccentricities. It has a method in its madness. It dreams, I admit, but it conjures up, in its dreams, visions that are at once accepted and understood by the whole of a social group” (Bergson 11). In the Ireland of 1904, a woman’s “epitaph is written”, they “are down and out” and they must not “forget it” (Joyce, Ulysses 473).


Enrico Terrinoni in his article “Comedy, or What Went Unsaid in Ulysses” remarks that “in the history of the genre, comedy has often been characterized by its topicality” (262) which means that comedy mirrors the contemporary society revealing in a witty way its pretenses and faults. Comedy actually provides a caricature of the present society in order to laugh at it with greater objectivity. The writer of the comedy has the ability to distance one’s society from its subjects, to transform the participants of the comedy to its audience, to hold on the scene for a moment and reflect upon it. Of course, all for the sake of critique and revolution. Henri Bergson, in fact, affirms “the corrective function” of laughter.




“[F]rom Aristophanes down to Wilde”, comedy”, Terrinoni says, “has also had the responsibility to expose smugness and pomposity, and therefore to function as a device that may help us cope with society’s many self-deceits” (263). In this, Joyce proves completely successful deflating the mythic values and cherished notions of a nativist identity such as the superiority of Catholicism, the purity of the Irish race, the notion of legendary heroism, the practice of monumentalism and the worthiness of patriarchy. Laughter, comic exaggerations and role reversals expose the dogmatism of the nativist nationalist discourse and consequently aims at redefining the contours of an Irish identity celebrating hybridity, gender inconsistency, passionate and individual heroism as well as freedom from all restrictive orthodoxies. If the Irish society is overburdened with dogmas and prejudices, Joyce’s comic techniques interfere to create a cranny of light in a system which might otherwise have seemed hopelessly impenetrable.


Works Cited:


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Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans, Cloudesley Brereton L. and Fred Rothwell, The Project Gutenberg Etext, August, 2003 Accessed on 03 Mar. 2019.


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--- .Ulysses. Wordsworth Classics, 2010.


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Terrinoni, Enrico “Comedy, or What Went Unsaid in Ulysses”, Joyce Studies in Italy11. Ed, Franca Ruggieri. Bulzoni Editore, 2010, pp. 259-72.


Wheatley-Lovoy, Cynthia D.  ““The Silver Laughter of Wisdom” : Joyce, Yeats, and Heroic Farce”, South Atlantic Review, Vol. 58, No. 4, Nov., 1993, pp. 19-37, htttps://, Accessed 03-12-2018.


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