So you’re going to read Ulysses…

I’ve been a little slow out of the gate since my Bloomsday beginning, as I was trying to rustle up some more reading buddies. And I have – yay! So this is my initial shout-out to –  and pre-reading break-down for – the handful of poor souls I have dragged along on this adventure. This is in three parts roughly: little intro, discussion of chapter, and short list of notes.

On choosing an edition

By now, everyone on board hopefully got a copy. I tried to be really well-researched and systematic about figuring out which edition to buy – but my eyes glazed over at essays like this – and in the end I gave up. I love this line from the Wikipedia history of it’s publication: “…the first edition of Ulysses contained over two thousand errors but was still the most accurate edition published.” So honestly, what’s the point in getting too picky, right?

In the end, I just got the one I thought looked purty.

ulysses cover

You see, I have a thing for old, mass-market paperbacks. (I once fell down an internet rabbit hole in search of the 1984 Bantam Classics edition of Moby Dick, but that’s a story for another day.)

I got the 1961 paperback by Vintage (first U.S. paperback edition). Look at that typography! When you’re essentially comparing a billion versions of the same text, I feel it’s totally justified to judge by the cover.

It’s old, it’s pages are yellowing. It smells deliiiiiiciooouuuus. I am pleased.

Of course, the text is also available in ebook format, if you are so brave. And, if you want a different experience, there’s an audio book put together by Librivox. It’s 32 hours long, but apparently comes with ambient pub-noise. Lovely.

Alright, everyone set? Great!

And so we begin!

So, we all know that Ulysses traces the path of Leopold Bloom and his son-in-spirit, Stephen Dedalus on their odyssey through Dublin, on a single day – June 16th, 1904 – in an imitation of the adventures of the epic hero Odysseus and his son Telemachus. Right? Good.

However, even though I actually did recently re-read the Odyssey, the parallels to the Odyssey are, let’s face it, not always apparent. This is why this is more than a reading, it’s a digging, a looking-up of words, a revisiting and cross-referencing of texts.

gilbertchart2Stuart Gilbert (who wrote a study of Ulysses with Joyce’s help) provides a handy dandy chart which is reproduced online here. Every one of the 18 chapters has an episode in the Odyssey, a color, an organ of the body, a symbol and a style of writing (Technic) that correspond to the scene and time of day in which we find our everyman heroes.

For the first chapter, Telemachus, that breaks down as follows:

  • Scene: The Tower (Real place, as is everything in Ulysses, check it out! Joyce lived there for a few days until he thought his roomie was going to kill him.)
  • Hour: 8 a.m.
  • Organ: (ok we don’t get organs until the 4th chapter, when Bloom’s day begins, the first three chapters focus on Dedalus, as the Odyssey begins with Telemachus, get it? ).
  • Art: Theology (look out for biblical references, imitations of religious ritual,)
  • Color: White-gold (Why? Uhhh, morning? dawn? Also, this guy’s saint’s day colors)
  • Symbol: heir (like Telemachus, eh? Get it? Huh? So clever.)
  • Technic: Narrative – young (cuz Telemachus/Dedalus are young dudes, yeah? See it all fits together.)

Well, it all fits together until you start trying to keep straight in your head how Joyce manages to tie together the Irish, the Greeks, other semitic groups of the ancient world (Cuz, Leopold Bloom is a jew!), the vikings, the moors in Spain, and…it’s all too much to summarize. I mean Gilbert goes on for a hundred pages before he even gets to the first chapter so take my word for it.

But, let me give you a taste. Gilbert explains how ancient Irish documents describe five distinct supposed Grecian colonizations: here’s one, the Milesians, from Scythia, who were the fifth:

“Their first migration was to Egypt, where they were sojourning at the time that Pharaoh and his host were drowning in the Red Sea; and after wandering through Europe for many generations they arrived in Spain. Here they abode a long time, and at last they came to Ireland with a fleet of thirty ships…”

And one of those guys on one of those ships became king of the whole island. So, when, almost 300 pages into Ulysses, an old drunk guy in a bar talks about the “three sons of Milesius” or someone mentions a “Milly” – that’s a connection between Ireland, Egypt, the Jews and Spain (which is where part of Bloom’s wife’s family is from). Got that? Right, so this is what is meant by “dense.” DO YOU SEE WHY I NEED 1000+ PAGES OF NOTES?

But the interconnectedness is kind of the point. If you can keep one thought in your head while reading Ulysses it might be: We are all one. Everyone’s connected to everyone. And similarly, it doesn’t matter that this epic takes place on one day, because every day contains all the elements of all days just as any human contains all the elements of humanity. It’s all the universe, all of existence, in one city on one day. Deeeeeeeep. Pass the spliff, guys.

