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Ulysses, by James Joyce, is a challenge to understand. It is at once a masterpiece and an anomaly, a novel that stretches the form and content of the genre of which it is a part. At the same time that Ulysses uses Homer's Odyssey as a major literary referent, the work heralds the end of the nineteenth-century novel as it was commonly understood. It takes readers into the inner realms of human consciousness using the interior monologue style that came to be called stream of consciousness. In addition to this psychological characteristic, it gives a realistic portrait of the life of ordinary people living in Dublin, Ireland, on June 16, 1904. First published in its entirety in France in 1922, the novel was the subject of a famous obscenity trial in 1933, but was found by a U.S. district court in New York to be a work of art. The furor over the novel made Joyce a celebrity. In the long run, the work placed him at the forefront of the modern period of the early 1900s when literary works, primarily in the first two decades, explored interior lives and subjective reality in a new idiom, attempting to probe the human psyche in order to understand the human condition.

Joyce supplied a schema for Ulysses that divides and labels the novel's untitled episodes, linking each to the Odyssey and identifying other structural and thematic elements. The headings provided in this schema are used in the plot summary below, as is customary in literary analysis of

this work. In the novel itself, there are three sections marked with roman numerals but no other explicit headings. The first line of each episode in the novel appears in small capital letters. The schema can be found in a number of works on Joyce; one of these is Reading Joyce's Ulysses, by Daniel R. Schwarz. For explanations of references and parallels to Homer's epic, readers will find Don Gifford's exhaustive work, "Ulysses" Annotated, indispensable.


James Augustine Joyce was born in Dublin, Ireland, on February 2, 1882, the eldest of ten children of John Stanislaus Joyce and Mary Jane Joyce. At age six in 1888, Joyce began his Jesuit education at Clongowes Wood, a boarding school. After that, he attended Belvedere College, a Catholic day school in Dublin. Joyce attended University College in Dublin from 1898 to 1902 and graduated with a degree in modern languages. By this time, he was already writing both poetry and prose sketches. He went to Paris to study medicine for a year but returned to Dublin when his mother was in the final stage of a terminal illness. He taught briefly and published some stories and poems. Then in 1904, he met and began a lifelong relationship with a semi-literate hotel chambermaid, Nora Barnacle, and shortly thereafter, the couple relocated to the town of Pola on the Adriatic Sea where briefly Joyce taught in a local Berlitz school. The following year, Joyce and Barnacle moved to Trieste, where they made their home for the next ten years, except for a brief time in Rome. Married some years later, the couple had two children, Giorgio and Lucia, both born in Trieste.

As early as 1903, Joyce had begun working on an autobiographical work, tentatively titled Stephen Hero, and on his collection of short stories, which was ultimately published as Dubliners in 1914. He published a collection of poetry, Chamber Music, and then revised and expanded Stephen Hero and published it as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was serialized in the magazine Egoist in 1914 and 1915. In 1915, Joyce and his wife moved to Zurich, where he worked on Ulysses, allowing excerpts from the novel to appear in Egoist and a New York magazine, Little Review. In 1919, he and his wife returned to Trieste and shortly thereafter settled in Paris.

In 1920, Little Review stopped serial publication of Ulysses, which was drawing obscenity charges in the United States. It was clear to Joyce that the completed novel could not find a U.S. or British publisher. As it happened, an American expatriate in Paris, Sylvia Beach, published the work with the imprint of her bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. The book appeared, as Joyce requested, on his birthday, February 2, 1922. Seen as scandalous and worthy of suppression, the book created a furor and made Joyce a literary celebrity.

During the 1920s, Joyce underwent a series of eye operations. The next decade was also darkened by the apparent mental decline of his daughter, Lucia, who was committed to an asylum in 1936. Joyce completed Finnegans Wake in 1938, which was published the following year to generally hostile reviews. He lived briefly in the French village St. Gérand-le-Puy near Vichy and then moved back to Zurich. He died there on January 13, 1941, after surgery for a perforated ulcer. Nora Joyce lived on in Zurich until her death in 1951.


Foreword, District Court Decision, and Letter from Joyce

The 1934 edition of Ulysses begins with a Foreword written by Morris L. Ernst, a Random House defense attorney involved in the obscenity case against the novel. Ernst applauds the decision of John M. Woolsey, the presiding judge, to rule against the charge of obscenity and allow the novel to be published in the United States. Ernst claims this judicial decision marks a "New Deal in the law of letters." The attorney explains the complications involved in the definition and application of obscenity and links this release from "the legal compulsion for squeamishness in literature" with the repeal of Prohibition, which occurred also in the first week of December 1933.

Next, Judge Woolsey describes in his opinion Joyce's accomplishment:

[He] attempted … with astonishing success—to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries … not only what is in the focus of each man's observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious.

This technique, Judge Woolsey explains, is like "a multiple exposure on a cinema film." In essence, the judge concludes, Joyce's effort was to show how the minds of his characters operate. Woolsey also expounds on the legal meaning of the term, obscenity, as a characteristic in a work intended "to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts." Read in its entirety, he maintains, the novel does not have this effect. Rather, it serves as "a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women."

Also included is the April 2, 1933, letter of James Joyce to Bennett A. Cerf, the Random House publisher who decided to print Ulysses. Joyce explains the assistance he received from Ezra Pound and from Sylvia Beach, owner of an English bookstore in Paris which first published the novel. He also explains some of the difficulties in the United Kingdom and in the United States regarding the subsequent distribution and sale of this first edition.


  • An audio book abridgement of Ulysses, read by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan, became available in 1995 from Naxos. The four cassettes are in total five hours long.
  • In 1967, Joseph Strick directed Ulysses, starring Milo O'Shea in the role of Leopold Bloom. As of 2007, this film was available on DVD.
  • In 2006, Odyssey Pictures released Bloom: All of Life in One Extraordinary Day, directed by Sean Walsh and starring Stephen Rea as Leopold Bloom.

I: Telemachia


Early on June 16, 1904, Stephen Dedalus, the Englishman Haines, and Malachi Mulligan, called Buck, have breakfast at the Martello Tower at Sandycove on Dublin Bay which Stephen rents. Irreverently, Buck shaves as though he is celebrating mass and says a mock grace before the three eat breakfast. Buck also alludes to Stephen's "absurd" Greek name. Stephen feels imposed upon by the Oxford student Haines, who was invited by Buck but has been disruptive during the previous night with a bad dream. Though it is Stephen's place, Buck seems to have taken charge, serving the food, taking possession of the key to the tower, and getting money from Stephen for drinks later in the day. Stephen is preoccupied with thoughts of his recently deceased mother, having dreamed of her the night before. Buck goes off for a swim, Haines and Stephen smoke a cigarette, and both Haines and Buck refer briefly to Stephen's theory about Hamlet. Haines draws a parallel between the Martello Tower and Hamlet's castle and then asks Stephen about his belief in a personal God. Stephen responds that he is "the servant of two masters … an English and an Italian," meaning "the imperial British state" and "the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church." He adds there is a third master, Ireland, "who wants [him] for odd jobs." It is about 8:00 a.m. when Stephen heads off to the boys' boarding school where he teaches. Buck asks that they meet at 12:30 at the pub called the Ship. As Stephen leaves, he promises himself not to sleep at the tower the coming night since Buck has taken it over. Stephen calls him a "usurper." This allusion to the usurper King Claudius in Hamlet, as well as several references to Hamlet and to Stephen's brooding depression, all suggest parallels between Stephen and the melancholy prince.


It is 10 a.m., and Stephen is teaching an ancient Greek history class in a boys' school in Dalkey, drilling the students on Pyrrhus and picking on an unprepared student named Armstrong. It is a half-day at school, and the boys are eager to go out on the field and play soccer. Next, Stephen asks the students to read from John Milton's "Lycidas," an elegy on the death by drowning of Milton's friend. Stephen then challenges the students to solve a paradoxical riddle. The class ends, and the students leave in haste, except for one, Cyril Sargent, who remains behind to get help with his math problems. Bending over Cyril, Stephen thinks about how some woman gave birth to this boy and loves him, thoughts associated in Stephen's mind with the recent death of his own mother. Cyril leaves, and Stephen goes to collect his pay from the headmaster, Garrett Deasy, who expresses misogynistic and anti-Semitic views and wants a letter he has written on hoof-and-mouth disease to be published in local newspapers. He gives a copy of the letter to Stephen, asking him to take it to news offices where he has contacts. Mr. Deasy suggests that Stephen will not long work as a teacher. Agreeing that he is more learner than teacher, Stephen leaves with Mr. Deasy's letter, laughing at the headmaster's opinions and reminding himself that he has a date to meet Buck at the Ship pub at 12:30.


Including very little dialogue, the third episode, which begins at 11 a.m., is the most interior of the first three. In this section, Stephen walks along Sandymount Strand, spending an hour and a half on the beach, thinking about the difference between the objective world and how it appears to his eyes. He spies two midwives, one with a bag in which Stephen imagines there is a miscarried fetus. He considers the possibility of an umbilicus long enough to serve as a telephone line across which one could phone up navel-free Eve in Eden. He thinks about the conception of Jesus and how, according to the Nicene Creed, Jesus was said to be of the essence of God, not created out of nothing as man was. The wind reminds him that he has to go to the newspaper offices with Mr. Deasy's letter. Briefly he considers visiting his aunt, but then he misses her street. He thinks about being ashamed of his family when he was little. Headed toward the Pigeon House, he thinks of Mary and how her pregnancy was attributed to a bird. He thinks back to Paris and remembers a conversation with Kevin Egan on nationalism. At the edge of the water, he looks back, searching the view for the Martello Tower and again promising himself not to sleep there this night. He sees a dog running toward him followed by a couple who are intent on picking cockles. He thinks about his dream the night before, in which a man with a melon took him along a red carpet. When the couple passes Stephen, he thinks of a poem and writes it down on a scrap of paper torn from Deasy's letter. When he decides to leave the beach, he urinates, picks his nose, and then looks around to see if anyone is observing him.

II: Odyssey


The fourth episode occurs at the same time as episode one. It is 8 a.m. at 7 Eccles Street, and Leopold Bloom is in the kitchen getting milk for the cat and a breakfast tray ready for his wife, Marion, called Molly, who is still in bed. Leopold loves organ meat and fancies a fried kidney for his breakfast, so he goes around the corner to a butcher to buy one. Back in the house, he fixes toast for Molly, boils water, and sets the kidney to fry in butter. Upstairs, he brings Molly her breakfast and gives her a card and letter. The letter is from Hugh Boylan, called Blazes, and Leopold sees her hide it under the pillow. She asks him what the word, metempsychosis, means. He has received a letter from their daughter, Millie, which he takes downstairs and reads while he eats. Bloom is wearing his good black suit because at 11 a.m. today he is attending the funeral of his friend Patrick Dignam. After breakfast, he goes to the outhouse to defecate. The church bells toll the hour.


Leopold Bloom heads in a roundabout way to a post office where he picks up a letter from Martha Clifford, with whom he is conducting a clandestine, erotic correspondence using the pseudonym Henry Flower. With the letter in his pocket, he runs into an acquaintance, C. P. McCoy, who talks to Bloom about Dignam's death and asks that Bloom enter his name as an attendant though he will not be at the funeral. Off by himself, Leopold reads Martha's letter and wonders what kind of woman she really is. Like its parallel episode in the Odyssey, this episode is full of indolence and repeated references to smoking and opiates, which Leopold associates with the East and with Molly, who is from Gibraltar. He enters All Hallows, the incense-filled Catholic Church, and observes part of the mass. At 10:15 a.m., he heads to the chemist to buy some face cream for Molly. There he thinks of chloroform and laudanum. The cream must be prepared. The chemist asks for the empty bottle, which Leopold has neglected to bring. Leopold buys a bar of soap and plans to return for the cream. Outside, he meets Bantam Lyons, who wants a newspaper so he can check on the Gold Cup horserace scheduled to run this day. Bloom offers his paper, saying he was going to throw it away, and Lyons rushes off to place a bet, misconstruing Bloom's comment for a tip on the long-shot racehorse named Throwaway. Bloom resolves to have a bath, envisioning himself lying back in the water, his penis floating like a flower.


In a funeral procession from Sandymount to Prospect Cemetery in Glasnevin, north of Dublin, at 11 a.m., Bloom travels in a carriage with Jack Power, Martin Cunningham, and Simon Dedalus. As they leave the village, shop blinds are drawn down and people on the street tip their hats in respect. Bloom notices Stephen walking along and mentions it to his father, Simon Dedalus. Bloom thinks of his own son, Rudy, who died just a few days after birth and would be eleven years old now had he lived. They pass Blazes Boylan and the other men call to him, which secretly embarrasses Bloom, who knows Boylan will visit Molly at 4 p.m. Mr. Power asks about the concert tour, referring somewhat disrespectfully to Molly as "Madame." It is 11:20 a.m., and Bloom thinks of Mrs. Fleming coming into 7 Eccles Street to clean. They pass Reuben J. Dodd, the Jewish moneylender, from whom each of them, except for Bloom, has borrowed money. They comment about how Dodd's son almost drowned in the Liffey, and when a boatman saved him, the father gave him a small bit of money as thanks. Power comments that suicide is the worst death, a family disgrace; Cunningham cuts him off, saying, "We must take a charitable view of it." Bloom sees this as a kindness from Cunningham who knows that Bloom's father was a suicide. At the cemetery, Simon Dedalus cries at the grave of his recently deceased wife, May. A service is given in the chapel and some brief words spoken at the grave. As the mourners disperse, a reporter, Joe Hynes, asks Bloom for his full name and if he can identify a thirteenth man at the gravesite. Bloom cannot name the man in the mackintosh, but he does remember to ask that McCoy's name be added to the list of those present.


This episode takes place in the Freeman newspaper offices. The text here is divided by headlines like those appearing in a newspaper. Bloom gets a copy of the advertisement for Keyes tea and then heads into the Telegraph printing room and speaks to the foreman, City Councillor Nanetti, who is in conversation with Hynes about his report on Dignam's funeral. Nanetti wants Bloom to get Keyes to agree to advertise his tea in the paper for three months. Bloom suspects Keyes wants the ad to run only for two months. Bloom goes into the Telegraph office, where Simon Dedalus and others are listening to Ned Lambert, who is making fun of a patriotic speech by Dan Dawson. J. J. O'Molloy enters, knocking into Bloom with the doorknob. Stephen Dedalus comes in and hands Deasy's letter to Crawford, who decides to publish it. A group, including Stephen, heads out to a pub, pushing past Bloom as they leave. Bloom wants Crawford to agree to run the Keyes ad for two months rather than three, but Crawford rejects the idea.


Bloom goes past a candy store and someone hands him a throw-away announcement of the arrival of an American evangelist. He passes Dilly Dedalus and feels sorry for the motherless child and condemns the Catholic Church for forcing people to have more children than they can afford. He thinks of the term, parallax, recalling his morning discussion with Molly about metempsychosis. Sandwich board men weave their way through the pedestrians, advertising Hely's, one letter on each board. Bloom meets Jossie Breen on the street, his girlfriend from years before, and they talk about Mina Purefoy, who is in protracted labor at the maternity hospital. Repeatedly his thoughts go back to Rudy's neonatal death, to the pain of labor, to the fact that stillborns "are not even registered." As a cloud blots the sun, Bloom thinks about the seasons of life, of Dignam's funeral, and Mrs. Purefoy giving birth. It all seems meaningless to him. Near an optometrist's office, he thinks again about parallax and holds up his little finger to cover the sun; doing so makes him recall an evening walk with Molly and Blazes Boylan, and now Bloom wonders if the two of them were touching then or holding hands. Bloom tosses the announcement into the Liffey.

Eager for his lunch, Bloom leaves one restaurant where the customers are eating rudely and enters Davy Byrne's for a cheese sandwich and glass of burgundy wine. There Nosey Flynn asks about Molly's tour and in mentioning Boylan reminds Bloom of the upcoming meeting between his wife and Blazes. Flynn discusses the upcoming Gold Cup. Two flies stuck together on a window remind Bloom of a time when Molly fed him seedcake out of her mouth and they had sex. There is a big difference between their relationship then and as it is now; he thinks, "Me. And me now." Elsewhere in the restaurant, men gossip about Bloom, about his work, his involvement with the Freemasons, his refusal to sign his name to contracts. As Bloom leaves, Bantam Lyons comes in, whispering about Bloom's tip on the horse Throwaway. Outside, Bloom walks along calculating what he may make if he sells certain ads for the newspaper. Then he spots Boylan on the street and ducks into the National Museum to avoid him.


At the National Library, Stephen Dedalus puts forth some of his literary and philosophical views, along with his biographical reading of Hamlet, to a circle of men in the director's office. The group includes the Quaker librarian Thomas W. Lyster, the literary critic and essayist John Eglinton, and the poet, A. E. To these men, Stephen suggests that Shakespeare identified with King Hamlet, that he saw in Prince Hamlet a version of his own son Hamnet who died as a child, and that Queen Gertrude is a dramatic version of Shakespeare's own wife, Ann Hathaway. A. E. objects to a biographical reading of the play, asserting that the text of the play ought to be the focus of any interpretation of it. The librarian Mr. Best comes into the office. Best has been showing Haines the library's manuscript copy of Lovesongs of Connacht; the text of Ulysses at this point includes a line of music. A. E. is ready to leave, and Eglinton asks if they will meet at Moore's that night for a poetry reading, to which both Buck Mulligan and Haines are invited. Stephen takes his exclusion from these plans as a snub. The literary discussion of Hamlet continues with Eglinton suggesting that Shakespeare most identified with Prince Hamlet. A worker enters, asking help from Mr. Lyster for a patron (Bloom) who wants to look at the newspaper called Kilkenny People. Stephen continues at length, mapping out supposed evidence in Shakespeare's plays of Hathaway's infidelity. At last, he and Mulligan leave the library, knocking past Bloom as they go out. Mulligan refers to Bloom as "the wandering jew" and also suggests that Bloom is a homosexual and is attracted sexually to Stephen.


This long episode contains eighteen vignettes or small scenes that taken together give a sense of pedestrian traffic in Dublin between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. It begins with the Catholic priest, Father John Conmee, who sets out about 3 p.m. to visit a school in the suburbs to see if Dignam's son can attend without charge. The episode concludes with the arrival of a cavalcade of the king's governor-general at the Mirus Park charity bazaar. These major treks weave through and around smaller scenes, some focusing on the principal characters, some on minor characters, and some on people who in a film would be called extras. Among these characters are a one-legged soldier; the dancing teacher, Mr. Maginni; Mrs. Breen, who earlier spoke with Bloom; and Corny Kelleher, the undertaker who handled the Dignam funeral. Two scenes occur at bookstalls. Stephen Dedalus pauses at a bookcart in Bedford Row and is approached by his sister Dilly who asks him if the used French primer she has bought for a penny is any good. Elsewhere, Leopold Bloom selects the novel Sweets of Sin for Molly. At the Dedalus home, Stephen's sister Maggey boils shirts and his other sisters, Katey and Boody, lament the family's poverty. When Maggey says Dilly is out trying to find Simon, Boody responds, "Our father who art not in heaven." Martin Cunningham, who is involved in collecting money for Dignam's son, speaks to the subsheriff about the boy. Molly's arm appears at the second-floor window of the Bloom residence as she tosses a coin to the one-legged soldier who "crutche[s] himself" up Eccles Street. Blazes Boylan steps into a fruit shop and orders a basket to be sent ahead and looks down the open neckline of the shop girl's blouse as he asks to use the telephone. Across town, Boylan's secretary answers the phone and mentions his 4 p.m. appointment with Mr. Lenehan at the Ormond Hotel. Dilly waits in the street for her father and gets a shilling and two pennies from him. Through these and other tiny views of the street traffic, of people on footpaths, crossing bridges, and spitting out of open doors, the governor-general's carriage is spotted or missed as it makes its way out of town.


Two of the sirens in this episode, Ormond Hotel barmaids Lydia Douce and Mina Kennedy, lean out an upstairs window watching the cavalcade go by. The hotel is a meeting place for several groups of characters. Simon Dedalus enters the bar with Lenehan, looking for Boylan who arrives shortly. Elsewhere, Bloom buys stationery so that he can respond to Martha Clifford's letter and then goes into the Ormond with Richie Goulding to have some dinner and spy on Boylan. As Goulding and Bloom order drinks, Boylan leaves with Lenehan, causing Bloom to sob. In the bar, Simon Dedalus, Ben Dollard, and Bob Cowley recall concerts and discuss Molly Bloom's voice. The three sing together for the bar crowd, causing Bloom to think about how he once loaned Dollard evening clothes for a performance. Simon sings "M'appari," from an opera called Martha. Bloom listens, thinking about Dignam's funeral, about how music is mathematical, and about how his daughter Milly is not interested in music. The blind piano tuner taps his return to the hotel to pick up his tuning fork. As Boylan drives to Eccles Street and knocks at the Blooms' front door, Bloom hunches over the table, writing secretly to Martha. As he leaves the hotel, Bloom spots Bridie Kelly, a prostitute whose services he has used, and he turns away toward a shop window to avoid being recognized by her. He pretends to study a portrait displayed there of Robert Emmet and to read his last words. As a tram passes, he farts.


The Cyclops episode begins at 5 p.m. with a description of a near accident in which a chimney-sweep handles his brush carelessly and almost pokes out the eye of another person who is this episode's unnamed first-person narrator. This speaker, quite distinct in his use of language from the omniscient narrator whose voice appears repeatedly in other episodes, turns to give the sweep "the weight of [his] tongue." Indeed, the weightiness of the language in this episode is due to its pervasive vicious sarcasm and hyperbole. The narrator spies Joe Hynes and the two of them go off to Barney Kiernan's pub where they are joined by the unnamed citizen, who takes the lead in a loud, combative talk about politics, the Gold Cup horserace (which the twenty-to-one long shot Throwaway wins), and other matters, all of which culminates with a verbal attack on Leopold Bloom. The pub is across the street from the courthouse where Bloom has agreed to meet with Martin Cunningham and together travel out to Sandymount to visit Dignam's widow. As Bloom waits for Cunningham to arrive, the circle of drinkers in the pub enlarges, with O'Molloy, Lambert, Nolan, and Lenehan arriving after Bloom. The citizen's narrow-minded nationalistic and racist rant is counterpoised by Bloom's reasonableness and moderation. Bloom, the one non-drinker in the crowd and thus perceived by others to be giving offense on that count, remains broadminded, able to see more sides to the topics being discussed. In this way he inadvertently arouses the further ire of the citizen who, as Bloom spots Cunningham and leaves, runs into the street, yelling anti-Semitic remarks. Bloom and Cunningham escape into a carriage and pull away. This bombastic, ridiculous episode is complicated by thirty-two dispersed passages of extraordinarily inflated prose that present various styles and describe unrealistically other places and times, such as a courtroom scene, a public hanging, and action being taken in Parliament.


A third-person narrator in this episode uses language that parodies a second-rate sentimental novel, beginning with the description of Sandymount Strand and how "the summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace" and Gerty MacDowell, "as fair a specimen of winsome Irish girlhood as one could wish to see" with her "rosebud mouth." Gerty sits apart from her friends, Cissy Caffrey and Edy Boardman, who are playing on the beach and watching younger siblings, Cissy's little twin brothers and Edy's younger brother. Having visited Dignam's widow, Bloom has come to the beach. It is sometime between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.; his watch stopped at 4:30. In a nearby church, evening mass is being celebrated with prayers to the Virgin Mary. Bloom watches Gerty, and she realizes it, positioning herself so he can look up her dress, exposing her thighs and underpants. With his hand in his pocket, Bloom masturbates, achieving orgasm as fireworks from the Mirus bazaar explode and viewers of the show sigh audibly. Bloom suspects his watch stopped at the very moment when Boylan and Molly engaged in sexual intercourse. Gerty gets up and walks away, revealing her limp.


Said by many, including Joyce himself, to be the most difficult episode in the novel, this inscrutable section presents the evolution of the English language through the parodied idiom of major texts and writers, all of which is divided into nine sections to match the months of gestation. It is 10 p.m. and various medical students drink and discuss rather boisterously a variety of topics related to sexuality and gestation in last delivered of her ninth son. Leopold Bloom is in the room with drunken Stephen Dedalus and others, called "right witty scholars," and while he hears their misogynistic and sacrilegious banter, he does not participate in it. Rather, as Mrs. Purefoy's baby is born, Bloom thinks sadly of Molly and the birth of their son, Rudy, who only lived a few days. Buck Mulligan arrives and takes center stage from Stephen. The nurse tries to quiet the young men, and eventually they decide to leave for a pub. Among the group is Alex Bannon, who speaks about his girlfriend and only gradually realizes she is Bloom's daughter, Milly. Bloom trails along, watching Stephen.


