Ulysses by James Joyce.

Ulysses is perhaps the most famous under-read novel ever written. It is of course by James Joyce, serialised between 1918 - 1920 in The Little Review and the published in its complete form in 1922. And it's set on 16th June 1904, 112 years ago today, making today Bloomsday - the day when James Joyce and Ulysses fans celebrate the novel with readings, dramatisations, pub crawls, and even dressing up in Edwardian costume. I thought, then, it would be good to read it (I had a sudden urge in May) and say a few words today.

I'll start not with a plot summary but my general feelings. I have a long history with Ulysses - I first read it in 2006, again in 2012, and now 2016 (it took from 22nd May to 9th June). Between 2006 and 2016 I've tried unsuccessfully on several occasions to re-read it; I've always wanted to understand and appreciate Ulysses but have never managed it, but last month I decided to give up trying to understand it: I am not a James Joyce scholar and I haven't studied English Literature - why would I suddenly master a modernist classic after a few reads, after all? So I decided to accept my limitations and try quite simply to enjoy it, and that, I am happy to say, I managed. That's not to say it wasn't hard - much of it is very readable, but much of it isn't - the latter, of course, was lost on me, and I can't even say the 'readable' parts came easily, but this is not to say it wasn't a great reading experience. Perhaps having a little Virginia Woolf under my belt made it easier - I'm getting used to stream-of-conscious writing and going with the flow; this is what I did for Ulysses, just went with it, enjoyed it, and accepted that I will not be writing a thesis on James Joyce in my lifetime!

Bloomsday celebrations via Emma Walsh - A Beginner's Guide to Bloomsday.
It begins with one of my favourite opening sentences:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of later on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.
In this first episode, Telemachus (this name came from Homer's The Odyssey: Telemachus is Odysseus' son), we meet Buck Mulligan, a cheery and almost hedonistic medical student, and then his opposite Stephen Dedalus (Daedalus was the father of Icarus - Ovid, among others, tells that story in Book VIII of Metamorphoses; his first name Stephen is a reference to Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr) who we have previously met in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and its prototype Stephen Hero (written in 1904 - 1906, published in 1944). Stephen is Joyce's alter-ego; a teacher, rather serious, and has recently lost his mother (as Buck tells us, he refused to pray at her deathbed and is now haunted by her like a kind of Hamlet).

In terms of ease-of-reading, this first episode is very straightforward and very enjoyable too. Of all the people who have attempted to read Ulysses I'll wager every one of them finished this chapter! From here there are 18 other episodes, which I'll list and try to say a few words:

