Ulysses (novel)

The first edition of Ulysses was published in 1922.
The first edition of Ulysses was published in 1922.

Ulysses is a 1922 novel by James Joyce that takes its title from the Latin version of the Greek name 'Odysseus'. It is sometimes cited as the greatest English-language novel of the 20th century and has been the subject of much scrutiny, criticism and controversy.

Ulysses chronicles the passage through Dublin by its main character, Leopold Bloom, during an unremarkable day, June 16, 1904. The title alludes to the hero of Homer's Odyssey, and there are many parallels, both implicit and explicit, between the two works (e.g. the correlations between Leopold Bloom as Odysseus and Stephen Dedalus as Telemachus). June 16 is now celebrated by Joyce's fans worldwide as Bloomsday. Joyce chose that date because he and his eventual wife, Nora Barnacle, shared their first date on that day.

Written over a seven-year period from 1914 to 1921, the novel was serialized in the American journal The Little Review from 1918, until the publication of the Nausicaa episode led to a prosecution for obscenity. The book was first published in its entirety in Paris in 1922, but was banned in both the United States and United Kingdom until the 1930s. The work was blacklisted by Irish customs.

Ulysses is a massive novel: 267,000 words in total from a vocabulary of 30,000 words, with most editions weighing in at between 800 to 1000 pages, and divided into 18 chapters. At first glance the book may appear unstructured and chaotic, but the two schemata which Stuart Gilbert and Herbert Gorman released after publication to defend Joyce from the obscenity accusations make the links to the Odyssey, and much internal structure, explicit.

The legacy and impact of Ulysses on modern literature and literary culture is sizable; one need only note the proliferation of the celebration of Bloomsday on 16 June all over the world, with a notably large celebration in Dublin, Ireland during 2004 to commemorate the centenary of the book's events.

Joyce is often quoted as saying that one could recreate the city of Dublin, piece by piece, from Ulysses. Many scholars have noted that although this rather bold statement may have been true at or around Joyce's time, so much of the city has changed that this claim is no longer viable. Nevertheless, many of the places and landmarks featured in Ulysses may still be found in Dublin, such as the Martello tower where the novel begins (now a Joyce museum) and Davy Byrne's pub. Indeed, perambulating around the city as Bloom and Dedalus did, one can still get a sense of how the city influenced Joyce's novel.



Joyce's first acquaintance with Odysseus was via Charles Lamb's Adventures of Ulysses - an adaptation of the Odyssey for children, which seems to have established the Roman name in Joyce‘s mind. At school he wrote an essay on Ulysses as his "favourite hero" (Gorman, p. 45). He thought about calling Dubliners "Ulysses in Dublin" (Borach, p. 325), but the idea grew from a story in Dubliners in 1906, to a "short book" in 1907 (Ellmann, p. 265), to the vast novel which he began writing in 1914.

Publication history

The publication history of Ulysses is disputed and obscure. There have been at least eleven editions, and possibly as many as eighteen (the discrepancy originating in the difficulty of ascertaining what is a new edition, and what is a mere reprinting). To complicate matters, there are variations between different impression of each edition, and source information is frequently inaccurate. Notable editions include the first edition, published in Paris on 2 February 1922 (only 1000 copies printed); the pirated Roth edition, published in New York in 1929; the Odyssey Press edition of 1932 (including some revisions by Stuart Gilbert, and therefore sometimes considered the most accurate edition); the first official American edition of Random House, 1934; the first English edition of the Bodley Head, 1936; the revised Bodley Head Edition of 1960; the revised Random House edition of 1961 and the Gabler edition of 1984. The latter three, plus the first 1922 edition, have most recently been in print.

Obscenity trial

In 1920 after the magazine The Little Review serialized a passage of the book dealing with the main character masturbating, a group called The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice who apparently objected to the book's content, took action to attempt to keep the book out of the United States. At a trial in 1921 the magazine was declared obscene and as a result Ulysses was banned in the United States.

The publisher, Random House, decided to try to get the ban lifted. In 1933, an arrangement was made to import the French edition, and the publisher arranged to have a copy seized by customs when the ship was unloaded. A trial, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses ensued, and US District Judge John M. Woolsey issued a ruling on December 6, declaring that the book was not pornographic and therefore could not be obscene. Augustus Noble Hand ruled for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in affirming the ruling, which allowed the book to be imported into the U.S.

