We remember reading Ulysses in a course in college, and about halfway through the book (after the "Nausicaa" episode), kids began to get extremely frustrated with it. One kid in particular had been commenting on how beautiful the prose of "Nausicaa" is, and the professor, with a sly smile, pointed out that Joyce is actually parodying sentimental romantic literature for young girls (see Gifford's annotations on "Nausicaa" for more on this). The kid continued to say that that Joyce never shows his cards, that there's something to be said for laying it all on the table. Joyce appears in one stylistic guise after another, but he never (so the angry kid contended) wrote honestly and from the heart.
The frustration at feeling duped is a pretty normal feeling when you read Ulysses. It is a book that, on many levels, makes you feel dumb. But the more time you spend with it, the more you can get into Joyce's spirit of play. It's like being let in on an extremely sophisticated inside joke, and as you let up on your desire to understand the book, you start to get a kick out of his wordplay and his constant mocking of other literary forms.
And the whole point isn't just to mock – it's to make you realize what assumptions you bring to a book. Presumably, a lot of people read books to learn something, to try to find something that is instructive about their way of life. Often, a few months after you've read a novel, you'll forget most of it except for a few key moments or lines and a general sensation – the "thrust" of the book. What Joyce is doing with all of the parodying is that he's intentionally toying with this desire to get the general thrust of the book. He's throwing down one gauntlet after another, and by doing so he's making you realize that what we tend to pull from a book is often determined by our own desires and preconceptions: we get from it what we want to get from it. By inviting us into a spirit of play, he's forcing us to think harder about the book, to constantly re-evaluate it and to question our own role in relation to what the book means.
When Ulysses came out, most people didn't get it (not that most people do now). A big point of confusion was that people thought the whole thing was a satire and that Joyce was making fun of ordinary people like Bloom by comparing them to Greek heroes. But that's one point Joyce is absolutely sincere on. He's trying to elevate everyday people to the level of epic heroes – to make us realize how our pedestrian little lives are a part of the literary world, and to make us realize that they are worthy of admiration and literary attention. Despite all his parodying, Joyce writes with incredible compassion for his characters. One place we feel it in particular is in "Ithaca," when Joyce suddenly produces an extensive list of every last item in Bloom's cabinet. The compassion is there in the details, and you have to take a second and think: Look how much he cares.
Ulysses was released in the same year as T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland (1922). In the way that Eliot's poem is treated as the modernist poem, Ulysses is generally regarded as the modernist novel.
So what is modernism? Well, historically, modernism is usually linked with the First World War and the rise of industrialization. The basic contention was that modern life was fundamentally different than the life of the past. People's lives had become increasingly complex, and they were forced to play a number of different societal roles on a daily basis. The result was that life came to seem fragmented and disjointed. In the wake of the most destructive war the world had ever seen, it also seemed as if there was somehow a basic failure of communication between people. In the modern world, language was being strained as people tried to empathize and understand one another.
Aesthetically (fancy word for an artistic style), the dictum of modernism comes from Ezra Pound's imperative: "Make it New." Modernist writers tended to realize their place in a long literary tradition. Eliot and Joyce felt the need to master this tradition, to achieve a level of scholarship that began with the Greeks and moved all the way up to modern day novels. It was as if the present moment was something to be achieved, as if one had to understand everything that came before in order to understand what was happening now. The flipside, however, was that modernist artists tended to feel that art had become stale and clichéd, and they sought different styles and artistic modes to express their ideas. A big tenet of modernism is difficulty, forcing the reader to work hard to realize what you are saying, the idea being that the harder they have to work, the more fully the idea will be communicated once they realize it.
A lot of writers get lumped in as modernists – Virginia Woolf, Henry James, William Faulkner, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, etc. Our disclaimer is that you have to realize that modernism is a vast category that all of these artists have been lumped into by critics, and that different critics have different reasons for calling people modernists. You might read about modernism as if it were one coherent theory and once someone says the word "modernism" everyone knows what they're talking about. That's simply not the case. There is a lot of contention about what exactly modernism is, but at least in contrast to "postmodernism," many of these artists did view themselves as part of a broader literary movement. And, inarguably, James Joyce was the center of this literary movement.
Ulysses is a modernist novel in that it focuses on something seemingly ordinary – a day in the life of Leopold Bloom – and then portrays it as if it were unfamiliar, extremely strange and special and bizarre. Joyce summons his immense erudition on subjects literary, philosophical, historical, linguistic, religious, scientific, etc., and he brings it all to bear on the day of June 16th, 1904. The past is alive in the novel, and you realize that for Joyce, the present is not like a bead being pushed along a string; the present is simply the cusp of a great wave that is the past.
And aside from the allusions themselves, Joyce's stylistic play in the novel was revolutionary. He had an incredible gift for mimicking other styles, and an episode like "Oxen of the Sun," you see that he has – on a stylistic level – digested pretty much the whole of Western literature. Joyce's style has been imitated by a number of artists after him, but it's never been matched. In our opinion, whenever you realize that Joyce is an influence on someone, it's hard not to read their writing as watered-down Joyce.
Ulysses is one of those rare books that you can make grand claims about without sounding ridiculous, but the book really did create a genre. It changed the way that people think about what genre is and what it means to classify a book in one way versus another.
