Summary of James Joyce's Ulysses

God help me, this makes me want to read Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s like some kid is saying “Hey, I bet you CAN’T, you Philistine,” and I want to show him what a snot-nosed little punk he is. :)

The only thing that’s holding me back is knowing that I won’t enjoy the experience at all and have so many other, better things to do.

Also potentially handy (excerpted from this week’s London Time Out):

First, choose your edition carefully. That means getting one which contains a big fat wad of notes. Anorexic editions of the text alone, or text with short introduction, are inadequate for the majority of beginners. For most of us ‘Ulysses’ requires explanation - a lot of it. My recommendation is the Oxford World’s Classics edition, edited by Jeri Johnson.

Next, find a crib. If you know exactly what is happening in each chapter you will appreciate Joyce’s stylistic pyrotechnics that much better. ‘The New Bloomsday Book’ by Harry Blamires (pub. Routledge) details all of the novel’s contents in simple language. This can save you much frustration, so make use of it.

Right. Are you ready? Then let us begin. But not necessarily at the beginning. It is sensible to tackle the easier chapters first. Reading out of sequence will not affect your understanding of the book as a while if you deploy your notes and crib. Of the 18 chapters, the most accessible … is the last.

A good approach is to read the notes for each chapter first, then the text, and then the crib to make sure you know what’s happening. The remainder of the easier chapters are: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 16, 17. The more challenging chapters … are: 3, 11, 12, 14, 15. Chapter 3 (‘Proteus’) is the reason so many first time readers put the book down around page 50 - it’s a morass of literary and philosophical allusion to swamp the unwary. When you’ve read the novel in this easier-to-harder fashion, read it again front-to-back. It will be quicker this time. Promise.

First off, the ultimate Ulysses guide is here. It’s the only “Ulysses” reference you’ll ever need, animated GIFs and all.

Second, don’t bother with a guide. “Ulysses” is reasonably clear without one, and is pretty funny to boot, especially once you get past the first three chapters or so. Maybe if you ever read it a second time, you’d get a guide to clarify stuff you missed the first time through. But you can definitely get the broad outlines of what Joyce is doing on your own, plus the jokes are funnier if you run across them without the metaphorical guy saying “There’s a joke coming up…watch for it… here it is…now here’s why it’s funny…”.

Third, “Ulysses” is not that painful to read. I don’t know if I’d rank it as the #1 book of the 20th century, but I’ve read it twice, and enjoyed the heck out of it. (First time without a guide, incidentally).

Also, that’s crap about reading the book out of order. There’s a reason the chapters are in the order they’re in.


I’m just a stupid hillbilly, but I can read. Would I enjoy reading this book?

There was, I think, a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Tomas Pynchon (I forget the name of the book, and I probably misspelled his name) some (15?) years back, and I just could not make much sense of it. I tried, but gave up in the end.

I haven’t read much “real” literature, but I have read Kafka’s “The Trial”, Dickens, some of DesCarte’s stuff, and like that.

Could I get something out of “Ulysses”?

Real question, I am gettting near death, and don’t have that much time left.

Well, I’ve probably got a few years left, but I am getting older.

That Pynchon book would be “Gravity’s Rainbow”.

Could I get something out of “Ulysses”?

Who knows. Pick it up at the local Library and try it out. If you don’t like it, there is no end to different literature to try. I don’t think not liking any one or even dozens of the classics says much one way or the other.

Ulysses is not the best place to start if you’ve never read any James Joyce.

I would just start (and maybe even end) with Dubliners, a real amazing and heartbreaking collection of stories that has his most accesible writing.

I read Ulysses with a class in college, and it was probably the most amazing reading experience I’ve ever had, but I don’t think I would have gotten maybe 1/10 as much out of it if I didn’t have a prof holding our hands all the way through it…

Excellent book. Trainspotting (the book) makes a surprisingly nice companion piece BTW.

When I read Ulysses, I approached it with all sorts of reference and “skeleton key” books in hand to atempt to pick up all of its myriad allusions.

After about 2 chapters of underlining and cross-referencing, I said “to hell with this” and just read the damn book with out all the baggage.

I certainly wouldn’t say its the best book of the 20th century, but then again “best book” arguments are ridiculous before the first argument is proposed. Joyce is a funny, clever and introspective writer. His modern experiments with words were pretty ground breaking for the time. I can’t say I’m a big fan, but I thought it was ultimately a good read.

FWIW, I bought the book way back after I finished college on a trip to Paris. I made a point of buying a copy of Ulysses at the Shakespeare & Co bookstore outside of Notre Dame. That’s where many folks who fancied themselves literary types had to trek to get their copy of the book, back in the day when it was banned all over the world.

Why was it banned? Just for being vulgar?

Yeah, pretty much, as far as I know. Banned in the US for being obscene. Likely due to the masturbation chapter.

Most readers who quit Ulysses seem to get bogged down in the third chapter (the Proteus episode), which is an internal monologue by Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus as he walks on the beach. He thinks about various topics in philosophy and poetry — usually only tangentially — and imagines himself visiting his uncle (IIRC) who lives nearby, then imagines himself lying down in the surf. It’s very associative and not really very interesting anyway.

But none of the monlogue is information you need for the rest of the novel, and it’s immediately followed by the introduction of the main character, whose thoughts are much clearer than Stephen’s and who frankly is much more likeable. I’d advise anyone who’s having trouble following or staying interested in Proteus to just skip it.