It is easy to assume that great novels concern themselves with great events: the birth and death of kings, the rise and fall of empires, and other things of cosmic (or at least, planetary) note. But in fact, the reality is quite different. Even though there is room for dispute as to exactly what constitutes a “great novel,” I don’t think there is much disagreement about the following generalization. The world’s great novels deal overwhelmingly with a pedestrian kind of greatness: embodied in what otherwise passes for ordinary lives.
Which brings us to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Widely acknowledged the greatest novel of the 20th century –if not of all time– Ulysses is the story of one rather ordinary day in the life of Dublin, focusing especially on three basically ordinary people: Stephen Daedalus, Molly Bloom and, most particularly, Molly’s husband, Leopold. That day was June 16, 1904, precisely 110 years ago. Most literate Westerners know that Ulysses parallels the plot of that vast Homeric epic, The Odyssey, with Leopold Bloom–a middle class Jewish advertising canvasser for a Dublin newspaper–substituting for Odysseus, one of the great Greek heroes of antiquity, whose exploits were writ not simply large, but huge.
Whereas Odysseus’ saga unfolded across 10 years, as he returned from the ultimately successful siege and sacking of Troy, in which Odysseus’ role was crucial, Leopold Bloom’s entails somewhat less than 24 hours, during which our hero cooks himself a kidney for breakfast, has a bowel movement (the first time, I believe, that such an event was ever recorded for literary posterity), works at his altogether unremarkable job, attends a friend’s funeral, visits another who just gave birth, has an altercation with a loud-mouthed bigot in a pub, masturbates on a beach while catching a glimpse of an adolescent girl’s panties, brings Stephen away from a drunken debauch in Dublin’s red light district, has some interesting thoughts and conversations and pees in his garden, eventually going to sleep next to Molly … who, in contrast to the famously chaste Penelope, had consummated an extra-marital affair earlier that afternoon with the aptly named Blazes Boylan. Upon his own homecoming, roughly three thousand years earlier, Odysseus had slaughtered no fewer than 117 royal suitors who had the effrontery to seek Penelope’s hand in marriage; Bloom is no Odysseus.
Or maybe he is. Although it is possible to see Joyce’s Ulysses as a satiric take-down of how far humanity has sunk from its heroic antecedents, most readers agree that Bloomsday is an inspiring chronicle of the grandeur to be found in “normal” life, celebrated at the numerous events today occurring worldwide.
A strong case can be made, as well, that Joyce’s masterpiece is not alone among great novels in valorizing the quotidian, in dealing–paradoxically, perhaps–with things that superficially appear less than earth-shaking. Consider the other primary contenders for novelistic immortality. Don Quixote tells of a small landowner who, besotted with tales of chivalric derring-do, proceeds to interact absurdly with the gritty reality of a fundamentally unromantic world. In Search of Lost Time is a notoriously prolonged meditation on the place of memory and art in recapturing the extraordinarily detailed experiences of real people (most of them, admittedly, aristocratic or at least wealthy), living in ways that are fascinating precisely because they are boring and otherwise ordinary; nothing much happens in its 6 volumes and 4500 pages. There is at least a murder in The Brothers Karamazov, but the victim isn’t notable –except for his degradation–and the primary encounter is with a fraternal trio who represent that universal and deeply human troika of flesh, intellect, and heart. A notable exception appears to be that pinnacle of novelistic greatness, War and Peace, which includes–albeit briefly–some fly-on-the-wall accounts of Napoleon. But in this case, Tolstoy’s intent is clearly to italicize the error of thinking that great events are orchestrated by “great people,” as opposed to the hoi polloi who really matter.
It is illuminating to contemplate, by contrast, the classic fictional narratives that have come down to us from earlier ages. The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey and The Iliad, The Aeneid, El Cid, The Mahabharata, Monkey, The Tale of Genji: All are tales of grand personages engaging in comparably grand activities. Although it can be argued that compared with these ancient constructs, the novel in its current form has existed only for about 500 years, and that very few novels (whether or not destined for immortality) treat of great people doing great things, that is just the point. For whatever reason–the rise of capitalism, of the middle class, democracy, widespread literacy, a shortage of “real” heroes–it seems that these days, we are all Leopold Blooms, and that every day is Bloomsday.
David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington; his most recent book is Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science.