Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

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At the time, people assumed it was a joke: a clever, ironic joke: James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, the most intellectual novel of the 20th century, being read by Marilyn Monroe: pinup, sex symbol, movie goddess and – so it was assumed – definitely not an intellectual. 

But if you shouldn’t judge books by their covers, neither should you their readers.

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses (Eve Arnold)

This year marks the centenary of the publication of Ulysses. It’s also the year that a new film about Marilyn Monroe is to be released.

In some ways, 2022 is the year that both book and the actress are being rediscovered.

Since its publication, critics of Ulysses have claimed that it’s inaccessible and even unreadable. And it’s true that there are parts that are heavy going. Ernest Hemingway got no further than Chapter One. Virginia Woolf made got to p. 200 before exclaiming “Never did a book so bore me!”

Even Joyce’s wife Nora got no further than page 27 – and that (he noted, ruefully) included the cover.

And yet with the book’s centenary, new readers are discovering Ulysses and warming to its ability to transport us into the minds of everyday people living everyday lives. Perhaps we’re more at ease today with stories involving multiple narrators who don’t always tell the truth or whose thoughts skip around as they go about a normal day.

Our views about Marilyn have also evolved.

Instead of merely a sex symbol, we now see her as a complicated, troubled, talented, intelligent, unique woman. No longer is it a shock to us to see her reading James Joyce (or for that matter, any other author).

All of which makes the story of the photograph even more fascinating.

The picture was taken in 1955 by the society photographer, Eve Arnold. Arnold was a friend of Marilyn’s and had worked with her on previous shoots. This time she had driven to Marilyn’s Long Island home. On arriving, she found the actress immersed in a book. Arnold later wrote,

‘I asked her what she was reading … (I wanted to get an idea of how she spent her time). She said she kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time. She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it – but she found it hard going. She couldn’t read it consecutively. When we stopped at a local playground … she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film. So of course, I photographed her.’

As a guide to reading Ulysses, you can’t do better than this: read it out loud, listen to the sounds it makes, and take your time. Joyce himself advised reading the text out loud, particularly the tricky bits.

But as Marilyn discovered, Ulysses is worth the effort.

Look again at the photo and you’ll see that she’s reading the final pages of the book. This might be the part where Molly Bloom delivers her famous soliloquy.

Molly is a feisty and talented performer: intelligent, occasionally difficult, funny, perceptive, and frequently underestimated, particularly by men.

No wonder Marilyn Monroe loved reading Ulysses.