This episode, the longest of the novel at about one hundred and seventy pages, is presented in play format, with stage directions and speakers' names over their lines. It takes place about midnight in Nighttown, Dublin's red-light district, where the drunken Stephen and his buddies go, and Leopold Bloom follows along. The scenes of this play or drama are a series of hallucinations or fantasies, some of which must be induced by fatigue or alcohol. Separated from the young men, Bloom goes into an alley where he feeds a dog some meat he has purchased. This act engenders an hallucination in which Bloom is questioned and charged by two policemen. Witnesses, including the ghost of Dignam, seem to materialize to accuse him. Bloom heads into Bella Cohen's brothel, seeking Stephen. Inside, Stephen and Lynch are with two prostitutes, Florry and Kitty. Another fantasy or hallucination occurs in which Bloom is tyrannized by Bella Cohen, who accuses him of being less than a real man, a person who deserves to have the virile Boylan cuckolding him. Another prostitute, Zoe Higgins, accuses Bloom of being dominated by Molly. Stephen has an hallucination in which the ghost of his mother rises up and accuses him. This vision terrifies him, and he breaks away and runs outside, Bloom coming out after him. Outside there is a ruckus, and Stephen is knocked unconscious. Police come, but Corny Kelleher is nearby and helps resolve the tension. Abandoned by his friends, Stephen lies on the street, and Bloom looks over him, imagining he sees Rudy.

III: Nostos


After midnight, Bloom picks Stephen Dedalus up off the street and brushes him off. In this anticlimactic meeting between Bloom and Stephen, described in second-rate prose, the two walk arm-in-arm toward a cabman's shelter, a late-night place where winos and stray loners can find a cup of coffee. In the role of Good Samaritan, as an ordinary older man offering a young man regular kinds of advice, Bloom cautions the not-yet-sober Stephen about drinking too much and about going into Nighttown to the "women of ill fame" without knowing "a little juijitsu."

Along the way, they come across an acquaintance of Stephen, called Corley, who asks for money. Stephen gives him a halfcrown, much to Bloom's disapproval. Stephen remarks he has no place to sleep this night, and Bloom suggests Stephen go to his father's house. The two enter the cabman's shelter, which is operated by a man believed to be Skin-the-Goat Fitzharris, a person involved in the Phoenix Park murders. Here, Stephen and Bloom engage in conversation with a sailor who says his name is D. B. Murphy. When they exchange names, Murphy asks Stephen if he is related to Simon Dedalus. Stephen does not admit kinship, and Bloom offers that it must be a coincidence of names. Bloom looks at a paper and sees an article on the Gold Cup and one on Dignam's funeral, in which among the attendants listed are a "M'Intosh" and a person named "L. Boom." Talk turns to Parnell, and Bloom sympathizes more with Parnell and the married Kitty O'Shea than with O'Shea's husband, who Bloom assumes deserved his wife's betrayal. As chairs are inverted on tables, Bloom rises and takes Stephen outside, suggesting that the night air and a walk to Bloom's residence in Eccles Street will do the young man some good. Bloom offers a cup of cocoa at his house, and Stephen accepts. Street cleaners watch the two men go off, arm-in-arm.


This episode is narrated in a question-and-answer format, as might be seen in the dialogues of Socrates. According to Frank Delaney, in James Joyce's "Odyssey," Joyce described this as "the form of a mathematical Catechism." It is 1 a.m. on Eccles Street at Leopold Bloom's residence, and Bloom discovers he does not have the key. He has to drop to the basement level and climb in through a window. Holding a candle, he opens the front door, and Stephen enters. They make their way to the back kitchen where they drink cups of cocoa. Bloom thinks maybe Stephen would be interested in Milly and invites him to stay the night, but Stephen declines. They talk about the Irish and Hebrew languages. About 1:30 a.m., they go out in the back, urinate side-by-side while observing a shooting star, and then separate. In his house again, Bloom sits in the front room, thinking about how he has spent his money on this day, about how his Dublin acquaintances are in bed and Dignam in his grave, about how he wishes he had enough money to buy a little house on the outskirts of town. He has observed evidence in the kitchen, front room, and elsewhere of Boylan's visit, and he thinks of Boylan as one of many suitors for Molly, one in a series. The music for "Love's Old Sweet Song," is open on the piano. At 2 a.m., he goes upstairs to bed, lying down with his feet next to Molly's head and his head at her feet. He kisses her buttocks, and she awakes slightly. He tells her about his day, lying about some details. It has been over ten years since they engaged in sexual intercourse. This episode ends with a big dot, like an oversized period, marking the spot, the conclusion.


According to Frank Delaney, Joyce described this episode as "amplitudinously curvilinear." Delaney further explains that the first sentence contains twenty-five hundred words, that there are eight sentences in all, and the episode begins and ends, again quoting Joyce, with "the most positive word in the English language, the word yes." Commonly referred to as Molly Bloom's soliloquy, this episode presents in stream-of-consciousness style her drowsy reverie.

Her first sentence begins with her surprise at Bloom's request that she serve him breakfast in bed the next morning, ordering up two eggs before he falls asleep. She wonders if Bloom has reached orgasm during the day. She compares Boylan's aggressive sexual style to Bloom's and then thinks about the Breens' marriage, concluding that hers and Leopold's is better. In the next sentence, Molly thinks about men who have admired her, listing several of them. She wonders if she will get together with Boylan again and thinks of their upcoming concert trip to Belfast. Among her many thoughts, she considers losing some weight and wishes Bloom had a better paying office job. In the third sentence, she thinks about how attractive breasts are and how unattractive male genitals are. She thinks about how Bloom admires her breasts and once suggested she express milk from them into their tea. Molly thinks back to her early years in Gibraltar, and her friend Hester Stanhope. She recalls how lonely she felt after Hester and her husband moved away. She also thinks about Milly and how she got a card from their daughter while Leopold received a letter.

The fifth sentence includes memory of her first love interest, Lieutenant Mulvey, whom she knew in Gibraltar. A train whistles in the distance, making her think of "Love's Old Sweet Song," which she has been practicing for an upcoming concert. In the next sentence, Molly thinks of her daughter, who is studying photography in Mullingar. She thinks about how pretty Milly is, quite like Molly herself was in her teens. Molly senses she is beginning to menstruate and gets up to use the chamber pot. In the seventh sentence, back in bed, Molly muses about Leopold's finances, how she and he have moved several times. She wonders if he spent money this day on other women and wonders how much he offered at Dignam's funeral. She thinks of Bloom's circle of male acquaintances and about Simon Dedalus's good singing voice. She recalls meeting Stephen when he was a little boy. In the eighth sentence, she ponders the fact that Leopold does not hug her any more. She thinks of Stephen's mother recently dead and of Rudy's death. She thinks about morning and about the possibility of telling Leopold about her sexual encounter with Boylan, her first extramarital involvement. She thinks she will buy flowers for the house, in case Stephen returns. Finally, she thinks of being with Leopold sixteen years earlier at Howth, how he called her "a flower of the mountain" and proposed to her, and how she accepted him:

I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Following these memorable lines, the places and dates for the composition of the novel are given: "Trieste-Zürich-Paris, 1914-1921.


A. E.

The pseudonym of George Russell, A. E. is a highly respected Irish poet. He associates with other established literary people, a group which includes Haines and Mulligan but which excludes Stephen Dedalus, though he wishes to be a member.

Richard Best

Richard Best, a librarian at the National Library, takes part in the Scylla and Charybdis episode discussion of Hamlet. His comments represent conventional views of the play.

Leopold Bloom

Leopold Bloom, a thirty-eight-year-old canvasser, lives with his wife Marion at 7 Eccles Street in Dublin. Bloom is an empathetic, sensitive, earthy, sensual person who responds to the weather, to the smell of organ meat cooking, to women he sees on the street, and who puzzles over laws of physical science. He loves his daughter, fifteen-year-old Milly, and still mourns for his son Rudy, who died when he was a baby about eleven years earlier. On June 16, 1904, Bloom attends a funeral, visits a newspaper office and the National Library, has dinner at a hotel, and meets up with Stephen Dedalus in a brothel and invites him home. On this day in Dublin, Leopold Bloom anticipates and dreads his wife's infidelity with Blazes Boylan, yet he himself continues a clandestine correspondence with Martha Clifford and masturbates on Sandymount beach as he watches Gerty MacDowell.

Marion Bloom

Voluptuous Marion Bloom, called Molly, is thirty-four years old and a professional singer. Her father was a British officer, and her mother, Lunita Laredo, was a Spanish Jew. Molly grew up in Gibraltar, and presumably she moved to Dublin with her father sometime in 1886. Since the neonatal death of her second child, Rudy, she has not had a sexual relationship with her husband or any other man, but on this day, while he is away from home, she has a sexual encounter with Hugh Boylan.

Millicent Bloom

Millicent Bloom, called Milly, is the fifteen-year-old daughter of Leopold and Molly Bloom. She lives in Mullingar and is studying to become a photographer. On this day, Leopold enjoys a letter from Milly, in which she thanks him and her mother for birthday gifts.

Hugh Boylan

Hugh Boylan, called Blazes, is Molly Bloom's concert manager. Boylan is a womanizer, a fancy dresser, and man about town. He walks in slick, highly polished shoes and his car jingles through the streets making a sound reminiscent of Molly's bedsprings.

Josie Powell Breen

Josie Breen was years earlier a girlfriend of Leopold Bloom. She is now the wife of Dennis Breen, a paranoid who requires a lot of her attention and care.

The Citizen

This unnamed character, prominent in the "Cyclops" episode, is a vitriolic, narrow-minded nationalist, in favor of a free Ireland and willing to blame social ills on foreigners, especially Jews. In the pub, he verbally attacks Leopold Bloom, who responds logically and withdraws quickly. The citizen is the kind of man who sits around in a pub waiting for someone else to buy him a few drinks and then sounds off in a political harangue.

Martha Clifford

Martha Clifford writes letters to Leopold Bloom, whom she does not know face-to-face, addressing him by his pseudonym, Henry Flower. Martha's letters indicate that she is poorly educated and not particularly daring in pursuing a sexual relationship with Bloom. Yet she enjoys the titillation of their clandestine correspondence.

Bella Cohen

Bella Cohen is the madam in charge of the brothel that Stephen Dedalus and his friends visit in Nighttown. She is domineering, with a large build. Concerned with appearances, she attacks the rowdy visitors in her establishment.

Martin Cunningham

One of the mourners at Patrick Dignam's funeral, Martin Cunningham takes the initiative to start a collection for Dignam's widow and son. He is sympathetic and kindly, speaking up on Bloom's behalf several times during the day. In the late afternoon, he and Bloom visit Dignam's widow in Sandymount Strand.

Garrett Deasy

Misogynistic, anti-Semitic Garrett Deasy is the headmaster of the boys' school where Stephen teaches history. Mr. Deasy has written an essay on hoof-and-mouth disease and wants it published in local papers. He gives it to Stephen, asking him to present it to the newspaper editors with whom he is acquainted. He suspects that Stephen is not suited to a professional life in teaching.

Dilly Dedalus

Dilly Dedalus, one of Simon's daughters and Stephen's sister, has as much natural intelligence as Stephen has, but she is unlikely to have his opportunities to become learned. Nonetheless, she seeks to become educated and with a penny buys a used French primer in order to study the language. She waits on the street to get a shilling from her father and take the money home to her sisters who are washing shirts there and would have virtually nothing to eat were it not for the soup brought to them by a local nun.

Simon Dedalus

Father of Stephen and four daughters, Simon Dedalus recently buried his wife May and still mourns her. Simon has quite a good singing voice and likes to entertain his drinking friends with funny stories. Born in Cork and once rather successful, Simon has recently had financial problems. During this day, he spends money in pubs, doing nothing to help or protect his daughters at home. Simon is highly critical of Stephen, and when Stephen is asked if Simon is his father, Stephen demurs.

Stephen Dedalus

Recently home in Dublin from a year or two in Paris where he studied medicine, Stephen Dedalus is an intellectual and would-be poet, a well-read young man who takes himself very seriously and is depressed after his mother's recent death and his ongoing alienation from Ireland and the Catholic Church. A teacher at a boys' school, Stephen spends his time talking about his literary theories and drinking with his friends. At this point in his life, he is aware of having not found his professional place. He dissociates himself from his sisters and is alienated from his father, Simon.

Ben Dollard

A drinking friend of Simon Dedalus, Ben Dollard has a good voice and enjoys singing in pubs. He performs with Simon at the Ormond Hotel.

Lydia Douce

Lydia Douce is a barmaid at the Ormond Hotel. She has a crush on Boylan. She and Mina Kennedy are seen hanging out the second-floor window watching the viceregal cavalcade go by in the streets below.

John Eglinton

A published essayist, John Eglinton spends time in the National Library, where he hears Stephen expound on his theory about Hamlet. He finds Stephen over-confident and egotistical.

Richard Goulding

Suffering from chronic back pain, Richard Goulding, called Richie, has dinner with Bloom at the Ormond Hotel. Goulding is the brother of the deceased May Dedalus and thus Stephen's uncle.


An Englishman who is temporarily staying at the Martello Tower with Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus, Haines has a bad dream during the night of June 15, waking the others by shooting a gun at an imagined tiger. Later, on June 16, Haines, an Oxford student, socializes with Buck and other literati, who exclude Stephen from their circle.

Joe Hynes

A local newspaper reporter, Joe Hynes borrows three pounds from Leopold Bloom but conveniently forgets to pay back the loan. He meets the narrator of the Cyclops episode in the street and accompanies him to Barney Kiernan's pub for a conversation with an unnamed character referred to as the citizen.

Corny Kelleher

Corny Kelleher is the undertaker who officiates at Patrick Dignam's funeral and is later seen in his shop doorway. Corny intervenes on their behalf when Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom get involved with two policemen on the street near Nighttown.

Mina Kennedy

Mina Kennedy is a barmaid at the Ormond Hotel. She and Lydia Douce flirt with their male customers. Blond Mina is more reserved than Lydia. Both women are seen hanging out the second-floor window watching the viceregal cavalcade go by in the streets below.


Lenehan is a sports editor for a local Dublin newspaper. Disliked by Molly Bloom, Lenehan makes fun of Leopold Bloom. He is a friend of Simon Dedalus.


An old friend of Stephen Dedalus, Lynch is a medical student. He is involved with the prostitute, Kitty Ricketts.

Thomas W. Lyster

Quaker librarian at the National Library, Thomas Lyster patiently hears Stephen expound on his Hamlet theory and is open-minded about it.

Gerty MacDowell

Gerty MacDowell is influenced by romance literature and women's magazines and takes special care of her clothes and skin. She dreams of meeting a strong, handsome man who will marry her. Bloom is sexually aroused by her when he sees her on Sandymount Strand in the Nausicaa episode.

John Henry Menton

John Menton was once Leopold Bloom's rival for Molly. A lawyer by trade, Menton was Patrick Dignam's boss. Menton looks down on Bloom.

Malachi Mulligan

Popular Malachi Mulligan, called Buck, is a medical student and friend of Stephen Dedalus. Buck is lively, theatrical, and able to satirize anything. He is well-read and tells funny, off-color jokes. Neither Bloom nor Simon Dedalus thinks well of Buck.

J. J. O'Molloy

J. J. O'Molloy is an unemployed lawyer who on this day is unable to borrow money. At Barney Kiernan's pub, he defends Bloom.


  • Spend several hours walking around your neighborhood, noting people you see and events as they occur. Later, make a map of your journey and write a story about it.
  • Read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and then write a paper about what you learn in this novel about Stephen Dedalus that helps clarify the portrait of him in Ulysses.
  • Research patterns of alcohol consumption and alcoholism in Dublin, Ireland. Using whatever statistics you can find, make a graph that shows changing levels of alcohol consumption in three different decades of the twentieth century.
  • Read Frank McCourt's novel Angela's Ashes and write a paper on how alcoholism affected McCourt's family.
  • Do some research on the literary technique of stream of consciousness. Then study a couple of pages of Molly Bloom's monologue and trace the sequence of her thoughts. Write a paper that shows how the sequence of thoughts reveals her personality.

Kitty Ricketts

A prostitute with aspirations for a better life, Kitty Ricketts dates Lynch.

George Russell

See A. E.

Florry Talbot

One of the prostitutes at Bella Cohen's establishment, Florry Talbot entertains the medical students who visit the brothel with Stephen.


The Modern Hero

Ulysses has as its hero a most ordinary man, Leopold Bloom. So unlike the muscular, militaristic Homeric hero whose name serves as the novel's title, Bloom is gentle, self-effacing, reserved, and peripheralized. Arguably more associated with home than the outer world, even though on this day he spends most of his time out about town, the kindly, other-centered Bloom is first depicted making breakfast for his wife and feeding the cat. He is a caring man, deeply attached to his wife and daughter and continuing to mourn the neonatal death of his son, Rudy. Whereas Ulysses welcomes adventures in strange and threatening places and has a crew of sailors he orders about, Bloom lives an ordinary man's life and is a loner, an outsider, a Jew, a man who thinks about the physical world but chooses not to interfere, a man who lives very much in his body, responsive to women, courteous toward men, sensual in an unobtrusive way. He admires women on the street, wonders sympathetically about a woman in protracted labor, and talks politely to a childhood sweetheart. He helps a blind man cross the street, he tells an acquaintance his hat has a ding in it, and he kindly reminds someone of a loan and does not take offense when the man seems to brush him off.

While the daring epic hero slays the Cyclops and navigates between the rocks of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis, Bloom maneuvers among offensive others, seeking to engage with them peacefully, deferring to others and not taking offense even when he is directly insulted. He dresses in black out of respect for a friend's funeral and gives generously to the collection taken up for the man's widow. While the epic hero is defined by his conquests, his ego, his self-centeredness, Bloom is defined by his small gestures of kindness, his thoughtfulness of others and of the physical world, and his polite social restraint.

Sad about his wife's infidelity, he is resigned rather than defensive or controlling. Though their marriage is sexless, he is not without desire. He becomes aroused while looking at Gerty MacDowell on the beach, but he satisfies his desire privately, without imposing it on her, and his thoughts here and elsewhere inevitably return to Molly, so comfortably is he bound to her. In many ways, Leopold Bloom is the antithesis of the classical Ulysses; he is not a world traveler or an adventurer; he is not larger-than-life, and he is not able to perform extraordinary feats. In this character, Joyce affirms what is extraordinary about an ordinary man's character; he provides a new sense of the heroic, written in the small-scale actions of a twentieth-century urban man, in his kindliness in the face of alienation, in his ability to calmly analyze differences, in his civic decency.

The Artist's Search for a Place in the World

Stephen Dedalus is a would-be poet, a well-schooled young man full of academic theories and familiar texts. In a sense homeless (he rents a place that is usurped by others, he is back in Ireland only temporarily, he has nowhere to sleep in this day), Stephen expresses the discomfort and ennui of a creative spirit who has not yet found his medium or made his mark. Like the young Icarus, the son of the mythological Dedalus, Stephen has yet to test his wings, and perhaps like the mythic son, he may fail when he does. He is hampered, he says, by two masters, the government of England that controls Ireland and the Catholic Church that clutches his conscience. Without the role model of a suitable father, Stephen drifts in Dublin literary society, working at a job that bores him, excluded by literary insiders he wishes to displace. His plight in part results from his age: he is just starting out, and he is at this moment hampered by grief and guilt concerning his mother. On a larger scale, his plight is a product of feeling trapped by a social context which is itself fettered by poverty and alcoholism.


Stream of Consciousness

The stream-of-consciousness novel takes as its subject the interior thought sequence and patterns of associations which distinguish characters from one another. According toA Handbookto Literature, the stream-of-consciousness novel assumes that what matters most about human existence is how it is experienced subjectively. The interior level of experience is idiosyncratic, illogical, and disjointed and the "pattern of free psychological association … determines the shifting sequence of thought and feeling." The work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) offered a structure and way of understanding different psychological levels or areas of consciousness, and some modern writers, such as Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, drew upon Freud's theories as they used the stream-of-consciousness style.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many English novels focused more on outer rather than inner events, and the plot was usually arranged in a linear fashion (as it is, for example, in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield). Typically, when these novels traced the inner thoughts and feelings of characters, they did so within the single idiom of the narrator. In Joyce's handling, the spontaneous flow of thoughts and associations which typify one character is presented in that person's own idiom or voice. In part, what Joyce undertakes in Ulysses is to write the novel from the inner world of characters' interior thinking, using their idiosyncratic language patterns.

In his review of the novel, Edmund Wilson explains that whereas earlier novelists presented their characters' inner thoughts in "one vocabulary and cadence," Joyce communicates "the consciousness of each of the characters … made to speak in the idiom proper to it." In this way, as Wilson explains, "Joyce manages to give the effect of unedited human minds, drifting aimlessly along from one triviality to another." For the inexperienced reader who brings to the novel expectations based on the nineteenth-century novel, the challenge is huge. Such a reader assumes that the novel will present first things first, that its characters will be introduced, that relationships will be explicit and clear, and so forth. However, in the case of Ulysses, the reader must experience the world of the novel from within each subjective consciousness as it is presented.

Autobiographical Novel

Ulysses is, in part, the portrait of Joyce as a slightly older young artist, back from Paris at the time of his mother's death and staying for a while in the Martello Tower rented by his friend, Oliver St. John Gogart. Joyce was educated by Jesuits, and in 1904, he taught in a boys' school in Dalkey, about a mile from the Martello Tower. Among his literary friends, he pronounced all manner of theories, not least of which was his biographical interpretation of Hamlet, and, with a fine tenor voice, he pursued a singing career, entering a singing competition and giving a couple of performances in the summer of 1904. The portrait in Ulysses of the feckless Simon Dedalus is based on John Joyce, and the Dedalus sisters reside at the same address in the novel that the Joyce family resided in that year: 7 St. Peter's Terrace, Cabra. The choice of June 16, 1904, as the time for this novel honors Joyce's first date with Nora Barnacle, an illiterate hotel maid who became the author's long-time companion and years later his beloved wife. Although Joyce was no longer as young as Stephen Dedalus is portrayed in Portrait ofthe Artist as a Young Man, and Stephen in Ulysses has not yet proved himself as a writer and artist, Joyce nonetheless identified closely with Stephen Dedalus. Stephen's moodiness, his egocentrism, and his creative puns and extensive web of literary and religious allusions parallel Joyce's own manner of thinking and speaking and express the author's feelings about Ireland and Catholicism.


There are thousands of literary allusions in Ulysses, the countless corollaries to Homer's epic being only one constellation of correspondences. One recurrent allusion is to Shakespeare's Hamlet. The play is mentioned in the first episode, with comparisons drawn between Stephen's moodiness and the depressed self-absorption of Prince Hamlet and between the Danish castle and the Martello Tower. The allusion to Hamlet is prominent also in the Scylla and Charybdis episode, which takes place at the National Library. Here, Stephen Dedalus expounds on his biographical reading of Hamlet, basing his theory on suppositional information about Shakespeare's life. The theory, which he admits not believing himself, argues that Shakespeare identified with King Hamlet's ghost, that Prince Hamlet is aligned with Shakespeare's son, Hamnet, who died as a child, and that Queen Gertrude is the equivalent of the unfaithful Ann Hathaway. Using this play as a referent and embedding this theory in the novel, Joyce capitalizes on certain themes well known to readers familiar with Shakespeare's play. Parallels are suggested between the deceased King Hamlet, the betrayed husband and father of Prince Hamlet, and Leopold Bloom, who has an unfaithful wife and serves somewhat as a surrogate father for Stephen. There are other allusions to Hamlet: Stephen is apparently ousted by the so-called usurper Buck Mulligan (just as Hamlet's ascension to the throne is thwarted by his uncle, Claudius); and the tentative step-father relationship Stephen forms with Bloom may be an inexact reference to Hamlet's uneasy relationship with Claudius. The literary allusion offers a point of departure or contrast by which the present text can be understood. This is a novel much about a son's longing for a father (Homer set it up that way to begin with), and Hamlet is a Renaissance referent that also explores this theme. Joyce toys with the ideas of paternity and legacy and examines the forces that disrupt context and inheritance, situating his novel within the classical framework and extending it to Shakespeare's play, among probably hundreds of other well-known and lesser-known texts, all in order to place his novel in a literary tradition of which it is a product and which it aims to reroute. His assumption throughout is that the reader has read as much as he has.


  • 1900s: The eighteenth-century Martello Tower in which James Joyce lives in 1904 is a rented apartment, one of many small defensive forts built along Dublin Bay to defend the island against possible attack by Napoleon.

