Woolf’s Reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses, 1918-1920

by James Heffernan, Dartmouth College

More than twenty years ago, Suzette Henke challenged what was then the reigning view of Virginia Woolf’s response to James Joyce’s Ulysses. To judge this response by Woolf’s most damning comments on the book and its author, Henke argued, is to overlook what she said about it in her reading notes on Ulysses, which–together with her final comment on Joyce at the time of his death–show that “she had always regarded [him] as a kind of artistic ‘double,’ a male ally in the modernist battle for psychological realism.”[1]   But some convictions–or prejudices– die hard. Though Henke’s transcription of Woolf’s reading notes was published in 1990, and though she and several other scholars have marshalled extensive evidence for the influence of Ulysses on the composition of Mrs. Dalloway, Henke herself has recently reported that in conference presentations at least, scholars still cite Woolf’s letters and diaries “to prove her animosity toward Joyce.”[2]  Students of modern British fiction clearly owe a debt to Henke for publicizing Woolf’s reading notes as well as for her untiring efforts to correct a widespread misunderstanding of Woolf’s views about Joyce. But in spite of her efforts, no one–to my knowledge– has yet attempted to tell the full story of Woolf’s response to Joyce and his book. That is what I propose to do here.

Virginia Woolf

Let us start in media’s res. In early October 1922, more than four years after her first exposure to Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf wrote the following to the art critic and philosopher Roger Fry:

My great adventure is really Proust. Well– what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped–and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical–like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished– My martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10.[3]

This passage clearly suggests that Woolf not only read all of Ulysses but loathed it quite as much as she adored A La Recherche. But the truth is much more complicated– and just about as fascinating as any episode of literary history can be.

Setting aside A La Recherche, which unequivocally captivated her, the long trail of references that Woolf made to Joyce and his novel in her letters, diaries, essays, and reading notes–up to 1922 and beyond– leave no doubt that the thought of his novel stalked her for years and made her feel acutely ambivalent.  She was probably urged to read it by T.S. Eliot, who admired it as soon as its opening chapters began to appear in the Little Review in March 1918 and who by the following November had told her that Joyce was a great genius (L 2: 296).[4]

Well before then, on April 14, 1918, Harriet Weaver brought her and Leonard the first four chapters of Ulysses in the hopes that their Hogarth Press might publish it.[5]  But shortly after Miss Weaver gave them the chapters, Woolf balked. It was not only far too long for their small press to manage–an “insuperable difficulty” for them, as she told Miss Weaver (L 2: 243); it was also–as she told others– indecent and boring. After reading the chapters in about ten days, she told Lytton Strachey, “First there’s a dog that p’s–then there’s man that forths, and one can be monotonous even on that subject” (L 2: 234). The next day she sounded just a little less damning in a letter to Roger Fry. “Its interesting as an experiment;” she writes; “he leaves out the narrative, and tries to give the thoughts, but I don’t know that he’s got anything very interesting to say, and after all the p-ing of a dog isn’t very different from the p-ing of a man. Three hundred pages of it might be boring” (L 2: 234).

To say the least, this is a startling reaction to the first four chapters of Ulysses, where Joyce makes the dog pee in precisely eight words buried deep in chapter three (“lifting again his hindleg, pissed against [a rock]”),[6] and where– in chapter four–he narrates Bloom’s defecation (if that is what Woolf means by “a man that forths”) without using a single indecent word, representing an act that is perfectly decent and private as well as quintessentially quotidian: reading a newspaper as his bowels move in his own outhouse. It is particularly startling to compare Woolf’s sole comment on chapter three with what Margaret Anderson wrote about its opening words when the chapter was submitted to her for publication in the Little Review: “This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have. We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives.”[7] Was Woolf simply blind to such passages? In the magnificent garden of Joyce’s prose, could she see no more than a few noxious weeds?

