If you’d asked me a couple of years ago whether I thought I’d ever read 109 well-known books and publish a review of each and every one on a blog of my own creation, I would’ve said I seriously doubted it. If you’d told me the hundred-and-ninth book would be James Joyce’s Ulysses, I would’ve straight-up laughed in your face. This is the book that has scared and intimidated me more than any other, on any shelf in all the world. I’d heard that it was practically unreadable for the recreational bookworm, best left to the ivory-tower types, so I figured it was Not For Me. That’s why I left it ’til last. It sat on my to-be-read shelf for so long that the pages literally gathered cobwebs. But guess what, Keeper Upperers? “Last” finally came. It’s time to review Ulysses.
I want to say a couple of things right at the outset: firstly, thank you for all of your encouragement and tips on my Bloomsday Instagram post last year. I referred back to it before I began, and your support made all the difference! I also got lots of background information and guidance as I read from the Ulysses Guide. Unfortunately, it was still a work in progress at the time, so I could only follow it up to about the half-way point, then I had to switch to another online guide that wasn’t quite as good. Still, it served me well, and I highly recommend it!
Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, one of “a large family described by his father as ‘sixteen or seventeen children'”, according to the author bio. It should come as no surprise, then, that Joyce was deeply Irish, and his books are steeped in that literary tradition. Reading some Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and John McGahern first was a good idea, a way of easing myself into this way of seeing the world and writing about it.
Joyce started writing Ulysses in 1914, and had the early chapters ready to go by the end of 1917 (yes, he was a slow writer, among other things). He offered them to Harriet Shaw Weaver, then editor of The Egotist, thinking that she might want to serialise them as she had done with A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. She was happy to do so, but she couldn’t find a printer willing to do the job. Ulysses, by the standards of the day, was so smutty that any printer or publisher who touched it risked imprisonment.
Joyce convinced an American paper to print the chapters in 1918, but he was immediately subjected to extensive legal action for doing so. The US publishers were fined, and further installments were suppressed for a long time. It was a long row to hoe, but eventually Ulysses was published in full by Sylvia Beach, of the ever-popular Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Co, in 1922. There have been at least eighteen editions published since then, and each one has introduced new errors and variations. The first alone was said to contain up to two thousand errors, but it is still widely considered to be the “most accurate” to Joyce’s authorial intent. The publication history of Ulysses is long and complex, but for the most salient parts, I highly recommend this episode of the podcast Annotated from Book Riot.
Ulysses is now generally considered to be one of the (if not, the) most important works of modernist literature. (For beginners: “modernism” was a post-WWI literary movement that tried to rebel against traditional forms of creative expression and representation – I’m sorry, I can’t be any more specific than that, because academics are still arguing over what constitutes a “modernist” book). When readers call it one of the greatest books in history, they usually refer to a few key things: Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness technique, the structure, the experimental prose, the puns and parodies, the allusions, and the rich characterisation. Yes, Ulysses is a hot mix of very literary stuff.
One thing I wish I’d known before I started is that most editions don’t mark the sections or “episodes” clearly. I don’t quite understand why, and it means it’s a little tricky to read Ulysses alongside an external guide, given that there are no markers to make sure you start/stop in the equivalent spots. So, if you’re going to pick up a copy, make sure you’ve got one that’s marked up clearly, if you need it, or an annotated edition with the reference text built-in.
Being able to follow the structure matters. Joyce very deliberately split the book into eighteen episodes, across three “books” or sections, in a way that roughly corresponds with the 24 episodes of Homer’s Odyssey. And that’s just the start of the parallels with the classic poem: Ulysses is, among other things, pretty much a direct adaptation, mapping the journey of Odysseus onto a day in the life of a man living in Dublin.
(I’ll try to keep this as brief as I can, but I won’t blame you if you skip. ahead to the end for my final verdict…)
The story begins at 8AM on 16 June 1904, when Stephen Dedalus wakes up (yes, we don’t begin with the protagonist, but if that’s enough to irk you, you’re in for a rough ride – strap in). Stephen’s come back to Ireland after some time abroad, to be with his mother when she passed away. He now lives in Martello Tower with Buck Mulligan (an ambitious, blasphemous medical student), and Haines (a well-meaning Brit). Mulligan has been talking shit about Stephen’s dead Mum, so things are a bit tense in the share-house. They all chat and snipe at one another over breakfast, and perform the morning ablutions. Mulligan hits Stephen up for a loan, causing Stephen to throw a tanty. He says he won’t come home tonight, as Mulligan – “the usurper” – has taken over the tower. He has a flair for the dramatic, ol’ Stephen, and he storms out.
He heads over to a school in Dalkey, where he teaches a class, but he doesn’t have a real good time doing it. When he goes to pick up his pay cheque, the headmaster lectures him about not pissing it all away. He then asks Stephen for a favour (seriously! these people!), to get a letter published in the local paper. Stephen’s all “yeah, okay”, and leaves to catch his tram.