    Today: The Martello Tower is the site of the James Joyce Museum, a tourist stop for people who want to walk in the footsteps of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom.

  • 1900s: Ireland is predominantly a one-religion country with 85 percent of its population devout Catholics.

    Today: Still predominantly Catholic, Ireland is increasingly secular, and prohibitions by the Catholic Church on reproduction matters are ignored by increasing numbers of Irish people.

  • 1900s: While estimates on Irish consumption of alcohol are unavailable, the pub serves as a daily meeting place where the Irish drink, discuss local matters and politics, and sing along with musicians who gather together informally.

    Today: Between 1992 and 2002, estimates place the consumption rate of alcohol among the Irish as among the highest in Europe at 14.2 liters per adult annually.


Irish Struggle for Independence: From the 1860s to World War I

The term, home rule, refers to an Irish movement for legislative independence for Ireland from the United Kingdom, which began in the 1860s. In 1874, advocates for home rule won fifty-six seats in the House of Commons, and these men formed an Irish party of sorts in Westminster, led by Isaac Butts. Butts was followed by William Shaw in 1879 and by Charles Stewart Parnell in 1880. As Parnell led the movement, advocates for home rule won eighty-six seats in the 1885 parliamentary election and supported the liberal government of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, who introduced the first home rule bill. It was defeated in 1886 in the House of Commons. Gladstone introduced a second bill in 1892, which passed through the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords. The third time such a bill was presented to the House of Commons occurred in 1912 by Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. This third piece of legislation passed the House of Commons, but in the House of Lords, a veto move was used to stall discussion for two years, by which time World War I had begun and Parliament decided to postpone discussion of home rule until after the conclusion of the war.

The Rise and Fall of Parnell

Charles Stewart Parnell is buried in Glasnevin, where in the novel May Dedalus is buried and Patrick Dignam's body is laid to rest. In the Lestrygonians episode, Parnells brother, John Howard Parnell, is spotted in the corner of a pub, and in the Cyclops and Eumaeus episodes, Parnell is heatedly discussed, Bloom siding privately with Parnell rather than contributing to criticism of him. Indeed, by 1904, Parnell was, in every sense, gone but not forgotten.

Born June 27, 1846, Charles Stewart Parnell was educated at the University of Cambridge and became politically active as a young man when he began supporting the work of Isaac Butts for home rule. Parnell was elected to the House of Commons in 1874, and once there, he pursued an obstructionist policy, using filibusters to stall legislation and bring political and public attention to conditions and sentiments in Ireland. In 1879, Parnell headed the recently formed National Land League, which sought ultimately to remove English landlords from Ireland. When Parnell urged a boycott, he was arrested, and from Kilmainham Prison he issued a manifesto, inciting Irish peasants to refuse to pay their rent to English landlords. After this, he and Prime Minister Gladstone reached what was called the Kilmainham Treaty, in which the no-rent policy was abandoned and Parnell urged Irish people to avoid violence. Parnell was released on May 2, 1882, and just four days later, the chief secretary and undersecretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Charles Cavendish and Thomas Burke, were murdered in Phoenix Park, Dublin, an event alluded to in the cabstand discussion in the Eumaeus episode and elsewhere in Ulysses. Much speculation surrounded the identity of the assassins, since this crime so effectively sabotaged Parnell's new strategy for peace in partnership with Gladstone's resolve to work for reform. Ultimately, the radical militant group, the Irish Invincibles, took responsibility for or was assigned responsibility for the murders. The aftermath was a split between Parnell and Gladstone, culminating in the end of the prime minister's government.

The death knell of Parnell's effectiveness as a leader sounded with the 1889 divorce case brought by Lieutenant William Henry O'Shea, a loyal supporter of Parnell, who named Parnell in an adultery charge. Proven guilty of this extramarital alliance in 1890, Parnell was ruined. He and Katherine O'Shea, who had been lovers for years, were married shortly after the O'Shea divorce was granted, causing further public scandal among both Irish and English, which exacerbated the divisions among the nationalists. Parnell fought in vain for the reunification of the nationalists until his death at Brighton on October 6, 1891. The schism persisted and contributed to the further delay of the discussion of home rule when World War I erupted.


Highlighting both the strengths and limitations of the novel, Edmund Wilson's 1922 review in NewRepublic is an excellent starting place for evaluating the critical reviews garnered by Ulysses. Wilson applauds the work for its "high genius," and at the same time, he asserts that Joyce "has written some of the most unreadable chapters in the whole history of fiction." Wilson calls Joyce's "technical triumph … the most faithful X-ray ever taken of the ordinary human consciousness." Wilson explains that Joyce shows all the ignobility of common people in such a way that readers sympathize with and respect them. According to Wilson, Joyce demonstrates "his extraordinary poetic faculty for investing particular incidents with universal significance." Yet Wilson faults Joyce's work on two counts: first, its form is dictated by the form of the Odyssey rather than emerging from its own immediate content; second, his literary imitative parody "interposes a heavy curtain between" readers and the novel's characters.

Frank Delaney described the divide among other critics in the 1920s:

When the novel appeared … there seemed to be only two schools of thought—and criticism. Ford Madox Ford wrote: ‘One feels admiration that is almost reverence for the incredible labours of this incredible genius.’ But Alfred Noyes suggested that it was ‘the foulest book that has ever found its way into print.’

Delaney quotes W. B. Yeats who commented that Ulysses amounted to "the vulgarity of a single Dublin day prolonged to seven hundred pages." Delaney also notes that the Sunday Express held that Ulysses was "The most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature"; and the Daily Express agreed: "Our first impression is that of sheer disgust."

It was the Nausicaa episode which brought about the U.S. charge of obscenity and caused the Little Review to stop publishing installments of the novel. This decision led to the publication of the novel in France. After that, the furor brought attention to the novel and to Joyce, who was exonerated by the U.S. district court decision that the novel was not prurient. Joyce himself made little money from the novel, but when it "emerged from copyright" in 1992, many presses hurried to print and profit from the novel, as an anonymous reviewer explains in the January 18, 1992, Economist. Cyril Connolly in a 1999 issue of New Statesman mildly reports on the "revolutionary" technique that made it possible for Joyce "to create a mythical universe of his own." But he points out that Joyce was so much a part of the novel his "clock seemed literally to have stopped on June 16th, 1904."

The degree to which this revolutionary and controversial work came to be accepted is indicated in the widespread celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of what is called Bloomsday, on June 16, 2004. The occasion brought forth festivities, readings, and renewed critical attention for the novel. For example, two articles appeared in Commonweal. In one, Robert H. Bell writes of the "the enduring power" of Ulysses, which "has become the canonical twentieth-century novel." In the other, which is especially beautifully written, Mark Patrick Hederman describes the festival held in Dublin in 2004 and the new James Joyce Bridge that was opened on Bloomsday in 2004. He notes the irony that the country which initially "condemned and reviled" the work now makes Joyce "an Irish industry." Hederman points to the fact that Ulysses "describes the paralysis" of Dublin, depicting how "The twin forces of politics and religion had entrapped the Irish in alcoholism, sexual repression, and poverty." Writing of the improvements in the city and its culture since Joyce abandoned it in 1904, Hederman remarks that Joyce in a sense showed Dubliners the way to embrace "the new century's awareness of human possibility." He concludes that "Joyce's magisterial work … incorporates the whole of humanity, unconscious as well as conscious."


  • To prepare for reading Ulysses, people should first read James Joyce's Dubliners and then his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (both available from Norton [2005]), because Ulysses in a sense is the sequel to the collection of stories and the autobiographical novel.
  • Originally published in 1930 and reprinted several times by Vintage Books, Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's "Ulysses" is the essential starting place for decoding the novel. Gilbert worked closely with Joyce and got the author's approval for this interpretation of the novel. Gilbert's writing is formal and complex, but it expresses the vision of the novel Joyce himself hoped to impart to readers.
  • Richard Ellmann wrote James Joyce, the definitive biography of Joyce, published by Oxford University Press in 1983.
  • Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925) is a stream-of-consciousness novel about a day in the post-World War I London life of Clarissa Dalloway, wife of a member of Parliament, as she prepares to give a party that night. An excellent annotated edition edited by Mark Hussey appeared in 2005.


Melodie Monahan

Monahan has a Ph.D. in English and operates an editing service, The Inkwell Works. In the following essay, Monahan discusses some reader expectations and how in Ulysses Joyce surprises with new technique and focus.

Ulysses is an inordinately complex novel, in part because it unhinges readers' expectations of what a novel is supposed to be. Those who appreciate novels and know something of the form's development in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries come to Joyce's novels expecting certain features with which they are familiar: a recognizable narrator or combination of narrators and a clear point of view; a mostly chronological storyline; a consistent style along with standard mechanical elements such as punctuation and quotation marks; introductory and concluding parts to sections which provide framework and ease comprehension. Without even knowing it, readers may come to Joyce's work with the assumption that the world created within the text is a single, palpable world, one that all the characters in the work inhabit and which readers can recognize and make sense of. (Indeed, in the history of the novel, authors have taken deliberate measures to make the work of fiction appear real and true, often attempting to pass the novel off as an historical record, as in for example Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year or Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, in which latter case the first edition title page gives the additional information that the work is "an autobiography edited by Currer Bell.") While there are exceptions, of course, especially in novels that have fantastic elements, the genre typically asks readers to believe that its depiction is a cohesive presentation of the known world. But the stream-of-consciousness technique Joyce uses here suggests multiple worlds and multiple points of view, causing some readers to long for the comfortable singleness of vision a novel such as Jane Eyre presents. When such readers come to Joyce's novel, they quickly realize they are facing a work that appears to operate without rules or with the intention of ditching customary rules without explanation, one that seems deliberately opaque, intent on daunting readers, forcing them to rely on outside research and scholarship in order to decode what appears on many pages to be a labyrinth of nonsense. This essay explores some aspects of the quandary Ulysses generates in uninitiated Joyce readers and attempts to quell some of that dissonance, also pointing out secondary works that may help readers comprehend and appreciate Ulysses.

First, the narrator. Each of the three major divisions of the novel begins with a page that is blank except for a roman numeral; on the recto of this sheet a colossal letter fills much of the page followed by a much smaller letter or couple of words. These three beginnings are in the omniscient narrative voice readers may expect in a novel. In each beginning, then, readers' first impression may not be unsettling. They might assume that this voice narrates all text that does not begin with a dash, which Joyce uses as a substitute for an opening quotation mark to identify dialogue. Some text is, to be sure, in this narrative voice. But quite soon, for example, in the first episode, Telemachus, with the dream paragraph beginning, "Silently, in a dream she had come to him," the narrator makes some jumps that are so poetically smooth readers might miss the elisions. The narrator describes Stephen Dedalus's dream, describes the sea, and equates the sea with the white china bowl at his mother's bedside. In these steps inward, into the associative pattern of Stephen's mind, readers slide away from the objective omniscient narrator and into the inner reality of Stephen Dedalus. Two pages later, the jumps are neither poetic nor smooth; they seem disruptive. Buck Mulligan puts his arm on Stephen. The text reads: "Cranly's arm. His arm." Who is Cranly and does the pronoun refer to Cranly's or to Buck's arm? These are simple skips compared to those that follow in this long novel, but they indicate the way the narrator can vanish and references occur without explanation. Don Gifford's "Ulysses" Annotated:Notes for James Joyce's "Ulysses" explains that Cranly is Stephen's friend in Joyce's previous novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916); the assumption is that readers of this novel have read the previous one. Moreover, the stylistic point is that stream-of-consciousness technique presents readers with the associations of the character in whose mind the connections make a certain sense; no explanation within that technique is allowed to bring readers up to speed. An added complication is that the third-person narrator is not always this voice which begins these divisions; indeed, the third-person voice is clearly different elsewhere in the novel, for example, in the sentimental style of the Nausicaa episode.

Next, the storyline. There are two basic ways of looking at the story that this novel tells: one using the classical model; one focusing on the day in Dublin. Given the title and Stuart Gilbert's book, James Joyce's "Ulysses": A Study, the novel is definitely linked to the classical hero and stories about him, the Greek Odysseus, whom the Romans called Ulysses. Joyce knew the parallels to the Odyssey would be hard for readers to deduce, so he wrote a schema for the novel and gave it to Stuart Gilbert to elucidate. Gilbert's book is itself a sophisticated academic writing, but it received Joyce's approval and thus presents what the author wanted to have said about the novel's organization. Though the eighteen sections of the novel are untitled, the corresponding titles taken from the Odyssey are assigned to them in the schema. Much scholarship examines the Homeric parallels to these episodes, drawing from Joyce's own guideline. The second story is more explicit and accessible: it is the hour-by-hour story of Leopold Bloom's day trip around Dublin on June 16, 1904. It is mainly his story of being away from home, but his story includes the partial stories of other Dubliners who are going about their lives on this day and whose paths crisscross through the hours of daylight and night that follow. An excellent source for visualizing this day's journey is provided in Frank Delaney's James Joyce's Odyssey: A Guide to the Dublin of "Ulysses," which includes historical and contemporary photographs (from the 1900s and the 1980s) of the city along with city maps that explain the route and the spots of local interest where these Joycean Dubliners pause to engage with one another. In his introduction, Delaney remarks that Ulysses is for "many, a literary obstacle course." A poetic and colorful writer in his own right, Delaney laments that the novel is "lodged outside the reach of the people about whom it was written." This is true, and yet Delaney is able to deliver Joyce's novel into those people's hands, bringing the Dublin day into focus by introducing readers to the city as it was in 1904 and as it was in the 1980s when Delaney made his photographic tour.

Regarding style, it would take a long and erudite book to identify and explain all the styles Joyce uses in this novel. He makes the style match the subject in many places, as in the Aeolus episode in which Bloom visits the newspaper office and the novel's text is divided by newspaper headings. Elsewhere, Joyce parodies types of styles, as in the women's magazine style of the Nausicaa episode or the far more complex styles mimicking the development of the English language, which he attempts in the Oxen of the Sun episode. The virtuosity and breadth of these styles, the diversity and richness of the figures, puns, jokes, the complicated network of motifs (for example, the play on the word, throwaway, which refers to a horse running in the Gold Cup and a one-page advertisement handed out to pedestrians), all of this requires multiple readings, along with supportive scholarship, to begin to appreciate.

A couple of examples of this virtuosity may serve here. Delaney shows an almost Joycean zest in his appreciation of the puns that appear in the lunchtime Lestrygonians episode, in which Leopold Bloom enters a deli in search of his midday meal. Here is the interior monologue of Bloom as he eyes the display of food: "Sardines on the shelves. Almost taste them by looking. Sandwich? Ham and his descendants mustered and bred there." Delaney exclaims: "Bloom the Jew. Ham. Mustard. Bread. Grrr! Joyce!" For another example, the episode equated with the Homeric Sirens shows how Joyce uses his considerable knowledge of music (he had a trained tenor voice) when he writes about the sounds in the Ormond Hotel. Bloom enters the hotel intent on observing Blazes Boylan who has planned a 4 p.m. assignation with Bloom's wife, Molly. The jingle of Boylan's car after he leaves the hotel, the in-coming tapping of the blind piano tuner returning for his tuning fork, the drunken songs from the bar, the associations that certain songs elicit, and all the street sounds that penetrate this busy meeting place are conveyed in a symphony of language. Here is a description of the two barmaids' hair and what they hear as they lean out the hotel window to observe the viceregal cavalcade as it passes: "bronze from anear, by gold from afar, heard steel from anear, hoofs ring from afar, and heard steelhoofs ringhoof ringsteel." A sound poem, perhaps, but a passage like this may leave some readers feeling lost. Here is a description of one barmaid serving and Simon Dedalus lighting his pipe:

With grace of alacrity … she turned herself. With grace she tapped a measure of gold whisky from her crystal keg. Forth from the skirt of his coat Mr. Dedalus brought pouch and pipe. Alacrity she served. He blew through the flue two husky fifenotes.

There may not be actual music described here, but there are many musical words: tapped, measure, pipe, fifenotes. To see what is happening in this scene is one thing; to appreciate the layers of stylistic choices is another.

The world that makes a single sense in this novel is the world within each consciousness. As Richard Ellmann explains in his insightful and highly readable Ulysses on the Liffey, the novel presents "a new odyssey in which most of the adventures occur inside the mind." The interiority of the text can come as a surprise and a hurdle to new Joyce readers, but if they know something of the character beforehand then tracking the idiosyncratic, associative patterns of his or her thoughts can convey the world as that character experiences it. For example, when Boylan walks out of the Ormond Hotel, Bloom, hunching over his dinner, sobs. He experiences the other man's departure as the outward sign of his wife's imminent betrayal; others in the hotel and Boylan himself cannot experience the moment this way. As Joyce shifts the focus inward in this and his other novels, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the subsequent highly experimental and even more challenging Finnegans Wake (1939), he dramatizes the post-Freudian idea that dominated the modern period, the early decades of the twentieth century. The interior reality of the Joycean text, this stream of thoughts in the consciousness of separate people, asserts the sense that individuals experience, indeed even inhabit, separate worlds. These worlds are defined by the layered and much unconscious nexus of individuals' past experiences, their beliefs, their education, their current situation. The way the character thinks about experience becomes in the stream-of-consciousness novel the plot that is articulated. This interior journey supersedes or blots out an objective reality as fully as Bloom's lifted little finger blots out the sun. Nowhere is this interiority more obvious than in the hallucinatory journey into Nighttown, the Circe episode. Alcohol-induced, fatigue-induced, these surreal fantasies or dreams are the experiences of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. It is as though the guilty conscience (what Stephen calls, using Middle English, the "Agenbite of inwit") designs the character's delirium, the most repressed fears or regret surfacing to excoriate the person who harbors them.

In the last analysis, or perhaps more so in the first analysis, readers need to hold on to some notion of why Joyce wrote the novel as he did, some notion of his purpose. In his excellent Preface to Ulysses on the Liffey, Ellmann states that Joyce's method was comic:

He liked comedy both in its larger sense of negotiating the reconciliation of forces, and in its more immediate sense of provoking laughter. Sympathy and incongruity were his gregarious substitutes for pity and terror … The comic method might take varied forms, malapropism or epigram, rolypoly farce or distant satire, parody or mock-heroics. But all its means must coalesce in a view which … Joyce was willing to call his faith.

Ulysses is grounded in autobiographical details, many of which Delaney identifies, but it is more than autobiography in every sense. Ellmann cites a September 1920 letter Joyce wrote to Carlo Linatti, in which the author states his intention in writing Ulysses and its schema:

My intention is not only to render the myth … but also to allow each adventure (that is, every hour, every organ, every art being interconnected and interrelated in the structural scheme of the whole) to condition and even to create its own technique.

So in terms of authorial intention, it seems there were two emphases, among many: first, to use comedy to recreate Dublin on a particular day and in that setting to recreate ordinary Dubliners living their ordinary lives; second, to use myth as a vehicle and an impulse in choosing the diverse styles of that comedy. Joyce heralds a new period in the development of the novel, one that directs readers to consider how subjective consciousness creates each individual's perception of the world and one that invites readers to expand their awareness of literary history in order to see each work of literature in its greater historical and linguistic context, part of a continuum of culture and artistic expression.

Source: Melodie Monahan, Critical Essay on Ulysses, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2008.

Cormac Ó Gráda

In the following essay, Ó Gráda questions the validity of Joyce's familiarity with the Jewish community in Dublin and, therefore, the details and makeup of his characters and their surroundings in Ulysses.

James Joyce left Dublin for good in October 1904 at the age of twenty-two. Dublin, Of course, never left him: "all my books are about Dublin," he liked to say. And the Joyce household's frequent address changes and Joyce's own flâneur habits meant that he knew his Dublin well. In Ulysses he wanted "to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed from my book" (as cited in Delany 10; see also Bulson). But how much of the topographical and other detail in Ulysses did he carry with him in his head? How much of it relied on letters from home and on the two brief return trips that he made in 1909 and 1912? Such questions are grist to the mill of Joyce scholarship. The same questions have been asked about Leopold Bloom. Critics still debate Bloom's compositional makeup. To some extent, he represented Joyce himself. He was also fashioned in part from Joyce's encounters in Dublin. Joyce's biographer Richard Ellmann has shown that Bloom was the same height and weight as one of Joyce's college friends and that he made a living as a billboard advertiser, like another acquaintance (Ellmann, James Joyce 374-75); and Bloom was not an uncommon Jewish name in Ireland.

In their search for Leopold's real-life alter ego, both Ellmann and Louis Hyman, author of The Jews of Ireland, canvassed the possible links between Leopold and practically every Jewish family named Bloom in Ireland. Ellmann, prompted by a throwaway remark by Dublin academic A. J. Leventhal on their first meeting in 1952, was fixated for a time on a case involving an Irish Bloom who was party to a suicide pact, while Louis Hyman peppered one of his main informants about fin de siècle Jewish Dublin, Jessie Bloom, with queries by mail about Pesach Bloom (her husband), Solomon Bloom, "one of the Lombard Street Blooms who married a daughter of Levy of Cork," "the Simon Bloom who was involved in the Wexford murder of 1910," Basseh Bloom, "probably a sister of Simon or some near relative," "an A. Bloom who was murdered in his saloon in Chicago in 1899," and the "JacobBloom[who] had a daughter named Bertha Jenny who was born in Sligo in 1900." Ellmann and Hyman both made far too much of even the most tenuous connections between Joyce's Bloom and real-life Dublin namesakes. The Simon Bloom murder had taken place in a photographer's shop in Wexford in 1910; for Ellmann, this "presumably" is how Milly, Leopold Bloom's daughter, came to work in a similar establishment in Mullingar. Louis Hyman even speculated whether Leopold was modeled in part on Benny Bloom, listed in the 1901 census as a traveler and still selling holy pictures in Dublin in the 1960s. However, since Benny joined the army at the age of twenty in 1901 and did not return to Dublin until 1916, he seemed an unlikely candidate. All these searches for Leopold Bloom's Dublin cousins turned out to be wild goose chases (Ellmann, James Joyce 375; Hyman 173-74).

Joyce lived mostly in the Hapsburg port city of Trieste while writing Ulysses. So was Leopold a Dublinized Middle European Jew? Joyce scholars (e.g. McCourt; Hartshorn) also have their answers to this question. Italian writer Italo Svevo, Jewish by birth though a convert to Roman Catholicism, once pleaded with Joyce's brother: "Tell me some secrets about Irishmen. You know your brother has been asking me so many questions about Jews that I want to get even with him" (Ellmann, James Joyce 374).

Of course, critics also debate Bloom's Jewishness. On the one hand, it is claimed that he did not qualify by strictly confessional criteria (compare Steinberg; Levitt, "Family of Bloom"). His mother, Ellen Higgins, was a gentile; his father converted in order to marry her; their son Leopold was neither circumcised nor bar mitzvahed; he married out, going through the motions of conversion to Catholicism in the process; he flouted the Jewish dietary laws, and proclaimed himself an atheist. On the other hand, in support of the Jewish Bloom there is the possibility that his maternal grandmother was a Hungarian Jew. But surely what matters most is that Bloom was perceived as (or even mistaken for) Jewish by others: in Cyclops he is dubbed "a new apostle to the gentiles" and the "new Messiah for Ireland" by the anti-Semitic "Citizen." The deity that he rejected was Jewish, and he always wore his Jewishness on his sleeve. For Joyce too, surely Bloom was an Irish Jew.

In part, the ongoing controversy about Bloom's Jewishness springs from rival definitions of Jewishness. But it overlooks a key issue: what was it to be an Irish Jew a century ago? In 1866, the year of Leopold Bloom's birth, Dublin contained no more than a few hundred Jews. The community, scattered thinly throughout middle-class Dublin, was in decline; it recorded only nine births in that year. Its status as a religious community was precarious: an English Jew who often made business trips to the city in the early 1870s was more than once summoned from his hotel on the Sabbath to make up the necessary minyan of ten adult males. The reason for the small size of the Jewish community was not (as the bigoted Garrett Deasy proclaimed in Ulysses) that Ireland had "never let them in" (Joyce 30:437-42); it was Irish economic backwardness. Ireland had long been a place of emigration, not immigration. Within a few years, however, the earliest representatives of an inflow that would define Irish Jewry for a century settled in Dublin. Thanks to these immigrants from a cluster of small towns and villages in northwestern Lithuania, Dublin's Jewish population exceeded two thousand by 1900, and it was nearly three thousand by 1914.