Let's start with the simple facts before we get into all the swirling connotations. "Ulysses" is the Latin name for the Greek hero of Homer's epic, the Odyssey, on which Joyce's novel is based. As you read through the book and this guide, you'll learn that each of the eighteen sections in Joyce's book corresponds to a specific episode in Homer's. Why would Joyce do this? Well, there are a bunch of explanations for it, but we'll try to give the simplest and most straightforward of them. The Odyssey is the classic "epic poem." From the Western point of view, it marks the beginning of literature. By titling his novel, Ulysses, Joyce was harkening back to the start of literature and staking his place in it.
But he was also challenging Homer. With his novel, Joyce changed the way people thought of the concepts of "epic," and "hero." Instead of Ulysses experiencing adventures as he navigates his way home to Penelope, Joyce gives us an ordinary Jewish man by the name of Leopold Bloom, trying to make his way through a (relatively) normal day in Dublin, Ireland. By doing so, Joyce moves the genre of epic from wild globetrotting adventures into the mind of an average man. The Odyssey becomes a mental journey through the perils of everyday life: embarrassment, boredom, despair, lust, pride, etc. Making the journey a mental one allows Joyce to elevate the everyday to Homeric levels; he re-invents the epic by treating Leopold Bloom as a hero.
A last point to ponder: why did Joyce choose the Latin name, "Ulysses," over the Greek one, "Odysseus?" In actuality, Joyce first encountered Ulysses as a child and he happened to be exposed to the Latin name first. Thinking beyond that simple point the choice of "Ulysses" over "Odysseus" can raise some interesting questions.
In Homer's work, Odysseus is treated as a hero, renowned for his cunning and his sly intelligence. Yet in the first great Latin epic, the Aeneid, Virgil often refers to Ulysses as "the cruel Ulysses." It seems that Odysseus's deceitful tricks didn't correspond to Roman notions of honor. So then why choose the latter name, the one that is so often tied to an epithet? Does it simply sound better? Or is there some sort of turn-of-the-century equivalent to "Roman honor" in Dublin that Leopold Bloom does not meet?
We're going to make a bold assertion here because we can't help it: the last several pages of Ulysses are some of the most breathtaking prose in the English language. In other words, if you can't truck through the other 780 pages, at least read these.
The last 50 pages of the book are written with no punctuation as the swirling thoughts of Molly Bloom. She is lying beside her husband Leopold in bed (they sleep head to foot) and thinking about her day and their life together. While most of the book has been focused on the minds of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, this is the first major move to a female point of view. Leopold has thought extensively about Molly's affair with Boylan, and we glimpse some justification for it beforehand (namely, that Leopold has not made love to her for ten years, since the death of their son Rudy). Here, though, we are pushed through Molly's thoughts and feelings and come to see her in a sympathetic light.
Molly was modeled on Joyce's wife, Nora Barnacle, to whom he was married all his life and with whom he was passionately in love. Nora was from the west of Ireland, and in contrast to Joyce's historic erudition, she was a down to earth woman who didn't even think Joyce was much of a writer. As she famously put it, James should have stuck to music (source).
At one point, there was a rumor going around Dublin that Nora had slept with an acquaintance of Joyce's early on in their relationship and that it drove Joyce nearly mad with jealousy. More likely than not, it was nothing but a rumor, but for Joyce it became an incredible neurosis. For all of his genius, one thing Joyce couldn't imagine was having the person he loved most make love with someone else.
One way to think of the end of Ulysses is to understand it as Joyce's attempt to imagine his wife's point of view, to imagine how a woman could cheat on her husband and still love him. Whether or not he succeeds in blowing open a female perspective is a matter of critical debate, but this is an honest try. While many other points in the book parody other types of prose and can't be separated from ironic self-awareness, here Joyce elevates his writing as much as he is able.
The end of Molly's monologue focuses on the day that Bloom proposed to her at Howth's head. This might be seen as a sort of victory for Bloom. Despite the fact that Molly slept with Boylan earlier in the day, her last thoughts before she sleeps are for her husband. Bloom asks her to marry him and her mind rushes back to her youth and to former lovers and to a thousand things that a man may never imagine a woman thinking about before agreeing to his proposal. But then Molly asks Bloom to ask her again, and the novel ends on a resounding note of affirmation:
"…then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes." (18.783)
This statement is a re-affirmation of Bloom and of life itself in spite of all the burdens we have seen throughout the novel: the death of a son, the suicide of a father, a sex-less marriage, the resignation of middle age, and life in a demoralized city held under the thumb of British rule. It is, you might say, happiness in view of all else.
Ulysses was written between the years 1914 and 1921. During this time, Joyce was in self-imposed exile from Ireland, first in Trieste, then in Zürich, then in Paris. Yet all of his work is set in his native Dublin, and he is absolutely fanatical about the details of the city. In a chapter like "The Wandering Rocks," as the viceregal cavalcade (horse-drawn procession carrying the earl of Dudley to a charity gathering) moves through the city, we get so much detail that we could practically draw a map of Dublin based on the procession of the cavalcade. In other episodes, such as "Lestrygonians," we find that Bloom's thoughts are constantly woven into the sights and sounds of Dublin. If he passes a butcher's shop, his thoughts turn to meat. If he passes a soap shop, his thoughts turn to hygiene. If you ever spend time in Dublin, you'll no doubt see a couple of zealous Joyce fans wandering around the city with the text trying to figure out different correspondences. In fact, on June 16 every year, there's a holiday called "Bloomsday" where people wander around the city and re-trace Bloom's steps in honor of Joyce.