The corrected text

According to Jack Dalton (p. 102, 113), the first edition of Ulysses contained over two thousand errors but was still the most accurate edition published. As each subsequent edition attempted to correct these mistakes, it incorporated more of its own. Hans Walter Gabler's 1984 edition was an attempt to produce a corrected text, but it has received much criticism, most notably from John Kidd. Kidd's main criticism is of Gabler's choice of the manuscript as his copy-text (the base edition with which the editor compares each variant). This choice is problematic, in that there is no manuscript as such: Joyce wrote approximately 30% of the final text as marginal notes on the galleys. Gabler had therefore to reconstruct a manuscript, which had never physically existed, by adding together all of Joyce's accretions from the various sources. Whether this is problematic depends on one's perspective: on the one hand, it allowed Gabler to produce a synoptic text, which indicated the stage at which each addition was inserted; on the other, more orthodox theorists (such as Kidd) maintain that the copy-text should be the earliest single existing document—the 1922 edition.

Kidd also criticized a number of specific editorial decisions made by Gabler, but again these seem to be a matter of judgment rather than of right or wrong answers.

At present, the debate about which text of Ulysses is, in fact, the 'correct' or 'proper' version remains vibrant. Many publications of Ulysses will list the previous versions as one of the opening pages.

Reading the novel

Ulysses has become a byword for the "difficult" novel. Part of this is due to the style of the writing—or perhaps more accurately, to the styles of the writing. For much of the novel, Joyce makes use of the stream of consciousness technique rather than conventional narration. Johnson, in her introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition, identifies one fundamental rule which Joyce followed: "absolute fidelity to what really would have occurred" (p. xxvii). This means there is no smoothing of the way for the reader. People, places and events are referred to with no introduction, leaving the reader to piece the puzzle together over the course of reading the whole work. Some puzzles are never solved: in Lestrygonians, an insulting postcard bears the message "U.P.", but why the message is insulting is never revealed, while in Hades the confusion over the identity of a mysterious man wearing a Macintosh is never cleared up.

All these difficulties are fully intentional. Joyce once commented, "I've put so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant..."

The eighteen chapters

Most chapters of Ulysses have an assigned theme, technique and, tellingly, correspondences between its characters and those of the Odyssey. The chapter titles and the correspondences were not included in the original text, but derive from the Linati and Gilbert schema.

The Telemachia:

  1. Telemachus
  2. Nestor
  3. Proteus

The Odyssey:

  1. Calypso
  2. Lotus-Eaters
  3. Hades
  4. Aeolus
  5. Lestrygonians
  6. Scylla and Charybdis
  7. The Wandering Rocks
  8. Sirens
  9. Cyclops
  10. Nausicaa
  11. Oxen of the Sun
  12. Circe

The Nostos:

  1. Eumaeus
  2. Ithaca
  3. Penelope

The Telemachia


It is morning. The book opens inside a Martello tower on Dublin Bay at Sandycove, where three young men, Buck Mulligan (a callous, verbally aggressive and boisterous medical student), Stephen Dedalus (a young writer first encountered in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and Haines (a nondescript Englishman from Oxford) have just woken and are preparing for the day. Stephen, brooding about the recent death of his mother, complains about Haines' hysterical nightmares. Mulligan shaves and prepares breakfast and all three then eat. Haines decides to go to the library and Mulligan suggests swimming beforehand; all three then leave the tower. Walking for a time, Stephen chats with Haines and smokes before leaving, deciding that he cannot return to the tower that evening for Mulligan has usurped his place.


Stephen is at school, attempting to teach bored schoolboys history and English, though they are unappreciative of his efforts. Stephen attempts to tell a riddle which falls flat before seeing the boys out of the classroom. One stays behind so that Stephen shows how to do a set of arithmetic exercises. Afterwards Stephen visits the school headmaster, Mr. Deasy, from whom he collects his pay and a letter to take to a newspaper office for printing.