The half-dozen or so families that arrived in the 1870s settled first in run-down tenement housing. Some lived in Chancery Lane, not far from St. Patrick's Cathedral, "in a little square wherein stood the police station, joining the other foreigners—Italian organ-grinders, bear leaders, one-man-band operators, and makers of small, cheap plaster casts of saints of the Catholic church." Others lived north of the River Liffey on Jervis and Moore Streets, perhaps in order to be nearer Dublin's only synagogue at St. Mary's Abbey. Conditions were tough: Molly Harmel Sayers, a delicate child born in a Mercer Street tenement in 1878, "survived only because of the tender care bestowed on her by a drunken applewoman."

These plucky newcomers did not remain in the tenements for long. The first movers to the complex of small streets off Lower Clanbrassil Street and the South Circular Road on the southern edge of the city proper, where most of the community would settle, can be inferred from Thom's Directory (a source much favored by Joyce while writing Ulysses) and other sources. Harris Lipman and Jacob Davis were living in Oakfield Place by 1880, and Michael Harmel was living in Lombard Street West; Meyer Schindler was a tenant in nearby St. Kevin's Parade a year later. There they found purpose-built family housing, mostly rented out in three- or four-room terraced units. Others quickly followed, and by century's end the Lithuanian-Jewish presence stretched south across the South Circular Road as far as the Grand Canal. Robert Bradlaw, "prince" of the immigrant community, formed its first chevra (or prayer house) in 1883, at number 7 St. Kevin's Parade.

The area became Dublin's "Little Jerusalem." Few streets would ever become completely Jewish, or remain so for long. This was not the East End or the Lower East Side. Nonetheless, the area would boast a significant and unbroken Jewish presence for several decades. There is evidence of some confessional clustering within streets: the analysis of settlement patterns suggests that Jewish householders preferred to live next to Jewish neighbors.

Most of the newcomers, like the unfortunate Moses Herzog in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses, made their living as peddlers or credit drapers. This involved selling dry goods on credit to the poor, who were supposed to repay in weekly installments. Naturally, the peddlers became known as "weeklymen." There were skilled craftsmen among the Lithuanian (or Litvak) immigrants too—cabinet-makers, shoemakers, tailors, cap-makers—some of whom worked for Jewish employers. But most of the immigrants lived up to the Yiddish dictum that "arbeiter far yennem was for a goy, nicht far a Yid." A few quickly graduated to petty moneylending: the most prominent machers among the first generation of Litvaks were nearly all moneylenders.

The Litvaks arrived with mind-sets formed in the small shtetls of Lithuania. In considering Leopold Bloom's Jewish milieu, this is very important. One hallmark of the Litvak community in the early years was quasi-endemic bickering about ritual and doctrine between factions within the community, and also between the immigrants and the "English" Jews in Ireland before them. In Cork the feuding between the Clein and Jackson factions lasted for years, to the bemusement of the local goyim. Blows and insults were often traded. In the wake of one reconciliation, Cork's rabbi was congratulated on the shalom in the community by the Chief Rabbi, but Cork's request for a new sefer torah was rejected, because the warring parties had beaten each other about the head with the previous one. In Limerick in early 1889 the police were notified when "the Chazan was knocked down, and the book used for the service was carried off." That dispute lasted for several years; in 1901 a row about the ethics of moneylending resulted in another bitter split in the community. In Belfast in November 1912 the defeat of the "English" Mitanglim in an election for the vice-president of the new synagogue (which had been under "English" control from the outset) prompted enthusiastic celebrations by the Litvak Haredim. These tensions were a central feature of Jewish life in Ireland life a century ago, yet, on the evidence of Ulysses, Joyce and Bloom were impervious to them.

Both contemporary reports and autobiographical memoirs testify to the Litvaks' intense religious orthodoxy (compare Bloom; Harris; Price). Consider the tragic deaths of Joseph and Rebecca Reuben, whose bodies were found hanging in their house on Walworth Road on a Saturday night in late March 1894. The Reubens were comfortably off, Joseph being a well-stocked wholesale draper. A near relative could offer no explanation for what the Dublin Evening Mail dubbed "the Jewish suicides." However, earlier that day two of Joseph's clients, whom he had accused of theft, had appeared before a civil court. According to the Freeman's Journal's reporter, it was believed that remorse for having brought two co-religionists to court on the Sabbath led to the Reubens' deaths.

According to the late Esther Hesselberg (née Birkahn), who grew up in Cork's "Jewtown" in the 1890s, so observant were Cork Jews that in the early days "nobody carried a handkerchief on the Sabbath." The shul provided spittoons for the "bronchitic baila batim" and Esther's brother related how "those kosher hillybillys were ‘dead eye dicks’ and never missed their target." In Dublin as in Cork, observant Jews refused to even handle money on the Sabbath, and the shabbas goyim who lit and stoked their fires and boiled their water were left their penny or two on the table or else collected it on a Sunday.

The newcomers from the east, some of them almost penniless on arrival, were not made welcome by their co-religionists already in Dublin. This was a common pattern wherever East European Jews settled. Indeed, representatives of the mainly middle-class "English" community offered the glazier Jacob Davis, one of the first men (if not the first) to arrive from Lithuania, the considerable sum of £40 (enough then to employ an unskilled worker for a year or more, or about $8,000 in today's money) to betake himself and his panes of glass elsewhere. Long after the establishment of a grand "English" synagogue on Adelaide Road on the south side of the city in 1892, a majority of the Litvak faithful clung to their own rabbis and places of worship. In late 1889, as members of the Dublin "English" community rehearsed their annual show for the Montefiore Musical and Dramatic Club, a group of young Litvaks were establishing reading and lecture rooms in Curzon Street. The latter belonged to "the poorest class," "extremely anxious to raise their educational status," and welcoming gifts of books in English, German, and Hebrew. For a time in the 1900s the Adelaide Road shul suffered the indignity of having to pay a few poor Litvaks to attend in case they were needed to make up a minyan. The most successful of the Litvak men married into the "English" community, but that meant forsaking Little Jerusalem; "they all lived on this side of the system […] and didn't have much to do with the foreigners on the other side."

The immigrants probably did not think much of the native gentiles at first either. Their attitudes towards non-Jews back in der heim were unflattering, to say the least. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica entry on Lithuanian Jewry:

Lithuania was a poor country, and the mass of its inhabitants, consisting of Lithuanian and Belorussian peasants, formed a low social stratum whose national culture was undeveloped. The Jews, who had contacts with them as contractors, merchants, shopkeepers, innkeepers, craftsmen, etc. regarded themselves as their superior in every respect.

It surely stands to reason that the immigrants brought some of their superiority complexes with them to Ireland and that this conditioned their initial interaction with the host community. There are scattered hints that such was the case. Writer Leslie Daiken, who grew up in Little Jerusalem, recalled an earthy and unpleasant piece of Yiddish doggerel doing the rounds during his childhood, d presumably e r der heim: "Yashka Pandre ligt in drerd, Kush mein tokkes vee a ganze ferd (Jesus Christ lies in s——; kiss my arse the size of a horse)" (Daiken 19). Yaski (or Yoshke) Pandre was a rude and offensive way of describing Catholics. An unpublished family memoir refers to drunken Galway neighbors in the 1880s as "horrible—all Yoshke Pandres." Much in the same vein is the currency in early twentieth-century Dublin of "laptzies" or "laptseh," a disparaging Yiddish term for gullible gentile clients (Schlimeel). The terms goy and shikse were also in widespread use; in those Jewish households that could afford an (invariably Catholic) domestic servant, she was called the shikse. Jessie Spiro Bloom's mother banned the use of the word in their home by the Grand Canal, but her parents were atypical. Her father shunned the "weekly payment" business because, according to Jessie, "the idea of taking a shilling a week from poor Irish people who were hardly able to repay it repelled him" (Bloom 23).

The immigrant community in the 1880s and 1890s was clannish and resilient and steeped in what economists and sociologists dub "social capital." It was wonderful at caring for its own, quickly establishing a vibrant and exclusive network of clubs and support groups. It was made up of immensely gregarious people, who had fun together. A police report dating the early noted: "They only associate with themselves […] always trading when possible with one another." Chaim Herzog, future president of Israel and resident of Little Jerusalem (where he was known to his friends as Hymie) between 1917 and 1935, concurred. "Physically and psychologically, he remembered, "the Jewish community was closed in on itself. […] Very few Jews mingled socially with non-Jews" (Herzog 9).

Ongoing day-to-day contact between native and newcomer in Little Jerusalem and its satellites in Belfast and Cork would erode such attitudes in due course. Initial suspicions, rudeness, and hostility on both sides gave way to mutual respect and, on occasion, close friendships and intimacy. Children helped to break the ice. Leslie Daiken's mother advised him not to have "anything to do with that rough crowd from the back streets," but he ignored her, and "could not find anything bad about them" (Yodaiken 30).

For most of their existence these Irish Little Jerusalems were successful experiments in multiculturalism. They are warmly remembered as such by both present and former residents of all faiths. Yet, almost certainly, negative stereotypes were still powerfully present on both sides up to 1904, when James Joyce left Dublin. Even in the 1920s it took a long time for "a [Jewish] trader from Hungary with his big red beard and a lot of children" to be accepted by the Litvaks.

The story of Leopold Bloom fits uncomfortably into the setting described here. The first false note concerns Bloom's putative birth in May 1866 at 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street. A Dublin Tourism plaque marks the spot today. Upper Clanbrassil Street links Little Jerusalem proper to Harold's Cross on the other side of the Grand Canal: presumably Joyce chose it with Little Jerusalem in mind. Yet, as we have seen, there was no Little Jerusalem in 1866. And although Peisa Harmel, at one time the wealthiest man in the Litvak community, lived on Upper Clanbrassil Street for a while in the 1880s and 1890s, the street never really formed part of Little Jerusalem. On Lower Clanbrassil Street, to the north of Leonard's Corner, it was a different story. That was "the kosher street where we go to do our shopping [with] foodstuffs that you cannot buy in O'Connor's, Burke's or Purcell's" (Yodaiken 29). But neither Joyce nor his interpreters made the distinction between the two Clanbrassil Streets. Joyce's quest for verisimilitude, his ear for the varieties of Dublin English, and his eye for Dublin foibles and characters, make Ulysses a rich source for the historian of Ireland and its capital city. The same cannot be said for his account of Irish Jewry. At a time when it was almost unimaginable for an Irish Jew to "marry out," Leopold Bloom, the son of a Hungarian-Jewish father and an Irish Protestant mother, married a Catholic. What stretches credibility even more is that Bloom could have blended into the immigrant Litvak community described above. Joyce paints a vivid and credible picture of the petty racist jibes inflicted on Bloom by the "Citizen" and others. But had Bloom stepped from the written page into the real-life Little Jerusalem of Joyce's day, his mixed parentage and his marrying out would almost certainly have ensured him a rather cold welcome from that quarter also. Much has been made of Joyce's references to several real-life inhabitants of the Jewish quarter. Louis Hyman identified Moses Herzog, featured in the Cyclops chapter (Joyce 240:31-34), as the peddler who lived at number 13 St. Kevin's Parade between 1894 and 1906. "Poor Citron," with whom Bloom spent "pleasant evenings," was Israel Citron, another peddler, who lived at number 17 between 1904 and 1908. "Mastiansky [recte Masliansky] with the old cither" in the same passage in Calypso was Citron's next-door neighbor. But it is well known that Joyce lifted these and most of the Jewish names used in Ulysses from his copy of Thom's Directory, perpetuating some of the transcription errors in the directory in the process (Hyman 168, 185).

Citron and "Mastiansky," both natives of Lithuania, are supposed to have been Leopold Bloom's friends. But would their English have been fluent enough for nocturnal conversations with Bloom on topics such as "music, literature, Ireland, […] prostitution, diet, the influence of gaslight or the light of arc and glowlamps on the growth of adjoining paraheliotropic trees, exposed corporation emergency dustbuckets" (Joyce 544:11-18)? Bloom's background and upbringing would almost certainly have precluded him from understanding Yiddish, the dominant language in the homes where he spent so many "pleasant times." Rudolph Bloom had attempted to pass on a little Hebrew and some knowledge of the Jewish scriptures to his son, but he was no Yiddish speaker. It is difficult to imagine the immigrants in the 1880s or 1890s switching to English, even if they could, for an outsider like Leopold Bloom.

And whatever about Leopold Bloom himself, it is simply inconceivable that Molly Bloom, that sensuous and earthy shikse, would have been offered the basket-chair normally reserved for Israel Citron when she and Bloom visited the Citron home in St. Kevin's Parade (Joyce 49:205-07). Nor by the same token is it easy to imagine the "funny sight" in the "Lestrygonians" episode of the pregnant "Molly and Mrs. Moisel […] two of them together, their bellies out" on their way to a mothers' meeting (Joyce 132:391-92;Hyman 190).Most likely the pious residents of St. Kevin's Parade or Greenville Terrace would have shunned Leopold and Molly; Leopold for doing the unthinkable and marrying out (insofar as they would have regarded him as Jewish in the first place), and Molly for being the trollop who seduced him. So—to refer to the "Circe" episode of Ulysses—Harris Rosenberg, Moses Herzog, Joseph Goldwater, and others of the "circumcised" would have been far from "wail[ing] […] with swaying arms […] in pneuma over the recreant Bloom" (Joyce 444:3,219-25). Nor—given the social distance between the two groups—is it likely that an "English" Jew like Bloom would have been happy to work as a mere canvasser for one of the Litvak "weekly men."

The Litvaks differed from Leopold Bloom in yet another respect: while Bloom, like the Joyce family, were Parnellites in politics, in the early 1900s the Litvaks were still emphatically loyalist. Only a few years earlier they had celebrated Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897 with gusto, and during the Boer War they sided with the British, while the Catholic Irish tended to be pro-Boer. In the alleyways of Little Jerusalem, Jewish lads had fought "battles of sticks and stones with the Catholic boys, we representing the British and they the Boers […]." When Joseph Edelstein, Jacob Elyan, Arthur Newman, and a few others established the short-lived Judaeo-Irish Home Rule Association in September 1908, they faced considerable opposition within their own community, and their first public meeting in Dublin's Mansion House ended "with several interruptions and a free fight."

Despite the huge literature on the Jewish content of Ulysses, and Joyce's reputation for being fastidious—indeed obsessive—about context and geography while writing it, it is hard not to conclude that his portrait of Leopold Bloom owed much more to information garnered during his time in Trieste (1904-1919) than to first-hand contacts with Irish Jews before leaving Dublin at the age of twenty-two. The very different character of Trieste Jewry—more urbane, more middle-class, more integrated, more western than their Dublin brethren—would have suited both Joyce and Bloom well. Though some Ostjuden had reached Trieste in the 1880s and 1890s, in 1910 nearly three-fifths of its Jews spoke either Italian or German as a first language. Bloom's agnosticism would have been more acceptable in a city where one Jew in five had renounced his or her faith, and where a significant proportion of marriages involving Jews were mixed.

Richard Ellmann began to work on his classic biography of Joyce in 1952, and he showed an interest in likely connections Joyce might have had with Irish Jewry from the start. In his quest for the Jewish in Joyce, he was sometimes reluctant to give up the hares he raised. Long after Louis Hyman had proven to him that the "dark complexioned Dublin Jew named Hunter," who rescued Joyce from a fracas outside a brothel in early 1904, was not Jewish at all, Ellmann continued to refer to him as "putative Jewish" (Ellmann, James Joyce 162, 230; Delany 53-54). And the Sinclair twins, William and Harry, whom Joyce met through the writer Padraic Colum, were thoroughly assimilated and only nominally Jewish (Hyman 148-49; Ellmann, James Joyce 579). Culturally and economically, Hunter and the Sinclairs were far removed from the exshtetl Litvaks represented by Moses Herzog, Israel Citron, et al.

Other aspects of Ulysses reinforce the suspicion that Joyce knew less of Jewish Dublin before he left in 1904 than his many interpreters suppose. The boycott against Jewish traders in Limerick earlier in that year would surely have been still fresh in Jewish minds on June 16, yet there is no explicit reference to it in the text. Indeed, for all the detailed references to Jewish custom and Jewish Dublin, there is no hard evidence that Joyce knew anybody in the Litvak community well. In his scrupulous identification of the real-life Jews named by Joyce, Louis Hyman, who did more than anyone to clarify what he called the "Jewish backgrounds of Ulysses," admitted as much. He evidently did so with reluctance. In the end, Ellmann too implicitly conceded that he had exaggerated the influence Dublin Jewry had on Joyce's creative imagination. Three decades after his first musings about Joyce's interests in Jews and Judaism, Ellmann declared that there was "not much in it" (Ellmann, as cited in Reizbaum, "Sennschrift" 1). It is surely telling that for all Joyce's empathy with the tribulations of Irish and world Jewry, there was no one in the Dublin Litvak community to whom he could address queries from Trieste. None of this, of course, takes away from the genius of James Joyce or Ulysses.

Source: Cormac Ó Gráda, "Lost in Little Jerusalem: Leopold Bloom and Irish Jewry," in Journal of ModernLiterature, Vol. 27, No. 4, Summer 2004, pp. 17-26.


Bell, Robert H., "Bloomsday at 100," in Commonweal, Vol. 131, No. 10, May 21, 2004, pp. 15-17.

Connolly, Cyril, "Joyce Remembered," in New Statesman, Vol. 128, No. 4464, November 29, 1999, p. 55.

Delaney, Frank, James Joyce's Odyssey: A Guide to the Dublin of "Ulysses," Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981, pp. 9, 10, 18, 21, 89, 166, 176.

Ellmann, Richard, Ulysses on the Liffey, Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. xi, xiii, xvii.

Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seidman, "Ulysses" Annotated: Notes for James Joyce's "Ulysses," University of California Press, 1988, p. 16.

Hederman, Mark Patrick, "{Bloomsday at 100} in Commonweal, Vol. 131, No. 10, May 21, 2004, pp. 17-18.

Holman, C. Hugh, and William Harmon, A Handbook to Literature, Macmillan, 1986, p. 484.

Joyce, James, Ulysses, Vintage Books, 1990.

"Pull Out His Eyes, Apologize: James Joyce and His Interpreters," in Economist, Vol. 322, No. 7742, January 18, 1992, p. 91.

Schwarz, Daniel R., "Joyce's Schema for Ulysses," in Reading Joyce's "Ulysses," St. Martin's Press, 1987, pp. 277-80.

Wilson, Edmund, Review of Ulysses, in New Republic, July 5, 1922, http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=classic&s=Wilson070522 (accessed July 27, 2006).


Bulson, Eric, James Joyce: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

This introduction presents the essential information that will make reading Joyce's works easier for the beginner.

Emig, Rainer, ed., "Ulysses": James Joyce, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

This collection of recent essays gives an overview of scholarship on Joyce's novel and the divergent readings the novel has generated. Among the theoretical approaches included are gender and deconstruction.

Homer, Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Group, 2006.

Homer's classical epic of the mythic journey home by Odysseus is translated by Fagles into modern idiom, making this the edition to choose for a first read.

Kertész, Imre, Kaddish for a Child Not Born, translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson, Northwestern University Press, 1997.

This whole novel is a single, unbroken interior monologue in which the protagonist, a Holocaust survivor, reflects on his past, his childhood, a failed marriage, and his decision not to have children.


views updated May 21 2018


Alfred, Lord Tennyson 1833

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

“Ulysses” is based upon the Odyssey, written by the Greek poet Homer, who is known to have lived some time before 700 B.C. In that tale, Ulysses is gone from his home for thirty years: for ten years he is involved in fighting in the Trojan war, and the journey back from Troy to his homeland of Ithaca takes him through a series of adventures that last another twenty years. Another source that Tennyson is assumed to have used, that is similar in spirit to this poem, is the Inferno, by Dante Alighieri. In Canto XXVI of that poem, Ulysses is unable to give up his life of adventure and returns to the sea, as he does in this poem.

“Ulysses” was written in 1833 but not published until 1842, in Tennyson’s Poems. This collection marked the poet’s return to publication after a period referred to as his “ten years’silence.” Tennyson has identified the source of the poem’s emotion as rising from his feelings about the death of his college friend, Arthur Hallam, when Tennyson was twenty four. Although they knew each other for only five years, Hallam had a profound influence on Tennyson’s life and work. (One of the poet’s greatest accomplishments, the long poem In Memoriam, directly addresses his feelings about Hallam’s life and early death.) Tennyson related his friend’s death to this tale of a Ulysses’ desire to return to a life of adventure on the sea when he noted in his Memoir that the poem “gave my feelings about going forward, and braving the struggle of life.”

Tennyson’s noble sentiment is not entirely accurate in describing this poem, though. The speaker of this poem is braving life’s struggles to some extent, but he is also abandoning his family and responsibilities in what some have called a selfish pursuit of adventure. Ulysses’ feelings about adventure are best expressed in lines 19-20, where the speaker observes that “all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untravelled world....” The experiences of Ulysses’ travels away from home have opened bridges to new adventures that are so attractive, or gleaming, that going for them can be seen equally as being either brave or self-gratifying.

Author Biography

Tennyson was born in 1809 in Somersby, Lincolnshire. The fourth of twelve children, he was the son of a clergyman who maintained his office grudgingly after his younger brother had been named heir to their father’s wealthy estate. According to biographers, Tennyson’s father, a man of violent temper, responded to his virtual disinheritance by indulging in drugs and alcohol. Each of the Tennyson children later suffered through some period of drug addiction or mental and physical illness, prompting the family’s grim speculation on the “black blood” of the Tennysons. Biographers surmise that the general melancholy expressed in much of Tennyson’s verse is rooted in the unhappy environment at Somersby.

Tennyson enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1827. There he met Arthur Hallam, a brilliant undergraduate who became Tennyson’s closest friend and ardent admirer of his poetry. Hallam’s enthusiasm was welcomed by Tennyson, whose personal circumstances had led to a growing despondency: his father died in 1831, leaving Tennyson’s family in debt and forcing his early departure from school; one of Tennyson’s brothers suffered a mental breakdown and required institutionalization; and Tennyson himself was morbidly fearful of falling victim to epilepsy or madness. Hallam’s untimely death in 1833, which prompted the series of elegies later comprising In Memoriam, contributed greatly to Tennyson’s despair. In describing this period, he wrote: “I suffered what seemed to me to shatter all my life so that I desired to die rather than to live.” For nearly a decade after Hallam’s death Tennyson published no poetry. During this time he became engaged to Emily Sell-wood, but financial difficulties and Tennyson’s persistent anxiety over the condition of his health resulted in their separation. In 1842 an unsuccessful financial venture cost Tennyson nearly everything he owned, causing him to succumb to a deep depression that required medical treatment. Tennyson later resumed his courtship of Sellwood, and they were married in 1850. The timely success of In Memoriam, published that same year, ensured Tennyson’s appointment as Poet Laureate, succeeding William Wordsworth. In 1883 Tennyson accepted a peerage, the first poet to be so honored strictlgy on the basis of literary achievement. Tennyson died in 1892 and was interred in Poet’s Corner of Westminister Abbey.

Poem Text

   It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
   I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known— cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all—
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch where through
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself.
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave me scepter and the isle—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
   There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought
       with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads— you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of notable note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-5

This poem begins with Ulysses having come home from the thirty-year adventure(which included participation in the Trojan War) that is the subject of Homer’s long poem, “The Odyssey,” and having resumed his position as king of Ithaca. This opening stanza establishes the speaker’s discontent in its first words, “It little profits,” and goes on to describe the role of king in negative, unappealing terms: the land he rules is seen as “these barren crags,” his wife “aged,” and even the traditionally most comforting image of home life, the fireplace hearth, is “still,” offering no warmth. The king’s subjects are described as “a savage race,” and their actions, sleeping and eating, are basic animal behavior; the only thing they do that might require human thought, the capacity to see beyond the immediate moment, is the greedy act of hoarding.

But the speaker balances this unflattering view of his home and subjects with contempt for himself. He describes himself as “an idle king,” and notes the unfairness of the laws that he passes, calling them “unequal.” By the end of the stanza, it becomes clear that the problem with his reign is not the shortcomings of either his subjects or himself, but the fact that he is not mentally matched to the people he leads. He feels distant from the people that he is supposed to rule because they “know not me.” Here Tennyson gently implies Ulysses’ wisdom, by making him realize that a king and his subjects are not suited if they cannot understand each other. He also implies that there is a bit of egotism involved on Ulysses’ part by having him phrase the misunderstanding in this way, instead of “I know not them” or “we know not each other.”