To be fair, the answer is no. Even in writing to Fry she admits that Joyce is making an “interesting” experiment by replacing narrative with a stream of thoughts. About a year later, when she made notes on the first seven chapters of Ulysses in preparation for an essay on “Modern Novels” that appeared in TLS (April 10, 1919), she wrote much more about the value of Joyce’s work in progress, some of which she was re-reading.[8] Re-reading chapter one, for instance, she notes

the undoubted occasional beauty of his phrases. It is an attempt to get thinking into literature–hence the jumble. Told in episodes. The repetition of words like rosewood and wetted ashes. (Woolf, MNJ 642).

She is beginning to hear the music of Joyce’s phrasing, to feel the power of his artful repetitions (the words “rosewood” and “wetted ashes” repeatedly evoke the ghost of Stephen’s mother), and to see that he is trying to re-create the unpredictable fluidity of a mind in the act of thinking.  She has now much more to say about the virtues of Ulysses. Joyce, she sees, is “attempting to do away with the machinery”–the deadening conventions of what she will call in her essay “materialist” fiction housed in a “first-class railway carriage”–and “extract the marrow.”[9]  Like Sterne, he is trying “to be more psychological–get more things into fiction” (MNJ 643).  The “Hades” chapter seemed to her “perhaps the best thing” (MNJ 643), but she was also struck by Joyce’s manipulation of sight, sound, and sense in “Aeolus.” Comparing the chapter to a slow-motion film of a jumping horse, she says that “all pictures were a little made up before,” and also that “here is thought made phonetic–taken to bits” (MNJ 643), possibly referring to the passage in which Bloom translates the “sllt” of the printing press and the creaking of a door: “Almost human the way it sllt to call attention, asking to be shut. Doing its level best to speak.  That door too is creaking, asking to be shut. Everything speaks in its own way” (U 7. 177-79).[10]

In re-reading Joyce, Woolf is re-thinking her own first reaction to him, but hardly repudiating it.[11]  Caught between dawning admiration and stubborn aversion to his “indecency,” which she notes repeatedly, she does not know just what to make of him. “For all I know,” she says, “every great book has been an act of revolution” (MNJ 644). But the brashness of Joyce’s revolution vexes her. His “need of dwelling so much on indecency” reveals an egotistical “indifference to public opinion” and “desire to shock” (MNJ 643). At the same time, when she starts to sketch out her essay and to prescribe the kind of “life” that she thinks modern fiction needs–“Something not necessarily leading to a plot. . . . Something perhaps not dramatic nor humorous, not tragic: just the quality of the day”–she seems to suspect, or fear, that Joyce is already filling the prescription. “Here we come to Joyce,” she writes. “And here we must make our position clear as bewildered, befogged. We don’t pretend to say what he’s trying to do” (MNJ 644).

Like nearly all beginning readers of Ulysses, Woolf is befogged. She thinks that Bloom is the “editor of a paper” (MNJ 645) rather than an advertising canvasser repeatedly insulted by the editor,[12] and she is still so revolted by Joyce’s indecency– especially by what she takes to be his implied claim that “indecency is more real than anything else”– that she asks herself, “Why not in fact leave out bodies?” (MNJ 644). But she dimly perceives that what she calls indecency is precisely where the road of complete psychological realism leads. “So much seems to depend,” she writes, “on the emotional fibre of the mind it may be true that the subconscious mind dwells on indecency” (MNJ 643).[13]  She also asks just the right question about two of Joyce’s three main characters: “what is the connection between Bloom and [Stephen] Dedalus?” (MNJ 645).[14]  Finally, though she thinks it “unfair to approach Joyce by way of his ‘method,’” which she calls “on the surface startling,” she thinks he is quite right to focus on the “big things” that must “perpetually” be seen and felt again: “love, death, jealousy and so on” (MNJ 645).

