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Literature / Ulysses

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The 1922 First Edition cover.

“It is the book to which all of us are indebted and none of us can escape.”

James Joyce’s book, his second novel, was first published in serialized form from 1918 to 1920, then collected in book form and republished in 1922. The actual story can be jotted on the back of a matchbox. Taking place on a single day—June 16th, 1904—in Dublin, Ulysses follows the daily routine of three people: young and jaded would-be artist Stephen Dedalus, passive outsider Leopold Bloom, and his sensual, unfaithful wife Molly. As Stephen and Leopold wander the streets of Dublin, Molly lies in bed all day and cheats on her husband. Eventually, Leopold saves Stephen from a beating at the hands of British soldiers and invites him home to recuperate. Stephen visits his home, but declines to stay the night and Leopold joins Molly in bed.

The End.

The treat of the novel is in its style and the rendering of the characters in remarkable detail, often using their direct Inner Monologue, or having their style of thought influence the third-person perspective. Their meals, visits to the bathroom, work, affairs, prejudices, fantasies, are all recorded. Nothing is spared. Every chapter mimics, parallels and/or parodies a section of Homer's Odyssey (for example, Ulysses' battle with the Cyclops becomes the Jewish Leopold debating religion and politics with a raving, bigoted nationalist with a glass eye). Every chapter is also a literary experiment, where Joyce breaks every rule of novel writing.

Joyce’s Ulysses arguably did for modernist fiction what T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” did for modernist poetry. Notably, the novel and the poem have quite a few thematic and stylistic parallels, with both featuring a pointedly unromantic protagonist, a lovingly rendered portrait of the modern city, a strong focus on the ongoing process of thought and imagination, and a freewheeling structure that can throw some readers for a loop. Uncertainty and self-doubt are also major themes in both works, and the protagonists of both works even mentally compare themselves to Prince Hamlet.

As of this writing, the novel has been adapted to film twice, with varying degrees of faithfulness. American filmmaker Joseph Strick directed the first adaptation in 1967. Irish filmmaker Sean Walsh also directed a loose adaptation called Bloom in 2003, just in time for the centennial of Bloomsday; boasting an all-Irish cast, the film featured Stephen Rea (of The Crying Game and V for Vendetta fame) as Leopold Bloom, and Hugh O'Connor (best known as young Christy Brown in My Left Foot) as Stephen Dedalus. Tropers of the '80s also might remember the BBC documentary series Ten Great Writers of the Modern World, which dramatized several key scenes from the novel for its episode on James Joyce.note  There was also a successful stage play called Ulysses in Nighttown based on the famously surreal fifteenth episode "Circe", which is actually written as a play in the book (complete with stage directions).

Not to be confused with The Odyssey.

The full novel is public domain, and can be found here.

Ulysses uses the following tropes:

