ACIS Logo The Metacritical Ulysses: Interpreting the Biographical Turn of “Scylla and Charybdis”

1919 was a crucial year in the history of Ulysses. Sylvia Beach opened Shakespeare and Company. Joyce discussed Ulysses with Frank Budgen, who would turn these conversations into James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses and thus cement Joyce’s biography as key to understanding the novel. The Little Review first serialized “Scylla and Charybdis,” the episode in which modes of biographical reading are most directly employed. A century later, critics still debate about how to read Ulysses, yet Joyce’s clues in “Scylla and Charybdis” remain largely overlooked. This essay argues that Stephen’s hyper-biographical lecture on Shakespeare parodies the biographical literary critic, since the lecture is based on conjecture about the author’s life that effaces the actual content of the plays. Whereas other scholars have used Stephen to validate biographical criticism, I demonstrate that Ulysses invokes the failures of his analysis in order to code a resistance towards the novel’s own biographical readers. First, this essay explores the traditional forms of biographical and close reading that characters use in the first half of Ulysses. Then, it engages with “Scylla and Charybdis” to reveal that Stephen is rejected not only as a biographical stand-in for Joyce (as Goldman argues in “Joyce, the Propheteer”) but also as an archetype of the literary critic. Finally, this essay shows that pushing this traditional mode of criticism to its breaking point beckons in new modes of reading in the novel’s second half. Through its metacritical discussions of biographical analysis, Ulysses demands innovations in literary criticism.