To compare Woolf’s reading notes on Ulysses with her account of it in “Modern Novels” (TLS 10 April 1919) is to see her still struggling with her ambivalence–but doing so more artfully. After deploring the “materialist” bent of Wells, Galsworthy, and especially of Arnold Bennett, whose characters live too comfortably “in some first-class railway carriage” and whose plots chug far too mechanically from one emotional station to the next, she asks:

Is it not possible that the accent falls a little differently, that the moment of importance came before or after, that, if one were free and could set down what one chose, there would be no plot,the moment of importance came before or after, that, if one were free and could set down what one chose, there would be no plot, little probability, and a vague general confusion in which the clear-cut features of the tragic, the comic, the passionate, and the lyrical were dissolved beyond the possibility of separate recognition? The mind, exposed to the ordinary course of life, receives upon its surface a myriad impressions–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms, composing in their sum what we might venture to call life itself; and to figure further as the semi-transparent envelope, or luminous halo, surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not perhaps the chief task of the novelist to convey this incessantly varying spirit with whatever stress or sudden deviation it may display, and as little admixture of the alien and external as possible? (E 3: 33)

In the revised version of “Modern Novels” that appeared as “Modern Fiction” in The Common Reader (1925), Woolf defines Joyce’s project more precisely. “Examine for a moment,” she writes, “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day” to see how the myriad impressions that fall upon it “shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday” with “no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style.”[15]  But years before writing these words, when Ulysses was still a work in progress, Woolf had already divined its essence. Joyce’s new novel, she says (in the original “Modern Novels” of April 1919), discards “most of the conventions which are commonly observed by other novelists. Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small” (E 3: 33-34).

In this light, we should also beware of taking for granted that Woolf’s turn to stream of consciousness in her fiction was chiefly prompted by her reading of Dorothy Richardson, whose novel Pointed Roofs (1915) introduced to English fiction what was first called “stream of consciousness.”[16]  In reviewing Richardson’s The Tunnel (1919), Woolf herself noted that it cuts away all the traditional architecture of narration to reveal “the consciousness of Miriam Henderson . . . which endlessly reflects and distorts the variegated process. . . .” (E 3: 10-11). But while admitting that Miriam’s “senses of touch, sight and hearing are excessively acute,” Woolf finds little beneath them. “Sensations, impressions, ideas and emotions glance off her, unrelated and unquestioned, without shedding quite as much light as we had hoped into the hidden depths” (E 3: 11-12). This critique of Richardson’s novel appeared in the TLS on February 13, 1919. Less than two months later, again in the pages of TLS, Woolf’s salute to Joyce’s way of tracking consciousness shows that she had already found in his work precisely what she missed in Richardson’s—as well as in that of the materialists. Unlike the materialists, she writes, “Joyce is spiritual”–by which she evidently means a realist of human psychology rather than of the material world. “At all costs,” she says, he aims to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its myriad messages through the brain, he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, though it be probability or coherence or any other of the handrails to which we cling for support when we set our imaginations free. Faced, as in the Cemetery scene, by so much that, in its restless scintillations, in its irrelevance, in flashes of deep significance succeeded by incoherent inanities, seems to be life itself, we have to fumble rather awkwardly if want to say what else we wish; and for what reason a work of such originality yet fails to compare . . .. with [Joseph Conrad’s] ‘Youth’ [Thomas Hardy’s] Jude the Obscure. It fails, one might say, because of the comparative poverty of the writer’s mind.” (E 3: 34).

James Joyce

What she missed in the work of Richardson—searching light on Miriam’s “hidden depths”—is precisely what she finds in the work of Joyce, who “aims to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its myriad messages through the brain” and who offers us “flashes of deep significance.”[17]  In the “Modern Fiction” version of this passage, Woolf amplifies her praise for what she calls the “brilliancy” of the “Hades” chapter: “on a first reading at any rate,” she says, “it is difficult not to acclaim it a masterpiece. If we want life itself, here surely we have it” (E 4: 161). But—and there is always a but–Woolf never praises Joyce without faulting him at the same time, even if she has to “fumble awkwardly” to do so. In the original version of her essay, her high praise for “Hades” makes a very strange prelude to what follows. In claiming to find “comparative” poverty in the mind of Joyce, Woolf invites the suspicion that she is awkwardly straining to rationalize an aversion that she cannot justify by logical means.  All she can do is return to her bȇte noir–indecency–by way of Joyce’s would-be solipsism.  Perhaps, she writes, our sense of being “strictly confined” in reading Ulysses is due to a method that makes us feel “centered in a self which in spite of its tremor of susceptibility never reaches out or embraces or comprehends what is outside and beyond?” (E 3:34).  If we wonder how such a statement could be made about a novel that deeply plumbs the inner lives of two distinctly different characters who are each exceptionally observant of the world around them, the answer lies again with indecency. “Does the emphasis laid perhaps didactically upon indecency,” Woolf asks, “contribute to this effect of the angular and isolated?” (E 3: 34).  Here we can only guess what Woolf means: that Joyce is teaching other novelists to be at once indecent and solipsistic, leading them into an outhouse of navel-gazing? At best, Woolf’s comment tells us far more about herself than about Joyce.

