Virginia Woolf on James Joyce’s Ulysses, “Never Did Any Book So Bore Me.” Shen Then Quit at Page 200

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

Goodreads, that social network for the bookish, recently posted on its blog the results of a survey taken among its 20 million members with the melancholy title “The Psychology of Abandonment.” Complete with infographic, the survey gives us, among other things, a list of the “Top Five Abandoned Classics.” James Joyce’s Ulysses is third on the list, and I’m not at all surprised to find it there. One must know Ulysses, it seems, to merit consideration as a culturally literate person. But Ulysses, perhaps more than any work of modern literature, can easily discourage. It presents us with a landscape so psychologically complex, so dense with literary and historical allusion and contemporary cultural reference, that I cannot say I would have known what to do with it had I not read it under the auspices of an august Irish Joyce scholar and with Don Gifford’s guidebook Ulysses Annotated ready at hand. I had nowhere near the breadth and depth of reading Joyce seems to assume of his ideal reader. Few people do.

Two of Joyce’s contemporaries, however, had such a grasp of literature and language: T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. And the two had quite a lot to say about the book, much of it to each other. Eliot recommended Joyce’s novel to Woolf, and very soon after its 1922 publication, she purchased her own copy. At the time, Woolf was hard at work on her story “Mrs. Dalloway on Bond Street,” which would eventually grow into her next novel, Mrs. Dalloway. She was also immersed in Proust’s epic Remembrance of Things Past, just beginning the second volume. According to Dartmouth’s James Heffernan, Woolf “chafes at the thought of Ulysses,” writing haughtily:

Oh what a bore about Joyce! Just as I was devoting myself to Proust—Now I must put aside Proust—and what I suspect is that Joyce is one of those undelivered geniuses, whom one can’t neglect, or silence their groans, but must help them out, at considerable pains to oneself.

Heffernan chronicles Woolf’s reading of Ulysses, which she documented in her diary in a “withering assessment” as the work of “a self-taught working man… egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating.” “When one can have cooked flesh,” she writes, “why have the raw?”

This private critical opinion Woolf recorded after reading only 200 pages of the novel. Heffernan makes the case that she read no more thereafter. Though she claimed to have “finished Ulysses,” he takes her to mean she had finished with the book, putting it aside like those bewildered, bored, or exasperated Goodreads members. Nevertheless, Woolf could not shake Joyce. She continued to write about him, to Eliot and herself. “Never did any book so bore me,” she would write, and many more very disparaging remarks about her brilliant contemporary.

Over and again she savaged Joyce in her diaries; so much so that it seems to Heffernan and Woolf scholar Suzette Henke that hers is a case of protesting too much against an author whom, Henke alleges, was her “artistic ‘double,’ a male ally in the modernist battle for psychological realism.” This may indeed be so. In the midst of her characterizations of Joyce as uncouth, boring, “underbred” and worse, she admits in her diary that what she attempted in her fiction was “probably being better done by Mr. Joyce.” While hardly any reader of Ulysses—among those who finish it and those who don’t—can say they are attempting something near what he accomplished, we might all find some solace in knowing that a reader as sharp as Virginia Woolf found his modernist masterpiece either so boring or so intimidating that even she may not have been able to finish it.

Related Content:

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James Joyce’s Ulysses: Download the Free Audio Book (also find in our collection of Free eBooks)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Steve Lavell says:

    I’ve read Ulysses 3 times & consider it to be one of the 2 or 3 greatest novels ever written. In contrast, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway & To The Lighthouse were insipid grad school reading chores that I barely recall anything about 15 years later. In all fairness to her, however, Ulysses is a very difficult book without supplementary materials — the plot summary by Blamires is practically indispensable.

  • Ed Higginbotham says:

    I think I would go the “protests too much” route here. A major chunk of _Dalloway_ reads like the “Wandering Rocks” episode in _Ulysses_. I’m certainly not accusing Woolf of plagiarism, but nastiness towards Joyce could indicate defensiveness over the clear similarity.

  • Christian Einshoj says:

    In his excellent and recommendable book “Old Masters and Young Geniuses”, David Galenson makes the case that the reason Wool got “puzzled, bored, irritated & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his dimples” when reading Ulysses, was that she were an experimental artist, and Joyce an conceptual one. Two, in Galenson’s opinion, incompatible views on art.nnHis idea in short:nn

  • Margaret Rose STRINGER says:

    In my VERY humble opinion, Ulysses is one of that range of books that can only be claimed as ‘enjoyable’ by intellectuals. Define the word as you will.nMy own definition has me well on the outer: having read excerpts, I wouldn’t even pick it up.nI like my reading to challenge me, yes (although not always): but there are challenges and there are confrontations. I honestly don’t see how a person of normal intelligence, or even above, can get through Ulysses and claim to have comprehended it.

  • Mr. Higgs-Bosun Blues says:

    Her books will be (and basically are being) used as doorstops, while every scrap of paper that Joyce used to wipe his ass is saved as a relic. In a hundred years nobody will even care who she was, and basically thatu00b4s the real definition of poetic justice.

  • Mrs Breen says:

    Well she did read 200 pages you have to give her credit where credit is due.

  • John Conolley says:

    I managed a few pages of Ulysses. I agree with Wolfe. Raw, even amateurish. Unreadable.

