Written during the First World War, Ulysses, an anti-heroic epic, charts a day (14 June 1904) in the life of Dubliners Leopold Bloom, an Irish-Jewish advertising canvasser, and Stephen Dedalus, an Irish-Catholic school teacher. Based on Homer's Odyssey, a childhood favourite of Joyce's, Ulysses is structured around, in part, the chapters of the Odyssey. With Bloom as Odysseus, Dedalus as Telemachus, Bloom's wife Molly as Penelope, incidents of an ordinary day take on classical connotations. Musicians at the pub become sirens; a virginal Irish girl becomes Nausicaa; a blustering newspaper editor become Aeolus, the wind god. This collapsing of the divine and heroic into the domestic and everyday suggests Joyce's preference for the latter and encourages a respect for the ordinary. In addition to the Odyssean structure, Joyce's epic is also organised by a particular setting, time of day, bodily organ, form of art, colour, symbol and technique for each section. For example, the fourth chapter's Odyssean reference is to Calypso, its setting is The House, the time is 8am, the organ is the Kidney, the art is Economics, the colour is Orange, the symbol is the Nymph and the technique is Narrative (mature). This organisation allows for a thorough, possibly exhaustive, portrayal of a day in Dublin.
This rigorous structural constriction belies suggestions that Ulysses is plotless. It adds complexity to what might otherwise appear simply an account of the ‘dailiest day possible' (Kiberd quoting Arnold Bennett, 1992: xv); it addresses the macrocosmic and the microcosmic simultaneously, or, in the words of Adeline Johns-Putra in The History of the Epic:
on the one hand, the text is epic because, like Ulysses himself, it presents a comprehensive encyclopedic perspective, representing all aspects of the body and the mind in its various styles. On the other hand, Joyce suggests that the text is epic in its telling of nationhood; however, this telling is to be achieved by collapsing time and scale into a day in the life of one man … Joyce's epic intention, then, is dialectic. He insists that the universal is to be found in the personal, that what is epic is also everyday (Johns-Putra, 2006: 162).
The same function operates in 24 Hours. By presenting a series of specific, apparently mundane details (‘An old woman / comes into the shop, and sits down … / She orders a tea'n'lemon. / She's got a doughnut, as an ‘earring'.'(50) the audience is made to see the world of 24 Hours in minute and banal detail.
Although the scenes in 24 Hours do not appear to be ordered as scrupulously as those in Ulysses, there is a chronological progression over the course of the day. The poem opens with the narrator walking through Fitzroy, stopping for a coffee, then carrying on, taking note of graffiti, people, clotheslines, pigeons, a pink cockatoo on the tramlines, kids karate-kicking the air, a ‘Dero (outside/ a pub) kissing the hand of a Catholic Nun!' (7) and closes with the Boss shutting his café at the end of a long day. In between, the time of day is sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, stated. The complete effect of the treatment of time in 24 Hours is similar to that in Ulysses in that, by the end of the poem, the reader has the impression that this single day is a synecdoche for all days. The observation in Ulysses that ‘Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves' (Joyce, 1922: 273) is certainly applicable to 24 Hours, as is the universal and inconclusive ending. As Johns-Putra writes, ‘The narrative of Bloom's wanderings is resolved inasmuch as he returns home, but it remains unresolved inasmuch as the kaleidoscopic nature of his vision and imagination is necessarily continuous. Bloom will awaken and start another day, and another and another, and all will be chaotic, as full of possibility and therefore as ‘epic' as 16 June 1904' (Johns-Putra, 2006: 165).
An excerpt from one of Stephen Dedalus' streams of consciousness captures well the universality of the treatment of time in these contemporary epics: ‘God: noise in the street: very peripatetic. Space: what you damn well have to see … Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past' (Joyce, 1922: 238). Stephen's latter imperative suggests the extensive possibilities of concentrating merely on one day–that grasping each moment in 24 hours can yield an epic account of all time.