But she cannot stop thinking or writing about him.  Starting to draft Jacob’s Room in late January 1920, she tells her diary that she must strive to avoid the danger of “the damned egotistical self, which ruins Joyce. . . .” (D 2:14). The following September, just after recording that Eliot called Ulysses “extremely brilliant” and also that “Ulysses, according to Joyce, is the greatest character in history,” she gratuitously adds: “Joyce himself is an insignificant man, wearing very thick eyeglasses, a little like Shaw to look at, dull, self-centered, & perfectly self-assured” (D 2: 68).  This dismissive caricature sounds as if it sprang from Woolf’s own observation. But she knew nothing of him personally, so it can only be her version–possibly distorted– of what she was told about Joyce by Eliot.

The startling diversity of Woolf’s comments on Joyce make one thing clear. None of them–not even the relatively complex assessment in “Modern Novels”– tells the whole truth about her response to his work. But a major clue can be found in her diary for September 26, 1920, where she writes again of the visit paid by T.S. Eliot a week before.  Coming just after she had run aground in the middle of the party chapter about halfway through Jacob’s Room (on which she had been working for two months without a break), his visit–she writes– “made [her] listless” and “cast shade” upon her. Since she has already noted that Eliot praised the brilliance of Ulysses for its rendering of “internals,” of the inner lives of its characters (D 2: 68), we might well guess the reason for her listlessness. She herself recalls: “He said nothing–but I reflected how what I’m doing is probably being better done by Mr. Joyce” (D 2: 68-69, emphasis added). This strikes me as a revelation. By “he said nothing,” she presumably means that he said nothing about her own work in progress to accompany his extraordinary praise of Ulysses. What then could she conclude? That her own efforts to liberate the novel from the material solidity of the railway carriage and to focus its energies on the irrepressible life of the mind were probably being surpassed by Joyce, who was almost her exact contemporary?[18]  Praise him or damn him, she knew only too well that she had to reckon with him. The following April, when a “thin-shredded” cabinet minister asked her over lunch “who are our promising litterateurs?” she answered simply, “Joyce” (D 2: 113-14).

For more on Woolf’s reaction to Joyce, see Woolf’s Reading of Joyce’s Ulysses, 1922-1941