Next, Stephen finds his way to the strand and mopes around for some time, doing little more than thinking, reminiscing and walking about on the beach. He lies down among some rocks, watches a couple and a dog, writes some poetry ideas, picks his nose and possibly has a sexual experience.

The Odyssey


The role of protagonist suddenly shifts to Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising canvasser living nearby in Eccles street preparing breakfast at the same time as Mulligan in the tower. He walks to a butcher to purchase a kidney for his breakfast and returns to finish his cooking. He takes his wife, Molly Bloom, her breakfast and letters and reads his own letter from their daughter, Milly. The chapter closes with his plodding to the outhouse to defecate.


Bloom now begins his day proper, furtively making his way to a post office (by an intentionally indirect route), where he receives a love letter from one 'Martha Clifford' addressed to his pseudonym, 'Henry Flower'. He buys a newspaper and meets an acquaintance; while they chat he attempts to ogle a woman wearing stockings, but is prevented by a passing tram. Next, he reads the letter and tears the envelope up in an alley. Bloom makes his exit via a Catholic church service and thinks about what is going on inside it. He goes to a drugstore then meets another acquaintance, Bantam, whom he unintentionally gives a racing tip for the horse Throwaway. Finally, Bloom ponders his naked state in water as he approaches the baths to wash for the rest of the day.

This chapter is the first with obvious motifs, and these are those of botany, religion, drugs, potions, and guilt and murder.


The episode begins with Bloom entering a funeral carriage with three others, including Stephen's father Simon Dedalus. They make their way to Dignam's funeral, passing Stephen and making smalltalk on the way. Bloom scans his newspaper. They talk about various deaths, forms of death and the tramline before arriving and getting out. They enter the chapel into the service and subsequently leave with the coffincart. Bloom sees a mysterious anonymous man wearing a mackintosh during the burial and ponders on various subjects some more. Leaving, he points out a dent in a friend's hat.

The main motifs of this episode are death and decay.


At the newspaper office, Bloom attempts to place an ad, while Stephen arrives bringing Deasy's letter about hoof and mouth disease. The two do not meet. The episode is broken up into short sections by newspaper-style headlines, and is characterized by its deliberate abundance of rhetorical figures and devices. Lenehan and Corley appear in this section.


Bloom searches for lunch, eventually settling down to a vegetarian lunch at Davy Byrnes's.

Scylla and Charbydis

At the National Library, Stephen explains to various scholars his biographical theory of the works of Shakespeare, especially Hamlet, whereby they are based largely on the posited adultery of Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway. Bloom enters the library to look at some statues on exhibit, but does not encounter Stephen.

The Wandering Rocks

In this episode, 19 short vignettes depict the wanderings of various characters, major and minor, through the streets of Dublin. It ends with an account of the cavalcade of the Lord Lieutenant, William Humble, Earl of Dudley, through the streets, where it is encountered by the various characters we have in the episode. Neither Stephen nor Bloom sees the Viceroy's procession.

This chapter is unique in that it draws Homeric parallels to an instance that is described third hand in The Odyssey. That is to say, the Wandering Rocks are spoken about in The Odyssey, but never experienced by its protagonist, Odysseus. This is perhaps why Joyce disembodies the narrative from the three main characters.


In this episode, dominated by motifs of music, Bloom has dinner with Stephen's uncle Richie Goulding at the Ormond Hotel, while Blazes Boylan proceeds to his rendezvous with Molly. While dining, Bloom watches the seductive barmaids Lydia Douce and Mina Kennedy, and listens to the singing of Simon Dedalus, and others.


This chapter is narrated largely by an unnamed denizen of Dublin. He runs into Hynes and they enter a pub for a drink. At the pub, they meet Alf Bergan and a character referred to only as the 'citizen.' Eventually, Leopold Bloom enters waiting to meet Martin Cunningham. The Citizen is discovered to be a fierce fenian and begins berating Bloom. The atmosphere quickly becomes anti-Semitic and Bloom escapes upon Cunningham's arrival. The chapter is marked by extended digressions made outside the voice of the unnamed narrator - hyperboles of legal jargon, Biblical passages, Irish mythology, etc., with lists of names often extending half a page. 'Cyclops' refers both to the narrator who is often quoted with 'says I' and the citizen who fails to see the folly of his narrow-minded thinking.


