The Odyssey

Is Ulysses sexist? How has James Joyce affected the international literary scene? What counts as great literature? Karen Lawrence, a well-known literary scholar and former president of the International James Joyce Foundation, has taken on these questions and more.

manuscript currency with Joyce The Odyssey

photos by Don Hamerman

When Karen Lawrence met with the Sarah Lawrence faculty last November, she asked us, “When do you find the time for your research and writing?” The response was astonished laughter throughout the room. As a scholar of James Joyce and of other writers whose texts flirt with and shy away from interpretation, Lawrence was probably bemused by this spontaneous outburst, and recognized the complexity of feeling behind it. It is likely a question she has asked herself, for she has built a remarkable body of critical and theoretical work despite a rigorous workload as a teacher and administrator.

I first discovered Lawrence’s writing in her essay “Joyce and Feminism” in The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce (1990), which I assign to students when they are studying Joyce with me. Lawrence deftly shows how Joyce’s sometimes peculiar sexist attitudes become subject to the skeptical exposure, anatomy, inflation, and distortion of his own texts, which thus anticipate, and to some degree preempt, the sharpest objections of his feminist critics. Lawrence argues that Joyce’s greatest female characters, notably Molly Bloom of Ulysses and Anna Livia Plurabelle of Finnegans Wake, escape the trap of “archetypal woman” to haunt Joyce’s own dreams, as well as the interpretive fantasies of his readers, in part because they “figure the erotic and material potential of language,” which, as Joyce well knew, is always going to elude any writer’s mastery of it.

Lawrence wrestles with Joyce’s language in her first book, The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses (1981). She studies the novel’s rhetorical tricks, its practice of frustrating readers’ expectations of traditional novelistic pleasures like character coherence, stylistic predictability, plot closure, and thematic unity. She explains how the book, in its later chapters, “begins to interpret itself and inventory its own past.… [It] becomes an encyclopedia of narrative possibilities.” Paradoxically, as Joyce dynamites the conventions of literary realism, Ulysses communicates the “real” more concretely than traditional novels could. Its seemingly random “surplus of detail” makes it “an imitation of the wealth of life,” Lawrence writes.

In her introductory essay for Transcultural Joyce (1998), Lawrence highlights a motif in the collection’s wide range of essays from across the globe: Joyce’s uncanny presence in modern and postmodern writing from places as far-flung as Cuba, Argentina, India, Romania, and China. Lawrence asserts that Joyce was “transcultural” before the term itself was invented. He was an Irish writer living out his maturity in European exile, burdened with the gift of the colonizer’s English, haunted by history yet unable to escape it except by reinventing it through language. Joyce, she says, speaks to and from the position of what scholars are fond of calling “the postcolonial subject.”

Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of Twentieth-Century “British” Literary Canons (1992), which Lawrence also edited, offers readings of “canonical” writers like Woolf, Lawrence, and Conrad alongside writers excluded from the canon by reason of their gender, genre, or geopolitical and cultural position. Lawrence investigates how literary canons are constructed, revised, and deconstructed. The “canon” emerges from this effort not exactly intact, but not exactly demolished either. No longer an authoritative list of “universally acknowledged great books,” it becomes a shifting network of exchanges, resistances, and transformations between texts that are both joined and sundered by the global circulation of languages and literatures.

Lawrence extends her creative reconsideration of canonicity in Penelope Voyages: Women and Travel in the British Literary Tradition (1998). She begins by raising a simple but important question: what if the woman figure in fiction is not represented as the symbolic home, destination, obstacle, and landscape for a male adventurer, but as a writer and a traveler herself? She goes on to consider travel writing from major women writers, examining their engagement with canonical “odyssey” narratives as well as the risks they take with, and the concessions they make to, the rules of the genre. In charting a course from Margaret Cavendish’s 17th-century allegorical romance to Christine Brooke-Rose’s and Brigid Brophy’s postmodern experimentations, Lawrence provides a brief but rich new literary history, a vital reinvention of the “canon” and of the theoretical models that fashion it.

Karen Lawrence’s voyaging has now brought her to Sarah Lawrence, as unique and peculiar a territory on the academic globe as any literary voyagers reached in their journeys of discovery. Let’s hope that she finds it a homecoming as well as a journey into exotic and unmapped territory: a place where she will find refreshment, challenge, and surprise from her fellow intellectual wayfarers.

Meet the Lawrences Iconoclasts, Unite! Behind the Scenes