Part I: The Telemachiad - the title suggests 'the story of Telemachus'.
Episode 1: Telemachus - As described above. Time: 8 am.
Episode 2: Nestor (10 am) - This title recalls Nestor the Argonaut, associated with age and wisdom. In this episode we Stephen teaching history (Pyrrhus of Epirus), then visiting the headmaster and discussing Irish history and the economy with references to Jews. A great quote from this episode from Stephen - "history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake".
Episode 3: Proteus (11 am) - Proteus refers to he who Homer called 'The Old Man of the Sea'. Stephen walks to Sandymount Strand and ponders some of life's greaqter questions whilst also picking his nose and urinating behind a rock. For me, this marks the episode when Ulysses begins to get rather difficult.
Part II: The Odyssey - referring to Homer's Odyssey; the journey of Odysseus, now also meaning simply 'a journey of sorts'.
Episode 4: Calypso (8 am) - Calypso is the daughter of Atlas; she offered Odysseus immortality, which he refused, and she kept him prisoner for seven years. In this episode we meet Leopold Bloom, the novel's protagonist, and his wife Molly. He makes her breakfast, reads a letter from their daughter, and is tormented by the thoughts of Molly having an affair with Blazes Boylan.
Episode 5: Lotus Eaters (10 am) - The Lotus Eaters are a people who live in an island with Lotus plants; eating them brings the people a sense of general well-being and apathy (the plants are a narcotic). In this Bloom walks to the post office to get a letter from a woman with whom he is having an affair, buys soap for Molly, meets a few acquaintances, ogles at women, and ponders the Catholic faith.
Episode 6: Hades (11 am) - Hades refers to the Underworld. Bloom, Stephen's father, and a few others attend Paddy Dignam's funeral and so reflect on death.
Episode 7: Aeolus (12 pm) - Aeolus is the ruler of the winds. The episode takes place at a newspaper office (Freeman's Journal). Bloom leaves then Stephen arrives, and he and the editor go on to a pub. The concept of rhetoric is the theme of this episode.
Episode 8: Lestrygonians (1 pm) - Laestrygonians refers to giant cannibals. In this we see a very hungry Leopold Bloom (the chapter is full of references to food). He eats a gorgonzola sandwich and ponders on the state of his marriage.
Episode 9: Scylla and Charybdis (2 pm) - Scylla and Charybdis refer to sea monsters, a rock and a whirlpool (see The Odyssey and Book VIII of Metamorphoses). Stephen goes to the library and discusses his theories on Shakespeare's Hamlet. Bloom also go to the library and the two cross paths.
Episode 10: Wandering Rocks (3 pm) - The Wandering Rocks (Planctae) are barely navigable rocks: only Jason managed to pass through them (see The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes). Here we see various characters on the street and an account of the cavalcade of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, William Ward, Earl of Dudley.
Episode 11: Sirens (4 pm) - The Sirens were beautiful sea creatures who would lure men to their deaths with their songs). Bloom has dinner with Stephen's uncle and ogles at the barmaids whilst Molly meets with Boylan.
Episode 12: Cyclops (5 pm) - Cyclops is a giant with a single eye. In this episode Judaism is discussed by Bloom and an unnamed narrator.
Episode 13: Nausicaa (8 pm) - Nausicaa is the daughter of King Alcinous, her name in Greek (Ναυσικάα) means 'burner of ships'. We meet Gerty MacDowell who contemplates love and marriage and what it is to be a woman. She is watched by Bloom and it is uncertain if her thoughts and actions are in fact Bloom's masturbatory fantasies.
Episode 14: Oxen of the Sun (10 pm) - The Oxen of the Sun, or the Cattle of Helios, appear in the Odyssey. Harming one of the creatures will bring about Helios' wrath. In this episode the characters celebrate the birth of Mina Purefoy's child. Language is the theme of this episode, beginning with a kind of Latin ("Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus.") and changing and parodying language from early Anglo-Saxon through to Elizabethan, 18th Century (Sterne, for example) then Dickens and other 19th Century writers and ending with a strange slang - "Come on, you winefizzling gin sizzling booseguzzling existences!"
Episode 15: Circe (12 am) - Circe is the sorceress of Ulysses and this episode is by far the hardest thing I have ever read. It's in the format of a play and is set in a brothel, and it includes hallucinations and dream-visions. I cannot stress enough how painfully difficult these 100 odd pages are.
Part III: The Nostos - Nostos alludes to the idea of a hero returning home by sea.
Episode 16: Eumaeus (1 am) - Eumaeus was Odysseus's friend. In this Bloom attempts to sober Stephen up and they converse with a sailor (also drunk). It's a very confused chapter, reflecting the nervous exhaustion of all characters following the 'Circe' episode.
Episode 17: Ithaca (2 am) - Ithica is the home of Odysseus, and in this episode Bloom and Stephen return home, talk about their differences (culturally, largely) and then part ways. Bloom goes to bed where he awakens Molly who questions him about his day. The tone of this episode is scientific and mathematical.
Episode 18: Penelope (after 2 am)- Penelope is the wife of Odysseus, and this episode is a long monologue by Molly Bloom. In these 60 or so pages there are only three sentences, no punctuation (the sentence ends are marked by a new paragraph), and Molly, in a meandering stream-of-conscious, reflects on past lovers and Bloom's proposal. It's a very difficult episode indeed but is my favourite, and it ends with the famous "...yes I said I yes I will Yes". This episode, incidentally, was the inspiration for Kate Bush's 'The Sensual World'.