Lines 6-17

In these lines Ulysses remembers his travels fondly, even those times when he was alone and those times when he was sailing a turbulent sea. Line 6 contains a structure(Ulysses making a direct statement about himself, followed by a semicolon that indicates that further explanation is to come) that will be repeated two more times in this stanza, in lines 11 and 18. The “lees” referred to in line 7 are the sediment at the bottom of a cup of wine: in his enthusiasm to “drink life to the lees” the speaker wants to fully experience all things, good and bad. The Hyades mentioned in line 10 are sisters, daughters of Atlas, who according to legend were turned into a constellation of stars by Zeus, king of the gods. By saying that they vexed, or tormented, the sea with blowing sheets of rain(“scudding drifts”), the speaker is suggesting that the constellation influences the sea and weather, as he is describing the worst conditions that a sailor might face. Even although he is as aware of the horror and danger as he is of the quiet times, he still wants, as stated in line 6, to travel again.

The unusual diction of “I am become a name” in line 11 gives the phrase an unmoving, static quality, removing some of the minor motion that would be implied by “I have become a name”: this strengthens the contrast between Ulysses’ present stationary life with all of the action the poem has described. Being a name grants Ulysses the glory of the legend that is associated with his name(as described in lines 12-17), but it also reduces his existence to just one word.

Lines 18-21

In these lines, Ulysses states the philosophic problem that is troubling him: he has had an effect on everything that he has come into contact with, but every experience has inevitably led to more experiences(every experience is an “arch” or passage to new experiences—“that untravelled world”). However, like the horizon, which always recedes as you try to approach it, the border(“margin”) of that new world “fades” away as Ulysses moves toward it.

Lines 22-32

In this section of the poem, Ulysses convinces himself that the best thing to do would be to leave Ithaca and become a wanderer again. To start with, in lines 22 and 23 he makes the quiet inactive life seem not only boring but useless. The word “dull” in line 22 suggests boredom, but line 23—which evokes the image of a sword that rusts when it is unpolished(“unburnished”) and shines when it is used—subtly connects dullness with uselessness, implying that while he is inactive Ulysses feels as useless as a dull(meaning both blunt and unpolished) sword. (This is a good example of what many people like about poetry: the packing of a lot of meaning into just a few words.) With his exclamation in line 24, in which he makes a distinction between truly living and simply breathing, his thought takes on a sense of urgency. Lines 24-26 indicate that many lives would not be enough for this speaker, and that there is not much left of the one he has. Each hour saved from death, therefore, must not be a mere passage of time, but rather be made meaningful with new experience. After he considers(in lines 28-30) that leaving this potential unfulfilled would even be ignoble(“vile it were ... to store and hoard myself), the stanza ends with grand, uplifting language in the last two lines. What was previously portrayed as discomfort and discontent becomes a noble quest “to follow knowledge like a sinking star / Beyond the utmost bond of human thought.”

Lines 33-43

In this stanza Ulysses describes his son Telemachus, who is to take over control of the kingdom when he leaves. It is important that Tennyson has Ulysses state his bond to Telemachus twice in line 33(“my son, mine own”) because the son is then described by the father as having the opposite qualities to his own. Telemachus and his actions are described using words like “discerning,” “prudent,” “soft,” “good,” “blameless,” “centered,” and “tender,” qualities that come from the kind of cautious living that Ulysses has already established is not for him. Still, he recognizes that a personality like Telemachus’ is better suited than his own to “make mild / A rugged people” (lines 36-7). Regardless of what Ulysses might admire in-Telemachus, and how confident he is of his son’s ability to lead the population of Ithaca, the stanza ends with a flat statement that points out the basic difference between father and son: “He works his work, I mine.”

Lines 44-53

The first two lines of this stanza continue a tendency, begun in the previous stanza with “this is my son,” to localize the setting of this poem in a particular place (“There lies the port”; “There gloom the dark, broad seas”). By line 45, the physical location is so directly established that the speaker, who for most of the poem speaks to no one in particular or speaks to himself, directly addresses the mariners who have sailed with him before. This apparent inconsistency in the narrative voice has been identified by some critics as a flaw in Tennyson’s presentation.

The verb used in conjunction with the seas in line 45 is “gloom,” which is commonly used as a noun today; this is a way for Ulysses to mention, as he did earlier in the poem, the bad aspects of the life he desires as well as the good. This wide scope of events is shown even more directly in line 48, where he brings up “the thunder and the sunshine.” Line 47 uses another familiar word in an unfamiliar way: “frolic,” which is used today as a verb and sometimes as a noun, is an adjective here, describing the mariners’ welcome of the weather.

In lines 48-49, Ulysses makes reference to the fact that he and his crew “opposed / Free hearts, free foreheads.” Since most Greek city-states operated under systems of slavery, many of the opponents Ulysses faced in battle were slaves. By specifying that his mariners “opposed” adversity with free in hearts and minds, Ulysses presumably is emphasizing the nobility of his crew, stressing that they were not mere slaves who met challenges because they were forced to. Similarly, line 53, in referring to the Greek gods who, according to legend, played an active part in the Trojan war, he inspires his men with pride in their past accomplishments. In addition, this suggests that not only are these men much more than slaves, they are rivals to the gods.

Lines 54-61

The imagery of lines 54 and 55 is of sunset, a fitting time of departure for a ship full of old men who know that they will probably not survive the journey. In lines 55-6, the sound the ocean makes is suggestive of the moans of sailors who have already died and sunk into the deep sea. Even while reminding his men of their impending death(and, in line 61, of his own impending death), Ulysses encourages them to “seek a newer world,” and to brace themselves in the boat in order to bring their oars down vigorously against the sea’s waves—“smite the sounding furrows.” Their destination is nowhere specific, just west, “beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars,” echoing the desire that Ulysses stated in line 31 “to follow knowledge like a sinking star.” Here knowledge does not refer to learned, orderly information, but to experience. The “baths” mentioned in line 60 refers to the outer ocean which ancient people believed surrounded the earth; thus, as the stars set in the west, they would descend into the “bath” of this ocean.

Lines 62-70

The Happy Isles in line 63 refers to Elysium, also known as Elysian Fields. In Greek mythology, this was the place where the blessed went after death. According to legend, Achilles went to Elysium after being killed in the battle of Troy.

In line 67, Ulysses says of himself “that which we are, we are,” repeating the sound and spirit of his statement about Telemachus in line 43: “He works his work, I mine.” Although there are places in the poem where Ulysses seems eager to depart on another voyage, the dominant tone, as shown in these two phrases, is that he feels he is a victim of his fate, that he and the mariners who sail with him must, despite the ravages of “time and fate” (line 69), continue to experience life as fully as possible. Ulysses uses the powerful wording in the final line to encourage his men, despite circumstances that will probably overwhelm them. Although Ulysses has been seen through the years both as a quitter who cannot take society and a brave man following his fate, the tone of this last line supports Tennyson’s assertion in his Memoir that the poem is about “braving the struggle of life.”


Culture Clash

The first stanza of this poem establishes the irony of holding the honored position of ruler of a nation but being completely unimpressed, or even bothered, by it because the population is so different in temperament than the ruler. Ulysses is not displeased with his subjects, but with the entire situation: true, he calls them a “savage race,” but he uses the phrase more descriptively than judgementally and with the same acceptance in his tone that he has when he says the laws he hands down are “unequal” and that he himself is an “idle king.” What troubles Ulysses in this poem is not that his subjects are rugged, his wife is old, or that he himself is more inclined to wander than to sit still, but that all of these elements are forced together. There is nothing unusual about a ruler who is not happy with the people he controls. What is unique about Ulysses’situation is that he is aware of his own limits—while he has power to give his people commands, he cannot change them. He knows himself: he is a man of war, not of politics; he is a man who understands how to make ships follow the currents, but he cannot steer his subjects toward civility, even if he knew what it was. In his description of Telemachus, he acknowledges what the traits of a good peacetime ruler would be: “soft,” “slow,” “tender,” “centered in the sphere of common duties,” and willing to pay tribute to the lower-order gods, the ones who watch over the household. Ulysses knows that he is not the man to civilize Ithaca, and he accepts it; as he says in the 67th line, “that which we are, we are.” His personality is the exact opposite of a good peacetime leader, and he, either because of born personality or because of his twenty years of adventure, is best suited “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a sequel about a famous literary figure, picking up after the end of the story that we all know. Explain how the main character feels about going home after the original action is finished.
  • Imagine that you are a citizen of Ithaca, and that the king, coming home after being gone for twenty years, has left again. What do you think of him? Would you be happier with Telemachus on the throne than with Ulysses? Write a letter to Ulysses, telling him how things are going at home since he left the second time.
  • Are there still people in the world today who feel as Ulysses felt? Where do you find them? What jobs do they have?

Growth and Development

The most obvious thing about Ulysses as he is presented in this poem is that he does not seem to believe that he can develop into a good king for Ithaca, but instead considers himself to be stuck forever with the personality he currently has. He sees that Telemachus would be a good ruler and, far from wanting to acquire that type of personality, proclaims, “He works his work, I mine.” To a degree, this attitude reveals a man who is suspicious concerning things of the mind, who believes in action, not in personal growth. He does not have the imagination to let him see himself as the type of ruler Telemachus is. Another possible interpretation is that he feels that he could be a great king, but does not feel motivated to work toward it. In calling his old crew together to sail from Ithaca, he tells them, “Some work of noble note may yet be done / Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.” There is no clear answer to whether he feels unable to develop into the leader of Ithaca or he just chooses not to.

Throughout the poem, there is evidence of Ulysses’ growth, in his constant references to what old age is like. Although he does present himself as a wanderer by nature, he also shows how his nature has been changed throughout his life, if only because each moment is making him think more and more about death. “Though much is taken, much abides,” he says in the final stanza. A few lines later he clarifies that he means physical ability was taken when he says he has been “Made weak by time and fate.” The Ulysses of this poem makes much of the fact that he and his men are the adventurous types who are not content to stay still; he mentions after the fact that they are old and near death. With these ideas he implies, but true to his character does not think much about, the fact that his ideas are developing with age into a need to keep active in order to escape death.


When we think of politics, we think of the struggle for public approval, because in a democracy the leaders are held accountable for their actions by the voting public. In a monarchy like Ithaca, though, that accountability is removed, and the business of politics can practice a more useful goal: bringing peace to society. Since the country of this poem is populated by a “savage” race, a politician’s job, as Ulysses sees it, is to “subdue them to the useful and the good.” In theory, at least, Ulysses’ travels should make him an effective politician, because he has been exposed to different sorts of governments and councils that could give him theories to apply in ruling. But he does not have the patience to transform his experiences into practice. He only hungers for more experience. In Telemachus, Ulysses sees the qualities that are needed in order to change the people from the way they are into what they should be. He is “discerning,” “blameless,” “centered,” and “decent.” In a time of war, when there is a clearly defined enemy outside of the population, these qualities might make a leader too indecisive or easy to manipulate. In governing a civilized state, a leader might not need to present such a strong moral example, but in civilizing savages, this poem tells us, a great degree of gentleness is required.


This poem is written in iambic pentameter. Iambic means that the rhythm is in segments of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. Pentameter(from the Greek word “penta,” which means “five”) means that there are five of these segments—five feet—on each line. Iambic meter is the most common metric pattern used in English poetry because it resembles the natural rise and fall of the way we ordinarily speak the language. This meter is so natural that in reading a poem like “Ulysses,” which has no rhyme scheme or evenly divided stanzas to indicate that there is indeed structure, a casual reader might not notice that this poem has a metric pattern at all. The fact that this poem has a constant rhythm and the lines have the same number of syllables gives the reader a sense of the poet’s control without making the reader feel manipulated.

Because the poem lacks rhyming words at the ends of lines, its form is called blank verse. A speaker who addresses an audience in blank verse gives the impression of being individualistic, an independent thinker, not bound by convention. By contrast, a speaker whose thoughts are strictly organized around rhymes may seem to have thoughts that fit more clearly into recognized social patterns. From the subject matter of the poem, we can see that the speaker of “Ulysses” is not repeating common ideas but is saying what is deep within his heart, and this lack of decoration in his language supports that understanding.

One more technique that is prominent in this poem is the use of enjambment—the running over of a sentence or thought from one line to the next without any punctuation at the end of the line. Like the use of blank verse, this technique gives the impression that the speaker’s thoughts are not prepared for presentation to the reader, but are flowing down the page in a manner close to how they would flow through Ulysses’ mind. The lines that do come to a complete stop at the end therefore draw more attention to themselves, because of their rarity. These lines often have a caesura, or pause, in the middle, as in line 23(“To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!”), line 43(“When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.”), and line 41(“Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old”). By varying the poem’s pacing, alternating long streams with fragmented lines, Tennyson makes the structure mimic Ulysses’ thoughts, which mostly charge forward but have moments of hesitation.

Historical Context

“Ulysses” was written in late 1833, soon after Tennyson received news of the death of his dearest friend, Alfred Henry Hallam. Tennyson’s son, Hallam Tennyson, reported in a biography of Tennyson published after the author’s death that his father acknowledged the poem as an effect of his grief and said that writing the poem “gave my feeling about the need for going forward, and braving the struggle of life ...” Beyond the personal significance to the writer, “Ulysses” is a product of its times, the second bloom of the Romantic Period when it was already established as an artistic movement: a period commonly referred to as the Age of Romantic Triumph.

Because the Romantic Period was not an official organization but is a way we use of designating the spirit of the times, no strictly undisputable dates can be attached to it. This philosophical and artistic movement is generally recognized to have grown out of the social turmoil of the late 1700s—which included the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1794—and to have solidified during the Napoleonic Wars, which affected all of European society. Most critics agree with placing the starting date of the Romantic Period in 1798, when William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published the groundbreaking Lyrical Ballads. There is, however, some dispute about what to consider the period’s end: some emphasize the continuation of the Romantic spirit through 1870, when novelist Charles Dickens died, while others emphasize the change in the public mood after Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837. There seems to be no reason the Romantic and Victorian periods cannot be seen to exist during the same period, depending upon what elements of a work are being examined.

The Romantic Period came about when the development of democracy and the growth of cities forced artists and philosophers to focus attention on the individual and to question the suffering that they might, in an earlier time, have been able to avoid seeing or considering. It was a time of optimism, of advancing the belief that society, whatever its problems, can be perfected. It was a time of humanism, as people came to care more about other people. It was a time when the arts came to be looked to, not only as tools of communication, but as important in and of themselves; genius and creativity were valued. In Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth called poetry “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” making poetic expression morally equal to nature, and he revered nature. Romanticism embraced the individual and rejected the previous century’s values of harmony, balance, idealized perfection, and Classicism.

“Ulysses” has some elements of the coming Victorian attitude that eventually settled on the

Compare & Contrast

  • 1833: Parliament passed a bill that freed slaves in all British colonies.

    1865: The American Civil War ended and the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in the United States.

    1991: The apartheid system in South Africa, which segregated the country’s blacks from the whites, was abolished.

    Today: Official government policies that support oppression of ethnic groups are rare, but increasingly, ethnic hostilities are the causes of wars.

  • 1833: Oberlein College became the first U.S. college to admit women.

    1920: The Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote.

    1995: The Supreme Court ruled that the Citadel, a military academy accepting federal funds, must admit women.

  • 1833: Andrew Jackson became the first president of the United States to ride a train.

    1861: Abraham Lincoln’s train ride from Illinois to his inauguration in Washington D.C. was used for publicity, as it was the first time many of the voters who elected him would have a chance to see him.

    Today: With air transportation, there is no need for politicians to ride trains, but many use the traditional “whistle-stop” tour as a campaign gimmick.

country (just as Tennyson eventually proved to be so favored that Queen Victoria appointed him Poet Laureate in 1850), but the poem’s influences are strictly Romantic. The early part of Romanticism, called the Age of Romantic Triumph or, sometimes, the Classical Romantic Period, was an especially vibrant time in literature, as writers fought to throw off the expectations of the generation before them, to cope with the confusion of the world, and to cope with the new-found respect that was given to artists. For example, an eighteenth-century poem or painting might depict a tale from ancient Greece that had been told before, and it might be admired for the smart handling of technique that the artist displayed. A Romantic writer, such as Sir Walter Scott, might write about the history of his own country(as in Ivanhoe), or, like Tennyson, he might use a classical situation but give the hero a new level of psychological depth.

In the 1800s, Romanticism spread across the globe, and some of the great practitioners in every field of art have either been part of the Romantic movement or, like Tennyson, have been influenced by it without following all of its principles. The names we most readily identify with Romanticism are the poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Byron. American authors writing at the same time who shared a similar outlook are Irving, Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Poe. We also see the Romantic influence worldwide in Mary Shelley, Victor Hugo, Stendhal, Pushkin, and Dumas.

Critical Overview

“Ulysses” is generally well-regarded by critics, because of the thoughts with which it deals. The poem captures the heroic mood of the seafaring wanderer that has charmed Western civilization since the original tales of Ulysses from antiquity, but it also adds the twist of the father abandoning his responsibilities to follow the call of adventure, while leaving his son to be a sensible ruler of the land. In an 1885 review, novelist George Eliot compared “Ulysses” to Homer’s ancient work. Tennyson’s poem, she claimed, “is a pure little ingot of the same gold that runs through the ore of the Odyssey. It has the ’ large utterance’ of the early epic, with that rich fruit of moral experience which it has required thousands of years to ripen.” In a 1903 essay, another famous novelist, G. K. Chesterton, expressed his admiration for Tennyson’s overall ability to plant radical ideas into seemingly conventional works: “Underneath all of his exterior of polished and polite rectitude there was in him a genuine fire of novelty; only that, like all the able men of his period, he disguised revolution under the name of evolution.”

Concerning the way Tennyson’s ideas are expressed, however, critics have been less impressed with “Ulysses.” T. S. Eliot noted, as other critics have, that, regardless of his other gifts, Tennyson was at his weakest when trying to tell a story. “[F]or narrative Tennyson had no gift at all,” Eliot wrote in a 1936 essay. “For a static poem, and a moving poem, on the same subject, you have only to compare his ’ Ulysses’ with the condensed and intensely exciting narrative of that hero in the XXVIth Canto of Dante’s Inferno.” Although Tennyson does use his gift for describing nature to some extent in “Ulysses,” there is some dissatisfaction with the extent to which he does not. Herbert F. Tucker, in his essay “Tennyson and the Measure of Doom,” stated the commonly held opinion that “his poetic renderings of natural phenomena are rarely less than brilliant”; but, as Rhonda L. Flaxman stated in her 1987 analysis, his brilliance is underused in this particular poem: “’ Ulysses’ contains memorable flashes of visual imagery—for example, the lines ’ to follow knowledge like a sinking star’ or ’ the lights begin to twinkle from the rocks / The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep / Moans round with many voices.’ This suggestion of setting, enormously successful because so carefully selected and so rhythmically appropriate, is not allowed to flower into a fully developed description.”


Arnold Markley

Arnold Markley is a freelance writer who has contributed essays and reviews to Approaches to Teaching D. H. Lawrence’s Fiction and The Journal of the History of Sexuality. He is currently an Assistant Professor in English at Penn State University, Media, PA. In the following essay, Markley considers how Tennyson’s use of the dramatic monologue form lends ambiguity to the poem’s meaning, leading to an ongoing debate by readers over whether this Ulysses was an aging yet honorable

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Odyssey of Homer is the original tale of Ulysses’ ten-year journey to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War. The translation by Robert Fitzgerald(1978) is considered the most authoritative and readable.
  • Douglas Bush’s Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry gives background material about how Tennyson and his peers made use of ancient verse to express their aesthetic ideals.
  • The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazier is one of the most influential texts in history about primitive practices and beliefs across all cultures. When Ulysses calls his people a “savage race,” this book shows what their beliefs might have been. The reader who is interested in the development of society will be fascinated by the diverse cultural beliefs represented here.
  • In Moby Dick, especially the early chapters, Herman Melville captures the sensibilities of men of all eras who have been drawn to a life at sea. This book was published in 1833, approximately the same time that Tennyson wrote “Ulysses.”
  • The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson are published in three volumes. The volume that covers Hallam’s death and the writing of this poem is Volume I: 1821-1850, which was published in 1981 and edited by Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon.

ruler or a selfish man hoping to escape his responsibilities.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” has remained one of the most popular poems of the Victorian period, and the difficulty in interpreting the poem’s ultimate message has kept critics arguing for years. The poem is a dramatic monologue, a popular poetic form in the nineteenth century in which the entire poem is narrated by a single speaker. The title of this poem indicates that the speaker is Ulysses, a legendary hero of ancient Greek literature, but Tennyson has chosen to give the speaker his Roman name rather than his Greek name, Odysseus, and this detail is important to keep in mind when interpreting the poem.

Odysseus was the hero of the ancient Greek poet Homer’s great epic poem, the Odyssey. Homer’s earlier epic, the Iliad tells the story of Achilles and the other mythological heroes of the Trojan War. After the Trojan Prince Paris abducted the legendary beauty Helen of Troy from her husband, the Greek Menelaus, the Greeks launched a ten-year war against the Trojans in an effort to win Helen back. After a long and difficult war, the Greeks finally defeated the Trojans, and the Greek warriors returned to their homes in Greece. Odysseus’s homeward journey, an arduous ten-year journey filled with many dangers, distractions, and adventures, comprises the story of the Odyssey.

One of the intriguing aspects of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is the fact that he sets his monologue years after the events of the Odyssey—after Odysseus’s many adventures on his journey, and after his long efforts to reclaim his household on the island of Ithaca. During his twenty-year absence, a host of greedy suitors had been hanging around his home, trying to convince Odysseus’s lovely wife Penelope to give up waiting for her husband to return and to marry one of them instead. Tennyson’s Ulysses is an old man, apparently addressing a group of men in an effort to raise a new crew for one final adventure at sea. The situation may have been suggested in part by the old prophet Tiresias’ mysterious prediction of Odysseus’ death in Book 11 of the Odyssey, in which he predicted that Odysseus would return home to Ithaca after many hardships, slay the suitors in his house, and finally that death would come to Odysseus in some manner from the sea, once he had become an old man.

The content of Tennyson’s poem, however, follows the great Italian poet Dante’s version of the character more than Homer’s. In fact, Tennyson’s choice of the Latinized name “Ulysses” as the poem’s title emphasizes this connection. In Canto 26 of Dante’s Inferno (one of the three parts of his great work The Divine Comedy), Dante visits the many levels of Hell and meets Ulysses, who is being punished there for his deceitfulness, a fact that also may affect one’s interpretation of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” as being less than the “ideal” hero. Ulysses tells Dante about his final voyage and describes his quest to sail beyond the prescribed limits of the world at Gibraltar, the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Dante’s Ulysses professes an attitude of persistence and tireless seeking that is much like that of Tennyson’s version of the character.

There has been much critical controversy about the character of Ulysses and his sincerity—whether or not he is meant to embody the great adventurous spirit of Homer’s Odysseus, or whether his continuing quest represents a shirking of familial responsibility and even veiled disillusionment with the life he tried so desperately to get back to throughout Homer’s Odyssey. For Ulysses describes Ithaca as a place of “barren crags,” and he disparagingly refers to his “aged wife” Penelope and to his boredom with the duties of being a king. He metes out laws to a people who sound more animalistic than human in their “hoarding, sleeping and feeding,” and who, Ulysses tells us, “know not me,” despite the fact that he tells us a few lines later that “I am become a name.”

In the third stanza, Ulysses refers to his son, Telemachus, and his statement, “This is my son” may be intended to suggest that Telemachus is standing near Ulysses and that the old man is introducing his son to the people he is addressing. Ulysses praises Telemachus’ virtues here, mentioning his “slow prudence” and the fact that he is “centred in the sphere / of common duties,” but in praising his son, he also points out a significant contrast in their personalities. “He works his work, I mine,” the old king says; a statement that has encouraged a number of critics to read a tone of irony into this “praise” of his son. In Ulysses’ description of him, Telemachus is not, after all, the kind of man Ulysses himself strives to be. Readers who are familiar with Homer may remember the great lengths to which Telemachus went in the Odyssey in both searching for his father and in protecting his father’s home from the suitors. Recalling these details may encourage the interpretation that Ulysses undervalues his son, as his brief mention of Penelope as “an aged wife” undervalues the great lengths that Penelope underwent in fending off scores of suitors and in remaining loyal to her husband in the twenty years that he was absent from Ithaca.

