demystifying james joyce’s ulysses

James Joyce’s modernist epic follows Leopold Bloom around public and private spaces of Dublin over the course of one day; as he eats, drinks, wanders, masturbates, watches and interacts with others.

It was published in full during 1922, the same year that the poem that sought to define 20th-century anxiety (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) was also published. Eliot and Joyce express a similar sense of anxiety: the form of Ulysses and The Waste Land are examples of fragmentation, symbolising a time of literary revival, rebirth.

It celebrates its centenary in 2022, and today, the general consensus remains that Ulysses is the undisputed champion of the modernist movement and of 20th-century prose. But for a novel of such high status, its acclaim and its reputational necessity (‘it is a must-read before you die’ according to many), it is infamously avoided. Perhaps this is due to its precedence for being nonsensically experimental to the point of reader-isolation, or the disproportion of its size and subject matter (730 words to describe one day).

Below are some features of Ulysses that can help debunk the myths that keep it at arm’s length for its inaccessibility.


it can be navigated as a human body

Joyce describes Ulysses as ‘among other things… an epic of the human body.’ This synopsis is useful for the navigation of the novel’s structure. Joyce was aware that his novel is a difficult, experimental read so he devised what he called the Gilbert Schema to assist the reader’s experience and perspective of the text. The episodes are tracked by the time of day, their symbols, colour, and literary trope.

Many episodes also have an affiliated organ that is connected to the ways in which the episode is written, for example, Lestrygonians is written in a peristaltic form as it describes mastication and digestion. Penelope, the final episode and one I later pay closer attention to, is described as a ‘female monologue’ and its associated organ is flesh to emphasise sensuality and femininity.



its non-linearity makes it a non-commitment to read

There is a kind of plot but it is mainly mundane, and as Leopold is essentially a flâneur (a man who saunters around observing society) the plot prioritises movement and bodily experience moment to moment above remaining faithful to a beginning, middle and end.

It was first serialised in the American journal The Little Review which explains its perplexing nonlinearity. Although this does complicate and deconstruct the typical reader experience, it does mean that it can be opened to any episode without obstructing the overall effect. 



it experiments with a variety of literary forms

Most episodes are written with staccato punctuation to characterise Leopold’s perspective as his own kind of language. There is however a break from this form in the final episode, an episode that is fluid and unpunctuated as it explores an alternative perspective: Leopold’s wife, Molly. Perhaps the distinct styles speak to a kind of gender/character distinction, dichotomising ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ narratives in their style.

There is also medieval and Shakespearean tropes in the language of the Library episode (Scylla and Charybdis), an episode that self-consciously focuses on literature. Ulysses’ exploration with forms past and present means that each episode can be expected to read differently from the last and to the next, creating a disjointedness in reading the text linearly.



it has its own birthday that is celebrated every year

Bloomsday, named after Leopold Bloom, celebrates Joyce and Ulysses every year on the 16th of June (the date on which the novel is set). The celebrations started in Dublin but have expanded to cities such as London and New York as well. People dress in Edwardian costume and there is often readings of passages from Ulysses, and in Dublin, there are pub crawls around the city, including the places Leopold explores in the novel.



henri matisse made etchings for the 1935 edition

Henri Matisse provided etchings for the 1935 publication of Ulysses. As shown below, the illustrations depict a sense of fluidity and speed and the drawings themselves look as though they were done very quickly and spontaneously. They are hardly an epic, Renaissance style painting one would associate with a novel of such epic proportions and Homeric influence.

Perhaps this speaks directly to the humour of the novel itself: the absurdity of a 730 page novel spanning one day. 

The etchings are continuous lines, no breaks, much like the novel’s reluctance to leave few gaps, every second accounted for and drawn out. They forebode Joyce’s linear playfulness within Ulysses, as a faithful representation of reality, of one day.



it contains one of the most captivating monologues of 20th-century literature: molly’s monologue (Penelope)

It’s a subject of controversy that Joyce included such an intimately sensual experience of womanhood. Joyce’s own wife Nora hated it. However, its placement at the end of the novel, after 600 pages of masculinised, violent, bodily, grotesque representation from the viewpoint of Leopold, Penelope (known more commonly as Molly’s monologue) ends the novel with a sense of beauty.

It is graphic. The passage explores experiences of breastfeeding and sex and menstruation, captured in eight long unpunctuated sentences. Some say this structure is like a menstrual flow in itself, which links to the Gilbert Schema and the exercise of reading the novel as a human body.

“I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another… then he asked me would I yes 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.”

– James Joyce, Ulysses, ‘Penelope’, 1922

It is interesting to critique the ethics of this passage whilst enjoying its unmediated, stream-of-consciousness style, in a kind of multitasking exercise.

If any section of Ulysses is read in isolation, I think it should be this one. Although it is the least like the other episodes, it speaks to, or attempts to speak to, a feminine vision of modernist writing that feels essential to the movement as a whole, and whether or not it fails or succeeds to articulate femininity is part of its intrigue.



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