Reading Medievally in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake

  • James Green

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis characterises the medievalism of Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) by James Joyce, by analysing the reading experience of those novels. Both these novels’ intense difficulty is seen to modify the reading experience, although a product of this difficulty is that no one reading experience is the final authorising one. This modification takes place through medieval reading strategies, reading medievally, which each chapter considers in turn. The introduction defines the term ‘reading medievally’ and sets up Joyce’s prevailing attitudes to the medieval. In the first chapter after the introduction, analysing the novels’ attitude to the body, an imaginative theorisation emerges that reconfigures the relationship of the reader to the text along medieval lines. Reading is grounded in the body, and the books present themselves as bodily objects, agents in a reading process which is reconfigured as a process of biological and literary generation. To elucidate these findings the thesis turns to the hand, the skin and the belly as found in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. In the next chapter, the way the novels mediate their philological sources is analysed. The books engender this time a modified attitude towards the medieval by means of a ‘worst-text’ method over Joseph Bédier’s ‘best-text’ method. This technique enables the books to induce an ideological and aesthetic distance between themselves and the nationalist, racist prerogatives of their forebears. An imaginative theorisation emerges here that enables the reader to read as if she too is a philologist, as if reading a medieval, not a modern, text. The final chapter analyses the aesthetics of variance in the novels, informed significantly by a reading of Bernard Cerquiglini’s In Praise of the Variant. Here the reading experience is affected by a persistent emphasis across both novels on literary anonymity and errors, reconfigured in both as merely variants. The medieval aesthetic prerogative of varietas is also used to explain this effect on a larger scale than the variant word or sentence. This aesthetics of variance destabilises the monological literary authority of Joyce, though the chapter closes by considering the inherent paradoxes involved in such a statement, before offering the notion of the works as continually in progress through reading. The conclusion continues this notion, opening up the discussion through a synthesising element found throughout the thesis: the notion of Joyce having made the past present within the present. A queer temporality of reading in the middle, implied by the term ‘reading medievally’, is seen to be the product of these novels’ fascinating resistance to readerly finality.
Date of Award1 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorDavid Matthews (Supervisor) & Robert Spencer (Supervisor)


  • Aesthetics
  • Philology
  • Literature
  • Medievalism
  • English
  • Modernism
  • James Joyce
  • Irish

Cite this