It is rumored that Joyce bragged that he wanted his picture of Dublin to be so complete that if the city were to disappear from the earth, it could be entirely reconstructed based on his book. That may be going a bit far, but beyond the simple geography of the city, it's important to note the extent to which the book is drenched in Dublin culture, life, and slang. As is noted in the "Character" section, a number of characters are based on actual Dublin figures. Buck Mulligan is a stand in for Oliver St. John Gogarty, Lenehan for Matt Lenehan and Matt Hart, Simon Dedalus for Joyce's father, John Stanislaus Joyce. Other characters are plucked right out of Dublin life – Richard Best, George Moore, Davy Byrne, the Hely's sandwichmen, the madman Farrel. In fact, after the book was released, people would go around Dublin asking one another whether or not they were in it. Similarly, there is much real-life gossip worked into the book. If you move through Gifford's annotations, you'll find that some of the confusing references in the book are simply elliptical bits of Dublin gossip. The book throws its threads right out into the real world, and thereby weaves itself into it.
Ulysses is also full of the social issues that were prevalent in Dublin at the time. The two major political issues were land reform and Home Rule. Land reform dealt with the fact that much of Ireland's land was controlled by wealthy land-holders but worked by peasants who lived in dire poverty. The reform sought ways to increase the rights of the peasants that worked the land. Home Rule, the dominant question for Joyce, had to do with whether or not Ireland could become independent from English colonization. Charles Stewart Parnell (see his "Character Analysis") had set up a strong coalition of the Irish members of parliament in the 1880s and nearly succeeded in passing a Home Rule bill. Yet hopes of independence vanished when Parnell's affair with Katherine O'Shea was out'ed; his popularity greatly decreased. In 1904, many Dubliners were still experiencing a political hangover from the hopes that they had hinged on Parnell's success. Resentment of the English ran deep, and fanatical nationalism was common.
Reading Ulysses, it sure doesn't hurt to know a bit about Aristotle or Goethe, but there's really no better guide to the book than Dublin itself. Unfortunately, most of us can't just hop on a plane and check it out, but if you have some free time get up on Google images and look up pictures of the Liffey and the Customs House and the National Library – it might go a long way toward helping you imagine the world of the book.
Joyce is a stylistic sponge. From the time when he was very young, he consumed libraries' worth of books, and after reading one author or another he found that he could easily soak up their style and write in their own voice. That's actually one reason some of his early critics dismissed him as more of a mimic than an artist.
Joyce brings this skill to bear in Ulysses, where we are exposed to an enormous number of different styles within the covers of one book. In "Aeolus," we find Joyce pulling newspaper headlines from the speech-stream. In "Cyclops," we get 33 parodies of different styles of writing, each picking up on things the characters are speaking or thinking about in the scene. In "Nausicaa," Joyce satirizes sentimental literature for young girls, and in "Circe," he writes a surrealist play using the dreamscapes of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. In "Ithaca," he employs the form of a catechism as he describes Stephen and Bloom having cocoa in Bloom's kitchen. But perhaps nothing is quite as impressive as "Oxen of the Sun," in which Joyce literally re-enacts the development of the English language from early translations of Latin verse to contemporary Dublin slang by moving fluidly from one style to another.
So what's the point of all the stylistic play? Well, Joyce had this idea that what you say is absolutely inseparable from how you say it. As Samuel Beckett wrote in his essay on Joyce (he was referring to Finnegan's Wake, but the comment is also applicable to Ulysses), "form is content, content is form." In a chapter like "Oxen of the Sun," where we get a number of different styles, Joyce, while still depicting the main scene in the maternity hospital, lets each style gravitate toward its natural subject matter. Thus, when he writes in the style of early Latin prose, he finds himself talking about the importance of procreation to the greatness of the nation. When he writes in the style of the 18th century satirist Junius, he finds himself talking about Bloom's hypocrisy in extremely scathing terms. When he writes in the sentimental style of Dickens, he praises the doctor's treatment of Mina Purefoy in hyperbolic terms. All of this, aside from being a virtuoso performance, is also a vast demonstration of the importance of style in determining content.
To knock the point home a bit harder, people generally think that you have this thing to express – say, the feelings that you are happy. Then you have to find the words to express that thing, and you could no doubt express it in a myriad of different ways. You could say "I am happy" or "Oh my God, I'm thrilled," or "Happiness has broken the dam of my despair" or "Right on" or "Happiness has come slanting into my thoughts like a ray of sunlight." Joyce's point is that you are saying different things with each of these statements. The first might convey contentment, the second might convey over-exuberance, the third might convey sentimentality, etc. In each case, the style isn't just a transparent medium by which you convey the thing that you are trying to say. Instead, the style is linked with what you are trying to say. Once again: how you say something determines what you can express.
So when Joyce isn't busy parodying other people's styles, his own tries to soak up the scene and the character's feeling as much as possible. If the characters are tired (as they are in "Eumaeus"), he makes the prose bored and simple. If Bloom is having an orgasm (as he does in "Nausicaa"), Joyce tries to make the words themselves come to a climax. If the characters dance (as they do in "Circe"), Joyce tries to make the language dance. One of our favorite examples, though, comes from "Calypso." Bloom wanders about Dublin, hungry and tired. As a cloud comes across the sky, he begins to think of the Dead Sea and falls into the depths of depression. His words become despairing, halting and hesitating, trying to build into complete sentences, but actually becoming more and more sparse and fragmented.
