Study Guide

Ulysses Themes

By James Joyce

  • Love

    Want a simple take-home theme from Ulysses? Love matters. Yet throughout the book, characters struggle with problems related to love. At the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus's mother prays that he will learn that word known to all men (i.e., love). In Ulysses, brilliant as the young artist is, he still finds himself incapable of loving, perhaps held back by the need to understand love in an intellectual sense. Leopold Bloom knows the importance of love, but over the course of the book we find just what a risk there is of love falling into sentimentality or easy infatuation: how do you preach love without sounding like naïve? And the other big question the book poses is: how does love relate to sexuality (we'll get into this more in the sexuality section)?

    Questions About Love

    1. How do Stephen's attempts to understand or justify the idea of love prevent him from ever being able to feel love?
    2. Does Bloom's message of universal love come across as serious or sentimental? Is it possible to preach love without being sentimental? Does it depend on your audience?
    3. Look again at the thoughts of Gerty MacDowell and Molly Bloom. Is there a fundamental difference between the way women think of love in this novel and the way that men do? Is there a difference between Gerty's and Molly's views on love?
    4. What is the relationship between love and sex that comes out of this novel? What about the relationship between love and passion?

    Chew on This

    The female characters in Ulysses tend to think of love on a personal level, as something one feels, whereas the men in the novel think of love as an idea to be either supported or refuted.

    As Bloom attempts to come to terms with his wife's affair, the novel begins to present mature love not just as a form of activity, but also a form of passivity.

  • Patriotism

    When we think of patriotism, we usually have positive connotations; it's good to be proud of your country. In 1904 Ireland, however, resentment of English oppression could sometimes lead to patriotism that was so strong it became like a form of primitive tribalism. The result is that people worshipped everything that was Irish and had little interest in the rest of the world, leading to a very narrow-minded and insular way of thinking. Joyce, remarkable scholar that he was, could not condone such short-sightedness. He loved his country, but throughout Ulysses he demonstrates the traps of nationalist thinking, and his characters do their best to steer their way through them.

    Questions About Patriotism

    1. Considering "Cyclops" and "Eumaeus," the image we get of Irish nationalism is often of a very narrow-minded way of thinking. What would an open-minded nationalism look like?
    2. Compare and contrast some of the different definitions of "nation" that the novel presents. Does Ulysses present one coherent idea of what a nation is? If not, try to elaborate on some of the contradictions.
    3. Think of the recurrence of Robert Emmet's speech in the novel. In what ways has patriotism run its course in Ulysses? How has it lost its power from overuse?
    4. Is patriotism a fundamentally selfless or a fundamentally selfish feeling? Is it both? How so?

    Chew on This

    Bloom's moderate view of nationalism is a result of the fact that he comes from two different cultures. The fact that he is both Irish and Jewish allows him to both exist inside a culture and to see it from the outside of it; this makes him think of nationalism as an idea rather than just as a feeling.

    The communal nature of nationalism makes it unappealing to the individual-minded Stephen, but Stephen invents his own form of nationalism, one where one strives for self-perfection and allows the nation to benefit as a side effect.

  • Sex

    You've probably heard that the plot of Ulysses hinges around the fact that Leopold Bloom's wife is having an affair, and on this particular day, June 16th, Bloom knows that she's going to sleep with Blazes Boylan. Sexuality, particularly in its relation to love, is an enormous problem that the text confronts. The question is: if you love someone, why is sex so important? The answer: sex is important, but it's not clear why. Over the course of the book, we learn more about the character's sexual desires, hang-ups, and neuroses than we could ever possibly want to know. At the same time that sex is revealed as a problem, part of the message of the book is that sex is something that's natural. It is not evil and it need not be hidden. According to Ulysses, though it complicates our lives, sex is something to be celebrated rather than something of which we should be ashamed.

    Questions About Sex

    1. What is the relationship between sex and love in the novel? Is sex a necessary part of a loving relationship or not? Must sexual desire and love always move along the same lines?
    2. What are the factors that lead to Bloom's feelings of impotence and sexual inadequacy? Why is it that he's incapable of having sex with his wife, but carries on an illicit correspondence on the side?
    3. Does Molly come across negatively as a result of her affair with Boylan? Is there anything wrong about her sexual desires or how she goes about satisfying them? If so, what is wrong and why?
    4. What is Stephen Dedalus's relationship to sexuality? Is he a asexual creature or do his desires just come out in bizarre ways? Where in Stephen's behavior do you see sexual desire?

