Fun fact: Why is Joyce's novel named Ulysses? Answer: Because it's based on the Odyssey. Specifically, the novel is structured using Homer's epic as a framework. Each of the eighteen episodes of Ulysses corresponds to a different adventure from the Odyssey, and almost all of the main characters can be aligned with characters from the epic tale The three big correlations are: Leopold Bloom to Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus to Ulysses's son Telemachus, and Molly to Ulysses's wife Penelope.
With the help of our episode analyses (which accompany the episode summaries), you can peg down pretty much all of the parallels between the books. But often, even once you've identified the parallels, you might still wonder what the point is. We say that in "Circe," Bloom's potato corresponds to the talisman that Ulysses takes into the witch Circe's palace to keep him from falling under her spell. Clever enough, but so what? When first reading this book, we remember thinking that most of the similarities to the Odyssey were pretty simple and far-fetched. It seemed like Joyce was just trying to show off and bring importance to his book by comparing it to Homer's.
But there's something else going on here. The more that Joyce read, the more he began to notice a disparity between literature and life (Ellmann, James Joyce). Books seemed to operate by their own rules, which were very different from the rules of the world. A character like Ulysses is held up as a hero, someone to emulate, but most of us don't find ourselves lost at sea because we've angered the god Poseidon, and most of us don't find ourselves doing battle with one-eyed monsters. The question is: does this mean that our lives aren't heroic?
By naming his book Ulysses, Joyce was attempting to lasso Homer's epic. He wanted to pull it down to earth, to reveal the way that ordinary people make heroic quests in their daily lives. In Joyce's novel, our epic hero is an average Jewish ad salesman who has been feeling a bit dumpy lately because he hasn't been doing Sandow's Exercises. On top of that, his wife is cheating on him, he has a head full of sexual neuroses, he has bad gas, and at one point he even decides to masturbate in public. Leopold Bloom is one average guy. The point, though, is that no matter how average we think we are, we are living lives worthy of literary epics.
Now, a lot of people joke about how Ulysses is like Seinfeld: it's a book about nothing. That's not quite true. In the course of the day, Bloom goes to a funeral, tries to secure an ad, bumps into his old fling Josie Breen, gets in a fight with an Irish bigot, masturbates, goes to the maternity hospital where a woman is giving birth, follows Stephen Dedalus into the red light district, and then saves him from getting arrested. But admittedly, for almost 800 pages, that sure doesn't feel like a lot.
The reason is that one way Joyce turns a day in a man's life into a heroic epic is by opening up his thoughts, by moving the epic from the realm of action to the realm of the mind. In the 20th century, he seems to be saying, our odysseys take place between our ears. And it is there that we battle despair, jealousy, self-loathing, ignorance, lack of understanding, and boredom.
A last point, which we borrow from critic Hugh Kenner's excellent guide to Ulysses. You'll remember that in "Calypso," Molly wants to know what metempsychosis is. Bloom has trouble explaining it, but the basic idea is that it is reincarnation, your soul coming back again in another form. Kenner takes the idea of metempsychosis and argues that Bloom is not just an imitation of Ulysses. He is Ulysses. That's not to say that the book presupposes that reincarnation is possible and that Bloom is Ulysses reincarnated in the flesh. But in the sense that both Ulysses and Bloom came from the creative minds of authors with similar purposes, they are very much one and the same, albeit in different circumstances.