Tennyson began composing “Ulysses” in 1833, immediately following the shocking and sudden death of his closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. In the ten years following Hallam’s death, Tennyson worked on a grand elegy for his friend, a series of many short poems lamenting his friend’s death that he eventually published in 1850 as InMemoriam A. H. H. But Tennyson took care to point out that “Ulysses” was also inspired by the death of Hallam, and in his biography of his father, Tennyson’s son Hallam Tennyson recorded that Tennyson said, “The poem was written soon after Arthur Hallam’s death, and it gave my feeling about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life perhaps more simply than anything in In Memoriam.” Tennyson again compared the poem to In Memoriam in a comment to his friend James Knowles that, “there is more about myself in ’ Ulysses,’ which was written under the sense of loss and all that had gone by but that still life must be fought out to the end. It was more written with the feeling of his loss upon me than many of the poems in In Memoriam.” Tennyson’s emphasis of this poem as an expression of his feelings concerning his friend’s death suggests that one consider whether or not there is a message in the poem concerning death and dying. Perhaps “Ulysses” is meant to be a encouraging poem, suggesting that one ought not give in to death, but instead live life to the fullest. Some readers have even interpreted Ulysses’ reference to seeing the “great Achilles” again in the afterlife as a veiled reference to Tennyson’s own hope that he would one day be reunited with his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam.

Ulysses’ rhetorical stance in dedicating himself to “drink / Life to the lees,” to “follow knowledge like a sinking star,” and “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” most frequently has been taken at face value by readers in the Victorian period, and in the twentieth century. The Victorians, particularly, saw this as a truly noble expression of a spirit tireless in the face of death and relentless in the quest for new accomplishments and discoveries. This perception of the poem’s moral is what has made it one of Tennyson’s most widely and consistently popular pieces. Nevertheless, Tennyson’s statement that the poem was written “about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life” should not be taken as a simple commendation of Ulysses’ point of view. As it was difficult to decide how to interpret Ulysses as a character, it is difficult to determine whether or not we are intended to see his will to live and his desire for adventure as honorable qualities, or rather to see that his wish for escape and for constant stimulation indicates a resistance to accept the idea of his own death. There may be another way to interpret the theme of death in the poem. Tennyson’s Ulysses does seem to be preoccupied with his own mortality in such statements as “Life piled on life / Were all too little, and of one to me / Little remains,” and in how he looks to every hour as an opportunity to evade death, saying that “every hour is saved / From that eternal silence, something more, / A bringer of new things.” Ulysses also brings up the issue of death when he says, “Death closes all: but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done.” Is Ulysses obsessed with dying, is he merely trying to get the most out of life, or is he looking for a final opportunity to garner a bit more fame before it is too late? Is he the great and noble hero of Homer’s epic, or the deceitful Ulysses of Dante, shirking his responsibilities to a loyal family and kingdom? The brilliance of this poem, as readers throughout the years have continued to discover, lies in its many possibilities for interpretation and in the many differing messages a reader may take from it.

Source: Arnold Markley, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.

Lynne B. O’ Brien

In the following excerpt, O ’ Brien considers the emotional turmoil experienced by an aging hero.

A close reading of “Ulysses” reveals contradictions and conflicts within Tennyson’s thought concerning the nature of heroism, the meaning of achievement, and the consequences to the individual and society arising from a life devoted to heroic action....

Significant critical attention has focused on the form of the poem, with critics debating whether it is a rhetorical or dramatic monologue....

By focusing on the question of categorization, the traditional criticism has overlooked the primary importance of the emotional milieu within the poem—Ulysses’sense of alienation. Whether Ulysses speaks from the shore to an actual group of men, about to embark, or whether he lies in “solitude on his deathbed” does not really matter; it is his emotional crisis which confers meaning on the poem. The impossibility of knowing the setting in which Ulysses speaks mirrors our uncertainty about his character. The ambiguity of the “truth” represents the poet’s thematic expression of the problematic nature of “heroism.” This poem asks us to consider “What is a hero?” and “What are the consequences of a life devoted to heroic action?” It is as though Tennyson designed this work to challenge readers’ perceptual biases: we expect our heroes to be pure and uncomplicated. That Ulysses violates our expectations becomes central to the poet’s elucidation of the problem inhering in our concept of heroism.

Many critics have examined the kind of knowledge which Ulysses seeks. Perhaps a more interesting question is “Why does the aged warrior continue to strive?” Ulysses is discontented because he is idle and because the “savage” people of Ithaca “know not me”...

Ulysses feels a sense of loss, emptiness, lack of use, and indifference to others. These melancholy emotions are countered by his intellect, which generates the stirring rhetoric to forge on. His current emotional state is the result of having dedicated his life to the pursuit of glory. “I am become a name,” he puns, exquisitely capturing the contradiction inherent in his celebrity. As a famous warrior he is widely known, but as a person he has been reduced to “just a name.” In the same way as he has been accused of trying to deceive his mariners into accompanying him on this last, suicidal voyage, to use them as hands to row, so too has he himself been used by Ithaca as a military tool. While the critical consensus maintains that Ulysses is abandoning his family and abdicating his governing responsibilities, he may already have been rejected by his family and country as yesterday’s hero....

Ulysses has performed a lifetime of martial duty... and if he is now unable or unequipped to embrace his civic responsibilities, perhaps that is precisely because his acquiescence in the aggressive mode has been so complete as to obliterate other dimensions of his existence, so much so that he cannot even perceive other duties. Tennyson is showing that the hero is frequently the victim of his own success, as Ulysses’ triumph in his warrior role has prevented him from moving back into the social or domestic world....

That Ulyssess is abandoning his paternal obligations we cannot be certain, as the circumstances surrounding the transfer of administrative power are unknown. Perhaps Telemachus has already been governing Ithaca for many years in his father’s absence. Perhaps Ulysses is now a superfluous figure who has already been forced out and is trying to deceive himself into thinking that he has relinquished that power which he has unwillingly lost. Perhaps his homecoming to Ithaca has been his first defeat. Far from creating the cunning figure which Dante portrayed, Tennyson may here be depicting the pathetic figure who cannot understand or accept defeat by his countrymen. The “enemy” is now within his country, and within his psyche. Tennyson may be illustrating the death-in-life of a once-revered ruler who has lost his social niche, and is consequently suffering a loss of identity, a kind of psychic injury which is more damaging than the wounds inflicted in battle.

Ulysses’ language [in the last stanza] expresses his concern with what is left of his own powers of self, and what remains for him on earth:...

Rather than await a prosaic death in Ithaca, he seeks a glorious death commensurate with his heroic self-image. He desires to guarantee his place in history by dying in his heroic element, the sea, which has been his theater of action. He seeks the immortality conferred by the endless retelling of his story, which will elevate him to an almost mythical status. He remains future-oriented, telling his mariners, “’ Tis not too late to seek a newer world,” as though this newer world were not a place, but rather a future time in history. For a man who claims that he “strove with Gods,” it seems appropriate to seek enshrinement in the collective memory. In his conviction that he has been a giant among little men, Ulysses has created his own laws. As the manipulative rhetorician his objective has been his own self-aggrandizement, which is an effort to manipulate reality to conform to his own image. In a fascinating substitution of words, Ulysses tells his mariners, that they are “Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me” when the rhyming word “fought” more accurately describes the nature of their combative work. Here Ulysses fashions an illusory cerebral component to his martial endeavors. This line also captures his nostalgia for his former power as the hero-in-charge who could create the laws or rules which others passively followed.

Is Ulysses trying to deceive an actual group of mariners into accompanying him, or is he trying to hide from the truth of his frail, powerless, human identity? The “historical crisis” of the monologue seems to be that for the first time he is confronted with the illusory nature of his lifelong self-identification as a “hero.” He continues to strive(if only in his mind) because he knows nothing else. His worldly “knowledge” derived from years of adventure is no substitute for the self-knowledge and spiritual capabilities which he lacks. His tragedy is that he is confronted with the emptiness of his achievement. He is aware that the goal which he has pursued in life—glory—has fallen far short of the preconceived ideas which he absorbed from his culture.

This hero who hopes to achieve immortality through an incorporation into the collective memory had his origins in a cultural creation process. Ulysses strove to become the supreme fighter, because the ability to triumph in battle was prized by his culture and was how maleness was defined....

Ulysses did not at a given moment in his history suddenly renounce a life of spiritual harmony for glory. His development as a warrior was impelled by those cultural forces which dictated male behavior. The young boy models himself on those vaunted figures celebrated by society. Society is the mirror by which the young man comes to “see” or to know himself. Ulysses’ voyage has taken him from celebrity to encroaching obscurity as he can now no longer “see” himself in that social mirror—that “savage race” no longer knows him. Tennyson is suggesting the danger inherent in the reductive merging of the individual with his achievement. Ulysses can only define himself as a warrior. His self-definition hinges on his achievements. Tennyson may be questioning the validity of his country’s materialistic values by creating the Ithacan hero as a nebulous figure who, in his symbolization as the apex of achievement, casts into doubt those societal values which helped to shape that achievement. Paradoxically, it is Ulysses’ act of resistance against his society which preserves his individuality....

Source: Lynne B. O’ Brien, “Male Heroism: Tennyson’s Divided View,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 171–176.

Charles Mitchell

In the following excerpt, Mitchell examines Ulysses’ “conflict between his will and death.”

Past criticism of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” has tended to view Ulysses’ tension as that between “the ’ romantic’ withdrawing, passive Tennyson, and the ’ classical’ outgoing, active Tennyson.” However, I feel that Ulysses’ major tension is of a different kind, fixed in the outer conflict between his will and death. The poem commences just as the inner tension between Ulysses’ duty to country and higher obligation to himself is being resolved. The new, outer conflict, between Ulysses’ will and death, frames the new inner tension of his uncertainty about whether spiritual reality exists in death: although Ulysses’ will seems certain of the existence of spiritual reality, his mind seems unsure of it. Ulysses’ assertion of will in the last line resolves both the inner and outer tensions about death: after his mind has arrived at some certainty by examining the past performance of his will, his will, reassured by his mind, asserts the presence of spiritual reality in the future. The voyage for which Ulysses is preparing is the act of dying, and his

“The ambiguity of the ’ truth’ represents the poet’s thematic expression of the problematic nature of ’ heroism.’ This poem asks us to consider ’ What is a hero?’”

goal is spiritual reality. Time seems destructive of all value in the world, including his own physical nature, but Ulysses asserts that his will will not yield to the culmination of time’s opposition—death.

When the question of the form of “Ulysses” has been considered, it has generally been assumed that the poem is formally a dramatic monologue. However, that assumption is not easily established, for the disclosure that Ulysses faces an audience comes gradually and belatedly. The first section(11. 1-32) might well be soliloquy since there Ulysses seems to be generalizing about himself in private; the second section(11. 33-43) seems to address someone while pointing to Telemachus; only late in the poem, in the third section(11. 44-70), is an audience designated. Since we become aware of the transition from self address to public address tardily, we cannot easily determine whether the poem is entirely a dramatic monologue, or part soliloquy and part dramatic monologue, or perhaps soliloquy in the guise of dramatic monologue. Although most past criticism has categorized the poem as dramatic monologue, some recent criticism has argued that the first thirty-two lines present a soliloquy. However, it seems likely that the whole poem is a soliloquy presented as a dramatic monologue. That is, the progress of what seems to be the literal occasion may exist only in the mind of the speaker as a metaphor for an inward voyage which he contemplates. “By this still hearth” fixes Ulysses’situation. Then the sequence of his thoughts develops out of his contemplation of the past(11. 1-32) into a formal farewell, perhaps to his subjects while still on shore(11. 33—43), goes on to the speech to his mariners on board the ship(11. 44-56), then to his embarkation(11.56-61), and ends on the anticipated voyage(11.62-70). The transitions from one position, and audience, to the next, however, are not filled in; the fact that a jump from one to another(especially in 1. 32 to 1. 33 and in 1. 43 to 1 4) is made suggests that the occasion takes place in Ulysses’ mind.... We do not perceive the scene directly through the mind of the speaker so much as we view it in his mind. That the poem is not clearly a dramatic monologue coincides with the fact that it is not concerned with the immediacies of social issues. Instead of voicing a desire to escape social responsibility, the poem presents more universal intellectual issues and hence the soliloquy form seems more suited to the private contemplation of such issues. Since that private contemplation requires action to confirm belief, the speaker presents what is soliloquy in the form of dramatic address which implies action. The dramatic stage, then, is an illusion contrived 1) to establish the vital connection between the outer world of action and the inner world of contemplation and 2) to establish the symbolic connection between the two whereby action in the seen world(the embarkation on a sea voyage) is symbolic of action in the unseen world.

The issues in the poem become clear only with an understanding of the goal Ulysses seeks. Whereas in the first paragraph Ulysses implies that in the past he has explored the known world, in the last paragraph, which deals with the future, he goes to “seek a newer world.” He also describes that goal as an “untravelled world,” one which only gleams through the travelled world and one which can never be reached in the world of time since its “margin fades / For ever and for ever when I move.” That this world is a realm of pure spiritual being found on the other side of death is clear from the fact that Ulysses hopes to find the deceased Achilles there. The direction of the journey further clarifies that his goal is in death:

for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

Here the westerly direction and the setting of the sun, the emblem of temporal life, make it clear that the goal is in death; and the concluding clause associates this last voyage with Ulysses’ own death. However, one needs to emphasize that Ulysses’ goal is not death, but is in death: that is, Ulysses seeks not death, but life in death....

The sea voyage is a traditional symbol of the spiritual journey, including the act of dying.... That the sea voyage is a means of figuring Ulysses’ own death is indicated by what has already been said and is established further by the details of the occasion: “The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs.” Ulysses’ voyage and his death are identified by the nightfall—the occasion when the sun sets and the moon rises, when the body dies and the soul endures: “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will.” The literal details of the occasion also suggest that Ulysses is preparing for death. For one thing, he is near death:

Life piled on life
Were all to little, and of one to me
Little remains.

In addition, the fact that he now relinquishes the rule of Ithaca to Telemachus with decided finality is appropriate to preparation for death and suggests that he intends a voyage from which he will not return:

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle—
When I am gone.

Ulysses’ reference to himself as spirit and to his shipmates as souls further enforces the suggestion that he intends to seek a spiritual realm by dying:

And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

The phrase “like a sinking star” would seem to modify the verb “follows” since Ulysses can pursue ultimate knowledge only by dying. To the mariners he says,

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought
       with me.

The mariners are not common sailors, but are souls who are prepared to go on a mental or spiritual voyage, doing more than tend to the rigging. Like death, the sea is dark and broad, mysterious and limitless. The star sinking into the sea mirrors the spirit plunging into the destructive element, an act prefigured in the past when

Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea.

If this image corresponds with Ulysses’ later reference to himself and his mariners as “men that strove with Gods,” including Poseidon, the implication would be that sinking into the sea now is similar to striving with the gods in the past.

The problem for the mind of the yet-living Ulysses is to determine that there is evidence for the existence of spiritual reality. His mind seems unsure about the future because it does not know whether death contains complete annihilation or offers spiritual fulfillment, the two alternatives which Ulysses considers:

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles.

The past, however, seems to support the latter alternative because Ulysses’ past actions suggested that a spiritual reality impinged upon finite existence:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams the untravelled world.

Hence whereas the mind views the two possibilities for death as exclusive alternatives, the imaginative will perceives them as a single event. Since Ulysses’ mind cannot posit the absolute truth of its desired conclusion, it must maintain a logical scepticism even to the end. Ulysses’ will, however, has to contravert logic and assert the continuance of itself in death even before he has died. The immediate difficulty is that the connection between the vital past and the desired vital future is severed by the present, which is a barren existence devoid of spiritual vitality.

The forces which seem to disprove the existence of spirit are time, fate (1. 69) and the weakness of human nature. The goal of Ulysses’ future quest is infinite, but the goal of his past quest was finite: wife and country. Penelope has not remained an unchanging goal, but rather time has made her an “aged wife.” Perhaps Ulysses considers it fate that he who could not rest from travel must become static in administering laws to a people who are not improved by his efforts. He feels that he is an “idle king” not because he is idle (he does “mete and dole”), but because his people are idle. Ulysses feels that his fruitless activity as ruler is stasis for him(“How dull it is to pause”) but that it may be accelerated in his son to “slow prudence,” the people gradually becoming “rugged” instead of “savage.” Because Ithaca is finite, it is not the unlimited goal toward which Ulysses needs to direct his will if it is to remain active....

As Ulysses perceives it in his subjects, who represent the majority of mankind(in contrast to the minority, his mariners), human nature seems to disprove the existence of spirit in man, for instead of exercising the active will of individual spirit, they perform only bestial functions: “a savage race, / That hoard, and sleep, and feed.” From Ulysses’superior standpoint, such life is really death(“As though to breathe were life!”) and the death he seeks is life.

“The voyage for which Ulysses is preparing is the act of dying, and his goal is spiritual reality.”

Ulysses’ evidence that spiritual reality may exist is himself. His unexpressed argument seems to be that if one can prove in life that man is spirit, one has a right to hope that man remains spirit in death. This underlying assumption of the poem is implied by the fact that Ulysses hopes to see Achilles in the Happy Isles. Ulysses emphasizes his difference from, and superiority to, his subjects because their natures would seem to indicate that man is spiritless. Many readers have thought that the sentiments which Ulysses expresses in the first paragraph indicate his self-pride: “know not me,” “I have suffered greatly,” “I am become a name,” “Much have I seen and known,” “Myself not least, but honoured of them all.” But when one sets these statements and Ulysses’ description of himself over against his description of his subjects, one realizes that Ulysses’ remarks about himself have a much larger purpose than to reveal his vanity at the moment of death, for greater issues are at stake than the pluming of pride. Ulysses is trying less to inflate himself than to convince himself that he is proof of his own immortality since his experience has proved him to be supra-animal.

Ulysses persuades himself that he is more than a body. Whereas his subjects merely sleep and feed, he is awake both literally and imaginatively. He has “seen and known” much, including “Gleams [of] that untravelled world”; moreover, whereas his subjects sleep, he is awake for action this night because he “cannot rest from travel.” And whereas they merely feed their bodies, he nourishes his spirit:

I will drink
Life to the lees.
For always roaming with a hungry heart
And drunk delight of battle with my peers.

Hence, Ulysses’ reflection that his subjects “know not me” may express less a proud disdain or self-pity than a regret that they do not heed his efforts to guide them or do not attend what he, as their spiritual exemplar, represents: he has “become a name,” that is, become for all mankind(“cities of men / And manners, climates, councils, governments”) the lasting symbol of the “heroic heart.” Although in the present his subjects do not honor him, and thereby seem to negate what Ulysses is trying to prove to himself, those he has known in the past did recognize his worth: “Myself not least, but honoured of them all.”

By recognizing him in the past, his “peers” have confirmed what Ulysses has learned about himself, that he possesses spirit:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world.

Closely connected are Ulysses’spirit, the spiritual reality of the untravelled world, and his past experience. The untravelled world “gleams” and Ulysses “shine[s]”: the nature of that other world and the nature of Ulysses are linked through his active experience. He is all that he has met, for his experience has discovered to him his unstoppable will: “All times have I enjoyed / Greatly, have suffered greatly.” He and his men manifest their superiority of spiritual will by responding joyfully not only to happy, but also to trying, occasions:

ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads.

Experience proves the spirit in the man, and man thereby proves the spiritual world outside himself. Ulysses’ remark in the last paragraph is in keeping with his previous expostulations which seemed to smack of vanity:

Some work of noble note, may yet be done
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The subjunctive verb and the double negative of the participial construction, as well as the preceding admission that “you and I are old,” indicate that the statement does not express mere vanity but is Ulysses’ attempt to fortify himself and his men for the future with the memory of their past. The implication is that men who strove with gods may be godlike. In the past they apparently could perform like gods, possessing “that strength which in the old days moved heaven and earth.”

The past seems to mirror the future, but the present stands between the mirror and the reality. Opposed to Ulysses’ will and imagination(identified respectively with “Free hearts, free foreheads”) is the bestiality of his subjects, which does not permit him to exercise more than the rational side of his mind(“slow prudence”) in governing them. The practice of “the useful and the good” is admirable, but these are “in the sphere / Of common duties”: they reveal man’s practical and moral nature, but not his spiritual nature. Thus Ulysses leaves behind the lesser duties to his son, while he presses forward beyond the limits of the rational mind(“Beyond the utmost bound of human thought”) in an attempt to prove that man is spirit. Past is freed from present to unite with the future.

The symbolic sea voyage of dying seems contradicted by the literal sea voyage, which is to be completed “ere the end.” The repeated urgency to undergo a new voyage before death occurs(“Death closes all”) tends to distract us from realizing that the literal voyage is also a metaphor for the literal event of dying. The great energy with which Ulysses and his men rush toward their goal does not suggest that they are dying: “Push off and well in order smite the sounding furrows.” The strength, however, is not physical, but volitional: “We are not now that strength,” but “that which we are, we are—... strong in will.” The symbolic voyage, which is to take place just on the other side of death, is presented as a literal voyage, which is to take place on this side of death. The area where literal and symbolic voyages overlap marks the place where past and future merge: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” The first two verbs mark the past and are balanced by the second two verbs, which mark the future; that is, the verbs are related as a:b::b:a. The two pairs are divided by death but are joined by the undying will, which never yields: not to opposition in the past, stasis in the present, or death in the future. The body dies, but the will remains constant through both life and death. The man who experiences greatly will find at last the great Achilles. Achilles and Ulysses have an “equal temper of heroic hearts”: as peer, Achilles is what Ulysses was and will be.

Source: Charles Mitchell, ’ The Undying Will of Tennyson’s Ulysses,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 2, December, 1964 pp. 87–95.


Chesterton, G. K., “Tennyson,” in Varied Types, Dodd, Mead and Co., 1903, pp. 249-57.

Eliot, George. “Belles Lettres,” The Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, Vol. LXIV, No. CXXVI, October, 1855, pp. 596-615.

Eliot, T. S., “In Memoriam,” in Essays Ancient & Modern, Faber & Faber Limited, 1936, pp. 175-90.

Flaxman, Rhonda L., “Tennyson,” in Victorian Word-Painting and Narrative: Toward the Blending of Genders, UMI Research Press, 1983, pp. 73-124.

Ricks, Christopher B., ed. The Poems of Tennyson. 3 vols. Essex: Longman, 1987.

Tennyson, Hallam. Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir by his Son. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1897, 1906.

Tucker, Herbert F., “Tennyson and the Measure of Doom,” PMLA, Volume 98, No. 1, January 1983, pp. 8-20.

For Further Study

Killham, John, “Tennyson and Victorian Social Values,” Tennyson, edited by D. J. Palmer, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press. 1973, pp. 147-179.

The author argues convincingly that the sensibilities that formed this poem fit more closely with social attitudes prevailing twenty years later. This work is more focused on the era of Tennyson’s greatest recognition, notably the 1850s on, than about the early poems, but it gives a good sense of Tennyson the man.

Kissane, James, Alfred Tennyson, New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970.

Kissane’s analysis of the poems is very involved and clear: he looks at Tennyson’s works as poems, not as pieces of history, and writes about them in a way that is easy to understand. This book is a good start for the reader who wants to understand Tennyson as a craftsman.

Ricks, Christopher, Tennyson, New York: The MacMillian Company, 1972.

This author gives a detailed background of Tennyson’s life and career around the time that “Ulysses” was written, intertwining literary themes with background information.


views updated May 21 2018


by James Joyce


A novel set in Dublin, Ireland, on June 16, 1904; published serially in The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920, in book form in 1922.


Ulysses follows the wanderings of Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged advertising salesman, and Stephen Dedalus, a young artist, as they cross and recross Dublin on a single summer day.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was born February 2, 1882, in Rathgar, a suburb of Dublin. He was the eldest of 16 children born to Mary Jane Joyce and John Stanislaus Joyce. John Joyce worked first in business, then as a civil servant, establishing a tenuous middle-class economic position. This position steadily eroded during James’s youth, as his father often drank, neglected his affairs, and borrowed money. According to contemporaries, John Joyce was a jolly, bibulous, pugnacious good fellow, notorious in Dublin for his extravagance, biting wit, and monocle. His son James inherited some of his traits—an interest in Irish politics, a love of music, a lively sense of humor, a distrust of the clergy, and spendthrift habits. From age 6 to 9, James Joyce attended Clongowes Wood College, considered the best Jesuit school in Ireland; from 11 to 15, Belvedere College; and from 16 to 20, University College, Dublin. When Joyce was just 9, he wrote his first poem, a tribute to his father’s hero, Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the late-nineteenth-century Irish Home Rule movement. By 1902 several of Joyce’s college essays had been published, including “Ibsen’s New Drama” in The Fortnightly Review, a prominent English journal. His first book of poems, Chamber Music, was published in 1904. That same year, he met Nora Barnacle, a young woman from Galway working in Dublin as a chambermaid—the couple’s first walk together is memorialized by the date on which Ulysses is set. Later in 1904, the couple left Ireland, settling first in Trieste, Italy, then in Zurich, Switzerland (during World War I), and finally in Paris, France. They had two children, Giorgio and Lucia, and Joyce continued his writings. Early versions of three of the short stories that would comprise Dubliners appeared in 1904 in The Irish Homestead, edited by the Irish poet George Russell (A.E.). Though Dubliners was largely completed by 1905, Joyce did not find a publisher willing to print it until 1914. His autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man (1916) was received coolly by the Irish reading public, but nonetheless contributed to his success by attracting the attention of respected literary figures, including the American poet and editor Ezra Pound, who, together with the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, helped Joyce secure patronage. Ulysses appeared in 1922 but was banned in the United States until 1933 and in the United Kingdom until 1936 Joyce’s final work, Finnegan’s Wake, appeared in 1939. He died in Zurich, Switzerland, on January 13, 1941, after an operation for a duodenal ulcer. Ulysses presents Joyce’s distinctive variety of an Irish novel through its cosmopolitan inclusive-ness, meanwhile lending a mythic dimension to the routines of middle-class life in 1904 Ireland.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Beleaguered Ireland

Since Ulysses makes reference to much of Irish history, a basic knowledge of that history’s major events and actors is instrumental in understanding the novel’s complexities. From its prehistory, Ireland has been subject to a series of invasions, incursions, and settlements by outsiders. Its legendary background includes mythic occupiers such as crude and earthy Firbolg, heroic Tuatha Da Danann, and the Milesians, free spirits and artists regarded as the ancestors of the Irish royal clans. The third century (ce.) marked the high point of the kingship of Tara, the “golden age” of heroic sovereigns who ruled “justly, peacefully, prosperously, and truthfully” (Connolly, p. 534). In the early fifth century, the British-born St. Patrick embarked on his mission to convert the Irish to Christianity.