Here’s where we first encounter some real Ulysses weirdness: Stephen starts monologuing about all kinds of weird shit, to no one in particular. He decides he can’t be bothered dropping by his aunt’s place like he’d planned, he picks his nose, he writes some poetry. In the end, he gives up, and finds a nice rock to sit on and has a good mope (he can’t go home, after his tantrum – besides, Mulligan has the keys).
These three episodes make up the first “section”. After reading them, I was thinking: hey, Ulysses doesn’t seem so bad! Even with some funky punctuation and grammatical choices, I could still follow the dialogue and the movements of the characters. The third episode, the monologue-y one, read more like poetry than prose, but it wasn’t as impenetrable as I was expecting. I managed to take in at least some of it (not the bits that were in French), so I was feeling confident. Full steam ahead!
In the fourth episode, the day starts again, at 8AM (yep, Ulysses is very non-linear, but at least we stay within a single day for the most part). This time, we see the story from Leopold Bloom’s perspective – finally, our protagonist emerges! He talks to his cat, buys a kidney from the butcher, fries it up and eats it for breakfast (the kidney, not the cat). He also makes tea and toast for his wife, all the while musing about how they’re both having affairs. Molly – the wife – gets a bad rap in a lot of the criticism of this book, but I’m going to say here and now that she’s my girl. I love her. She calls Leopold “Poldy”, which I thought was just fucking adorable (especially after I learned from the reading guide that this was Joyce’s way of showing us how she “delionises” her husband, reminding him who’s boss). I liked Poldy, too, even though he was a bit of a perv – his episodes were, generally speaking, a lot more readable than Stephen’s. Anyway, after a bit of a chat with the missus, Leopold gets dressed and heads off to a funeral.
The next thirty pages or so are very fragmentary and kind of disjointed. Each paragraph is preceded by a news headline, which my guide said “simultaneously interrupted and framed the prose”. Um, okay? I did manage to piece together that Leopold is 38 years old, works as a newspaper canvasser, and after the funeral he heads over to place an advertisement for the House Of Keys Tea Shop in the Evening Telegraph. There’s a bit of wheeling and dealing, then he’s sent off in search of an image to use for the ad. Throughout these professional and social encounters, people treat poor Leopold pretty badly – they’ll flat out ignore him, bully him, and speak carelessly in front of him. A lot of it seems to have to do with the fact that he’s Jewish (yikes).
Leopold goes from the newspaper office down to Grafton Street, the posh shopping district, and stops for a light lunch at Davy Byrne’s Pub. His mind wanders, so we wander with it: he goes from thinking about how much it stinks that Catholics can’t use contraception (forcing them to have large families, which keeps them in poverty), to thinking about how Molly’s probably going to be meeting her lover at 4PM. It’s only 1PM by this point, but Poldy’s trying not to watch the clock. He runs into an ex-girlfriend as he leaves the pub, and he muses on how smooth he is with women (told you he’s a perv!). Then, when he heads to the library to get the image for the ad logo, he spots Molly’s lover – Boylan, we’ll talk more about him soon – and looks the other way to avoid him.
Joyce then switches back to Stephen’s POV at this point: he’s delivering a lecture on Hamlet in the library, which was pretty much just an excuse for Joyce to show off how many Shakespeare references he could cram into every page. Leopold drops in briefly, looking for his logo thing. When all is said and doneth, Stephen and Buck Mulligan head down to the pub. The animosity from the morning show-down still simmers, but Buck knows Stephen has just been paid, so he’ll be good to shout a few beers.
The next episode is written as a series of vignettes and – if I understood them correctly – they all take place at the exact same time, in different parts of Dublin. Kind of like taking a panoramic photo, then looking at it inch by inch. The most notable ones include Leopold buying Molly. a book (a good, smutty one), and Boylan being infuriatingly charming, a real dapper rogue.
Once we slide back into a narrative (or what passes for a narrative in Joyce’s writing, anyway), things start to turn all musical and lyrical. There’s a lot of onomatopoeia, refrains, funny syntax. Leopold is back in the pub (he’s Irish!), flirting with some barmaids, when Boylan walks in. This causes Leopold to check the time, and he notices it’s 4PM – which means Boylan is late for his bonk appointment with Molly (awkward!). Bloom concludes: “Too late. She longed to go. That’s why. Woman. As easy stop the sea. Yes: all is lost.”