Check it out:
"A cloud began to cover the sun wholly slowly wholly. Grey. Far.
No, not like that. A barren land, bare waste. Vulcanic lake, the dead sea: no fish, weedless, sunk deep in the earth. No wind would lift those waves, grey metal, poisonous foggy waters. Brimstone they called it raining down: the cities of the plain: Sodom, Gomorrah, Edom. All dead names. A dead sea in a dead land, grey and old. Old now. It bore the oldest, the first race. A bent hag crossed from Cassidy's clutching a noggin bottle by the neck. The oldest people. Wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity, multiplying, dying, being born everywhere. It lay there now. Now it could bear no more. Dead: an old woman's: the grey sunken cunt of the world.
Up until now we've been emphasizing the variety of styles Joyce uses, but there's a particular style Joyce made famous and that has now become more or less inseparable from Ulysses: stream-of-consciousness (or interior monologue).
Joyce himself traced it to Édouard Dujardin in Les Lauriers sont coupes. He said, "In that book the reader finds himself established, from the first lines, in the thought of the principal personage, and the uninterrupted unrolling of that thought, replacing the usual form of narrative, conveys to us what this personage is doing or what is happening to him." In simpler terms, the interior monologue is a radically new way of capturing character's inner thoughts. Instead of writing in complete well-punctuated sentences, the goal is to more accurately capture the disjointed free-associating way that people think (as in the passage above). Five pages into "Telemachus," we are suddenly plunged into Stephen's inner thoughts without any sort of indication, and from that point on the book never really looks back. One of many effects of the style is that we get a greater intimacy with the thoughts of the novel's characters than we ever could have before. Joyce follows their twists and turns even into incoherence.
A last point on the style. Something we'll call the what factor. The point is that some of Joyce's sentences can be quite hard to process. You read the same sentence over and over again and you really have no idea what he's saying. Frustrating as these may be, you have to realize that as you struggle with the sentence, Joyce has forced you to bring much more attention to his words than you would have otherwise. Your eyes can't just move idly over the page in Ulysses. It's an active book, and as a reader you have to put in a great deal of effort in order to figure out what the sentence is saying. One way to think of these sentences is as Gordian knots, seemingly impenetrable riddles. But once you undo the knot and make the sentence go flat, you'll often find that the realization inside is pretty remarkable and probably couldn't have been communicated any other way.
If you don't believe us, here's one we'll help you along with. The lines come from "Ithaca:"
"From outrage (matrimony) to outrage (adultery) there arose nought but outrage (copulation) yet the matrimonial violator of the matrimonially violated had not been outraged by the adulterous violator of the adulterously violated." (17.292)
Later, the narrator comments on the "natural grammatical transition by inversion involving no alteration of sense" from the active to the passive voic". (17.294). Believe it or not these lines are moving toward Bloom's acceptance of Molly's affair. He has ceased to consider the situation as a perpetration, as a question of what Boylan did to Molly or what Molly did to Bloom. Instead, he has come to see it in terms of what was done to Molly, what was done to Bloom. As a result, Bloom manages not to be overcome by anger and jealousy because he can acknowledge that Molly was not outraged by what was done to her, that in fact she needed it and deeply enjoyed it. Coupled with the fact that he could not provide it for her, Bloom manages to achieve a mood of equanimity. It seems that Bloom's ability to reconcile himself to his wife's affair actually relies heavily on the grammatical form of the English language. A switch from the active to the passive voice (to an extent) allows him to accept Molly's adultery.
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.
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.
According to Greek legend, Zeus sent two eagles flying off in different directions to meet at the center or the navel – the omphalos – of the world. The idea of the world having a navel, and more specifically, of there being an umbilical cord that runs back through time to connect to that navel, is one that recurs throughout Ulysses. The omphalos idea is part of a bigger network of thoughts in the novel – all having to do with pregnancy, motherhood, and reproduction.
In "Proteus," Stephen thinks, "The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be as gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello. Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one" (3.6).
Though brief, the thought is quite dense and complicated. First, Stephen thinks of mystic monks trying to have an experience of the world itself. The whole mystical idea (in a nutshell) is that there is a certain experience that cannot be put into words, and after you have that experience you realize that up until then your existence had been quite superficial. It is as if there is an ideal metaphysical (fancy philosophical word meaning having to do with the nature of existence) world that most of us do not have access to.
Sometimes, the mystical idea gets conflated with the notion of a simpler way of life, as if there was a time when man's existence was much more pure and in tune with the world. In Christianity, this is Eden before the fall of Adam. Now, Stephen thinks of himself as an over-educated guy staring into his navel (as the saying goes), but then imagines the umbilical cord as a telephone cord that will allow him to call back to Eden – this simpler way of life – using the Greek letters "Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one."
Stephen's omphalos thought is only one of many images having to do with pregnancy, motherhood, and the female form. Think of the Dead Sea being compared to a vagina in "Lotus Eaters," or Mulligan joking about being pregnant in "Oxen of the Sun," or "Circe" where Bloom actually gives birth to eight children.