Ireland was invaded in the ninth century by Norsemen and in the twelfth by the recent Norman conquerors of England. England would subsequently dominate Ireland largely through the Anglo-Irish nobility (descendants of Norman invaders, in contrast to native Irish). In 1155 the only Englishman to become Pope, Adrian VI, was reputed to have issued a Papal Bull (apparently fictitious) granting England’s king Henry II sovereignty over Ireland; Henry assumed full charge of an invasion of Ireland by his nobility in 1171-72. Not until the sixteenth century, however, did the English—under King Henry VII of the Tudor dynasty—begin the political and economic domination that would eventually reduce Ireland to the status of an impoverished English colony.

The early sixteenth century saw England’s King Henry VIII break with the Roman Catholic Church and inaugurate the Protestant Reformation in England. Henry himself became supreme head of the Church of England and sought to reform the church power structure in Ireland as well, but some Irish chiefs resisted his usurpation of their ancient prerogatives. Judging that the Irish would continue to revolt if unmonitored, Henry set out to completely replace the Catholic, Irish-speaking chieftain class with a Protestant administration that would be controlled from London. He established the Church of England in 1534—and its Irish branch, the Church of Ireland in 1536. A few years later, in 1541, Henry declared himself king of Ireland. Henceforth the Irish courts, churches, and landed estates would be governed directly by the English or their Anglo-Irish Protestant representatives. To enforce this new arrangement, the English Parliament passed a set of discriminatory codes that barred Catholics from all legal and government professions in Ireland, and that subjected the meetings and legislative drafts of the Irish Parliament to the control of the English king and council. The Irish did not suffer these indignities quietly. Their resistance led to a declaration of independence during the English Civil War (1642-51) that produced disastrous consequences. In 1649 England’s Oliver Cromwell mounted an invasion that thoroughly devastated Ireland; he and his relentless Puritan army massacred several thousand and confiscated all Irish lands. The rights of Catholics were further curtailed. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland was complete, leaving followers of the Church of England—only about one-tenth of the population—in control of land and political office. Through discriminatory penal laws, not only Catholics but also Presbyterians and Nonconformists would be deprived of civil rights in Ireland for more than a hundred years.

Irish resistance

Not surprisingly, England’s oppression led to the beginning of the modern Irish independence movement. Patriotic opposition in the Irish Parliament, spearheaded by Henry Flood and Henry Grattan, resulted in the moderate reforms of 1782, which included limited Irish self-government. During this period some minor disabilities suffered by Catholics in Ireland were abolished, but this slight relaxation of English control only intensified the Irish desire for self-rule. At the end of the eighteenth century, when the English were distracted by the French Revolution, the Irish saw an opportunity to advance their cause. In 1791, hoping to unite Protestants and Catholics in the movement for an independent constitutional republic, Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98) and others formed the Society of United Irishmen. Tone’s movement sought sweeping parliamentary reform, universal suffrage, and full Catholic emancipation. By 1795 the United Irishmen had adopted a revolutionary stance, and actively sought assistance from France against England. After unsuccessful attempts by the French to invade and wrest control of Ireland, Tone led the United Irishmen in a series of abortive uprisings. The uprisings, staged in 1798, were brutally suppressed by the English. Afterwards, to centralize more legislative power in English hands, British Prime Minister William Pitt engineered the union of the British and Irish Parliaments. The Act of Union, which took effect January 1, 1801, dissolved the 500-year Old Irish Parliament and merged the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland into the United Kingdom. To patriots such as Flood and Grattan, the Act of Union signaled the end of the Irish nation. A failed rebellion led by Robert Emmet in 1803 was the last protest of the United Irishmen. Early in the nineteenth century, Irish Catholic politician Daniel O’Connell (“The Liberator”), using both legal and illegal means, led a lengthy and arduous nationalistic movement that resulted in the British Parliament’s voting for Catholic emancipation in 1829. O’Connell organized immense meetings at which as many as 250,000 Irishmen gathered in support of his agenda. Their emancipation consisted of the repeal of the final anti-Catholic measures. O’Connell tried but failed to repeal the Act of Union.

British political domination had enormous social effects. Probably the most significant historical event for nineteenth-century Ireland was The Great Famine (1845-49). Prompted by a potato blight that destroyed the staple of a large portion of the Irish population, the famine led to widespread starvation and death. British rule, both in previously confining Ireland to an agrarian economy and in failing to act to alleviate immediate conditions, aggravated the suffering enormously. In three years, the population of Ireland fell by 1.5 million (due to death and emigration). Some who remained rebelled once more, again without success. The British military promptly suppressed the Young Ireland uprising (1848) mounted during the Great Famine, as well as the subsequent Fenian revolt (1867). Fenianism (named after Fianna, the legendary band of Irish warriors led by Finn McCool) was a revolutionary movement that arose in the last third of the nineteenth century. At the heart of the movement was a secret society of Irish nationalists who espoused a radical republican ideology that rejected any connection with the British crown. Around the same time, other political movements, fearing renewed famine, saw land-reform as the crucial element in efforts to undermine England’s political control. The Home Rule League, founded in 1870 by Isaac Butt, and the Irish Land League, Michael Davitt’s 1879 organization, thought the chief means to Irish political autonomy rested in fair rents, secure tenant tenure, and the free sale of tenant’s interest, with the ultimate purpose of transforming the tenant farmers into owners of their holdings.

Meanwhile, newly elected Anglo-Irish Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell was seeking to work a Home Rule bill through the British Parliament. By the early 1880s Parnell had galvanized the predominantly poor Catholic population of Ireland into a nationalist movement, and he took the British Parliament hostage by using the single voting block of the Irish Party as a means of obstruction and filibuster, thus forcing the Irish Question to the center stage of English politics. Parnell negotiated with British Prime Minister William Gladstone for a form of Irish Home Rule that would grant Ireland limited domestic powers. But in 1882, two prominent British officials, Lord Frederick Cavendish, chief secretary for Ireland, and his undersecretary, Mr. Burke, were murdered in Phoenix Park, Dublin, by an Irish revolutionary group, the “Invincibles.” The resulting political violence undermined Parnell’s campaign, and a Home Rule bill introduced in parliament in 1886 was defeated. When Parnell became embroiled in a divorce case in 1889, and revelations of his decade-long liaison with Kitty O’Shea became public, he fell from power, dying in 1891. The devastation to the cause of Irish nationalism by Parnell’s ruin was overwhelming: the country’s political party was hopelessly divided into Parnellite and anti-Parnellite factions, with Ireland’s Catholic Church siding against Parnell and the Parnellite factions accusing the Church of caving in to the interests of the British. Parnell,’s supporters in the Church, meanwhile, accused him of putting his own interests before the interests of his party. The bitter factionalism that Parnell’s fall caused among Irish nationalists, sometimes even within families, receives memorable treatment in Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, as the Dedalus family’s Christmas dinner turns into a rancorous argument over Parnell’s “betrayal.” Parnell, the fallen hero, also haunts Ulysses, as memories of the Irish patriot recur repeatedly both to Bloom and Dedalus. In the end, constitutional home-rule for Ireland never materialized under Gladstone, and Irish nationalist ambitions were frustrated for the next 20 years.

Nationalism and the Irish Literary Revival

As the Irish Party in parliament fell into disarray with the disgrace of Parnell, the energy behind the movement for national independence began to express itself culturally rather than politically. In 1893, Gaelic scholar Douglas Hyde founded the Gaelic League, a nationalist organization of Roman Catholics and Protestants dedicated to preserving and extending Irish language (Gaelic) and culture. That same year Hyde delivered an address to the Irish Literary Society on “The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland.” He intended not simply to rid Ireland of English lawmakers; Hyde wished to rid it as well of all traces of English cultural imperialism, a force that by the end of the nineteenth century had gone far toward obliterating Gaelic and many Irish customs and folkways. To this end, he and other like-minded nationalist scholars established institutions such as the School for Irish Learning, which opened in 1903 and offered classes in Irish history, folklore, dance, and, of course, the Gaelic language. Cultural-defense organizations also developed at this time, such as D. P. Moran’s Irish Ireland campaign, which sought to exclude all Protestant influence from Irish nationalism, and the Gaelic Athletic Association, which promoted the revival of Irish sports such as hurling—something of a cross between lacrosse and field hockey. These groups urged nationalists and non-nationalists alike to stop imitating the English and assert respect for Irish culture.

The most enduring assertion of Irish cultural nationalism was the Irish literary renaissance, a movement of poets, prose writers, and playwrights, who, between about 1890 and 1914, sought inspiration in Irish mythology, folklore, and popular culture. The domination of the movement by Irish writers from middle-and upper-class Protestant backgrounds, such as W. B. Yeats, John Millington Synge, and Lady Augusta Gregory, and its preoccupation with using Gaelic material as the basis of a revitalized Irish literature in English, has encouraged the alternative label “Anglo-Irish revival.” Hyde’s book A Literary History of Ireland (1899) was among the most influential works of the revival, introducing many Irish people to an indigenous Irish literary tradition that they were not even aware they possessed.

Joyce maintained an ambivalent relation to the Irish literary renaissance and Irish nationalism in general. On the one hand, as an avowed socialist, he supported the cause of Irish independence and welcomed the revival of Irish letters. On the other hand, he always asserted a catholic and cosmopolitan sensibility in his works, an inclusive European attitude.

The rise of the social sciences

Joyce drew upon the voluminous research of nineteenth-century social science in constructing a mythic and heroic background for the otherwise rather unspectacular actions of Bloom and Dedalus in Ulysses. In particular, the emerging fields of modem anthropology, comparative mythology, sociology of religion, and psychology offered Joyce a fertile harvest of ideas for his “mythical method,” as T. S. Eliot called it (Eliot in Gray, p. 228).

Popular interest in anthropology had been stimulated in the late nineteenth century by studies of contemporary preliterate cultures, such as that of American Indian peoples and Australian aborigines, and by the disinterment of dead civilizations, such as that of Minoan Crete (begun in 1898 by Sir Arthur Evans) and Troy (by Heinrich Schliemann from 1876-85). In addition, works such as J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890, reissued in 12 volumes, 1907-15) put religion itself in a new light. The Golden Bough surveyed spiritual beliefs and practices worldwide, with special emphasis on myths of regeneration (like those that inform the reveries of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses). Such writings suggested that, however much religions might claim to differ, their sacred narratives, dogmas, and practices conformed to a few simple motifs and patterns found all over the world, and that highly developed theologies were rooted in ideas associated with primitive magic.

As important as the British advances in anthropology was the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, whose book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1915) was published while Joyce was writing Ulysses. Durkheim’s pioneering works of the 1890s had helped broaden and transform the sociological study of law, economics, linguistics, ethnology, and art history not only in France but throughout Europe. His religious theories, which caused considerable controversy, may have appealed to Joyce for the emphasis they give to the communal function of religion.

Parallel to the advances in anthropology were those of psychology. Modern psychology, especially as it was developing at the turn of the twentieth century around the Viennese school of Sigmund Freud, was throwing new light upon the influence of unconscious mental processes in human thought and behavior. Freud’s studies offered intriguing explanations of dreams, slips of the tongue and pen, processes of verbal association, jokes, forgetting, and many other ingredients of psychology, all of which play a part in Joyce’s novel. Joyce is known to have read and discussed Freud’s work as early as 1911, and to have been intrigued particularly by slips of the tongue (Davison, p. 129). Of special importance for Ulysses were studies by a student of Freud, Otto Rank, whose work on hero myths, the incest motif in literature, and the trauma of birth all contribute to ideas at work in the novel. Joyce would later have personal contact with another student of Freud, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung; in 1934, Jung treated Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, for the mental illness that darkened the happiness of Joyce’s later years, when he had finally achieved a measure of fame and financial security.

Joyce’s trademark stream-of-consciousness narrative style, which he claimed to have borrowed from the minor French novelist Valéry Larbaud, might owe something to associationist theories of psychology, particularly to those of the German physiological psychologist Wilhelm Wundt. However these factors may have influenced him, Joyce himself drew a connection between Ulysses and contemporary psychology in his description of what the novel achieved: “I have recorded, simultaneously, what a man says, sees, thinks” and how all this activity affects “what you Freudians call the subconscious” (Joyce in Ellmann, p. 524).

The Novel in Focus

Plot overview

The characters and events in Ulysses parallel in an ingenious and frequently subtle manner the Odyssey of Homer, the ancient Greek epic and touchstone of the Western literary canon. Almost every detail of Homer’s epic, which features Odysseus, a hero who journeys home from the Trojan War to recover his house and kingdom, can be found echoed or transformed in Joyce’s novel, often to comic effect. Joyce’s Ulysses is divided into three large sections that roughly correspond to the traditional divisions of the Odyssey. Homer’s epic begins with the “Telemachia,” which recounts the effort of Odysseus’s son Telemachus to find his father and defend the honor of his mother, Penelope. The middle books of the Odyssey describe the many adventures of Odysseus and his men, and the concluding books, called the “Nostos,” or homecoming, describe Odysseus’s ultimate return and reestablishment of his rule in Ithaca, his island homeland. The 18 chapters of Joyce’s modern epic Ulysses—the title comes from the Latin name for Odysseus—mirror Homer’s three-part scheme: Chapters 1 through 3 comprise a Telemachia, with Stephan Dedalus, the youthful poet and protagonist of Joyce’s earlier novel A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, corresponding to Telemachus. Chapters 4 through 15 of Ulysses mostly detail the adventures of Leopold Bloom, an Irish-Jewish Odysseus and a partial projection of Joyce’s own middle-aged self. Chapters 16 through 18 form the Nostos of the novel, as Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly, and Stephen Dedalus all converge at the Bloom’s home at 7 Eccles Street in Dublin. Not only is Homer’s large three-part division reproduced in Ulysses, but each chapter of Joyce’s novel corresponds to an episode in Homer’s Odyssey, according to a schema for the novel that Joyce circulated among friends. The correspondences, however, are often disguised.

Plot summary

What follows is a chapter-by-chapter summary of the basic plot line of the novel, prefaced by their Homeric equivalents in brackets. Readers should be aware, however, that Ulysses is intentionally designed to thwart simple summaries.

1. [Telemachus] : The first episode takes place about 8 a.m. in the Martello Tower at Sandy-cove, a coastal suburb of Dublin, where Joyce lived for a short time in the spring of 1904. The squat tower was one of 15 battlements built in 1804, when a French invasion of Britain was threatened. The chapter introduces Stephen Dedalus, a self-styled poet and schoolteacher, who has recently returned from Paris on the news of his mother’s


As the chart below shows, joyce assigned a complex system of correspondences to his labyrinthine novo!. Not only does each chapter correspond to a scene from Homer’s Odyssey, but most chapters also have an associated bodily organ (e.g., the ear for the musical Sirens chapter), art (in the broad sense, as in the art of medicine), symbol, and technique. While some of these correspondences hardly seem apparent, and some are clearly far more significant than others, the chartexhibits the painstaking attention to minute detail characteristic of Joyce’s writing.

Title HourSceneBodily organArtSymbolTechnique
10.Wandering Rocks3 P.M.streetsbloodmechanicscitizenslabyrinth
11.Sirens4 P.M.concert roomearmusicbarmaidsFuga per canonem
12.Cyclops5 P.M.tavernmusclepoliticsFeniangigantism
(Adapted from Gilbert, pp. 227, 240, 258)

terminal illness. He has been living in the tower with his erstwhile friend, Buck Mulligan, a medical student. Stephen still wears a black mourning suit for his mother, though it has been months since her funeral; his refusal to pray at his mother’s deathbed in spite of her pleading will torment him throughout the day. Stephen and Mulligan are joined at breakfast by Haines, an Oxford acquaintance and guest of Mulligan, who has recently also been living in the tower. Haines is a wealthy English tourist in Ireland doing research for a book on Irish folk sayings. He condescendingly speaks to the old Irishwoman who delivers the men their morning milk, addressing her in Gaelic, a language she does not know. At the end of the chapter, shortly before swimming in the nearby ocean, Mulligan gets Stephen to give him the key to the tower.

2. [Nestor]: Events of the chapter are based on Joyce’s experiences as a teacher at Clifton School in Dalkey in 1904. Stephen queries his students about the ancient battle of Asculum (279 b.c.)—which occasioned the phrase “Pyrrhic victory”—and hears a declamation of Milton’s elegy “Lycidas.” Later he is paid his monthly wages by Mr. Deasy, the aged and opinionated headmaster. Deasy lectures the polite Stephen on financial responsibility, meanwhile expressing Anglo-Irish loyalty and anti-Semitism. Before he departs, Stephen agrees to help get Deasy’s letter about foot-and-mouth disease published.

3. [Proteus]: Having left the school, Stephen wanders along the seacoast at Sandymount Strand while waiting to meet Mulligan for lunch (Stephen later joins the men from the newspaper office instead). His mind wanders over his considerable store of abstruse learning, as well as events in his life thus far. Philosophical and theological matters mingle with Irish history, his childhood artistic ambitions, his unproductive time in Paris, his estranged relations with his family, his lack of a woman’s love, and his complex bond with Mulligan, who both fears him and lords it over him, much like the “usurpers” of Odysseus’s household in the Greek epic. On the beach, he sees two midwives, the corpse of a drowned dog, and a gypsy couple with their dog; the gypsy woman inspires him to scribble a line of verse (on a torn-off end of Deasy’s letter), which he subsequently abandons on the beach. At the end of the chapter, he urinates and leaves his dried snot on a rock.

4. [Calypso]: Leopold Bloom is introduced in this chapter, the events of which take place at about 8 a.m. at 7 Eccles Street, the home of Leopold and Molly Bloom. (The fourth, fifth and sixth chapters roughly recapitulate the times of the first, second and third chapters.) The uxorious Bloom prepares breakfast for his wife, affectionately feeds the cat, goes to the butcher shop for a kidney (forgetting to take his latch key), has a bowel movement, and performs a host of other trivial domestic labors. Meanwhile, his mind wanders from half-informed scientific speculations to visions of an exotic Orient, the body of the maidservant in front of him at the butcher’s, and the past and present situation of the Jews and their homeland. Molly remains in bed during the entire chapter, clearly accustomed to Bloom’s service; she queries her husband about a term—“metempsychosis”—in a book he has obtained for her from a library and with characteristic frankness complains that “there’s nothing smutty” in the novel (Joyce, Ulysses, 4.355). The Blooms receive mail from their daughter Milly, who works away from home and has just celebrated her fifteenth birthday; Molly also gets a letter from Blazes Boylan, an advertising man (like Bloom) and an impresario, whose arrangements for Molly’s impending concert tour involve his coming to the Blooms’ house later that day. At the end of the chapter, Bloom expresses sympathy for his dead acquaintance, Paddy Dignam, whose funeral he is about to attend.

5. [Lotus Eaters]: Awaiting Dignam’s funeral, Bloom strolls about central Dublin; he takes the opportunity to check, at a post office distant from his home, for mail from a woman, Martha Clifford, with whom he has initiated a correspondence under the pseudonym Henry Flower. After being distracted by an encounter with an acquaintance, Bloom reads Martha’s letter, to which she has pinned a flower, which appeals to Bloom’s somewhat masochistic sexuality. After watching the end of a mass at a Catholic church, Bloom orders a refill of Molly’s lotion and a bar of lemon soap at a nearby druggist. Shortly before entering a public bath, where he contemplates masturbating while rereading Martha’s letter, he encounters another acquaintance, Bantam Lyons. In order to get rid of Lyons, who wants to know the odds on the English Ascot horse race later that day, Bloom hands him his newspaper. At the end of the chapter, Bloom lies floating in the bath, his penis “a languid floating flower” (Ulysses, 5.571-72).

6. [Hades]: Bloom attends the funeral of Paddy Dignam in the company of several Dubliners, including Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father. The chapter resembles a descent into the realm of the dead, including images that recall Odysseus’s encounter with the underworld in Book 11 of the Greek epic. En route to the funeral, the carriage passes Stephen (on his way to Sandymount), whom Bloom notices; Blazes Boylan, whom Bloom refuses to recognize; and a Jew, the occasion of mild anti-Semitic remarks from Bloom’s companions. The conversation during the ride reveals Bloom’s outsider status. He attempts to ingratiate himself to these men but his thoughts—and occasionally his speech—reflect his divergence from typical Irish sentiments. Bloom thinks of Digram’s red nose as evidence of alcoholism, the real reason of his death, while he openly asserts that the declared reason, heart attack, is the best way to go: quick, with little suffering. The sentiment contradicts Catholic doctrine, which requires time to receive sacramental forgiveness for sins before death. Though the episode reminds Bloom of the two deaths closest to him—his father’s (a suicide) and his son Rudy’s (after 11 days)—Bloom is able to joke, sing, and approach death from the perspective of a commonsensible agnostic. The graveyard contains the remains of the Irish nationalists O’Connell and Parnell as well as Stephen’s mother. At the end of the chapter, Bloom watches a large rat crawl into a grave site and imagines—without any faintness of heart—its meal of decaying flesh. His mind then returns from the realm of the dead; re-engaging life, he thinks of Molly.

7. [Aeolus]: In this chapter, the book adopts a single timeline, in which Bloom and Stephen cross paths until they ultimately meet (chapter 14). The chapter begins at the office of the Freeman’s Journal, where Bloom works as an advertising salesman. Anxious to renew an ad for Alexander Keyes (a tea, wine, and spirit merchant), Bloom applies to the newspaper’s foreman, who agrees to the arrangement if Keyes renews for three months. This sets Bloom—the only Irishman in the chapter engaged in productive activity—off to the newspaper office of the Evening Telegraph, where he asks the editor, Myles Crawford, if he can phone Keyes. Bloom then goes out to meet Keyes. At the end of the chapter, Bloom returns to the Telegraph’s offices, where an irritable Crawford is leading a group of Irishmen out to drink. Included are an unsuccessful lawyer, a questionable “professor,” the drunken Crawford, and the leech Lenehan (who, like many minor characters in Ulysses, first appears in Joyce’s Dubliners). The group also includes Stephen Dedalus, who enters the Teiegraph’s office just after Bloom leaves to meet Keyes. Stephen, who has delivered Deasy’s letter, listens willingly to the talk, mostly of past glories and lost causes. He offers his own Dublin story, “The Parable of the Plums,” which is at odds with the empty and windy rhetoric of other characters. The chapter is stylistically notable for its newspaper-like headline; actually parodies of headlines, they introduce sections of the action, to which they sometimes seem only remotely relevant.

8. [Lestrygonians] : Bloom eats. In the course of further wanderings about Dublin—with the later meeting between Boylan and his wife feeding on his mind—he is handed a flyer, feeds some seagulls, pities the ragged Dilly Dedalus (Stephen’s little sister), meets an old flame (Josie Breen), initially stops for lunch at a hotel but is put off by the swinish manners of the diners, helps a blind boy cross the street, and finally has a glass of wine and a cheese sandwich at Davy Byrne’s. Bloom’s hunger tends to darken his thoughts; he thinks nostalgically about his past, his mind flitting to apparently happier days with Molly, and to his lost son, Rudy. He also muses on the unhappy condition of many Irishwomen, something he attributes to Catholic doctrine, and the tendency of the Irish to forsake their leaders, such as Parnell. At the end of the chapter, Bloom manages to avoid a direct confrontation with Boylan by quickly ducking into the Dublin National Museum.