Cissy Caffrey, Edy Boarman, and Gerty MacDowell start the chapter off on the strand near a church. Gerty often daydreams of finding someone to love her. Eventually, Bloom appears and they begin to flirt from a distance. The women are about to leave when the fireworks start. Cissy and Edy leave to get a better view, but Gerty remains. She shows off her legs to Bloom, who, as it turns out, is masturbating. Gerty then leaves, revealing herself to be lame, and leaving Bloom meditating on the beach. The first half of the episode is marked by an excessively sentimental style, and it is unclear how much of Gerty's monologue is actually imagined by Bloom.

Oxen of the Sun

Bloom visits the maternity hospital where Mina Purefoy is giving birth, and finally meets Stephen, who is drinking with Buck Mulligan and his medical student friends. They continue on to a pub to continue drinking, following the successful birth of the baby. This chapter is remarkable for Joyce's wordplay, which seems to recapitulate the entire history of human language to describe a scene in an obstetrics hospital, from the Carmen Arvale:

Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus.

to something resembling alliterative Anglo-Saxon poetry:

In ward wary the watcher hearing come that man mildhearted eft rising with swire ywimpled to him her gate wide undid. Lo, levin leaping lightens in eyeblink Ireland's westward welkin. Full she dread that God the Wreaker all mankind would fordo with water for his evil sins. Christ's rood made she on breastbone and him drew that he would rathe infare under her thatch. That man her will wotting worthful went in Horne's house.

and on through skillful parodies of Malory, the King James Bible, Bunyan, Pepys, Defoe, Addison and Steele, Sterne, Goldsmith, Junius, Gibbon, Lamb, De Quincey, Landor, Dickens, Newman, Ruskin and Carlyle, among others, before concluding in a haze of nearly incomprehensible slang. Indeed, Joyce organized this chapter as three sections divided into nine total subsections, representing the trimesters and months of gestation.


In an extended hallucinatory sequence, Bloom and Stephen go to Bella Cohen's brothel. This episode, the longest in the novel, is written in the form of a play.

The Nostos


Bloom and Stephen go to the cabman's shelter to eat, and encounter a drunken sailor.


Bloom returns home with Stephen, who refuses Bloom's offer of a place to stay for the night. The two men urinate in the backyard, Stephen goes home, and Bloom goes to bed. The episode is written in the form of a rigidly organized catechism, and was reportedly Joyce's favorite episode in the novel.


The final chapter of Ulysses consists of Molly Bloom's Soliloquy: eight enormous sentences (without punctuation) written from the viewpoint of Leopold Bloom's estranged wife, Molly (who represents Penelope).

The two schemata

Film adaptations

In 1967, a movie version of the book was produced.

More recently, a big-budget version of Ulysses called Bloom (http://www.ulysses.ie/home/default.asp) was made and released in early 2004. The film stars Stephen Rea as the lead character.


Joyce wrote of Ulysses:

"I've put so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant..."

As such, there are a good number of puzzles and open problems present in the book which require careful readings to solve.

  • Denis Breen's postcard
    • Why is Denis Breen's postcard libellous?
    • Who sent it?
    • Is its text "U.P.: up" or merely just "U.P."?
  • Why did the Blooms' social life decrease so significantly after 1894?
  • Gerty MacDowell
    • How old is Gerty?
    • Does Bloom acknowledge her age or is he in denial?
    • Is Bloom's encounter with her just a fantasy?
  • What is the seating arrangement in the funeral carriage in "Hades"?
  • Some of the dates given or implied in "Ithaca" conflict with those given in "Calypso" and "Penelope". Which are correct in which instances?

Further reading

  • Borach, Georges. Conversations with James Joyce, translated by Joseph Prescott, College English, 15 (March 1954).
  • Dalton, Jack. The Text of Ulysses in Fritz Senn, ed. New Light on Joyce from the Dublin Symposium. Indiana University Press (1972).
  • Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford University Press, revised edition (1983).
  • Ellmann, Richard, ed. Selected Letters of James Joyce. The Viking Press (1975).
  • Gorman, Herbert. James Joyce: A Definitive Biography (1939).
  • Johnson, Jeri. Ulysses (introduction). Oxford University Press (1993).

External links


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