James Joyce’s Ulysses has quite a reputation. It has a reputation of literary excellence, often topping lists of greatest novels of the twentieth century and even greatest novel of all time. It also has a reputation of inaccessibility, byzantine complexity and linguistic virtuosity that make it a grueling struggle to complete. There is an entire market of ancillary texts – companions, allusions, annotations, criticism, guides, notes, maps, charts, schemas, etc.  But the truth is that Ulysses is eminently readable. Not only is it readable but it is very enjoyable as well. An often unmentioned quality of the novel is its humor. Ulysses, the great list-topper, is raucously funny, containing situational comedy, comedic characters (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not) and scathing satire of literary styles, politics, religion, psychology and basically every institution held dear by anyone, ever. The trick to reading Ulysses for the first time is to disregard its reputed complexity – it can be challenging in sections, but it is very readable for the most part - and prepare to laugh. Approaching Ulysses as a comic novel is key in enjoying a first reading.


There are a few things to know about Ulysses, to keep in the back of one’s mind, during a first reading. There is a relationship to Homer’s Odyssey, and familiarity with that story can be handy; however, for the most part, the relationships are very cerebral, often ironic, and can be hard to discern in some cases for the first-time reader. There is a Cyclops, there are sirens, there is an Odysseus and a Telemachus and a Penelope – but this isn’t some cheap gimmick or elbow-nudging reference where those schooled on Homer wink and smugly smile to each other whenever they get an allusion – there is some serious thought and consideration behind every link. For instance, the Cyclops of the Odyssey is transformed into the concept of violence, myopia, nationalism, blindness to reason and refusal of basic humanity. This is embodied in a man known as “The Citizen,” a Sinn Féin fanatic. However, this is only one of the ways in which the chapter refers to the Cyclops. This particular episode is told by a disembodied “I,” a narrator heretofore unknown, a crony of The Citizen’s. His subjective and opinionated perspective provides another facet of reference to the Cyclops. Each chapter is loaded with these sorts of references and more; however, it is not necessary to find them all during a first reading.


Secondly, knowledge of Joyce’s earlier works is beneficial to reading Ulysses. Not only does Ulysses contain characters from Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it follows thematically from both of them – from Dubliners in the sense of Dublin being a stagnant, paralyzed city with a cultural void and from Portrait in the sense of reaching for artistic heights as yet unknown, or as Stephen Dedalus says, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Joyce’s own style progresses in a fairly linear fashion. In Dubliners the style is epiphanaic, it revolves around epiphany, with a focus on the “paralyzation” of Dublin culture and the lives of Dubliners themselves. Portrait of the Artist is a more personalized book, focusing on the growth of the writer, his desire to create something new, his casting off of societal nets such as family, country and religion. The literary style in Portrait progresses as the protagonist grows and learns. It begins with a nursery story and ends with the style that is to dominate much of Ulysses – an allusive, confident and daring use of language.


Third, when a new style enters Ulysses, it is almost always done ironically, as satire. The novel’s first two chapters are extremely straight forward. One may need a dictionary, but the action is easy to follow and a great deal is established. The third chapter is where most people begin having trouble. Chapter three, known as the Proteus chapter, is a stream-of-consciousness outpouring of thoughts from Stephen Dedalus. Stephen is educated, literate and artistic, so his thoughts are complex. But Joyce is also poking fun at the erudite intellectual. Many agree Stephen is a Joyce avatar. This may be so, but if so, it is an incarnation of a younger Joyce, a writer far less confident, far more self-conscious. Joyce’s depiction of Stephen, as his depiction of most everything in Ulysses, is simultaneously satirical and sincere. He has an awareness of the pomposity and absurdity of Stephen’s intellectualism, but also feels an immense empathy for him as a character. Joyce goes on throughout the book to parody romance novels, plays, history books, medical journals, Anglo-Saxon folk tales and every other literary form imaginable. But this virtuosity is not mere showboating; it’s actually the opposite. It’s a deflation of forms that until the modernist era were held in high esteem as givens.




For those who have read Ulysses, what other tips can you offer to those interested in reading it?



Mark Brendle is a writer living in Oregon. His short fiction is available on the web at http://brendlewords.blogspot.com

by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎03-04-2010 02:30 PM

As someone who is currently reading through Ulysses I can say that keeping a little notebook with character names and how they're related to one another does help when following Dedalus and Bloom around the city.


I'd also suggest cutting your teeth on Portrait first - it does help to get one used to Joyce's style rather than jumping in both feet first on Ulysses if you're tentative.


Mark - do you have suggestions on getting through Finnegan's Wake?

by Blogger L_Monty on ‎03-04-2010 04:34 PM

Hmmm. Joyce, you say? Perhaps I will give this new fellow a try.



(Seriously, though, great review.)

by Blogger Albert_Rolls on ‎03-05-2010 11:30 AM

The idea that a book like Ulysses is enjoyable to read just for the sake of reading it is something that isn't often mentioned and really needs to be reiterated often. Those who write about literature and get pleasure from the type of engagement with a text that such writing involves sometimes tend to forget the pleasure derived from just reading, especially from reading “complex” books, as if one can’t enjoy a book without trying to develop an approach to it. I’ll pick up one “complex” book a year and just read it through to remind me of the pleasure such a text can afford without doing anything with it. I won’t take notes, look in guides, or do anything else. If a book can't be enjoyed at that level, it isn't likely to keep anyone's interest for very long.   

by dnDN on ‎03-08-2010 12:12 AM

this was a great-READ- not just a review of Ulysses- i first read it as a protestant---then, after converting to catholicism-----not that this is a prerequiste!----found the book not only easier, but also more understandable. mellissa's idea re----notes on characters---was very interesting, and i will follow as i read---finn. wake.------thanks to mr. brendle for a thought-provoking essay.

by Blogger M_Brendle on ‎03-08-2010 12:39 PM

Thanks for the comments everyone.


Melissa - Finnegans Wake is a completely different beast than Ulysses. It is far more inaccessible, simply because it discards not only all notions of plot and character, but even the basic fundamentals of language itself. One key to understanding FW is its colloquialism. Many sections are written phoenetically, as they would sound if said by the person speaking. The Irish washer-woman is a fairly well known example, as there is audio of Joyce himself reading his passage. Although on the whole I recommend not using guide or companion books on first readings, it may be near impossible to get through FW without one. I can highly recommend Joseph Campbell's A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, not to mention his book about all of Joyce's works, Mythic Worlds, Modern Words. But readers of FW should take care that it will be a slow, though rewarding, process.


L_Monty, Thanks for the comment. I know Joyce is a rather unknown author and this "Ulysses" of his is an obscure, back-shelf book, but I feel it's my duty to bring these unknown gems into the limelight. :smileywink:


Albert - I agree completely, and it's funny that many books are overlooked simply because of their reputations. War and Peace, for instance, is known comically for its length. Yet I found it a very engrossing and easy to read work. It is long, but does not feel that way when reading it, and very enjoyable. Readers should take the time to look at each work individually, with as little preconception as possible.


dnDN - Thanks for the comment. See above comments RE: Finnegans Wake and have an excellent adventure through HCE's dream world.


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