    Chew on This

    The fact that Bloom's sexual desires are always mediated in some way – whether through language or fantasy – shows that he has not yet come to terms with whether or not he and Molly are somehow responsible for the death of their son Rudy.

    Molly Bloom has successfully separated love and sexual desire in her mind. Her feelings of love and genuine affection are safely reserved for her husband Leopold, and she is simply using Boylan to satisfy her sexual cravings.

  • Memory and the Past

    Ulysses takes place in the course of one day, from 8am on June 16th to sometime after 4 A.M. on June 17th. People often joke about the fact that nothing happens in Ulysses. We readily admit that if all the book did was narrate the actions of the characters, it'd be pretty boring and you'd probably never had heard of it. But Ulysses does more. Much more. With the intimate view that we get of each character's inner life, we are exposed to the vast expanse of their memories. Events in the present inevitably make them think of the past. The book poses a lot of big questions about the relation of past to present, particularly in terms of happiness: is remembered happiness somehow inferior to happiness experienced first-hand?

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What triggers memories in the novel, Ulysses? Is it certain visual sensations, the words of others, one's own thoughts? What does this say about the relationship between memory and the present?
    2. In relation to Leopold and Molly's marriage, much of their happiness together is remembered rather than experienced in the present. Does this make it less valuable? Is memory itself a sort of present experience?
    3. In particular relation to the death of Stephen's mother, to what extent are the characters in the novel in possession of their memories and to what extent are they possessed by them?
    4. Stephen is extremely erudite, and Bloom is fairly well educated. Is there a broader sort of memory at work in the novel – not just memories based on one's individual experiences, but also cultural memory? What role does language play in the transmission of cultural memories?

    Chew on This

    In Joyce's novel, painful memories, such as Stephen's memory of the death of his mother, tend to be involuntary – they take possession of the characters without their control. Pleasant memories, on the other hand, seem to be voluntary – they are actively conjured up by the characters to make themselves feel better.

    Molly's memory of Bloom's proposal at the end of the novel is a re-affirmation of their marriage, and in this case the act of remembering is an act of making past feelings and convictions present.

  • Time

    As you may have heard, all the action of Ulysses takes place over the course of a day. Joyce kept a detailed schema that had each episode in the book beginning at a particular hour. When the bells of different churches sound in Dublin, they fit in almost perfectly with his plan. Yet time isn't just measured by the clock in Ulysses. Because we get a window into the character's minds, we also have to think about how time works in thought versus how it works in the external world. In one episode, for example, a character's dreams go on and on for what would seem like hours, and yet we find that all the external action is taking place in just a few minutes. One of the many questions posed by the book is: to what extent do we live our lives in time?

    Questions About Time

    1. What is the distinction between time and eternity that is drawn in the novel? When Stephen contemplates both of them, what does it mean for him to think in terms of time? What about eternity?
    2. How does age correspond to our sense of the past and the future? How does the way that Bloom experiences the past and the future differ from the way that Stephen experiences them?
    3. Does having or not having children reflect the way that Leopold and Molly Bloom experience time? Namely, does the loss of Rudy give Bloom a more or less acute sense of time? Does the growth of Milly heighten or lower Molly's sense of time?
    4. Is time presented as being objective or subjective in the novel? How can we distinguish between the character's experience of time and time itself? To what extent is time left a mystery?

    Chew on This

    Stephen spends so much time contemplating the past because, young as he is, the future seems almost boundless. Bloom, on the other hand, mainly studies what he thinks will be useful to him because his sense of the future is limited.