The episodic, rather than single-plot-driven, treatment of time in both Ulysses and 24 Hours gives these epics a fragmented, though still compressed, narrative. This relates to the traditional, primary epic structure, where the narrative is divided into performable portions. In most cases, in both types of epics, even the performable portions are full of fragments of detail. This fragmentation is the result of presenting incidents or details as they are observed by a narrator, rather than in a particular, conscious order that would manipulate the information. This technique can make both the modernist and contemporary epic appear plotless. However, that does not mean that the epic ‘lacks any unitary Action–but that the digressions have themselves become the main purpose of the epic Action' (Moretti, 1996: 48). Moreover, the digressive nature of the epic form lends itself to this fragmented, modernist treatment of narrative, as its scale provides sufficient space for details that would in a different form–a lyric poem, or novel, for instance–appear extraneous. The bagginess of the epic, especially the modernist epic (of which Ezra Pound's The Cantos is probably the best example), embraces the fragmentation that both Joyce and Π O employ to avoid loading the details of their work with unwanted connotations. The fragmented epic lightens these burdens.
One of the choices Joyce makes in Ulysses is to tell a great deal about the human body, as it is perceived by the human mind, via streams of consciousness. This choice led to D. H. Lawrence's complaint about Joyce's ‘journalistic dirty-mindedness' and Virginia Woolf's description of Ulysses as the product of ‘a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples' (Kiberd, 1992: xviii). Leopold Bloom's genuine curiosity in the function and conformation of the body–in birth, death, sex, illness and pubescence–especially the female body, is not, I would argue, pornographic but respectful. At the time Joyce was writing, bodies were rapidly perishing in the War, so respecting the body's biological construction was a way of returning its value. If the body, when viewed separately from its mind, class or race, appeared valuable in its own right, then the death of even an anonymous body would be regretful. So, when Bloom sees a shapely woman leaving the butcher and tries ‘To catch up and walk behind her if she went slowly, behind her moving hams' (Joyce, 1922: 71), he is not merely comparing her to a piece of meat, but appreciating her flesh. In a deliberate parallel, Π O includes a similar scene in 24 Hours: ‘A bloke / from the Butcher's, / comes-out onto the footpath / with a large Industrial plastic-bag / slung-over his shoulder (full of mincesteak / ‘n'blood). –A woman walks pass!– / He turns round / ……………..and checks-out her legs.' (Π O, 1996: 7). Many examples follow of Π O describing the human body with an unflinching respect comparable to Joyce's in Ulysses. Reflecting his more contemporary setting, Π O's descriptions of the pornography that the boys watch, of the strippers performing, of the prostitutes sharing work stories, are far more graphic than Joyce's comparatively tame brothel scene. (That said, 24 Hours has nothing to rival the surrealist Tiresian scene in which Bloom imagines becoming a woman and giving birth.)
Although Π O is not writing in the context of a war, his attention to the human body serves a similar purpose to Joyce's. In the Fitzroy of 24 Hours, the body is important to all characters. The elderly and alcoholic who spend their days playing cards are nearing death. The young gangsters who deal drugs are constantly at risk of being beaten, stabbed or shot (as are the police). Women use their bodies to earn money–dancing or prostituting themselves; some become pregnant. The children are growing–learning to fight and getting stronger. The junkies, with whom the gangsters do business, have bodies addicted to heroin or speed. In this world, your body, to a large extent, decides your position in the community and is thus important. So, what would be inconsequential small talk in any other book: ‘–Hello, Bloom. Where are you off to? / –Hello, M'Coy. Nowhere in particular. / –How's the body? / –Fine. How are you? / –Just keeping alive, M'Coy said' (Joyce, 1922: 89); becomes a humorous summary of the anti-heroism of both Ulysses and 24 Hours. The narrator is going nowhere in particular and the only relevant question is an enquiry about the body's wellbeing.