Next, we shift perspective (again!), this time to an anonymous working-class Dubliner who tells stories to “earn” his drinks. Sounds like a good gig if you can get it, sign me up! This episode bounces around a lot, and gets interrupted countless times – just like (you guessed it!) stories told in a pub. No shame in getting a bit lost in this part, I know I did! Basically, through this storyteller (drunk and unreliable as he may be), we see Leopold turn down the offer of a drink, because he knows he can’t afford to stand his round, and get into an argument with an Irish nationalist. It seems there’s a lot of rumours about Leopold around town, and he’s none too popular (which explains why everyone acts so shittily towards him). Unfortunately, this is where all the really dark anti-Semitism rears its head, and my heart really broke for the poor man. He leaves, under the guise of going to look for his friend, who (of course) shows up moments later, looking for Leopold in turn. Everyone talks shit about Leopold after he leaves. When he doubles back around, he and his mate finally get together and take off, just as another argument erupts.
Later, Leopold decides to have a bit of a sit-down at the beach, and just so happens to pick a spot near three teenage girls. Gerty is the “beautiful one”, and she is described in intimate detail. She has her eye on Leopold too, apparently (ugh). And here’s where our darling Poldy hits peak perv: he has a wank, right there on the beach, while everyone (including Gerty) watches some fireworks. Ick!
Let’s not linger on that nasty visual. Shortly thereafter, Leopold realises that his watch has stopped, and he starts to wonder whether Molly has finished bonking Boylan yet. He lays down to have a little nap before heading home.
Now, here’s where Joyce starts really showing off: the next episode is pretty much unintelligible. This was the first time while reading Ulysses that I truly had no idea what the fuck was going on, even with my trusty reading guide. If not for Keeping Up With The Penguins, and my dirty completionist heart, I would’ve given up right here. Example:
““For who is there who anything of some significance has apprehended but is conscious that that exterior splendour may be the surface of a downwardtrending lutulent reality or on the contrary anyone so is there illuminated as to not perceive that as no nature’s boon can contend against the bounty of increase so it behoves ever most just citizen to become the exhortatory and admonisher of his semblables and to tremble lest what had in the past been by the nation excellently commenced might be in the future not with similar excellence accomplished if an inverecund habit shall have gradually traduced the honourable by ancestors transmitted customs to that tither of profundity that that one was audacious excessively who would have the hardihood to rise affirming that no more odious offence can for anyone be than to oblivious neglect to consign that evangel simultaneously command and promise which on all mortals with prophecy of abundance or with diminution’s menace that exalted of reiteratedly procreating function ever irrevocably enjoined?”Page 381 (I know they’re english words, but what the fuck does this “sentence” even mean???)
Apparently, throughout this episode, Joyce was trying to represent “the gestation of the English language”, by replicating and parodying the prose styles of different time periods in chronological order. Ugh, whatever.
Moving on: Leopold checks in on a woman who’s been in labour for a horrifyingly long time. He sits around and chats with a group of doctors and medical students, all of whom appear to be drinking on the job. Buck Mulligan and his mate show up looking for condoms. All these men get down to discussing birth and motherhood, every fathomable aspect of it (finally, a group of men offer their perspective! just what we’ve been missing!). Once the woman finally drops her shorty, they all head down to the pub to party on.
The next bit is written and formatted like a script, with stage directions, character labels on the dialogue, etc., but it depicts very little actual action. Most of it takes place in subconscious drunken hallucinations, and as far as trips go, this is a bad one. Leopold dreams of getting yelled at by his parents, interrogated by police, put on trial for being (among other things) a cuckold, leading his own country (Bloomusalem), being a woman, and giving birth to eight children. When he comes back to earth for a second, he follows Stephen and his mate into a brothel, then the hallucinations start a new, getting dirtier and more outlandish. Joyce deliberately blurs the lines between what is “really” happening and what is only happening in Pervy Poldy’s head, so – once again – no shame if you get a bit lost and confused. Oh, and Stephen has a few hallucinations of his own, and they all criss-cross over one another – it’s all very strange.
Leopold eventually comes to and straightens himself up, but Stephen is still drunk as all heck (give-all-my-money-to-strangers-on-the-street drunk). Leopold hustles him away and tries to sober him up. Stephen can’t go home (he’s still got beef with Buck Mulligan, and no keys!), so they stop at a diner to get some coffee and food into him. They meet a chatty sailor, and try not to indulge in gossip about how the innkeeper was involved in a local murder. But then, somehow, the conversation shifts to England and Ireland and Christianity and Judaism – all very safe topics among drunk Irishmen, and it all goes super well! Leopold ends up having to literally drag Stephen out of the bar and half-carry him home. What a day, I tell ya…
But Joyce isn’t done! He switches things up again, this time narrating an entire episode in the form of a Q&A. There are 309 questions, all with detailed answers that depict the action. Stephen sobers up enough to carry on a conversation about music and politics, as he and Leopold walk the rest of the way home. Leopold has to break into his own house because he forgot to put his keys in his funeral pants. Inside, they find a bunch of Boylan’s stuff lying around (awkward!), and this makes Leopold understandably cranky. He and Stephen sit down, drink some cocoa, swap stories, and argue about religion. Leopold offers to let Stephen stay the night, but he politely declines. They do a wee together in the front yard, Stephen heads off, and Leopold climbs into bed with Molly. He gives her a kiss on the bum, and she starts thinking about the fact that they haven’t had sex in ten years (no wonder she’s taken a lover, get yours girl!).