  • John Harrison says:

    This is an infuriating attempt to rob Woolf of the authority of an opinion and situate her as jealous and reverent of Joyce. This is such macho bullshit. Why is it necessary to undertake this project of proving that Virginia Woolf did not mean what she said about Joyce but rather was as adoring as the author of this article and the commenters on it? I love Ulysses but I accept her authority and respect her intellect and believe that she doesn’t love Ulysses.

  • april month cruelest dead land says:

    I’m afraid you know nothing about Virginia Woolf or her position in English literature if you think her books are being used as doorstops. Please desist from thinking your opinion is worth a damn.

  • Bovary says:

    ‘Ulysses’ by is a work of a man with underlying schizophrenic formal thought disorder . He managed to con many people into believing that he was that super genius and they were just not intelligent enough to comprehend it.
    Just a trickster he was, that’s all. This emperor has no clothes! His daughter paid the ultimate price and went mad for both of them.

    Nothing wrong with your intelligence, man.

    Gvhufgfghvjcnhghh, Joyce

  • Kelly Anspaugh says:

    I promise you Woolf did not quit reading at page 200. She finished the book. It was like an atom bomb going off in her world. She was extremely threatened by it, by the immensity of its genius. She made a series of demeaning comments about Joyce, implying he was vulgar, low class (“Like a queasy undergraduate, scratching his pimples . . . “) and worst of all IRISH. Then she wrote “Mrs. Dalloway” which, structurally and thematically, is a “Ulysses” in miniature, as many a scholar has observed.

    Woolf was a great writer (I wrote my Master’s thesis on “To the LIghthouse”) but was also very human, capable of envy and snobbery and pettiness. You see all of that in her letters and diary entries on Joyce and “Ulysses.” Her reaction to the book and its author a classic illustration of Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence.”

  • Kelly Anspaugh says:

    Methinks you are confusing James Joyce with Donald Trump.

  • S Chandler says:

    I was unable to read Ulysses until I found myself staying in Sanaa, Yemen for some weeks, where Ulysses become the best escape literature EVER. I savoured every minute of Leopoldo and Molly’s Dublin. You have to WANT to read Ulysses.

  • Dan Hisir says:

    Must confess I havent read either Ulyses or anything by Woolf but intend to. From what I know of Joyce’s “The Dubliners” with themes of lost innocence, missed opportunities and an inability to escape one’s circumstances, I did like him. Now I must read Woolf starting with the much mentioned Mrs. Dalloway.

  • Edward Richardson says:

    Hello penis envy… hello Gertrude Stein! Look, you get to be critical, and Wyndham Lewis wrote the best unvarnished critical review of “Ulysses” out there – but you only get to be critical once or twice. After that, it’s something else. Women are not made for art, and I think validation issues are at play. Get your first novel trashed by critics, your head goes into an oven (Plath). Men handle these things easier, they’re already manically objective. Here’s how many publishers rejected “Ulysses,” which Joyce took 7 years to write: ALL OF THEM. Woolf’s dismissal and lying about “finishing” the novel is snobbish. It smacks of the constipated Edwardian prudery of the Bloomsbury group that Wyndham Lewis savages in “Apes of God” (He called Woolf’s interior monologue an “undergraduate imitation” of Joyce’s). Proust, another writer to the manor born, was more her speed. Fine wine not whisky. I think the following account of the one time Joyce and Proust met sums up why Woolf admired Proust:

    “The Ulysses author remembered that their “talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc du so-and-so. I said, ‘No.’” Proust was asked if he’d read Ulysses, and likewise replied in the negative. “The situation,” Joyce remembered, “was impossible.” Other guests remembered the meeting similarly.”

    Proust and Woolf can name-drop the bluebloods, but Joyce was the Modernist Prince of Paris. And that can threaten a woman miffed that he gets all the attention:

    (Gertrude Stein) did not want to talk about Anderson’s works any more than she would about Joyce. If you brought up Joyce twice, you would not be invited back. It was like mentioning one general favorably to another general.
    – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

  • Rebecca says:

    You’re awful

  • Steve Carey says:

    I like the notion of a ‘queasy undergraduate scratching his dimples (sic).’ A much more engaging image than the non-predictive-text affected ‘pimples.’

  • Michael says:

    I have really enjoyed the cut and thrust of the comments thus far. I come down on the side of Joyce being a genius. But being Dublin born at the Rotunda I have to own to some bias.

  • Elizabeth Madden says:

    This woman is severely overrated as a writer, IMO, and her opinions show her to be an ignorant snob, who was also deeply jealous of those such as Joyce and Tom Eliot, who were far above her in terms of intellect and creativity. She writes about a narrow milieu of society, and her writing of male characters is very poor indeed. She was happy to borrow, or steal from her fellow writers, while simultaneously dismissing them and their works. And now, so many of her ardent Feminist followers raise her to the status of an idol, and say she is a *role model for all women*-but for which women, exactly? She was not exactly a friend of her fellow female writers: both the Brontes and Mrs.Gaskell were victims of her waspish dismissals of their talent. I really wish that people would wake up to the fact that she is a second-rate writer, and that is the end of the matter.

  • martin cure says:

    these comments are so painful. haven’t read ulysses and never will!

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