So, death: that's the big question, isn't it? And, predictably, "Hades" is more focused on death than any other episode in Ulysses. That being the case, you might expect it to be a pretty gloomy episode, but we think that you'll also find it very funny. The episode is alternately tragic and comic, and you might find that certain unexpected shifts to seriousness can make for truly poignant moments.
As in the previous two episodes, we are focused in on the mind of Mr. Leopold Bloom. He is attending the funeral of his friend, Paddy Dignam, but he can't help but let his mind wander all over the place. In an effort to keep himself entertained, he becomes obsessed with all sorts of morbid details like whether or not Dignam would bleed if his body snagged a nail in the coffin or why they don't bury people vertically instead of horizontally so as to take up less space. When everyone is respectfully following the coffin into the chapel, Bloom is busy trying to guess which end is the head.
Now, keep in mind that Bloom is not emotionally detached per se (he's nothing like the indifferent Meursault in The Stranger, by Camus). It's just that Bloom is human and, like most of us, he has a short attention span. But sometimes Bloom's mental jaunts bring on real insights. He begins by thinking about how boring it must be for Father Coffey to have to say the same prayers over coffins several times a day, and he goes on to think about how non-unique we are in death. Because Bloom happens across these insights naturally instead of being melodramatic about the funeral (in the manner of Simon Dedalus who begins crying openly when they pass by his wife's grave), most readers are very sympathetic toward him.
You'll also notice that in the carriage ride to Prospect Cemetery, we get our first extended glimpse of Bloom "with the guys." Bloom rides over with Marty Cunningham, Jack Power, and Simon Dedalus, and we quickly get a sense of how he is on the fringe of their social group. One of the most noticeable moments comes when they see a Jewish moneylender out on the street and Dedalus yells at him. They all laugh and give a bit of voice to their anti-Semitism without regard for the fact that Bloom, their carriage-mate, is also Jewish. When Bloom tries to change the subject by telling a story, Marty Cunningham cuts him off and finishes the story for him. Later, he is particularly ostracized when Jack Power and Simon Dedalus begin talking about what a disgraceful act suicide is. Cunningham later points out to Power that he can't say such things in front of Bloom because Bloom's father committed suicide. But the fact that they have to consult about this later only underlines Bloom's estrangement from the group. The chapter also ends with an outright snub from John Henry Menton, who still holds a grudge against Bloom for some trivial fight they got into over a game of bowls. Bloom points out that he has a dent in his hat, and Menton barely even acknowledges him.
Menton corresponds to Ajax, who, in Book 11 of the Odyssey, snubs Odysseus in the underworld. The origin of their fight was that Odysseus was awarded Achilles's armor as the new champion of the Greeks, and Ajax went mad and killed himself (that's why he's in the underworld). The chapter is chock-full of correlations to Book 11 as well as to the point in Virgil's Aenied when Aeneas descends into the underworld. For example, John O'Connell, the caretaker corresponds to Hades, lord of the underworld, and Daniel O'Connell, whom they all lionize, corresponds to Hercules.
Chasing down all of these correlations (with the help of Gifford's annotations) can be fun, but for a new reader just trying to get a handle on the book, these details can also be irritating. "What's the point of all the correlations?" You might ask. To put it simply, in classical Greek and Roman literature, the descent into the underworld is always a heroic exploit. Making a brush with the dead is something that demands not only physical prowess but also mental stability. As part of the overall project of making the everyday heroic that runs through the book, we see here how many of us make brushes with death on days that are otherwise quite normal. Before Joyce, no one would have classed this as "heroic," but the fact that Bloom navigates the funeral, acts properly and respectfully, and, most of all, does not despair is something that might be seen as heroic in the episode.
This brings us to our last point, which is just how tempting it is for Bloom to end his whole day right here: go home, turn out all the lights, and sit cross-legged in his room eating Häagen-Dazs and listening to Joni Mitchell records on repeat. So far, he has learned that his wife is going to sleep with Boylan later the same day, he's been treated poorly by men that make a show of being his friends, and he has been reminded of the suicide of his father and the death of his son.
If Ulysses were a children's book, it might be called "Leopold Bloom's Terrible Horrible No Good Really Bad Day." Under these circumstances, the fact that Bloom makes it through the day is something to be admired. While Simon Dedalus breaks down weeping when he passes his wife's grave, Bloom manages to hide his own grief over the suicide of his father while Dedalus and Power talk about what a disgrace suicide is. When the men greet Boylan cheerfully in the street, Bloom does not make a scene, but instead examines his fingernails very carefully. As a reader, we might just be praying: Hold it together Bloom, Hold it together…