Now, here we go, the big crescendo: Ulysses ends with an episode consisting of eight whopping great long un-punctuated sentences, all from Molly’s perspective. She thinks about their respective affairs, and their courtship. She worries about money, wishing she had more of it so she could buy pretty things. She reminisces about her youth in Gibraltar, old friends and so forth. She decides she likes love letters, and hates “silly” girl singers. She thinks about her daughter. She gets her period. She decides it’d be great if we overthrew the patriarchy and let women run things (preach!). All these thoughts lead her back to her memory of Leopold’s proposal, and her enthusiastic response – thus, the immortal closing line, “yes I said yes I will Yes”.
Ulysses was probably never going to be my favourite book of all time. I don’t think that’ll be any great shock to anyone. But, I must say… it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Like, nowhere near as bad. It’s got a hell of a reputation, and sure, some parts drove me up the wall, but I got so much more out of it than I would have dreamed possible.
Joyce’s writing doesn’t read like the writing that most contemporary recreational readers expect and enjoy, but don’t confuse unfamiliarity with dislike. I don’t think we talk enough about what Joyce was trying to do: represent the natural flow of human thought, feeling, mood, and memory. He did such a good job of it that the rhythm of Ulysses feels natural, like letting yourself drift along the currents of a river.
Even for all his faults, I really liked Leopold. He was relatable in a way that most writers hope their flawed protagonists will be. But the real star of the show, the one who won my heart, was Molly. I can’t think of any of Joyce’s contemporaries who crafted a female character as wonderfully nuanced and intriguing as she. Of course, her complexity and authenticity meant that most early (*cough*sexist*cough*) readers thought she was a “whore”. Their word, not mine. She was uneducated, opinionated, sexual – all things that women weren’t (and still aren’t) “allowed” to be. My favourite characters in literature are almost always women who do things they “shouldn’t”, so Molly had it in the bag.
What surprised me most of all was that I *whispers* liked it better than Mrs Dalloway. I’m deeply concerned that this makes me a bad feminist, but so be it. Virginia Woolf famously declined to publish Ulysses through her own Hogarth Press, saying that “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster”, and Mrs Dalloway was written largely in an attempt to one-up Joyce and show him how it should be done. I’d really like to re-visit them both in a few years, and see if my opinion changes over time. But, for now, Joyce is the winner in my own personal Ulysses v Dalloway show-down.
I’m not going to call Ulysses a recommended read here on the blog. It’s not for everyone, and I respect that. I’m not even sure that I’d say I “liked” it. What I would say is that, once again, it proved to me that a book’s reputation means sweet fuck-all. Crime And Punishment was a pleasant surprise in much the same way. If you’ve decided not to try and read Ulysses on the basis that everyone says it’s unreadable, maybe you should reconsider. It might be better than you think, it might not, but the only way to know for sure is to give it a go. Be sure to hurry back here and tell me what you think… 😉
Keeper Upperers, you might be worried that finishing my original reading list with Ulysses means that this will be the end of my book reviews – it most certainly is not! I’ve cooked up a whole new reading list, and I’ll be reviewing them one-by-one each week as I have done for the last 109. Take a sneak peek at what’s to come here, and thank you for all of your continued support.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Ulysses:
- “Good condition except there was a bad smell to the book” – Tiffany Thai
- “did not read bored in 10 sec” – David G Johnston
- “This book does not need a review.” – KB
- “For psychological masochists only.” – Robert Belilovsky
- “the worst book you’ll ever read, if you ever finish it.” – Amazon Customer
- “ulysses sucks. hence, this book sucks.” – Amaon Customer
- “Nice guide to Dublin. A bit brief.” – Charmaine Babineau
- “I enjoyed this. It’s long but if it starts to drag you can skip over parts and not lose much. It’s more a narrative of life than, say, a detective story where you can’t miss a trick. The best part is the ending soliloquy by the girl, ten pages without a punctuation mark. I’d buy the book for that.
yes I will yes” – William J. Fallon
- “Could not get through it. Forced myself to stay with it, but gave up after 50 pagers or so. I would rather read a tech manual, at least that has a purpose.” – Mags Dad
- “Dear lord, this nonsense is supposed to be great literature? Simply horrid. A book should be able to communicate the clarity of its prose and not try to impress others by obscurity.
This sucker has no clothes.
There, I said it.” – Kevin M. Fries