But to get to the crux of the matter: The book seems to suggest that there is a disconnect between the male and female experience of life. The disconnect mainly has to do with birth and the process of procreation. Whereas men simply have to donate their sperm and then are removed from the birthing process, women have to let the child grow inside their womb for nine months and then go through very painful labor before the child is born. The result is that women feel in touch with the reproduction process while men feel left out. In terms of bodily experience, the father is so removed from reproduction that it takes a great act of imagination for him to conceive of what it must be like to have a child.
So the idea is that men have to find some way to compensate for being left out of the creative process. Whereas Freud says that women are envious of men's penises, Joyce flips that around and says, "No, actually men are jealous of women's ability to give birth." This is all quite simplified, but let's simplify it further: women give birth; men write books.
In terms of symbolism and imagery, the result is that the creative process is compared to the gestation period a woman goes through as she prepares to give birth. This is nowhere as apparent as in "Oxen of the Sun," when all of the men are gathered at the maternity hospital waiting to hear news of Mina Purefoy giving birth. In the episode, Joyce stylistically re-enacts the development of the English language from direct translations of early Latinate prose up to modern Dublin slang. In the words of a drunken Stephen Dedalus, "In a woman's womb word is made flesh but in the spirit of the maker all flesh that passes becomes the word that shall not pass away" (14.21). Let's dub it fetus-envy.
In our "Writing Style" section, you'll notice that we kind of go head over heels for Joyce's style. And not just because it's beautiful. We have included Language here again in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" because it's important that you think of the language in the book the same way that you think of, say, the book's correlations to the Odyssey.
In "Proteus," Stephen is walking along Sandymount Strand, and as he looks down the beach, he thinks, "These heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here" (3.62). It's a very important quote to Ulysses. Namely, language has a physical presence in the book: it's the material of Joyce's world. And you thought that the world was made of atoms? Well, in a piece of literature, words are your atoms.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was notoriously difficult to understand, but one of the things he said was: "The limits of your language are the limits of your world." Joyce was a student of languages (he was fluent in four or five), and was absolutely obsessed with words. It was like the larger his vocabulary got, the more material he had to work with. But the idea gets a little more complicated because the way Joyce thought, language mediates our relationship with the world. It determines what we are capable of thinking and experiencing. For example, if we didn't know the word for "love," we wouldn't be able to think about the idea of love. Love would just be a physical thing, a certain intensity in the chest, but we wouldn't be able to think of it as anything beyond that, to speculate on its nature and so on and so forth.
If this idea is correct that language defines the limits of your world, then Joyce's world was more unbounded than perhaps any writer before or since.
But why is it that it's the "heavy sands" that are language. Well, Joyce's other idea was that our language had become rigid and calcified (think of it turning hard like bone). People had said the same things over and over again so many times that they had ceased to express anything, to carry any feeling. In a language full of clichés and stock turns-of-phase, Joyce felt that words themselves had become flat and powerless.
A great way to think of this is that language is one great big organ (the instrument). Joyce sits down to play it, and though not too many other people notice, he can't help but feel that it's horribly out of tune. So Joyce uses all of his talent to try to tune and re-tune the organ until it plays to his satisfaction and can create beautiful music once more.
You may have seen this in a book or a film before, but every so often an artist will use lightness and darkness as symbols.
And Joyce does the same thing. Except in his formulation, the central heroic characters – Stephen and Bloom – are actually associated with darkness instead of the light. Stephen is dressed in black because he is still mourning for his mother, and Bloom is dressed in black because he is mourning for Dignam. In a way, this darkness pairs the two of them from the very beginning. Aside from turning the traditional light is good, dark is bad analogy upside down, darkness also comes to stand in for a number of things that make Stephen and Bloom unlikely heroes. For example, darkness is associated with Bloom's Jewishness, Stephen's uncertainty and doubt, and both of their statuses as alienated men. Stephen and Bloom get left out of the spotlight, so to speak.
By contrast, lightness becomes associated with superficiality. Boylan, for example, is dressed in light clothes and has what you might call a shining persona in town. But we get little evidence in the novel that he is a very deep and substantive man. It's almost as if the "lighter" characters are simply reflecting light that is not their own, whereas the "darker" characters absorb that light within themselves.
In "Proteus," Stephen is watching his shadow on the beach, and he wonders why it doesn't stretch to the stars. It being day, he wonders where the stars are in the sky, and in the process gives us a great image for the way that darkness functions in the novel. He says, "His shadow lay over the rocks as he bent, ending. Why not endless till the farthest star? Darkly they are there behind this light, darkness shining in the brightness, delta of Cassiopeia, worlds" (3.78). Stephen and Bloom are like stars during the day, "darkness shining in the brightness," and it is not until night falls that they will be fully revealed.
In "Lestrygonians," Bloom considers trying to get an introduction to professor Joly so that he can imagine asking him about the astronomical idea of parallax (8.130). As a reader, our personal professor Joly is Don Gifford's annotations. What Gifford has to say is that parallax is "the apparent displacement or the difference in apparent direction of an object as seen from two different points of view." In astronomy, the term refers specifically to the perceived difference in direction of a celestial body (say, a star) when perceived from two different points in space.
To get your own personal idea of parallax, hold your right hand up in front of your face. Stick up your ring finger and then close your left eye. Without moving your finger, close your right eye and then open your left. Go back and forth, back and forth, and you'll realize that it seems like your finger is moving. As your vision switches from eye to another and back again, your finger seems to be displaced. This is a small and simple example of a parallax.