    Time measured by the clock and the subjective experience of time compete in the novel for the most accurate depiction of how time works. In Molly's timeless final monologue, the clock is revealed to be of only secondary importance in terms of how people think of time.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    This is kind of a catch-all category for a theme, but there are a lot of big head-scratching nail-biting philosophical questions posed in Ulysses. Joyce is an author whose main concern is with how it feels to exist as a human being, with what it means to be alive. The characters in the book, Stephen Dedalus in particular, don't just struggle with personal problems, they are tormented by philosophical questions about the nature of truth. Yet the remarkable thing about Ulysses (and one of the things that makes it so hard) is that Joyce refuses to separate the abstract questions of philosophy from daily life. To an extent, there are parts of the book where the characters get more lost in thought than others, but in general they are both thinking and living at the same time. At no point do we get lost in universal questions about human nature without also getting drenched in the particular details of what it means to be, say, Leopold Bloom. In one moment, Bloom can simultaneously be speculating on how something came from nothing and also thinking that he has to pee badly.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. In what ways can the character's views on life constantly be traced back to their own personal experiences, neuroses, and convictions? Does this undermine their views or affirm them?
    2. Is there one coherent philosophy of life expressed in Ulysses? If not, then is there maybe one coherent philosophy of how one goes about making a philosophy of life?
    3. What role does language play in how the characters view their existence?
    4. Does language play a larger role in mediating experience for Stephen, who is extremely erudite, than it does for Bloom?
    5. Based on the relationships between the three main characters – Leopold, Stephen, and Molly – are human beings portrayed as lonely and isolated or as inevitably connected to one another? Do the character's thoughts on life seem to alienate them from others or to bring them closer together?

    Chew on This

    The fact that the character's innermost thoughts are still expressed in language – however fragmented – suggests that one's relation to the world and to other people in the world is always mediated by the words that one uses.

    There is no such thing as an impersonal theory in the novel, but especially in Stephen's case, subjectivity lends credence to his theories rather than undermining them. Complete objectivity is revealed as an impossible dream.

  • Religion

    If you've read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, you'll probably remember that Stephen Dedalus grew up in an extremely religious family and that early on he even considered becoming a priest. By the end of that novel, he's broken his ties with the church, and has decided to replace the priestly vocation with the artistic vocation. So in a sense Stephen, one of the main characters of Ulysses, is not religious. But the truth is that he's actually more tormented by religious questions than most of the Dubliners that line up for Church every Sunday. The problem of religion was even more complex in 1904 Dublin because different religions sometimes broke down along political lines: most of the Irish nationalists were Catholics, and most of those who favored union with England were Protestants. Religion, like patriotism, is both an obsession and a danger in the novel; it has enormous value, but how does one escape its narrow-mindedness?

    Questions About Religion

    1. Though devout religious belief is something that is a mere memory to Stephen, how does strict belief shape his current views against orthodox religion?
    2. Why does Stephen's frustration with religious belief isolate him from other people? What beliefs might he add that would make his religious experience a more communal one?
    3. Why might Bloom be compared to the prophet Elijah in the novel? In what ways is Bloom prophetic?
    4. Does Bloom's scientism leave any room for religious belief? What is the difference between Bloom and Stephen that allows Bloom to be an unbothered atheist whereas Stephen is a tortured lapsed Catholic?

    Chew on This

    By parodying religious styles in the novel, Joyce reveals that what is often thought of as religious feeling is as much a result of the language in which religious ideas are expressed as it is of the ideas themselves.

    Stephen has abandoned the Catholic Church in favor of a personal almost mystical belief in God as present in everything around us. It would seem that the belief might bind him closer to the people around him, but it isolates him because Stephen's religious beliefs are entwined with his guilt over the death of his mother – something with which he has not personally come to terms.

  • Prejudice

    Leopold Bloom, the main character in Ulysses, is an Irishman. But in 1904 Dublin there are a lot of people that would not have thought so. The reason is that Bloom is also a Jew, and Jews were looked on as being somehow different – a separate (and inferior) race. The fact that Joyce makes the hero of his great Irish novel a Jew is a case of him stirring up a fuss. There's no doubt that he enjoyed driving Irishmen mad, but he's also challenging the prejudices of the time. Anti-Semitism was common throughout Europe, and Ireland was no exception. Throughout the novel, other characters speak disparagingly of Jews and Bloom does his best to stand up for them. It seems that Joyce already had a scent of the horrible prejudice that would become infamous world-round in World War II, with one of the most awful human rights disasters in the history of humanity.

    Questions About Prejudice

    1. Both Haines and Deasy seem to have a view of history that suggests it is beyond the control of any one individual. Who is responsible for the injustices of history if it is outside of human control?
    2. How does your view of prejudice change when you see the roots of the characters' prejudices? Why is prejudice such an easy trap to fall into when one is actually motivated by a number of complex personal feelings? How can one denounce someone's prejudice while simultaneously empathizing with that person's perspective?
    3. What are some of the different ways that Leopold Bloom opposes prejudice in the novel – both explicit and implicit? What are the pros and cons of the different approaches to fighting prejudice? Is one more effective than the other?
    4. Is there any character in the novel that seems to be above prejudice? If so, who? How do they stay above it? If not, how are some of the least prejudicial characters still hemmed in by it?

