Study Guide

Ulysses Memory and the Past

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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.

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