Parallax is a good guiding image for what Ulysses forces us to do as readers. In the course of the novel, we are exposed to three main points-of-view: Leopold's, Stephen's, and Molly's. But there are also a number of minor points-of-view that we get exposed to for brief periods of time: Father Conmee, Patrick Dignam Jr., Gerty MacDowell, and the narrator of "Cyclops," to name just a few.
The result of constantly moving from one point-of-view to another is that we can never get a handle on events and characters. We rush to come to an understanding or a judgment, and then we find ourselves re-assessing over and over again as we move through the novel. Characters offer markedly different and contradictory thoughts and opinions. If there's anything like objectivity in the novel, it is simply this accumulation of incompatible subjective personas.
One example is Bloom's affair, which we hear about first from Bloom, and then through the gossip of a number of men about town, and finally in Molly's own words. It looks different from each perspective, and it's impossible to come to any one judgment on Bloom. It's a constantly unfolding process of re-evaluation. Our opinions are always being displaced in the same way that your stable finger seems to be moving back and forth right before your eyes.
From the time that Bloom picks up a religious throwaway paper in "Lestrygonians", he is compared to the prophet Elijah. In particular, at the end of "Cyclops," as Martin Cunningham's carriage pulls away from Barney Kiernan's pub and the citizen yells angrily after Bloom, Joyce invokes biblical imagery of the ascent of Elijah into heaven.
The passage goes:
When, lo, there came about them all a great brightness and they beheld the chariot wherein He stood ascend to heaven. And they beheld Him in the chariot, clothed upon in the glory of the brightness, having raiment as of the sun, fair as the moon and terrible that for awe they durst not look upon Him. And there came a voice out of heaven, calling: Elijah! Elijah! And he answered with a main cry: Abba! Adonai! And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe's in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel. (12.561)
Elijah was a prophet in Israel about 900 years before Christ. He appears in both the Hebrew and the Christian Bibles, and is reported to have warned King Ahab that he would suffer great misfortune because he was the last of a line of Israelite kings that had upset God by worshipping other pagan gods. Like Moses, God parts a sea for him, except in Elijah's case it's the Jordan. And then halfway through his passage, a flaming chariot appears and Elijah ascends up to heaven in a whirlwind. In another similarity to Moses, Jesus actually appears to both Moses and Elijah during a Biblical episode that is known as the Transfiguration. To this day, some people hold that the return of Elijah will precede Jesus' own return to earth.
The Elijah correlation gets into the earth that is tilled by literary scholars, but on a basic level it emphasizes the interplay between the Jewish and the Christian faiths. In the "Cyclops" episode, where Bloom is being persecuted by a narrow minded Irish Catholic, the imagery undermines the citizen's attacks and shows how foolish it is to be prejudiced against Bloom on the basis of his faith.
To an extent, you could also argue that Bloom functions as something of a prophetic figure. After all, it is Bloom, not Stephen, who first preaches the importance of love, which is so central to Ulysses.
In the Odyssey, usurpation is a major theme. Ulysses is out there for seven years trying to make his way back to Penelope, and meanwhile a bunch of suitors have taken over his home in Ithaca and are impatiently waiting for Penelope to choose a new husband among them. When Ulysses finally returns home, he does so in disguise and slaughters the suitors one by one.
In Hamlet, another important text for Ulysses, usurpation is, once again, central to the story. According to the ghost of Hamlet's father, it was his brother Claudius that killed him and is now sharing the bed of Hamlet's mother. Hamlet is either driven insane by the news or feigns it for his own purposes, and like Homer's epic, the play ends with bodies everywhere.
Now if the only reason you plugged through nearly 800 pages of Ulysses was to read the bloodbath at the end – where Bloom stabs Boylan with a pair of antler's horns and throws him out the second story of 7 Eccles Street, and Stephen impales Mulligan with his ashplant – then you're going to be disappointed. This never happens.
But usurpation is a major theme in the novel. Mulligan is jealous of Stephen's genius and tries to cut him down to size by constantly poking fun at him. Stephen's last thought as he looks at Mulligan at the end of "Telemachus" is "Usurper" (1.356). For the hyper-literate Stephen, the usurpation theme makes him consider himself a Hamlet figure. Thinking of his Latin Quarter hat, he says, "God, we simply must dress the character;" later he thinks of it directly as his Hamlet hat (3.98). As we see in "Scylla and Charybdis," much of Stephen's theory on Hamlet comes out of his own family troubles. Like Hamlet, he wants to escape the fate of his father (drink and misfortune), and like Hamlet, he seems half-mad as he tries to find a way to get out from under the thumb of his usurper (the jealous Mulligan).
In Bloom's case, the usurpation is more obvious; Boylan is usurping Bloom's marriage bed by carrying on an affair with Molly. Yet whereas Ulysses is constantly trying to make his way home, Bloom is careful to avoid going home too soon in case Boylan has not yet left. When Bloom does arrive home, he finds that Molly and Boylan have made little effort to disguise their affair. Boylan's betting tickets are torn up in the kitchen, and their furniture is re-arranged so that Boylan and Molly could sit next to each other and play Love's Old Sweet Song. Unlike Ulysses, Bloom lets all of this happen (and unlike Penelope, Molly is a very willing adulteress). Instead of trying to stop the affair, Bloom searches for a way to reconcile himself to it and make his love for Molly compatible with the fact that she must go elsewhere for sexual satisfaction. In this case, Ulysses is more notable for its deviations from the Odyssey than its similarities.
