I was just

In Brief

"I was just passing the time of day with old Troy": "I"??? In a novel that has been built on third-person narration—despite the intrusion of newspaper-like headlines in Aeolus, brief dramatic scripts in Scylla and Charybdis, space-time juxtapositions in Wandering Rocks, and quasi-musical word-constructs in Sirens—the twelfth episode announces at its outset that the narrative rules are about to change radically. This episode will be narrated first-person by a man who, it soon appears, is a down-on-his-luck, mean-spirited, misanthropic barhound. The speaker is never named, and he does not appear or figure in any other chapter of Ulysses.

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By some measures, the twelfth chapter's "I" represents a kind of crossing of the Rubicon for the novel. In The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses (Princeton, 1981), Karen Lawrence notes that the previous chapter seems to push what she calls the "initial style" of the book (third-person narration infused with free indirect discourse and dialogue) to the brink of destruction: "The third-person narration in the early chapters seems to have outlived its usefulness, and, indeed, it disappears after the Sirens chapter," albeit, she notes, with a brief reappearance in Nausicaa (98). The novel abandons first-person narration too after Cyclops, though the last chapter, Penelope, once again makes an "I" central.

Given the defamiliarizing strangeness of the previous chapter, Lawrence observes, "the sudden appearance of this [new] person is, for the most part, reassuring. No matter how 'limited' a point of view he represents, the presence of a definitive narrative self is comforting. Despite the inevitable questions about the reliability and temporality of his narrative, which do provide some discomfiture, the narrator provides relief after the fragmentation of Sirens. For the first time in Ulysses we encounter an actual narrative persona" (101). But the relief of being able to anchor upon some firm ground of subjectivity soon dissipates, as parodic voices intrude upon the narrator's story.

JH 2014
Drawing by Levi Weinhagen. Source: blogs.walkerart.org.