If you pick up Don Gifford's Ulysses Annotated, you'll quickly realize just what an absurd number of symbols and allusions there are in Ulysses. Most of these are not just toss-off allusions either; they are only one element in a complete network of imagery. For example, each episode in the novel not only corresponds to a specific time and episode from the Odyssey, each episode also corresponds to a particular organ of the body, to a given art form, to certain colors, to one dominant symbol, and to a certain type of literary technique. The epigraph to Gifford's book is a quote from Joyce: "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." Over 80 years later, Joyce's immortality seems insured: professors are still arguing and students are still pulling their hair out as they try to understand the book.
So, what can be done? Do we just throw up our arms in despair? Well, that's one option. The other is to make a go at figuring out some symbols in Ulysses, but to take notice of a few caveats first. We'll list some of them here:
1. No symbol is an island unto itself. Meaning that as you narrow your focus down to a particular symbol or image in Ulysses, you will also need to acknowledge that you can zoom out and see how it comes into play with several other symbols from the book. Don't worry about all the other symbols it interacts with because then you'll feel like a fly caught in a spider's web, but do try to take into account a few.
2. A symbol is not just a symbol. The most famous literary example of this comes from Shakespeare's King Lear, when the Earl of Gloucester is betrayed and has his eyes gouged out. The temptation is to say: "that's definitely a symbol." The Earl didn't see the betrayal coming, and thus his blindness is a symbol for his naiveté. But in that play the sheer violence of the scene forces you to say: "wait, that's a real thing and it looks like it really hurt." The message being: symbols are real things, and their role as symbols is only one aspect of what they are.
To take an example from Ulysses. Leopold Bloom corresponds to Odysseus, but you can't just read his story as a re-making of the Odyssey because Leopold Bloom also corresponds to Leopold Bloom. Believe it or not, Ulysses is actually an extremely realistic novel, and Joyce is careful not to let the storyline be constrained by allegory. The story comes first, and ideally all of the symbols and allusions just spring up out of it organically.
To reduce all this to an imperative: Make sure that whenever you analyze a symbol, your analysis has something to say about what is happening on the day June 16th, 1904.
3. The Magic 8 Ball Problem. We don't know if you've ever consulted an 8 Ball to help you make an important life decision, but if you have you'll notice that there's a problem with it. Namely, if you shake it up more than once you get back a different and often contradictory answer. Well, the same thing happens with symbols in Ulysses. There's never just one way to read them. You may think you have all the holes plugged in your argument that Stephen's ashplant is reminiscent of a blind's man stick and is emblematic of Stephen's blindness to human relations. But if you step back and re-think it, you'll no doubt find another way of looking at it.
One way to deal with the 8 Ball Problem is to have one dominant argument and then spend some time acknowledging other interpretations and explaining why yours is better. But the cool way to deal with the Problem is to argue two different contradictory interpretations of a symbol. Here, what you can do is find the discontinuities and the gaps between them, and then you can think about how the two different interpretations come into dialogue and comment upon one another. Ideally, the tension produced as you try to reconcile a contradiction will reveal something that neither symbol could have on its own.
And on to the symbols. Here are a few of the major symbols and allegories in Ulysses.