  • Abusive Parents: Simon Dedalus: neglectful drunk (based on Joyce's own Dad).
  • Affectionate Nickname: Molly calls her husband "Poldy." "Molly" itself is a nickname, her real name being Marion.
  • Affectionate Parody: The Oxen of The Sun chapter, which spoofs the styles of Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe and Charles Dickens amongst others.
  • All Jews Are Cheapskates: Played straight in-universe, but subverted for the reader, with Bloom. Early in the book he makes a chance remark to an acquaintance, Flynn, who mistakenly interprets it as a racing tip. Flynn bets on the horse, which wins. Later, Bloom is in a pub and when he goes out for a moment, another character (who's heard from Flynn about Bloom's supposed racing tip) says that Bloom's won a pile of money at the races and must have gone to collect it. When Bloom returns and doesn't stand everyone a round of drinks, it's assumed that, being Jewish, he's being a cheapskate, causing mayhem to break out. In fact, Bloom is seen to be generous with money and completely oblivious of the whole business with the horse.
  • All-Loving Hero: Despite all that happens to him, Leopold Bloom never looses his deep compassion, his sense of "warm fullblooded life." It's clear from their first scene together that Bloom dearly loves Molly, knowing all to well of her indiscretions.
  • Animal Motifs: All over the place. Imagery involving horses, cattle, cats, and foxes (among other things) comes up frequently.
  • Anti-Hero: Leopold Bloom. While he is very pleasant, nothing about him is classically heroic. This was of course Joyce's intention: in the modern world, one has to be as smart and wily as Odysseus to make it through a single day with health and sanity intact.
  • Author Avatar: Stephen Dedalus. Joyce's first novel (which centered around Stephen) wasn't called A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for nothing, though Joyce is very critical of his avatar. Also worthy of note is the enigmatic man in the brown mackintosh.note 
  • Awful Wedded Life: Martin Cunningham is said to have this. Averted with Bloom and Molly. Although she's carrying on with Boylan, in her final monologue she decides that Bloom is the better man and that she's going to stick with him.
  • The Bard on Board: Scylla and Charybdis implies a connection between Bloom & Stephen and Hamlet & his father. Things get significantly more complex when Joyce compares Bloom to Shakespeare himself, and Molly to Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway. Then he compares Stephen to Shakespeare & Hamlet, Hamlet to Shakespeare & his dead son Hamnet (through Stephen's Shakespeare Theory) and Hamnet to Bloom's dead son Rudy.
  • Beige Prose: Dropped in, as if from nowhere, late in Ulysses, a conversation done in the style of a catechism (question-and-answer enquiry used in Church).
  • Big "YES!": The very last word, as Molly recalls when she accepted Leopold's proposal.
  • Bomb Throwing Anarchist: Averted. Leopold expresses anarchist views, but is unlike this trope being a mild mannered person. However, this trope may be connected to Leopold's fear of his views being discovered. If he were seen as this trope, he would be in peril.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Gerty McDowell's narration has a tendency to fall into this.
    Her figure was slight and graceful, inclining even to fragility but those iron jelloids she had been taking of late had done her a world of good much better than the Widow Welch's female pills and she was much better of those discharges she used to get and that tired feeling.
  • Breakfast in Bed: Leopold Bloom usually serves breakfast in bed to his wife Molly, although she turns down breakfast on the day that the story takes place. By the end of the book, Leopold requests Molly make breakfast in bed for him the following day.
  • Censorship by Spelling: Briefly used for a bit of facetious wordplay in "Nausicaa":
    Edy Boardman: I'd like to give him something, so I would! Where, I won’t say...
    Cissy Caffrey: (laughing) On the beeoteetom! note 
  • The City: Joyce claimed that if it was destroyed you could rebuild Dublin from the detail in Ulysses.
  • Fan Disservice: Federal Judge John M Woolsey, in a test case brought by Joyce's publisher in an attempt to get Ulysses imported legally into the USA, ruled that the book wasn't obscene because "whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac." Woolsey's ruling is contained in the introductory section of most editions of the book. While it is somewhat explicit, the very frank and unusual way sexuality is presented would bother most readers who read the entire book.
  • Foil: Bloom to Dedalus, in a nutshell. One is an unassuming, mild-mannered, middle-aged everyman in an unglamorous middle-class job, and one is an ambitious, introspective young artist who dreams of becoming one of Ireland's great writers. More subtly, Bloom is thematically associated with the human body, while Dedalus is thematically associated with the human mind.
  • Food Porn: Deconstructed in the Lestrygonians chapter, where Bloom is hungry and is constantly thinking about food, but can't bring himself to eat in Burton's because he's disgusted by the sight of all the other diners munching away. When Bloom finally gets something to eat, Joyce makes a cheese sandwich and a glass of wine seem like the most delicious lunch ever.
