Set in Dublin over the course of one day, 16 June 1904, Ulysses echoes the events of Homer’s epic The Odyssey. We follow three main characters: Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising salesman; his wife Molly, a singer; and a young teacher called Stephen Dedalus. The day’s events are quite ordinary: the characters each do some errands; Leopold goes to a funeral; Leopold and Stephen visit a woman in the maternity hospital, then they go to the pub and later a brothel; Molly invites her lover home for sex in the afternoon. But it’s the style of this nine-hundred-page novel that makes it so extraordinary.
homage to homer
Although the story seems, at first, to have no connection with Homer’s epic Greek myth, the elements of The Odyssey do run through the whole book. Joyce structures the narrative into eighteen episodes, each related to an episode of The Odyssey. And there are some parallels between the characters: Leopold Bloom with Odysseus; Molly Bloom with Penelope; and Stephen Dedalus with Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. Ulysses is Latin for Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic, and Leopold is a kind of gentle hero too. He argues:
“Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. It’s the very opposite of that that is really life.”
“La forza, l’odio, la storia, tutte queste cose. Non è vita per uomini e donne, gli insulti, l’odio. Lo sanno tutti, la vita è il suo esatto contrario.”
The joy of sex
Ulysses was banned for a while partly because of the ‘obscene’ way Joyce writes about sex. For example, as evening falls, Leopold masturbates while watching a young woman called Gerty MacDowell on the beach; she’s excited by the encounter, too. Later, Molly thinks graphically about sex and is open about her own sexual pleasure. At the end of the book’s final line, which is written as an unpunctuated stream of consciousness, Molly remembers an erotic encounter she had in Gibraltar:
“[…] 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.”
“[...] prima l'ho abbracciato sì e l'ho fatto stendere su di me per fargli sentire i miei seni tutti profumati sì e il suo cuore impazziva e sì ho detto sì lo voglio Sì.”
Joyce mixes and parodies many different styles of writing within the novel: Anglo-Saxon epics, the Roman Catholic catechism, newspaper articles and lots more. For example, this description of a man parodies the style of 19th-century Romantic novels:
“[...] a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freely freckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deep-voiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced, sinewyarmed hero. From shoulder to shoulder he measured several ells and his rocklike mountainous knees were covered, as was likewise the rest of his body wherever visible, with a strong growth of tawny prickly hair in hue and toughness similar to the mountain gorse (Ulex Europeus).”
“[...] un eroe con larghe spalle, dal robusto torace, con arti vigorosi, occhi schietti, capelli rossi, pieno di lentiggini, barba irsuta, dall’enorme bocca, con ampio naso, un volto lungo, voce profonda, ginocchia scoperte, mani nerborute, gambe leggere, viso rubizzo, e braccia gagliarde gagliarde. Da spalla a spalla misurava diverse spanne, e le ginocchia rocciose simili a montagne eran coperte, come anche il resto del corpo ovunque visibile, con una massa di fulvi peli ispidi simili per colore e durezza alla ginestra spinosa di montagna (Ulex Europeus).”
Joyce also loved inventing words, often for onomatopoeic effect. Bloom’s cat greets him by saying: “Mkgnao… Mrkgnao!”
Joyce said that 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 out of my book.” Throughout the novel he describes many streets and buildings that still exist today and all over the city there are plaques showing where events in Ulysses took place. These sites spread from major streets like O’Connell Street and Grafton Street, to Sweny’s Pharmacy, where Leopold buys lemon soap for Molly, and out to the Martello Tower by the sea, where the book opens.
Ulysses is long and strange, and understandably many people feel that it’s too difficult to read. But it’s the kind of book you don’t have to read from beginning to end. Episode 15, which describes Leopold’s extraordinary fantasies as he wanders around the red-light district of Nighttown, is a popular place to start. Or, you could try an audio adaptation that selects and dramatizes key sections. Ulysses is about the chaotic, epic quality of the everyday and it can be enjoyed without being fully understood.