    Chew on This

    In the novel, many characters think of themselves as objects of history – history happens to them and they cannot control it. Throughout Ulysses, this view leads to prejudice and narrow-mindedness. It is only when Stephen imagines himself as an agent of history that prejudice begins to subside.

    In "Cyclops," Bloom's impossible position comes to light, and the two-heads of the prejudicial chimera can clearly be seen. First, if Bloom lets the men's prejudice pass uncommented, they will think him a coward and it will confirm their biases. Second, if Bloom actively opposes their prejudice, then they will become defensive and feel that his opposition merely confirms their preconceptions.

  • Mortality

    Ulysses is full of that most common thing – death. Stephen Dedalus's mother has died between the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the opening of Ulysses, and he is tormented by feelings of remorse and guilt because he refused to pray over her before she passed. Leopold Bloom is a man who is in a sense living between two deaths – his father has committed suicide, and his son Rudy died over ten years ago, at the age of just eleven days. Thus the characters in the book are intimately aware of what a fleeting thing life is, and we are exposed to a great deal of their thoughts surrounding human mortality. At the same time, this isn't all super heavy-handed and serious. In "Hades," for example, you'll find that some of Bloom's thoughts on death are actually hilarious. Example: why don't they bury people long ways up instead of horizontal, so as to save space?

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Life is often viewed as being transient in Ulysses. How does life's very transience give way to a different concept of mortality, one not tied into any one individual's life span?
    2. Though they have all died before the start of the novel, May Dedalus, Rudolph Virag, and Rudy all seem to be characters in Ulysses. In what ways is the line between life and death blurred in the novel? In what ways is it maintained?
    3. Particularly in "Hades," death is treated humorously in the novel. Is it possible to think of one's mortality as a comic matter? Do the characters seem to have mastered this capacity, or do their attempts to crack jokes about death simply indicate that they are frightened of it and trying to hide it?
    4. The deaths of Rudolph Virag (Bloom's father) and Rudy (Bloom's son) have left Bloom the only remaining male progenitor in his line. Does this fact seem to heighten Bloom's sense of his own mortality? When he reflects on their deaths, is he also thinking about his own?

    Chew on This

    Stephen's vanity blinds him from any real sense of his own death. All he can imagine is the completion of his great artistic project, and young as he is, everything else seems tangential to it, including his own life.

    In contrast to Bloom, who realizes that he is the last of his family line, most men in the novel never have to come to terms with what it means to be mortal. The other characters that speak of death seem to harbor the belief that by reproducing, they are guaranteed a form of immortality.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    In 1904, Dublin could be a confining place to be. No one feels this more than Stephen Dedalus (though many felt it as much). Between English oppression and the enormous influence of the Roman Catholic Church, it was quite hard for one to feel any true sense of independence or self-empowerment. As in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen strives for personal freedom, but in Ulysses, we begin to see a more mature search. Stephen begins to learn that complete freedom can itself be confining, and at the start of this novel he feels cut off from the world around him, isolated and trapped in his own head. At times, it is unclear if Stephen has become free or simply been abandoned. He does not give up the search, but the question does present itself: if freedom itself can be confining, than what exactly does it mean to be free?

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Though Stephen has renounced both, how is his desire to be a free thinker still belied by the English and the Roman Catholic Church?
    2. What is the difference between Stephen's free thought and Mulligan's? What are the burdens of a truly free thinker?
    3. Stephen famously refers to history as a nightmare. In what ways is history dream-like? Is it possible to be free from history or are we always to be constrained by it?
    4. How are laughter and the ability to laugh at oneself liberating forces in Ulysses? How can seriousness come to feel like bondage?

    Chew on This

    Stephen's guilt over the death of his mother has made him realize that if one cares about and feels obligations to other people, then regardless of what one says, they can never be completely free.

    Laughter possesses salvatory power in the book. It is the only tool the characters have to undermine their own vanity, which, particularly in the case of Stephen, is the most confining thing of all.