  • The Gadfly: Stephen is absolutely this in the library chapter. After outlining, at great length in the most elliptical possible way, his theory that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as a response to his wife's infidelity, he's asked straight out if he believes his own theory. He says "No."
  • Gender Bender: In one of Bloom's masochist fantasies, he is turned into a woman and raped by the Brothel Madam, who has turned into a male ringmaster.
  • Genre Roulette: the Circe chapter is written as a play, Ithaca like a catechism, Aeolus like a newspaper column, and the final chapter is a punctuation free list of the thoughts going through Molly's mind as she has tries to fall asleep next to her husband. There are too many examples to list here.
  • Gross-Out Show: the book doesn't need pictures to gross out its readers. Frequently.
    "—O, the night in the Camden hall when the daughters of Erin had to lift their skirts to step over you as you lay in your mulberrycoloured, multicoloured, multitudinous vomit!"
  • Guide Dang It!: A rare literary example. Spoilers and annotations are often necessary to get what the hell is going on, especially in the eye-watering "Oxen of the Sun".
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: Stephen puts himself through this, on account of his failed attempts to get his literary career started:
    Reading two pages apiece of seven books every night, eh? I was young. You bowed to yourself in the mirror, stepping forward to applause earnestly, striking face. Hurray for the Goddamned idiot! Hray! No-one saw: tell no-one. Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F? O yes, but I prefer Q. Yes, but W is wonderful. O yes, W. Remember your epiphanies written on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria?
  • Hyperlink Story: The famous "wandering rocks" section (Chapter 10 of Book 2) is a series of vignettes that briefly looks at various supporting and side characters (including some from Dubliners). The novel has a whole is very much about Leopold, Stephen and Molly but this section influenced and inspired attempts to do novel-length attempts at an ensemble cast, most notably John Dos Passos' USA Trilogy.
  • Hypocritical Humour: The Citizen's enraged response to Bloom's remark "Christ was a jew like me":
    Citizen: By Jesus, I'll crucify him so I will.
  • Innocent Bigot: Played with throughout the book, with almost all the male characters displaying various kinds of more or less kneejerk anti-Semitism in the presence of Bloom, who's Jewish and too polite to call them on it. The most notable aversion (and even then it's only partial) is with Martin Cunningham, who when the others are mocking a Jewish guy they've spotted in the street, at first joins in and then remembers who he's sharing a cab with:
    —We have all been there, Martin Cunningham said broadly.
    His eyes met Mr Bloom's eyes. He caressed his beard, adding:
    —Well, nearly all of us.
  • Irishman and a Jew: Played straight, and also subverted in the case of Bloom, who's both Irish and Jewish, although some of the less sympathetic characters regard him as the latter rather than the former.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: The Citizen is an anti-semitic bully, but he takes genuine pride in the skill of Irish craftspeople and the positive achievements of Irish history. If he weren't such a jerk, it'd be inspiring:
    Citizen: And our potteries and textiles, the finest in the whole world! And our wool that was sold in Rome in the time of Juvenal and our flax and our damask from the looms of Antrim and our Limerick lace, our tanneries and our white flint glass down there by Ballybough and our Huguenot poplin that we have since Jacquard de Lyon and our woven silk and our Foxford tweeds and ivory raised point from the Carmelite convent in New Ross, nothing like it in the whole wide world. Where are the Greek merchants that came through the pillars of Hercules, the Gibraltar now grabbed by the foe of mankind, with gold and Tyrian purple to sell in Wexford at the fair of Carmen? Read Tacitus and Ptolemy, even Giraldus Cambrensis. Wine, peltries, Connemara marble, silver from Tipperary, second to none, our farfamed horses even today, the Irish hobbies, with king Philip of Spain offering to pay customs duties for the right to fish in our waters.
    • Shortly afterwards, the Jerkass narrator of the same chapter notices a story in the paper about a lynching in Georgia (U.S.A.), which he responds to with disgust:
      Narrator: A lot of Deadwood Dicks in slouch hats and they firing at a Sambo strung up in a tree with his tongue out and a bonfire under him. Gob, they ought to drown him in the sea after and electrocute and crucify him to make sure of their job.
  • Jews Love to Argue: Almost entirely averted with Bloom, who hates confrontation; except just once, when he calls the Citizen on his anti-semitism.
  • Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: Debatable. The actual plot is fairly straightforward, but we get so much insight into the minds of the characters and the themes and allusions are just so dense that the reader can draw an almost infinite number of connections and interpretations from the novel.
  • Jock Dad, Nerd Son: Stephen Dedalus and his father Simon have this relationship, made more fraught by Simon's It's All About Me tendencies. Simon isn't a classic Jock in that although he was a sportsman as a young man he's also a very fine singer, but he's overfond of going on and on about his glorious youth and he's a terrible dad.note 
