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What is Ulysses about? Is it worth reading?


One of the most radical innovations of Ulysses (1922) is that in conventional narrative terms very little happens. Over a single summer's day (June 16, 1904) we share the lives of three Dubliners: Stephen Dedalus  (a recently bereaved young graduate), Leopold Bloom (a middle-aged sales representative of Jewish origin) and Molly Bloom (unfaithful wife of Leopold and occasional singer). 

All the action takes place in and around Dublin.

How does it start?
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:- Introibo ad altare Dei.
Listen a  short reading from the BBC Radio 4 version hereListen 
Martello Tower, Dublin where Joyce lived briefly
It is early in the morning. Twenty-two year-old Stephen Dedalus awakes in the Martello Tower, where he is temporarily living with a medical student, Buck Mulligan. An Englishman, Haynes, is also staying with Mulligan. 

Like Homer's Telemachus, Stephen is edgy and anxious. He suspects he is being ‘usurped‘ by treacherous friends, especially after overhearing Mulligan's unkind remark about his mother being ‘beastly dead’. Tellingly, Stephen is less concerned about his mother's memory than the 'insult to me'. 


Isn't Stephen in another Joyce novel?

Stephen Dedalus is the hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The end of that novel left Stephen ready to 'flee' his native city and the 'nets' of politics and religion. 

Ulysses is set a year later and the Stephen we now meet is less self-assured. He feels himself to be in a state of internal exile, physically in Dublin but ready to leave Ireland behind. 

Again mirroring Telemachus, Stephen suspects the motives of those who try to dissuade him from leaving Ireland. He tells his nationalist former teacher ‘history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’.

Stephen doesn't sound much fun. But isn't Ulysses about Bloom?  
After three chapters of Stephen's morose musings ('impossible person') we meet our unassuming hero, Leopold Bloom. He is eating breakfast:  
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. 
After taking breakfast-in-bed to his wife, Bloom spends his day plodding around Dublin fulfilling various humdrum obligations: the funeral of an acquaintance, sales visits, a walk on the beach. We accompany him, entering his inner world through a 'stream of consciousness':


In crucial respects Bloom is an outsider in a very insular society. Though he has converted to Catholicism in order to marry Molly, he is never allowed to forget his Jewish origins. The Citizen pointedly asks which 'nation' he claims allegiance to. Even those not hostile to him, mock his cuckold status. 

Do Bloom and Stephen know each other? 

Not directly. The only connection between the two men is that Bloom is acquainted with Stephen's father, Simon Dedalus. 


National Maternity Hospital where Stephen & Bloom meet
However, Dublin is a small city. Throughout the day Bloom and Stephen, circle each other, finally crossing paths at the National Maternity Hospital. 

The kindly Bloom is visiting Mrs Mina Purefoy (in her third day of labour as described in extract above) while Bloom is drunk after carousing with Buck Mulligan. Bloom rescues Stephen from a brawl and the two men visit Nighttown - the red light district of Dublin.

Bloom is haunted by his lost son ('if Rudy had lived') and his paternalism is touched by the drunk and vulnerable Stephen. Though the two men are divided by class, age and religion there is an unspoken filial bond between them.

How does Ulysses end? At the end of the novel, Ulysses (Bloom) returns home to his Penelope (Molly). The perspective changes to that of Molly, as she lies in bed drifting into sleep. Molly's notorious soliloquy is a forty page unpunctuated stream of consciousness  that mimics the moments between waking and sleeping,

Ulysses conquers all his enemies and returns to Penelope. What about Bloom?
Bloom's odyssey is successful because Molly remains faithful to him, emotionally if not physically.  In her soliloquy, Molly's thoughts continually return to Bloom. In this sense Bloom triumphs over Boylan and all his rivals.
Joyce with his editor Sylvia Beach in Paris
Why is Ulysses a groundbreaking novel?
Joyce, in a bravura display of technical brilliance, frames the novel around Homer’s Odyssey. For Hades, for example, we have Paddy Dignam's funeral while the brutal Citizen is Cyclops.  Joyce is very playful within this structure - it is the Citizen, for example, who calls Bloom  'one eyed'. 

No novel prior to Ulysses had so radically challenged the conventions in both form and subject matter. For forty years the frank sexual content caused the continual problems with censors in the UK and the US but this feels less daring to us today.

Isn't it all a bit tricksy? Joyce showing us how clever he is?Sometimes cleverness overwhelms content - when the prose mimics the evolution of the English language, for example. And while Ulyaawa is a 'must-have' for the educated person's bookshelf, it has also been described as the 'most unread' novel of the Twentieth Century. Many get no further than Buck Mulligans showing off in Latin in the opening paragraph - a clear signal that you are in for what is called in Hollywood 'homework'..

Those who do stay the course, however, are richly rewarded by a treasure trove of delights. Take the musicality of the prose, for example. Joyce was an accomplished tenor and had an unparalleled ear when it came to representing sound in words. Even Bloom's cat's progressively more plaintive demands for food are transcribed precisely:  "mkgnao", "mrkgnao" and "mrkrgnao".

So Ulysses a good read? Should I take it to the beach?
Maybe not to the beach - certainly not without a Kindle! Ulysses is very long (over 265,000 words) difficult to follow in parts, almost unreadable in others.   

So is reading Ulysses worth the effort? I would answer with the last of those 265,000 words, Molly Bloom's resounding, 'yes'. And if pushed to present evidence, I would cite Leopold Bloom perhaps the greatest creation in modern literature. 

Is Ulysses the best place to start with Joyce?
Dubliners is a more accessible entry point - some of the stories 'Ivy Day in the Committee Room' and 'The Dead' in particular  are amongst the finest in the English language. They also introduce characters and themes that reappear in Ulysses.

For a brief introduction to the autobiographical elements of Ulysses see  this New Yorker review .
Ulysses by James Joyce - Softback (US)
Ulysses: Annotated Students' Edition (Penguin)
Dubliners by James Joyce
Biography - James Joyce (Oxford Lives)

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