Study Guide

Ulysses Freedom and Confinement

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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.

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