  • Kangaroo Court: Bloom fantasies being 'tried' by all the women he has ever lusted after.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: In the last Chapter, Molly thinks "O Jamesy let me up out of this pooh" and may be referring to James Joyce. Or something else. It's not really explained.
  • The Long List: Done several times for humorous effect. Memorable examples include the narrator's list of famous Irish heroes (who aren't Irish) in "Cyclops", and the long monologue about water in "Ithaca".
  • Mad Artist: Carl Jung read the book and concluded that Joyce was schizophrenic. Joyce retaliated by calling Jung an incompetent psychologistnote .
  • Male Gaze: The scene in the butcher shop in "Calypso", where Bloom is entranced by the hips of the woman in front of him in line, and even considers following her out of the store just so he can keep ogling her. It's made explicit in the movie adaptation Bloom, where the camera is blatantly riveted on her butt.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Stephen Dedalus is named for Daedalus, the legendary craftsman of Classical Mythology who built the labyrinth and sculpted Icarus' wax wings; he's creative by nature, and dreams of devoting himself to the craft of writing.
    • Leopold Bloom shares a first name with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the namesake of the term "masochism" (which is lampshaded when he's shown perusing his writings); he's timid and submissive by nature, and strongly hinted to have masochistic tendencies. "Bloom" also evokes a harmless flower in its prime, hinting at his Nice Guy tendencies.
  • Mind Screw: The Circe chapter where Bloom roams the red light district, hallucinating.
  • No Punctuation Period: The entire final chapter contains only three punctuation marks.
  • Nobody Poops: A famous aversion. Ulysses depicts every aspect of an average day in Dublin, including the main characters' trips to the bathroom. Bloom is described defecating in his outhouse at the end of "Calypso", he and Stephen both urinate in his yard in "Ithaca", and Molly is heavily implied to be urinating in her chamberpot at one point during her famous soliloquy. None of those sequences are actually relevant to the plot; they just add more detail to the characters' world.
  • Oireland: Every cliche is averted, except for the ones Joyce confirms.
  • Only Sane Man: Usually Bloom, but Martin Cunningham becomes this in the Cyclops episode where Bloom lets himself get into an increasingly vicious argument with the Citizen.
  • Outliving One's Offspring:
    • Leopold is still grieving for the death of his son Rudy, who died years ago. He and Molly have a daughter Milly who has left home to study photography leaving them alone and childless. His marriage to Molly became strained after the loss of their boy, they haven't had sex for ten years. In the Night-Town episode, he briefly hallucinates seeing Rudy.
    • In one episode, Stephen discusses William Shakespeare with his friends and expresses his belief that Hamlet was written by Shakespeare as an outlet of grief for the death of his only son, Hamnet Shakespeare.
  • Parental Substitute / Replacement Goldfish: Stephen Dedalus becomes this for Bloom, especially after he rescues him from some thugs.
  • Parody: The Oxen of the Sun episode is written as a series of parodies of different authors, beginning with ritual chanting and imitations of direct translation from the Latin via parodies of writers from Geoffrey Chaucer to Thomas Carlyle all the way down to early 20th century Bowery slang. In chronological order.
  • The Peeping Tom: One of Leopold's hallucinations in the Circe chapter involves him watching Molly and her boyfriend through a keyhole. It is not a real event, and in the hallucination the couple is willing. But, this qualifies as a zigzag of this trope because it implies Leopold does have a desire to be a peeping Tom.
  • Person with the Clothing: The man in the macintosh. We never learn his true name, although his clothing becomes his name when Joe Hynes, compiling a report on Dignam's funeral for the newspaper, asks Bloom if he knows who the "fellow was over there in the..." and Bloom completes his sentence with "Macintosh." Hynes writes down "M'Intosh" and later on, the newspaper report duly states that someone of that name was at Dignam's funeral.
  • Power Fantasy: Bloom has a very long one in Circe, which, like his other fantasies, eventually descends into a Nightmare Sequence.
  • Precision F-Strike: The thuggish British soldiers who attack a drunk Stephen. Incidentally, Ulysses is the first work of "serious" literature to use the F-wordnote .
  • Purple Prose: On purpose in the antepenultimate chapter. Justified because it's the early morning and the characters have been on their feet all day, so the prose style is correspondingly filled with tired cliches and rambling sentences.
  • Real-Place Background: Joyce claimed that if Dublin was destroyed you could rebuild it from the detail provided in this book. For his research, Joyce looked at phone directories, old maps and pestered his friends for information about Dublin for him to use in his books, making it a highly researched and detailed portrayal of the city.
  • The Reveal: In Nausicaa, when we find out Gerty is lame in one leg, to poignant effect (although it's also pretty funny, as Bloom has been leching on her for several pages and he now feels more than usually guilty about it.)
  • Riddle for the Ages:
    • The identity of the Man in the Macintosh.
