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Ulysses Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

How To Deal With Potential Symbols in Ulysses

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.

The Odyssey

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.

Omphalos & Pregnancy

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.

Darkness and Lightness

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.

Gold Cup

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.

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