In his preface to James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, literary scholar Richard Ellmann explained how Ulysses challenged the conventions of the fiction genre in numerous ways. From dispensing with the authority of the central narrative voice to alternating between a plot that is at turns impersonal and then almost invasively intimate, Joyce introduced a “whole galaxy of new devices and stances and verbal antics [that were] extravagant, derisive, savage, rollicking, tender and lyrical" (Joyce ix). For scholars and general readers alike, “the decipherment of obscurities" within this new literary galaxy “has gone on apace"; the meaning and significance of Joyce’s narrative techniques continue to be analyzed long after Joyce’s death (Joyce ix). One of the areas of Ulysses that has often been overlooked, however, is that of the various functions played by the passage of time and awareness of time in the novel. A text that is ambitious both in its size and scope, the events of Ulysses actually unfold over the course of a single day: June 16, 1904. While many other traditional markers of organization and order were dispensed of by Joyce in Ulysses, there is an acute focus on the temporal setting of each major episode in the text, particularly in the first two parts of the novel, and this emphasis serves both critical narrative functions and affirms the psychological preoccupations that are at the thematic core of the novel.
As Ulysses opens, the narrator’s identity may be ambiguous, but the temporal setting of the scene and characters being described is not. While the narrator does not name the specific time of day, he does not need to do so; instead, he chooses to engage the reader and suggest the time of day by pointing out a variety of details that tell the reader the narrative begins in the morning. Buck Mulligan is introduced “bearing a bowl of lather…and a razor," and “a yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air" (Joyce 3). Even the mountains outside are described as “awaking" (Joyce 3). On this first page of Ulysses, the reader feels immediately that he lacks orientation to many aspects of the setting. The characters have not been properly introduced according to the standard conventions of the novel, for instance, the physical location has not yet been identified, and the relationships among the characters have not been elucidated nor even suggested. The only certainty the reader can claim at this introductory point is that the time of day is morning.
Although it is Buck Mulligan who is shaving himself, the psychological importance of this quotidian morning ritual is emphasized when Buck passes his shaving mirror to Stephen Dedalus, saying “Look at yourself, you dreadful bard!" This is the first of many passages in which time will be used to underscore the psychological preoccupations of the central characters, particularly Stephen and, in Part II of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. Stephen does glance at himself in the mirror, and thinks, “Who chose this face for me?" (Joyce 6). His answer, “This dogsbody to rid of vermin" (Joyce 6), hints at Stephen’s rather gloomy view of himself, of the world he inhabits, and the relationship between the two. Stephen’s reaction of displeasure and even disgust to his own visage is an early indication of the characters’ profound sense of dissatisfaction with themselves and with their place in the world.
Just four years into the new century, there was a general sense that political, social, and economic stability would be achieved and that individuals would be able to benefit directly from such wider scale accomplishments (Rickard 92). The social zeitgeist, Rickard remarked, was that which is typical of any turn of the century moment: a spirit of possibility, of hope, and of change, signifying a break with the difficulties and failings of the past. For the main characters in Ulysses, however, the frequent episodes of self-reflection, such as the one with Stephen gazing at himself in the shaving mirror, suggest that the spirit of possibility is not experienced pervasively by all members of a society. In many other moments of self-reflection, especially those experienced by Stephen and Leopold, the daily rituals associated with time only sharpen their feeling that they are somehow outside of that sphere of possibility. While other characters, such as the schoolmaster Mr. Deasy, can thrive and prosper, both economically and socially, Stephen and Leopold are representatives of that group of people who are suspended in limbo between an idealized past, an inadequate present, and an imagined future.
Two related episodes that convey Stephen’s acute sense of his inability to seize the fin-de-siecle moment and better himself occur just a few hours after his shaving mirror epiphany of self-loathing. Stephen, a teacher, arrives at school, where between even the briefest pauses between the history questions he asks and the responses the students offer, Stephen reflects upon what he refers to as “the daughters of memory" (Joyce 20). Stephen describes time as “one livid final flame," and asks himself rhetorically, “What’s left us then?" The dismal reverie is broken when a student responds to a question about where a battle occurred by answering not with the place, but with the year. This fact is significant because it underscores how much people use time to mark their place in the world and to understand their relationships to other people. In the classroom, as in the narrative, and as in life, there is little that makes sense, there is little that cohesive, but the concreteness of time helps, at the very least, to create some context. The history lesson he is trying to deliver to his students, somewhat ineptly, becomes a meditation for Stephen on the opportunities and ravages of time. “Time has branded [and fettered] them," Stephen thinks, “[and] they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted" (Joyce 21). Although he does not use a personal pronoun, Stephen himself clearly feels branded and fettered by time, unable to access the possibilities purported to be available, though the reader still does not know at this juncture what possibilities may even be of interest to Stephen.