    • Mr. Breen's postcard with the letters "U.P." written on it. Who sent it to him, what does "U.P." stand for, and why was he so angry about it?
  • Satiating Sandwich: Bloom's lunchtime Gorgonzola sandwich is this for him.
  • Shout-Out: To almost every major novelist and poet in the history of Western literature.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Private Carr, the soldier who punches Stephen.
    Private Carr: I'll wring the neck of any fucking bastard says a word against my bleeding fucking king.
  • The Snark Knight: Stephen lives this trope with a vengeance; he's so snarky that he can't even be bothered to snark out loud, preferring to do it in his Inner Monologue. As the book continues and his alcohol intake increases, he loosens up and starts speaking his mind, climaxing when his snarkery offends a drunk British soldier so much that the soldier knocks him down, thus attracting the attention of the local police - but then Bloom, who Stephen hardly knows, steps in and defuses the situation.
  • Small Reference Pools: Averted. In a big way. The scope and quantity of Joyce's references is so vast that there are guides available to help the reader decipher every last one. Sam Slote, Marc A. Mamigonian and John Turner's Annotations to James Joyce's Ulysses is the most complete, and at 1367 pages it's far longer than Ulysses itself. In particular, Ulysses's period detail (Joyce started writing it around 10 years after the novel is set) is extremely accurate and the novel contains thousands of references to popular culture at the time, as well as to practically the entire Western literary canon, The Bible, Irish, British and Biblical history and tradition, slang, technical terms, geography, art, music, philosophy, mythology, theology, physics, chemistry, biology, botany, rhetoric, politics, economics, philology, etymology and medicine. There are also tons of references to the characters' lives, thoughts and experiences, most of which are never explained.
  • The So-Called Coward: Bloom hates violence and confrontation, and spends most of the book deliberately not calling people out on various kinds of Jerkass behaviour. But then a guy he barely knows (Stephen) gets into an argument with two drunk and very aggressive British soldiers, and instead of running away Bloom steps up and tries to defuse the situation. When the soldier punches Stephen to the ground, Bloom gets thoroughly pissed off:
    Bloom: [angrily] You hit him without provocation. I'm a witness. Constable, take his regimental number.
  • Stylistic Suck: Nausicaa, narrated by a drippy teenage girl, acts as a Take That! to slushy romance novels. But there's a twist, in that Word of God says that it's Gertie's own narration; she would love for her life to be a romantic novel, but throughout her narration, reality keeps breaking in (as evidenced by her snarkish asides about her friends) and the occasional gritty detail about her own health problems. She is more in control of her own fantasies than she is usually given credit for.
    • Also Eumaeus, set in and around the cabman's shelter in the middle of the night; the style is deliberately sloppy and rambling because Stephen and Bloom are both exhausted after a long day.
  • Take That!: Privates Carr and Compton, the two drunken British soldiers who confront and assault Stephen Dedalus in the "Circe" episode, are named after two British consular officials in Zurich Joyce was having difficulties with.
  • Trademark Favourite Food: Bloom's is offal, or what's sometimes called in the US "variety meats", to the point where he's actually introduced in terms of what he likes to eat:
    Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart,
    liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
  • Twice-Told Tale: Of The Odyssey. Downplayed in that, as the literary critic Declan Kiberd has observed, Joyce hardly bothers to draw more than the vaguest parallels between Homer's poem and his own book. note 
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Leopold and Molly. For all that she experiments with infidelity, Molly seems in the end to be committed to Leopold.
  • Unfazed Everyman: Bloom.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: The basic assumption of the book.
  • Writer on Board: While Joyce does support Irish emancipation, he's rather more critical of bigoted nationalists such as the Patriot, although even he has his Jerkass Has a Point moments (see above). Bloom's humorous thoughts during his visit to the church can be seen as mocking Catholicism, but it's in good humour.
  • Written Sound Effect: According to Joyce, the sound a cat makes isn't "meow," it's "mrkgnao."

Ulysses in popular culture:

  • One of the leads of the film The Producers is named Leo Bloom.
  • Allan Sherman's comedy song "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" includes this line:
    The head coach wants no sissies
    So he reads to us from something called Ulysses
  • The first side of the Firesign Theatre album How Can You Be In Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All? ends with the character Ralph Spoilsport abruptly shifting into a rather peculiar Gender Flipped rendition of the end of "Molly Bloom's Soliloquy".
  • In "Reichenbrain Falls", one of the Pinky and the Brain segments of Animaniacs (2020), Julia explains the reason why she sometimes gets into fights on Goodreads.
    Julia: The only part of Ulysses worth reading is the last chapter, and everybody knows it!

WARNING: This book can drive you mad, and its follow up will.