After its first appearance in "Lotus Eaters," the Gold Cup race pops up again and again. When Bloom runs into Bantam Lyons, he offers him his "throwaway" paper. Lyons thinks it is a tip on the race, though Bloom doesn't even realize that there is a horse named Throwaway involved. Well, as luck would have it, Throwaway comes out of nowhere and wins the race, beating out the horse that Blazes Boylan and Matt Lenehan bet on – Sceptre. The first sign of Boylan that Bloom sees when he returns home in "Ithaca" is Boylan's torn up betting tickets in the kitchen. Later, in "Penelope," we learn that Boylan was extremely upset about losing the race.
The use of the Gold Cup as an allegory for what happens in Ulysses is made explicit in "Cyclops." After Lenehan shares his mistaken belief that Bloom has placed a bet on Throwaway and won at five to one odds (which makes the narrator wonder why Bloom didn't buy them drinks), Joe Hynes says, "He's a bloody dark horse himself" (12.453). We wouldn't overdo the interpretation, but just as Throwaway is a dark horse, Bloom is not a very well-respected man in Dublin and today he happens to be wearing black for Dignam's funeral. The name Sceptre can't help but evoke all sorts of super-male phallic imagery, which makes it seem like Boylan corresponds to the favorite horse in the race. Yet Bloom, the dark horse, comes from behind and defeats him. The fact that Molly's last thoughts in the novel are for her husband instead of for Boylan might be taken to suggest that Bloom still holds the highest place in her heart.
Point of view is something that is extremely important to Ulysses. Namely, the point of view is unconfined, and we are exposed to myriad perspectives in the course of the book. Language and voice can seemingly go anywhere or do anything in the novel. Some chapters are more traditional, but we constantly see evidence of the narrator at play: the headlines in "Aeolus," the play-dialogue in "Circe," the way that the language can soak up the setting and the time of day through its style.
In a more traditional sense, the narrator of the story has access to the most intimate thoughts of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and Molly Bloom, as well as somewhat more limited access to the minds of other characters. When we get inside a character's head, we are exposed to stream-of-consciousness style that attempts to follow that character's thoughts as closely as possible no matter how fragmentary and disjointed they may be. Yet there is always the freedom to zoom out, to stray from one mind to another, to re-focus from a different perspective.
Now, you'd think that since Ulysses is modeled on the Odyssey, which is pretty much the classic quest story of all time, this should be easy to map out. The fact of the matter is that it's not. There are a number of different ways to do this plot analysis. We just picked one, but there are other valid ones as well. Though Bloom (the Odysseus figure) does not even appear until after The Telemachiad, we here have another hero, Stephen Dedalus (the Telemachus figure) for whom life has become nearly intolerable in Dublin. Without even knowing it, he sets out to wander through Dublin with the hope of meeting someone like Leopold Bloom, someone that can give him some guidance, help him put things in perspective, and make him feel a little less cut-off from the world.
The majority of the book consists of Bloom's (and Stephen's) wanderings through Dublin where they encounter a number of different challenges: Bloom must undergo an encounter with death and the underworld at Dignam's funeral. Stephen must navigate between the Scylla of Aristotelian literary philosophy and the Charybdis of Platonic philosophy. Bloom must confront the one-eyed nature of prejudice in "Cyclops." Both Stephen and Bloom must resist the spell of the Circe-like prostitute madame, Bella Cohen. Their journeys are decidedly more meandering than in the Odyssey. One critic joked that whereas Odysseus spends the entire epic fighting to get back to his wife, Bloom spends the whole book looking for reasons not to go home to his wife. Yet, though they aren't quite sure what they're looking for, both Bloom and Stephen are searching for something. For the latter it might be called human-connectedness, and for the former it might be called the spirit of resignation or forgiveness.
The last part of the book is named Homecoming, so we get the sense that after "Circe," the majority of the day's challenges have passed. For Bloom, in particular, saving Stephen from the English constable has put him in a good mood and he is eager to get to know his knew companion. Stephen, though safe from serious legal trouble, is still quite drunk and is in a foul mood as Bloom tries to get a real conversation going. The two of them go to Bloom's home together, but as Stephen leaves, Bloom gets the sense that this won't actually be the blossoming of an ideal friendship. Inside, he sees how his house has been re-arranged by Boylan and Molly, and he becomes glum as he thinks of his father's suicide. Whatever he is looking for, he hasn't quite found it.
The final ordeals might be said to come at the end of "Ithaca," after Stephen leaves for the night. Bloom is here confronted with unmistakable evidence of his wife's affair, and realizes that he has been avoiding the thought for most of the day. Thinking of his father's suicide, he again is brought to the brink of despair, but he gradually begins to sort through his feelings and come to a sense of equanimity that allows him to mount the stairs and crawl into bed with his wife. Yet the perspective that is missing in the Odyssey is Penelope's, and we here end with Molly's thoughts on Bloom. We are forced to re-evaluate the character we thought we had come to know, and wait to see how he will fare in her judgment.
Bloom's day ends after "Ithaca," as he kisses his wife's rump and nods off to sleep. He has come to some sense of understanding about his wife's affair and his role in it, and has found a way to live with it (at least for this evening). Yet Molly's long stream-of-consciousness soliloquy seems to again put Bloom at risk, and it is unclear whether or not Molly will ultimately approve of her husband or not. In the final pages, however, we see a triumph for Bloom. Molly's last thoughts of the day are for her husband. On a broader note, we see a ray of happiness come into the novel. There is real empathy between husband and wife, and despite all its perils, the novel ends with a resounding affirmation of married life: yes I will Yes.
