'Ulysses' Review

Ulysses by James Joyce

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Ulysses by James Joyce holds a very special place in the history of English literature. The novel is one of the greatest masterpieces of modernist literature. But, Ulysses is also sometimes seen as so experimental that it is completely unreadable.

Ulysses records events in the lives of two central characters--Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus--on a single day in Dublin. With its depth and complexities, Ulysses completely changed our understanding of literature and language.

Ulysses is endlessly inventive, and labyrinthine in its construction. The novel is both a mythical adventure of the every day and a stunning portrait of internal psychological processes--rendered through high art. Brilliant and sparkling, the novel is difficult to read but offers rewards tenfold the effort and attention that willing readers give it.


The novel is as difficult to summarize as it is difficult to read, but it has a remarkably simple story. Ulysses follows one day in Dublin in 1904--tracing the paths of two characters: a middle-aged Jewish man by the name of Leopold Bloom and a young intellectual, Stephen Daedalus. Bloom goes through his day with the full awareness that his wife, Molly, is probably receiving her lover at their home (as part of an ongoing affair). He buys some liver, attends a funeral and, watches a young girl on a beach.

Daedalus passes from a newspaper office, expounds a theory of Shakespeare's Hamlet in a public library and visits a maternity ward--where his journey becomes intertwined with Bloom's, as he invites Bloom to go along with some of his companions on a drunken spree. They end up at a notorious brothel, where Daedalus suddenly becomes angry because he believes the ghost of his mother is visiting him.

He uses his cane to knock out a light and gets into a fight--only to be knocked out himself. Bloom revives him and takes him back to his house, where they sit and talk, drinking coffee into the wee hours. In the final chapter, Bloom slips back into bed with his wife, Molly. We get a final monologue from her point of view. The string of words is famous, as it is entirely devoid of any punctuation. The words just flow as one long, full thought.

Telling the Story

Of course, the summary doesn't tell you a whole lot about what the book is really all about. The greatest strength of Ulysses is the manner in which it is told. Joyce's startling stream-of-consciousness offers a unique perspective on the events of the day; we see the occurrences from the interior perspective of Bloom, Daedalus, and Molly. But Joyce also expands upon the concept of stream of consciousness.

His work is an experiment, where he widely and wildly plays with narrative techniques. Some chapters concentrate on a phonic representation of its events; some are mock-historical; one chapter is told in epigrammatic form; another is laid out like a drama. In these flights of style, Joyce directs the story from numerous linguistic as well as psychological points of view.
With his revolutionary style, Joyce shakes the foundations of literary realism. After all, aren't there a multiplicity of ways to tell a story? Which way is the right way? Can we fix on any one truthful way to approach the world?

The Structure

The literary experimentation is also wedded to a formal structure that is consciously linked to the mythical journey recounted in Homer's Odyssey (Ulysses is the Roman name of that poem's central character). The journey of the day is given a mythical resonance, as Joyce mapped the events of the novel to episodes that occur in the Odyssey.

Ulysses is often published with a table of parallels between the novel and the classical poem; and, the scheme also offers insight into Joyce's experimental use of the literary form, as well as some understanding of how much planning and concentration went into the construction of Ulysses.

Intoxicating, powerful, often incredibly disconcerting, Ulysses is probably the zenith of modernism's experimentation with what can be created through language. Ulysses is a tour de force by a truly great writer and a challenge for completeness in the understanding of language that few could match. The novel is Brilliant and taxing. But, Ulysses very much deserves its place in the pantheon of truly great works of art.

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Your Citation
Topham, James. "'Ulysses' Review." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/review-of-ulysses-740295. Topham, James. (2020, August 27). 'Ulysses' Review. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/review-of-ulysses-740295 Topham, James. "'Ulysses' Review." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/review-of-ulysses-740295 (accessed March 28, 2023).