Not surprisingly the spiritual undertones are not, in fact, entirely Christian. Bloom’s wife Molly reads something in a book of Bloom’s which she quite charmingly mispronounces as “met-him-pike-hoses.”

“Metempsychosis’ he said, frowning.
‘It’s Greek: form the greek. That means the transmigration of souls.’
‘O, rocks!’ she said. ‘Tell us in plain words!’”

Right, we are all one, and the transmigration of souls…reincarnation…where was I?

Ah yes – that first chapter –  Telemachus.

So we meet young Dedalus. Remember, this is the same Dedalus in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (so it’s also kind of Joyce). It’s been about a year since he set out wandering, 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.” Helluva gap year!

Now he’s back in Dublin, and he’s hanging out with his rather boorish friends who constantly use him for money. Fun fact: Buck Mulligan (stately and plump) is based on the roomie who nearly shot Joyce.  So, Dedalus deals with a bunch of loafing moochers…that sounds like….the suitors of Penelope that Telemachus resents! Keep that in mind when Stephen calls his buddies “usurpers.” Not surprisingly, we are introduced to themes of maternity here: we learn about the death of Stephen’s mother, he calls the sea “a great sweet mother”.

But paternity is of course, a stronger theme. (Oh, the patriarchy!) Though Stephen has a father, they aren’t close, to put it mildly. So in a way, he is, like Telemachus, looking for a father. At the same time, Bloom, who we learn had a son who died, on some level has paternal longings. Most of the book traces their wanderings through the city, and their near misses, until they finally connect. Aww, now doesn’t that sound lovely?

OK, so that’s the nutshell, like really nutshelly. Now for some references that might be helpful.  (My book of annotations has 15 pages for the first chapter so no complaining!)


  • “S”: Typography is important. “S” begins Part I: for Stephen. “P” for Poldy (Molly Bloom’s nickname for her hubby Leopold) begins Part II. And “M” for Molly begins the third and final part. Also S-M-P is short for subject-middle-predicate, the three terms in a syllogism. So, we’ve got the first letter out of the way!
  • Thalatta! Thalatta!”: victory cry of a bunch of Greeks who had a bad time of it at a battle and were super stoked to get back to the Black Sea.
  • dogsbody: I just love this word. It means someone who does lots of odd jobs, usually in an institution. Let’s bring it back, ok?
  • to be debagged: to be pantsed, lol
  • To ourselves: In Irish, Sinn Fein means “we ourselves”, the motto was first adopted in connection to revivals of Irish language and culture before it became a slogan for national independence.
  • omphalos: Greek for “navel” – this comes up a LOT. Calypso’s island where Odysseus was held captive was called the “navel of the sea” for example. The oracle at Delphi was considered the “navel of the earth”. Some people think they are the center of the universe.
  • liliata rutilantium…chorus excipiat: Latin prayer for the dying – “May the glittering throng of confessors, bright as lilies, gather about you. May the glorious choir of virgins receive you.”
  • Janey Mack/O Jay: two ways of avoiding cursing – Jesus Jack or O Jesus.
  • messenger/milkwoman: taking the role of Mentor (disguise of Athena) in the Odyssey, who encourages Telemachus to assert himself.
  • silk of the kine/poor old woman: two epithets for Ireland. The first means “the most beautiful of cattle.irishmoiledcow
  • cuckquean: female cuckold, a woman betrayed.
  • stony: stone broke
  • Agenbite of inwit: aside from being the BEST PHRASE IN THE CHAPTER, it means “remorse of conscience” and comes from the title of a medieval pamphlet.
  • And going forth, he met Butterly: this is just Joyce playing around with a line from the Bible, “And going forth, he wept bitterly” – “he” being Peter after denying Jesus three times. Cuz who doesn’t love a scripture pun, amirite?
  • ashplant: cane made from ash tree, the ash tree was associated with kingmaking and was used for spear shafts, such an oh-so-Greek weapon.
  • Elsinore: seat of Danish court in Hamlet – there’s a lot of Hamlet parallels as well – young man feeling butted out of his place by a usurper, first warned to buck up by a woman (Gertrude/Penelope), then finally asserts himself when chided by a messenger (Ghost/Mentor). There are a lot of echoed lines from the play as well.
  • Photius, Arius, Valentine, Sabellius:  four “heretics” of the early church.
  • palefaces, stranger: terms for the English invaders.englishinvaders
  • up the pole: crazy or in difficulties
  • Horn of a bull, hoof of a horse, smile of a Saxon: from an old proverb warning that those are three things to be wary of. It’s like they’ve got something against the English….
  • The ship: echoing Telemachus’ evasion of the suitors, to set sail in search of his father


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2 responses to “So you’re going to read Ulysses…

  1. Karina

    Not at all! The more people curious about Ulysses (or any great book) 0the better! 🙂

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