By the end of "Calypso," our two main characters have been introduced, and we have been given a sense of some of the main conflicts that will drive the novel. In The Telemachiad, we get a picture of Stephen as he has matured since the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We learn that Stephen's mother died and that he is wracked with guilt over her death. In "Proteus" we also get our first really daring stylistic chapter, and begin to get a sense of the intense stream-of-consciousness and stylistic play that will come to dominate the book. "Calypso" is our first peek into the mind of Leopold Bloom. We also get a feeling for the Blooms' troubled marriage, which will come to underlie much of the book's plot.
Along one plot line (that of Molly's adultery), the main conflict in the novel is that Bloom knows that Molly is going to sleep with Boylan before the day is out. Along another, say, Stephen's, the main conflict is that ever since the death of his mother he has been isolated from the world. Stephen needs a way to get back into the human fold. There are a number of different conflicts that arise in The Wanderings of Ulysses as Bloom confronts death at Dignam's funeral, Stephen presents his Hamlet argument, and Bloom speaks out against prejudice and shortsighted Irish nationalism. In terms of a classic plot, the main conflict is Molly's affair, but realize that much of the conflict is in the realm of ideas rather than of events themselves. The conflicts are between moderation and extremism, between religious orthodoxy and nihilism, between independence and communal feeling, between subjugation to English oppression and narrow-minded Irish nationalism, between happiness and despair.
Along that main plot line, the complication begins to develop when we realize that Bloom has no real intention of stopping Molly from sleeping with Boylan. His passivity can be maddening, and we are forced to alter our sense of the conflict. Rather than wondering how Bloom is going to prevent the thing from happening, we have to start wondering how he is going to come to terms with it. As we noted in the "Conflict" above, there are a number of other conflicts at play in the novel, and on that level it's hard to separate those conflicts from their complication. In terms of the ideas that the book struggles with, it's really just one complication after another.
The action reaches a peak in 'Circe' when Stephen has a vision of his dead mother, knocks over Bella Cohen's chandelier with his ashplant (cane) and screams Non Serviam before running out of the brothel and getting in a fight with an English constable. In terms of our understanding of the characters, "Circe" is also a climax because we approach something like full disclosure. Their subconscious thoughts seem more liberated than they are anywhere else in the novel. In the long dreamscapes that make up "Circe," we see into Leopold Bloom's most base neuroses and his most absurd vanities. On another level, it's here that the subconscious of the book itself is let loose – all the things that were percolating between the lines of earlier chapters but could not be said are here given voice.
There is still a great deal of unresolved conflict after "Circe." Namely, we still don't know what Leopold Bloom is going to do about his wife's affair, if anything. We also don't know whether or not Stephen and Leopold will get along as well as we would like them to (they don't). Through much of the novel, we have been made to anticipate a sort of reunion between the two in which Bloom fills the role of surrogate father for Stephen and Stephen fills the role of surrogate son for Bloom. Now that they've actually met, we have to wait and see how things play out.
"Ithaca" is, to many readers, the most satisfying episode in the entire book. Stephen and Bloom have been united, and it is here that they begin to get along and have a long discussion in Bloom's kitchen before he shows Stephen out. It is after 2am and for both of them, it is clear that the action of their day has passed and that things are now winding down.
Bloom's day concludes at the end of "Ithaca," when he kisses his wife Molly on the butt and nods off to bed. But throughout the book we have constantly been re-evaluating Bloom, looking at his situation in a number of different lights. Molly's perspective has been missing from the rest of the book, and here we get it in full force. New tension arises as we wait to see what her final judgment on Bloom will be. Will she affirm her love for her husband or deny it?
The Telemachiad. This part consists first three episodes, which focus on Stephen Dedalus.
The Wanderings of Ulysses. This part is comprised of Episodes 4 through 15, which focus on the daily goings-on of Leopold Bloom.
The Homecoming. This part is made up of the last three episodes of the book, and consists of Bloom escorting Stephen back to his home, and getting ready for bed after Stephen leaves. The last episode is comprised of Molly's thoughts before she goes to bed.
There are far too many literary and philosophical references to be listed here. Some of the key texts to be familiar with as you approach the book are Homer's the Odyssey and Shakespeare's Hamlet (you might check out our Shmoop guides on these two books to get basic familiarity). Much of the philosophy is early Christian philosophy – St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and others. We've tried to help you out in the line-by-line summaries, but the main place to look is Don Gifford's annotations to Ulysses, which make an effort to track down every allusion in the book.
Again, there are too many historical references to be listed here. Though many of the references are to Irish history (in particular to the long-time struggle for Irish Home Rule), Joyce also draws on European and world history at World War II. If you go through our episode summaries, we try to help you with a number of the references, but after that the place to look is Don Gifford's annotations to Ulysses.
Joyce's book is also drenched in Dublin popular culture. It's full of bits of music that were popular at the time; it has references to sporting events going on around 1904. Beyond that, Ulysses has quite a bit of local gossip that it's sometimes hard to understand without looking at the annotations. As always, we've tried to help you out in our line-by-line summaries, but the first place to look is Don Gifford.