9. [Scylla and Charybdis]: Stephen presents his interpretation of Shakespeare, in the office of the National Library of Dublin, which was intended for Haines, the English tourist-researcher. Since Haines fails to appear, Stephen must perform for some local Dublin intellectuals: the author A.E. (pseudonym of the poet George Russell)—who leaves soon after Stephen begins—the librarians Thomas Lyster, Richard Best, and John Eglinton (pseudonym of essayist William Magee). Later Mulligan joins the group. Meanwhile, Bloom lurks in the background, seeking a copy of a previous ad for Keyes. Though the chapter alludes to a wide variety of Shakespearean interpretations, Stephen’s is highly personal: Shakespeare’s life is everywhere in his art. In particular, Shakespeare identified with dispossessed and cuckolded Hamlet the father (rather than Hamlet the son). Stephen presents his evidence in seemingly haphazard fashion, according to the whims of his skeptical listeners. At the end of the seemingly inconclusive performance, Bloom leaves the library, passing between Stephen and Mulligan, that is, between the whirlpool of idealism and the rock of materialism. Stephen apparently takes little notice.

10. [Wandering Rocks]: As one of two omnibus chapters in Ulysses (the other being 15), this segment is a miniature of the whole. Nearly all the characters in Ulysses appear in the chapter’s 19 subsections, each moving simultaneously and relatively to the others throughout a time-space nexus of the city, carefully plotted by Joyce. The three chief characters of the novel—Molly, Bloom, and Stephen—are reduced to the level of all other Dubliners. In this chapter, we learn the opinions of others in the novel about the main characters: Lenehan credits Bloom with having a touch of the artist in him; Mulligan views Stephen’s artistic aspirations with disdainful skepticism. Here we also learn the date of the book, June 16, 1904, and have the single glimpse into Boylan’s mind: “A young pullet,” he thinks, looking at a serving girl’s cleavage (Ulysses, 10.327). A montage of Dublin moments and characters, the chapter begins with the walk of Father Conmee and ends with a procession of the (English) viceroy of Dublin, which is a secular counterpart to Father Conmee’s introductory walk.

11. [Sirens]: Set in the Ormond Hotel, where first Boylan stops on his way to visit Molly, and then Bloom writes back to Martha while eating another meal, this chapter is an elaborate verbal imitation of a musical composition. The chapter uses stylistic techniques such as tonal contrasts, rhythmic variations, contrapuntal phrases, percussives, and Wagnerian leitmotifs. Some 58 different musical themes are laid out in the opening, which is often described as an introductory enunciation of the musical motifs, and marks the most substantial departure from conventional narrative form thus far in the novel. Boylan and Molly’s sexual encounter—at the Bloom’s home—is indirectly suggested by activities in the Ormond’s bar, including Bloom’s vicarious enjoyment of the song sung by Simon Dedalus and other “sirens.” Leaving the hotel, Bloom adds his contribution to the musical chapter—his farting covered by the passing streetcar’s noise.

12. [Cyclops]: The meaner aspects of Dublin life are exposed in this segment, which is narrated by a Dublin barfly. In Barney Kiernan’s pub we encounter a number of male Dubliners, including “the citizen,” an ultranationalist member of the Gaelic League. The lot of them are somewhat the worse for drinking. Bloom is there to meet with Martin Cunningham about financial support for Paddy Dignam’s family. The chapter contrasts Bloom to the citizen, his polar opposite. Bloom is humane and nonviolent, preaching the Judeo-Christian doctrine of love, while the citizen is a xenophobic Fenian committed to savage attacks upon the English and against all but the most chauvinistic Irish patriots. Personal attacks on Bloom reach a climax when the patrons of the pub, misinformed by Bantam Lyons into thinking that the “Jew,” Bloom, has won money betting on “Throwaway” (the winner of the Ascot Race), resent his not treating them to drinks. The episode ends with the citizen’s shouting anti-Semitic abuse, hurling a biscuit tin at Bloom (recalling the Cyclops who hurls boulders at Odysseus in the Odyssey), and setting his mangy dog after him. Bloom, hustled into a passing car by Cunningham, is stylistically transformed into “Oben Bloom Elijah amid clouds of angels,” a reference to the Hebrew prophet Elijah, carried skyward, says the Bible, in a chariot of fire (Ulysses, 12.1916-17).

13. [Nausica]: After visiting Dignam’s widow, the generous Bloom strolls along Sandy-mount Strand, stopping, as evening falls, to sit on the same rocks where Stephen had rested earlier that morning. Bloom is biding his time, deliberately postponing his return home. Also on the beach is Gerty MacDowell, a young lower-middle-class woman. The first half of the chapter, presented from Gerty’s perspective in a sentimentalized ladies-magazine style, details her troubled home life and romanticizing attitudes. As she recognizes that Bloom’s gaze—from a distance—is focused upon her, her not unper-ceptive fantasy about him becomes increasingly sexual. At the end of her narrative, she deliberately exposes her undergarments to the surreptitiously masturbating Bloom and walks away limping (she is lame). The second half of the chapter shifts to Bloom’s post-orgasmic reflections, largely about women. Though he is grateful for Gerty’s participation in his sexual release (and recognizes that she also enjoyed herself), his mind returns again and again to Molly. He muses about the events of the day, acknowledging the fait acccompli of his wife’s adultery and the cyclical nature of one’s existence. After finding the scrap of paper left by Stephen, whose writing he cannot decipher, Bloom futilely attempts to write a message in the sand for Gerty, which he then erases. At the end of the chapter, he falls asleep on the rocks.

14. [Oxen of the Sun]: Bloom next proceeds to the Holies Street Maternity Hospital to check on an acquaintance, Mina Purefoy, in her third day of labor. He joins a group of medical students and acquaintances—including Stephen, Lenehan and Stephen’s college friend from A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, Lynch, who engage in coarse and irreverent conversation in the hospital’s cafeteria. Topics include procreation, pregnancy, contraception, venereal disease, and birth, as well as Irish history and politics. Bloom largely remains silent, but observes Stephen with paternal solicitude, inwardly concerned about the young man’s increasing drunkenness. He reflects upon his own sexual life, his relationship to Molly and Milly, and his dead son Rudy. During the episode, Mulligan arrives, Haines makes a brief appearance, and Mrs. Purefoy gives birth to a son. Eventually the group decamps to a pub; Stephen and Lynch then head to Nighttown, Dublin’s brothel district. In accord with the theme of birth and development, the chapter is narrated in a historical range of English literary styles (especially those used by Anglo-Irish writers), from Latinate beginnings to modern Dublin slang and journalese.

15. [Circe]: Bloom follows Stephen to Night-town, and in a phantasmagoria of literary modernism—in which soap bars talk, dead and imaginary characters walk the streets, and Bloom changes sex and bears a child—he encounters the now thoroughly drunken Stephen at Bella Cohen’s brothel. The chapter is presented in drama form, but is akin to a psychodrama, animated by apparitions and hallucinations. Almost every previous element of Ulysses, including the most seemingly trivial, is here recapitulated, often in a surreal manner, and it is difficult to separate reality from illusion. Bloom has guilt-ridden sexual fantasies, which include his ambivalent response to Molly’s adultery, as well as images of his personal empowerment and humiliation. These fantasies externalize Bloom’s conscious and unconscious feelings. At the climax of the chapter, Stephen, in terror at an alcohol-induced vision of his dead mother, smashes a lampshade and rushes from the brothel. Bloom placates Bella Cohen, pays for the lamp, and follows Stephen—by now abandoned by Lynch—to the street. There he finds Stephen confronted by two drunken English soldiers. Despite Bloom’s efforts to defuse the situation, Stephen ultimately provokes one soldier into knocking him down. Though the police arrive, Bloom manages to prevent the unconscious Stephen from being arrested. As the chapter ends, Bloom, attempting to revive Stephen, has a vision of an 11-year-old Rudy.

16. [Eumaeus]: Bloom and Stephen travel a short distance to a cabman’s shelter, where Bloom buys Stephen some coffee and a bun. The two exhausted Irishmen—it is now past midnight—share desultory remarks, often amusing in the deadpan style of the chapter. Bloom does most of the talking—Stephen is still recovering from the soldier’s attack and the effect of drinking all day. Topics include Stephen’s careless behavior, Irish politics (specifically Parnell and the Phoenix Park murders), and writing as a profession. Bloom is polite, discreet and solicitous; Stephen is curt and brusque. Both men are mystified by a sailor, W. B. Murphy, who has been entertaining those in the shelter with his stories, and who claims, without evidence, to know Simon Dedalus. After showing Molly’s portrait to an apparently uncomprehending Stephen, Bloom, who is now plotting to have Stephen tutor his wife in Italian, suggests that Stephen follow him home. Taking his arm, Bloom escorts him out. On the way to Eccles Street, they discuss their shared love of music. 17. [Ithaca]: Bloom and Stephen continue their walk to 7 Eccles Street. Upon their arrival, Bloom finds that he has forgotten to take the latch key. He resourcefully climbs down into the area railing, lets himself in through the kitchen, and admits Stephen through the front door. Bloom then serves Stephen cocoa in the kitchen, and the two men continue their conversation. Though Stephen politely refuses Bloom’s offer to spend the night, both men tentatively agree that Stephen should give Molly Italian lessons, and she give him vocal lessons. They also plan to undertake further conversations. Bloom returns the money that he has held for Stephen since the Nighttown excursion, and both men exit through the back garden. They contemplate the early morning sky and urinate together. Stephen leaves as the nearby church bells ring the 2 a.m. hour. Reentering the house, Bloom, bumping his head against the sideboard, recognizes that the front-room furniture has been rearranged. He straightens up and proceeds to bed, where he encounters further evidence (food crumbs, the imprint of a human form) of Boylan’s earlier presence. Reflecting philosophically on his wife’s adultery, he kisses her rear end, which arouses him sexually. She awakes and questions him about his day. He gives her an abbreviated account and then falls asleep, his head at her feet, as is his wont. The chapter’s rigidly objective, question-and-answer catechismal style offers a great deal of apparently true information about the three main characters. Included is the fact that the Blooms have not had complete “carnal intercourse” for more than ten years, following the death of Rudy, as well as a host of other seemingly unimportant issues (including the route of the water Bloom draws to make the cocoa, from reservoir to faucet) (Ulysses, 17.2280-84).

18. [Penelope]: The final chapter of Ulysses is the 20,000-word, eight-paragraph, wholly un-punctuated stream-of-consciousness monologue of Molly Bloom, the earthy frankness of which shocked many of Joyce’s readers. Almost all of the action of the episode is mental, involving Molly’s reflections upon and memories of the day, Dublin, its inhabitants, and her former life. She does, however, urinate, menstruate, and perhaps masturbate. Also she is conscious of the time—she hears the church bells strike 4 a.m.—and the presence of her sleeping husband. Her thoughts range from her rather lonely youth in Gibraltar, where she grew up without a mother or close friends her own age, to her children, Milly and the dead Rudy. Although she mentions several possible lovers and fantasizes about Stephen, her recent sexual intercourse with Blazes Boylan is perhaps her first affair since she has been married. Always her thoughts return to Bloom. Her monologue—and the book—ends with her sensual recollection of the day he proposed marriage: “and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then I asked him with my eyes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes” (Ulysses, 18.1604-09).


Ulysses’s Leopold Bloom exhibits an assimilationist regponse to Dublin life, which was fairly common among Irish lews at this time. Though Jewish law calls for circumcision, he has not been circumcised. On the other hand, he has received the Catholic sacrament of baptism three times. Bloom’s ethnic identity is a complex one. In fact, the history of the lews generally in Ireland is a complex story of exile and assimilation. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Dublin lewish population was decimated due to pressures to emigrate, convert, or otherwise assimilate, reducing the small population of 40 families to two. As naturalization laws began to ease in the mid-nineteenth century, Jews were allowed a relative amount of religious and cultural freedom: Jewish marriages were given legal status; proscription from holding public office was eliminated; and dress codes were relaxed and finally eliminated. Due to new laws, Jewish refugees and émigrés, fleeing from pogroms and political oppression in Eastern Europe and Russia, began arriving in the Ute nineteenth century. By 1901, Jews in Dublin numbered 3,000, but they were still denied access to many public and private institutions, such as Trinity College, and anti-Semitism remained prevalent. When an anti-Semitic outburst took place in Limerick, Ireland, to 1904, the nationalist Arthur Griffith defended the anti-Semitic remarks of the priest Father Creagh. In a front-page column of the Uniteti Irishman, the Catholic priest had warned against the “usurious toils” of the lews, naming them as an “economic evil” in Ireland (Creagli in Manganello, p. 131-33). Such realities account for the frequent presence of anti-Semites in Ulysses.

Joyce’s reservations about Irish nationalism

The Cyclops chapter of Ulysses offers perhaps Joyce’s most pointed critique of Irish nationalism, especially of the movement’s racist and chauvinistic tendencies. In “Cyclops,” a group of pub denizens—including one character called “the citizen”—perfectly embody the racist strain in extreme Irish nationalism. The slogan of these ultranationalists was “Ireland for the Irish,” meaning for the Irish Catholics, to the exclusion of Jews, Protestants, Italian immigrants, and so forth. The citizen and others in the pub insult Bloom, behind his back as well as to his face, asking, “Is he a jew or a gentile or a holy Roman or a swaddler or what the hell is he?” (Ulysses, 12.1631-32). “Saint Patrick would want to land again at Ballykinlar and convert us, says the citizen, after allowing things like that to contaminate our shores” (Ulysses, 12.1671-72). As Bloom departs, the citizen shouts after him, “Three cheers for Israel!” (Ulysses, 12.1791). Bloom’s reply—“Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spinoza. And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God”—inflames the citizen further: “By Jesus, says the citizen, I’ll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I’ll crucify him so I will. Give us that biscuitbox there” (Ulysses, 12.1804-05. 12.1811-12). Hurling the tin at Bloom but missing, the citizen sets his dog after Bloom. This portrait exhibits the blind rage and invincible ignorance of ferocious Irish nationalism. Joyce responded to the political and cultural conflicts of his country largely through his art, asserting Irish independence by means of claims that ran counter to the dominant nationalist ideology. Instead of an Ireland made up of “pure” Gaels from a single race, Ulysses presents an Ireland made up of Greeks, Jews, Spaniards, and Italians, all of whom are still specifically and locally Irish. Instead of a literary tradition focused on Irish literature to the exclusion of the English and European traditions, Ulysses incorporates the entire corpus of the Western canon while simultaneously questioning its dominant hierarchies. Joyce felt the nationalist revival was “educating the people of Ireland on the old pap of racial hatred” (Joyce in Manganiello, p. 127). While certainly not all Irish nationalists were racist, Joyce found the ideology of the extremists no less stifling or conservative than the repressive church-rule of Catholicism or than British imperialism, all of which he felt were paralyzing the country and from which he moved to the Continent to escape. Although Joyce considered himself a na-tionalist— tionalist—if one did not insist on the Irish language—he thought the way to save Ireland was to make the country international, heterodox, egalitarian, and cosmopolitan, rather than isolationist, exclusionary, reactionary, and feudalistic, as nationalists like the citizen in Ulysses sought to do. Joyce created a rich fusion in his art between European, Irish, and English literary traditions, and he filled the Dublin of Ulysses with the lower-middle-class character types among whom he was raised. The novel evokes a city of secondhand clothes, recruiting posters, and pubs, along with the constant colonial presence of police, soldiers, and English officials. The novel also shows the numerous foreign-born inhabitants of Dublin, whom Joyce portrays as Irishmen and Irishwomen as genuine as any others. Ulysses is literature hardly typical of the Irish Literary Revival, but it shows that Joyce remained heavily invested in the fate of Ireland.


It is no overstatement to say that Joyce marshals the entire Western intellectual heritage as material for Ulysses. The seemingly limitless range of his learning makes an account of the novel’s sources a daunting prospect. Nevertheless, an immense volume of literary-critical scholarship has accumulated around Ulysses during the twentieth century, helping illuminate many of Joyce’s sources, some of great obscurity, others of extreme ephemerality. Still others remain unknown. The present sketch can only suggest the rich allusiveness of Joyce’s epic. Along with the Greco-Roman literary and mythological tradition, which provides the novel its title and general framework, Joyce drew heavily on Judeo-Christian literature, particularly the Bible—there are 65 quotations from the Gospel of Matthew—and on the Roman Catholic liturgical and sacramental tradition. Nearly 150 Catholic saints are mentioned in the text, together with numerous references to Church ritual. Irish mythology also figures prominently in the novel, particularly The Book of Invasions, a popular medieval fable about the early settlement of Ireland. Norse, Germanic, and Hindu mythology play significant roles in Ulysses as well. The most conspicuous of Joyce’s philosophical and theological sources can be grouped chronologically. Among the ancient sources are Homer, the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and the theologian St. Augustine. Medieval influences of greatest note are the poet Dante and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. Joyce’s modern sources include the philosophers Giambattista Vico, Giordano Bruno, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche. On the subject of literary influences on Joyce much ink has been spilled and many library shelves filled. It would take far less room to list the English-language authors who are not among Joyce’s sources than those who are. Of central importance is Shakespeare and perhaps the decisive near-contemporary influences are, in Britain, Walter Pater and John Henry Newman, and, on the Continent, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and Gabriele D’Annunzio. As the Oxen of the Sun chapter suggests, Joyce owed a debt, which he paid in full, to every age of English literature. Music as well provided an array of sources. Joyce had a good tenor singing voice, according to his contemporaries, and his great love of music, both sacred and secular, is evident in the novel’s nearly 200 songs. His ear was furthermore attuned to the musicality of language—hence the 50 nursery and street rhymes that are found in Ulysses—and he spoke Italian as smoothly as English, flawless French, fluent German, knew some 12 other tongues including Lapp, and numerous dialects. Finally, not least among Joyce’s sources are the many people he knew in Dublin who served as models for characters in the novel. For example, Stephen’s father, Simon Dedalus, is based on Joyce’s own father; Molly on Joyce’s wife, Nora; and the citizen on Michael Cusack, founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association and a rabid Irish nationalist.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Nationalism revisited

While Joyce was writing Ulysses, continental Europe and Ireland were each in a state of military and social upheaval. World War I was decimating the Great Powers, while Ireland’s slow progress toward Home Rule exploded in the Easter Uprising of 1916 and the guerrilla warfare campaign that followed. Joyce had complex reactions to both events. Like Leopold Bloom, Joyce supported Sinn Fein leader Arthur Griffith’s nationalist policy of passive resistance, a strategy of parliamentary obstruction that seemed to Joyce appropriately forceful but nonviolent. When he learned of the 1916 Easter Uprising, in which a small number of Irish nationalists—1200 at the largest count—seized the national post office, raided Dublin Castle, dynamited the British armory, and held out for almost a week—his first reaction was a patriotic Erin go braght (Ireland forever!). But as the death toll mounted and the British began shelling Dublin, the pacifistic Joyce felt that the rebels were needlessly wasting lives. Although he sympathized with the cause of Irish independence, he felt that violence would not solve anything for Ireland. It seemed to Joyce that his figure of the rabid nationalist, the citizen from the Cyclops chapter, had finally been unleashed on Ireland, hurling bombs rather than biscuit tins.


From the first, responses to Ulysses typically tended toward extremes of either praise or condemnation. The book was at first judged legally obscene and banned in Ireland, England, and the United States. Of the second printing of 2,000 copies, 500 were burned in New York by the U.S. Post Office, and the English customs authorities confiscated and destroyed 499 copies of the third edition of 500 copies. But wherever Ulysses was banned, it was smuggled in; bowdlerized, pirated, and forged editions soon appeared in the United States. Early reactions ranged from the Irish poet A.E.’s “greatest fiction of the twentieth century” to the English poet Alfred Noyes’s “It is simply the foulest book that has ever found its way into print” (A.E. and Noyes in Kunitz, p. 737). The Dublin Review declared, “A great Jesuit-trained talent has gone over malignantly and mockingly to the powers of evil” (Dublin Review in Kunitz, p. 737). Edmund Gosse wrote that Ulysses was a “cynical appeal to sheer indecency” (Gosse in Ellmann, p. 528). More complimentary, Virginia Woolf singled out Joyce as the most original and important of the younger writers on the scene, despite what she considered the narrowness of his focus and—it is the complaint voiced most often by the first readers of Ulysses—the “emphases laid, perhaps didactically, upon indecency” (Woolf, pp. 154-56). On the other hand, the American novelist Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to fellow novelist Sherwood Anderson, exclaimed that “Joyce has written a most goddamn wonderful book,” and the European literary avant-garde generally agreed (Hemingway in Ellmann, p. 529). Though banned in Ireland, the novel earned approval from a few Irish writers living in England. Yeats recognized something specifically Irish in the work, an “Irish cruelty and an Irish strength,” and George Bernard Shaw saw the “hideously real” Dublin that he had left 20 years before (Yeats and Shaw in Ellmann, pp. 507, 531).

Recent critics have looked closely at Joyce’s investment in specifically Irish political and social issues, a dimension previously minimized. By the end of the twentieth century, the judgment of A.E. seems to have proven accurate, for Joyce is generally regarded as the century’s defining novelist. Joyce once said of Ulysses, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I mean, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality” (Joyce in Ellmann, p. 535). However mocking Joyce’s attitude may have been, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, all signs indicate that his wish for immortality will be fulfilled.

—James Caufield

For More Information

Blamires, Harry. The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide through Ulysses. London: Routledge, 1996.

Cheng, Vincent. Joyce, Race, and Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Connolly, S. J. The Oxford Companion to Irish History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Davison, Neil R. James Joyce, Ulysses, and the Construction of Jewish Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Gilbert, Stuart. James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study. New York: Vintage, 1955.

Gray, Wallace. Homer to Joyce: Interpretations of the Classic Works of Western Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1985.

Joyce, James, Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. London: Bodley Head, 1986.

Kunitz, Stanley, and Howard Haycraft. Twentieth Century Authors. New York: H. H. Wilson, 1942.

Manganiello, Dominic. Joyce’s Politics. London: Routledge, 1980.

Tymoczko, Maria. The Irish Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1953.


views updated May 18 2018


The Greek hero Odysseus* was known to the Romans as Ulixes, which became Ulysses in English. This name has been used in English translations of Homer's* Iliad and Odyssey since the l600s and in other literature based on the life of Odysseus.

In Dante's The Divine Comedy, written in the late 1200s, a character named Ulysses told of a voyage beyond the Pillars of Herculestwo peaks at the western entrance to the Mediterranean. His goal was to explore the unknown world, and he and his crew sailed westward for five months. Just as they sighted land, a fierce storm destroyed their ship and killed them.

In the literature of the Middle Ages, Ulysses was often portrayed as a liar and a rogue. In his poem "The Rape of Lucrèce," Shakespearereferred to "sly Ulysses." In the mid-1800s, Alfred, Lord Tennyson portrayed the hero's final years in his poem Ulysses.

James Joyce's novel Ulysses, written in 1922, is based on the Odyssey. Each chapter in the novel takes a different episode from Homer's work to document a single hour of a day in Dublin.

See also Odysseus; Odysseym, The.


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1. Cantata by Seiber, 1946–7, based on text from Joyce's novel of same name (1922).

2. Opera (Ulisse) by Dallapiccola, 1959–68, in prologue, 2 acts, and epilogue, to his own lib. based on Homer. Prod. Berlin 1968, London 1969 (BBC studio perf.).

3. Opera (Ulysse) in 5 acts by Rebel to lib. by H. Guichard based on Homer. Prod. Paris 1703.

4. Opera (Ulysses) in 3 acts by Keiser to lib. by F. M. Lersner after Guichard's lib. Ulysse. Prod. Copenhagen 1722.

5.  Opera (Ulysses) in 3 acts by J. C. Smith to lib. by S. Humphreys based on Homer. Prod. London 1733.

 See also Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria.


views updated May 08 2018

Ulysses A NASA and ESA probe, launched in 1990, carrying the International Solar Polar Mission to fly over the poles of the Sun, which cannot be seen from Earth, and to study the solar wind. It travelled first to Jupiter for a gravity assist.


views updated May 29 2018

Ulysses the Roman name for Odysseus; he is referred to as the type of a traveller or adventurer, and also of a crafty and clever schemer.
Ulysses' bow able to be bent by Ulysses alone; on his return to Ithaca, he finds that his wife Penelope has agreed that she will marry whichever of her suitors can bend and string the bow, and only Ulysses can achieve this.


views updated May 29 2018

Ulysses See Odysseus