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce.
That, then, is a very bare basic not-quite-skeleton of Ulysses. It does achieves what the modernists wished to achieve - to capture life, the physical and the psychological, from walking in the street, meeting, talking, through to urinating, masturbating, sex, and even (in one memorable episode) Bloom on the toilet: every day life, all summed up in a day's action - 16th June 1904. It is no surprise, that Ulysses has been banned - there was a struggle to get it published in the first place (Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Comany, Paris, was the one who dared do it in the first place; Virginia Woolf and the Hogarth Press refused claiming it was too long, but in reality she and Leonard feared prosecution). By this point The Little Review had already been prosecuted for the Nausicaa episode in 1920; it was declared 'obscene' and banned in the USA, burned on various occasions by the US Post Office, and not legalised until 1933 following a trial (United States v. One Book Called Ulysses). Aside from the aforementioned descriptions of urinating and defecating Joyce also works in some swear words through wordplay (as well as explicitly in other chapters), for example the famous -
If you see kay
Tell him he may
See you in tea
Tell him from me.
"If you see kay" - F. U. C. K." and "See you in tea" - C. U. N. T. Rather like Britney Spear's If You Seek Amy in fact! Shakespeare did something similar in Twelfth Night (1601 - 1602) too (though less subtlety) -
By my life, this is my lady’s hand these be her very C's, her U's and her T's and thus makes she her great P’s. It is, in contempt of question, her hand.
And of course in Hamlet (1603) - "Do you think I meant country matters?"

And so Ulysses wasn't published in Britain until 1936 (it was never banned in Ireland, though) and, as I say, in 1933 for the US. Happily, though, we can read it now. But what makes Ulysses such a daunting read it that despite how difficult it is, it is possible. Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939) is a remarkably freeing read in that one simply has to get through it to receive great praise, no one expects anyone to understand it. I read it (Finnegans Wake I mean) and felt no pressure to say anything even vaguely intelligent on the matter (I even plan to re-read it at some point). But with Ulysses there isn't quite that excuse and it is that that makes it scary. There are characters to enchange with, episodes to decipher, and the code of the references to Ancient Greek literature. However: if, like me, you are 'the common reader' I say just read it, and I think people get more than they think out of it. It does help, I would suggest, to have read The Odyssey first or even Metamorphoses just for an introduction into Greek literature. Also, perhaps a little practice on other modernist writers or at least a general grip of what the modernists hoped to achieve (I'd suggest Virginia Woolf's essays 'The Russian Point of View' and 'Modern Fiction' for that). Letting go of the pressure to understand it, and not feeling bad about struggling, skimming, or glossing over the desperately hard bits ('Circe' for example) is the key for me. It takes people years to really understand it by studying it - one's first read of Ulysses will not bring that deeper understanding. But that does not make it any the less enjoyable, and in fact I've actually come to love it.

Further Reading 


  1. i've wondered from time to time whether Joyce planned the book out before he wrote it, or just dived right in and started scribbling; i feel a bit guilty reading your post and experiencing it second hand as it were. i really ought to get the book and read it myself. meanwhile...

    1. There's a thought - don't know either if it's planned or unplanned, and if I did know (I'm wondering if it was in the Joyce biography I read) I've forgotten. Either way, I hope you get to it one day if you do want to read it - it is worth the struggle :)

  2. I didn't like Joyce (or maybe appreciate is the better word) when I had to read The Dubliners in high school. And I don't think I'm ever going to read this novel. But I like your review of it. :)

    1. I read on someone else's blog The Dubliners had put them off Joyce for life as well! I have read it but a very long time ago and I can't honestly remember it too well. I want to revisit it, but it's with great trepidation :)

    2. I hope it's better than I remember. I think I was just too young for it in high school. (Plus, I didn't like my teacher, who raved about Joyce, so that probably colored my view of it, too.)

    3. Well, I'll give it another go and see. I quite like Joyce now so I'm hopeful :)

  3. Ulysses thrice? I salute you. I know I have to give this a reread someday (not looking forward to it), but I am fairly certain I will not give it a re-reread. Bit of advice to anyone aspiring to Ulysses. I highly recommend reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man first. I think I would have appreciated Ulysses a bit more...understanding a bit more about Joyce.

    1. I agree - that's what's changed for me and Ulysses, knowing a bit more about Joyce and appreciating The Odyssey too. I think it would be quite a rare thing to read Ulysses for the first time and love it instantly - it's the kind of book (I think at least) that grows on someone :)


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