Ulysses is James Joyce’s most celebrated work and is lauded as being both a paragon of modernist literature, and famously hard to understand. Joyce even went so far as to poke fun at this fact in his even less intelligible Finnegans Wake:
‘amid the insipissated grime of his glaucous den making believe to read his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles’ – Finnegans Wake
Initial preparation for Ulysses began in 1902 when Joyce was just twenty years old. He was self-possessed enough to gather all his epiphanies and begin arranging them to form notes. He began work in earnest in 1914, after the publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the book was eventually published in 1922.
Ulysses deals with the opulence of personal thought and while we are ushered into its characters’ private worlds with ease, we know little about their exteriors. The narrative parallels Homer’s Odyssey, but an in-depth knowledge of The Odyssey is not necessary for enjoyment of Ulysses.
The main character in the book is Leopold Bloom, a non-practising Jew. Throughout the novel, the reader is permitted to become wholly familiar with the inner workings of Leopold’s mind, but not given enough information about his physical appearance to form a clear mental picture of him. We are told he is quiet and decent, a man of inflexible honour to his fingertips. He has a pale intellectual face in which are set two dark large lidded, superbly expressive eyes. The story of a haunting sorrow is written on his face and his friends say that there’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom. A safe, moustached man who has his good points and slips off when the fun gets too hot.
Another significant figure winding his way through the streets of Dublin in Ulysses is Stephen Dedalus, whom we first meet in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is an arrogant young intellectual whom Bloom takes under his wing. He acts as a father figure to the young Stephen who fulfils the role to some extent of a son for Bloom, whose own son died in infancy.
Molly Bloom in Ulysses is equated with Penelope in The Odyssey and the last chapter of the book is dedicated solely to her meanderings and musings. It is one of the most renowned pieces of writing in Ulysses and is famous for its celebration of this voluptuous, sensuous, opulent, abundant, independent, lush, and blooming woman.
There are many editions of Ulysses available and many arguments to support any text you may choose. We would recommend you get a text as close to the original 1922 text as you can and a more recent edition for the purposes of comparison. In addition to this we would suggest reading Ulysses in tandem with a good set of annotations.
- Ulysses. The World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 1993. This is a reprint of the original 1922 text with notes by Jeri Johnson.
- Ulysses. Edited: Hans Walter Gabler. 1986 edition published by Bodley Head or Vintage.
- Recommended Annotations: Ulysses Annotated by Don Gifford with Robert J. Seidman published by University of California Press.1989