BC Bloomsday celebrants—some sporting James Joyce-style bowler and mustache—took turns reading Ulysses aloud during a stop in Stokes Hall. At far left are English and Irish Studies faculty member Joseph Nugent and Nina Khaghany ’24, who organized the event. (Photo by Guy Beiner)

Befitting a university with a distinguished Irish heritage and a leading Irish Studies program, Boston College has become a wellspring for James Joyce’s Ulysses, acclaimed as one of the 20th century’s greatest works, and one of the most challenging.

In 2007, BC was the setting for the first very Boston-based Bloomsday, an international celebration of Ulysses held every June 16, the date on which the book’s events occur. BC subsequently shifted its Bloomsday festivities to April, so as to incorporate them into the academic year.

This year, BC observed Bloomsday in November, thanks to undergraduates in the class on Ulysses taught by Joyce scholar Joseph Nugent, a professor of the practice in the English Department and Irish Studies faculty member. The students organized a moveable feast-like marathon reading of the book (an activity at many Bloomsday celebrations) at 18 locations across campus and even beyond, including Connolly House and the Chestnut Hill Reservoir; outside Corcoran Commons and 2150 Commonwealth Avenue; and in The Heights office, the Eagle’s Nest, and the Chocolate Bar—sites corresponding with locations in Dublin, where the novel’s events take place.  

They also assembled a related website on which they planned to post a complementary podcast and movie, among other additions, and worked on individual Ulysses-oriented projects.

“@BCBloomsday” began a little after 8 a.m. on November 10 in Connolly House and ended at about 1 p.m. the next day in the English Department conference room in Stokes Hall, as Nugent, Cyrus Rosen ’25, Eileen Flynn ’23, and Grace McPhee ’23 took turns reading the concluding chapter, “Penelope,” its nearly 4,000-word final sentence ending with the rapturous “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Nugent has been a force for exploring new dimensions of Ulysses and other Irish literature through modern technology. Working with students over the years, he has adapted Ulysses as an immersive virtual reality 3D game, “Joycestick,” and created a multi-media tour inspired by the book depicting Dublin in 1922, the year Ulysses was published. He’s by no means surprised by what the students can do, but he’s entirely grateful for it.

“It never fails to blow me away how interested they are in Ulysses—the class always fills up—and how enthusiastically they take on such a complex, demanding book,” said Nugent, noting that Rosen, an engineering major from Wilmington, Del., is using the DALL-E 2 artificial intelligence system to produce images for Ulysses based on specific passages from the book (“They’re not precise,” said Rosen, “but I think they capture the emotion in the text”).

The book is meant to be read alou . . .Reading it alone and silently really doesn’t do it justice. I wanted to do the marathon reading to mimic the Bloomsday tradition, and moving around campus and involving the students and faculty at BC made our project just so much more important to the study of this amazing work.
Nina Khaghany ’24

Written by Joyce as a parallel to Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses has been hailed for its inventive technique, structure, and language, particularly its use of stream-of-consciousness. These qualities, plus a length of more than 700 pages, also make for a formidable read, as even its biggest fans acknowledge. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—its imposing reputation, Ulysses occasionally enters the pop culture realm: A recent episode of the AMC series “Kevin Can [Expletive] Himself” included a scene in which a character tries to read the book; after a few seconds, clearly bewildered, she exclaims, “What? WHAT?”

None of this deterred Nina Khaghany ’24, an English and classical studies major from West Bloomfield, Mich., from taking Nugent’s class, or wanting to organize the marathon reading—something her mother had participated in as an English major herself.

“The book is meant to be read aloud and, especially after our marathon reading, I am so grateful that we did so,” she said. “Reading it alone and silently really doesn’t do it justice. I wanted to do the marathon reading to mimic the Bloomsday tradition, and moving around campus and involving the students and faculty at BC made our project just so much more important to the study of this amazing work.”

Still, Bloomsday—like most marathons—was a feat of endurance. The reading of the “Circe” chapter, which lasted from roughly 2-4:30 a.m., was “tough,” said Khaghany: “Our delirium matched well with the intoxicated thoughts of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom,” the book’s major characters.  

Reading Ulysses is no small task, Khaghany and McPhee readily admit, and trying to interest friends and acquaintances in it is an equally tall order.

“There are large portions that are drawn out and hard to get through,” said McPhee, “and then there will be one sentence where you’re just floored. Some of my friends asked about the book and I said, ‘How can you not know what Ulysses is?’ So I read a couple of passages from the ‘Calypso’ chapter to them, and they said ‘Wow.’”

“It’s not a novel that you just pick up; you have to live the book,” said Khaghany. “It takes over your brain, and that’s what Joyce wanted from it. Think as if you are Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom; put yourself in someone else’s life and you will take away from it more than you know about yourself.”

Khaghany praised Nugent for inspiring her and her fellow students to see literature in a new light. “The study of English doesn’t need to be so strict—you know, stay in the library and read. There is so much you can do with books if you change the way you want to learn through them.”

Sean Smith | University Communications | December 2022