  1. ↑ “Virginia Woolf Reads James Joyce: The Ulysses Notebook” in James Joyce: The Centennial Symposium. Ed. Morris Beja et al. (Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 1986), p. 41–hereafter cited as Henke, VWRJJ.
  2. ↑ “Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and ‘The Prime Minister’: Amnesias and Genealogies.” Virginia Woolf Miscellany 68 (2006): 5—hereafter cited as Henke, VWJJ. For Woolf’s reading notes see “Modern Novels (Joyce),” Woolf’s Reading Notes on Ulysses in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, transcribed by Suzette Henke, in Bonnie Scott Kime Scott, ed. The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1990) 642-45— hereafter cited as Woolf, “MNJ.”
  3. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, 6 vols., ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautman (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975-1980), 2.566, hereafter cited as L.
  4. ↑ Later on she noted that Eliot called Ulysses “extremely brilliant” (20 September 1920) and “prodigious” (5 June 1921): The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 5 vols., ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth Press, 1977-1984), 2: 68, 125), hereafter cited as D. She also wrote that he called it “the greatest work of the age” (17 October 1921, L 2: 485).
  5. ↑ She did so at the suggestion of Roger Fry. See Richard Ellmann, James Joyce. Rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982), p. 443.
  6. ↑ James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler, Wolfhard Steppe, and Claus Melchior (New York: Random House, 1986.), 3: 358-59.– hereafter cited as U.
  7. ↑ Quoted in Ellman, p. 421.
  8. ↑ By April 1918, when Harriet Weaver brought Woolf the first four chapters of Ulysses, Joyce had completed no more than five. By the following April the Little Review had published first eight (Ellmann, 441-42). Since she comments on each of the first seven chapters, she must have re-read chapters 1-4.
  9. ↑ MNJ 642-43; The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3. 1919-192, ed. Andrew McNellie (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988): 32—hereafter cited as E 3. In the notes she says that Joyce is “at least out of the first-class carriage line” (MNJ 642), a figure she develops in the essay.
  10. ↑ In the printed version of Henke’s transcription of Woolf’s reading notes, she refers to the film of a “hare,” but Henke now says she believes the word is “horse” (VWJJ 4-5).
  11. ↑ According to Suzette Henke, Woolf’s reading notes on Ulysses show that she “felt tremendous admiration for Joyce’s experimental style and that Ulysses proved inspirational in the composition of Mrs. Dalloway” (VWJJ 4). This seems to me a little overstated. Though I fully agree with the second point, Woolf’s reading notes on Ulysses–like everything else she wrote about it–show that her admiration was distinctly qualified.
  12. ↑ Henke notes this point also (VWRJJ 40). But Woolf comes nowhere near the gaffe made by one reviewer of Ulysses, who completely confused Stephen with Bloom. See Shane Leslie’s account of the novel in the Dublin Review (September 1922) in Robert H. Deming, ed. James Joyce: The Critical Heritage, 2 vols. (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970): 1. 201.
  13. ↑ Though she did not read Freud extensively until many years later, in the late thirties, it is hardly surprising to find that she “was at once extremely interested in his idea of conscience as censor.” Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto and Windus, 1996): 722. In 1924 the Hogarth Press became Freud’s authorized publisher in England, and in January 1939 Woolf met the dying Freud himself (Lee 725).
  14. ↑ Harvena Richter observes: “It would appear that Woolf’s puzzlement over the separate stories of Bloom and Dedalus would spur her to design [in Mrs. Dalloway] a series of connecting links between her own characters that would make her feel she had outdistanced Joyce. . . .” [“The Ulysses Connection: Clarissa Dalloway’s Bloomsday.” Studies in the Novel 21.3 (1989): 308]. But this makes sense only if we assume that instead of simply trying to figure out the connection after reading less than a third of the book, Woolf is faulting Joyce for his failure to make the connection clear. For much of Mrs. Dalloway, first time readers must likewise wonder about the connection between Clarissa and Septimus Smith, who–unlike Stephen and Bloom–never meet at all.
  15. ↑ The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4, 1925-1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 2008): 160—hereafter cited as E 4.
  16. ↑ May Sinclair used the phrase in reviewing Richardson’s novel in 1918; see Anne Fernihough, “Consciousness as a Stream,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel, ed. Morag Shiach (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007): 68-69.
  17. ↑ She might also have noted what Anne Fernihough has lately observed: that in Ulysses Joyce democratizes the stream of consciousness, which in Richardson’s novel, as in his own Portrait, “had been confined to a single consciousness.” Ulysses, writes Fernihough, “seems indeed to offer a rare example of a democratically motivated stream -of –consciousness novel,” and “Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness writing, like Ulysses, is dispersed among a range of consciousnesses, though her claims to being democratic are more open to question” (Fernihough 77). But it remains difficult to say just how much Woolf’s way of representing consciousness owes to the example set by Ulysses. According to Fernihough, she might well have been influenced by what she read about consciousness in William James’s Principles of Psychology (1890) and especially in the work of Henri Bergson, whose “notion of dureé (‘duration’) was a major influence on the cultural climate from which the stream-of-consciousness novel emerged” (Fernihough 68).
  18. ↑ Born February 2, 1882, Joyce was precisely eight days younger than she. Two days after his death on January 13, 1941, she herself noted in her diary that he was “about a fortnight younger” (D 5: 352-53), and she outlived him by just a little over ten weeks.