top of page

On reading James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

Updated: May 3, 2022

This is another blog fished out of the annals. I probably wrote it about 10 years ago. I have subsequently read Joyce’s magnum opus for the third time. Not to crow but just as a triple advert for its brilliance. Perhaps it might tempt you to dive in!

Just finished James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ for the second time.

That probably puts me into a small subset of humanity but I have to write about how wonderful that book is.

I just read that thundering last paragraph about 5 minutes ago and the whole flow and flood of Molly’s dawn monologue is still pulsing in me like blood.

and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought as well him as another then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and 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

It feels wrong to quote it out of context because it’s the final strophe of a 20,000-word monologue which is mostly breathtakingly earthy – covering the girth and stamina of her afternoon lover, starting her period on the chamber pot under the bed, ruthlessly criticising her husband and most men, fantasising about giving a 20-yr-old lodger a stiffy by showing him her underwear, pondering semen stains on the sheets – and refrains from almost any flights of fancy except this last one.

And it’s the example of Joycean excess. It doesn’t use fancy words or complex ideas. It simple lists in a long flowing monologue all the thoughts and memories that pass through this woman’s head as she’s dozing in bed on a summer’s morning in Dublin, 1904.

Why Joyce chose this flubby, scientifically-minded Jewish advertising salesman as his hero I don’t know.

I feel rather bereft having finished the book – which I started almost 7 weeks ago – and particularly bereft to have lost that husband and wife from my life. Molly and Leopold Bloom are the most subcutaneously loveable characters in any book I’ve read. Actually, Molly and Stephen Dedalus (the other main character) are both quite hard to really like – but they act as foils for Bloom who is the most vivid creation in literature.

Molly only has this one last chapter (she only grunts, half-asleep, otherwise in chapter four). Stephen has the first three chapters and appears in several of the central ones – but the book is really Bloom’s.

Why Joyce chose this flubby, scientifically-minded Jewish advertising salesman as his hero I don’t know. But in the hundreds of pages he devotes to Bloom’s moment-by-moment observation and reaction to the Dublin around him, I come to love him dearly. The other men in the book (and Molly is really the only woman who comes to voice) are silly, vain, bigoted, or only halfway decent. Bloom is kind and curious. Unusually in Dublin, he doesn’t really drink, he looks after his wife, he’s liberal and reasonable. He also masturbates over under-aged girls, visits brothels and revels in masochistic fantasies. He’s tormented by the fact that he’s avoiding going home because Molly is having sex with her lover. He is anything but heroic. But he is human and that is wonderful.

Joyce displays almost superhuman huzhpah in writing Ulysses.

During the flabbergasting ‘Circe’ chapter which is written like a long phantasmagoric expressionist play with surreal stage directions and bizarre set pieces, Bloom describes himself:

I stand, so to speak, with an unposted letter bearing the extra regulation fee before the too late box of the general postoffice of human life

But, again misquoting distorts. This is a moment in the lurid fantasies Bloom has of self-abasement (followed shortly before by unbelievable self-inflation). In fact, Bloom is pretty happy with himself. He doesn’t often criticise himself or think too roughly about himself. (Molly doesn’t either but she’s pretty rough on others. Stephen thinks all together too much. Mostly about himself and Tomas Aquinas – and is haunted by terrible paralysing guilt over his mother’s recent death.)

Bloom is not exceptional but the way Joyce writes the book around him makes him mythical. The fourth character in the book is the book itself. Joyce displays almost superhuman huzhpah in writing Ulysses. There doesn’t seem to be any precedent for it in literature. It starts off fairly conventionally – like one of his Dubliners short stories but then about halfway through the style starts to become a character of its own.

All this cleverness and wordplay should really get in the way of feeling things for the characters.

There’s the chapter that mimics human gestation by morphing prose styles from pre-history to futuristic slang via every great prose writer in English literature. The chapter where words are arranged by purely musical methodology. The chapter which is a massive catechism, asking and answering questions about early morning events in pedantic but sometimes ecstatic detail.

Alone, what did Bloom feel? The cold of interstellar space, thousands of degrees below freezing point or the absolute zero of Fahrenheit, Centigrade or Reaumur: the incipient intimations of proximate dawn.Of what did bellchime and handtouch and footstep and lonechill remind him? Of companions now in various manners in different places defunct: Percy Apjohn (killed in action, Modder River), Philip Gilligan (phthisis, Jervis Street Hospital), Matthew F. Kane (accidental drawing, Dublin Bay). Philip Moisel (pyemia, Heytesbury street), Michael Hart (phthisis, Mater Misericordiae Hospital), Patrick Dignam (apoplexy, Sandymount)What prospect of what phenomena inclined him to remain? The disparition of three final stars, the diffusion of daybreak, the apparition of the new solar disk.

What’s strange about the book is that all this cleverness and wordplay and excess of creativity should really get in the way of feeling things for the characters. But actually, it weirdly does not. Or, at least, it doesn’t for me.

It’s Joyce’s voice I’m going to miss. He makes it feel good to be human.

For the first time, while reading a book, I had a panic because I knew that Bloom was about to disappear. I had the distinct feeling that I was going to miss him when he finally curls up to sleep. Kisses his wife’s buttocks and disappears from the text. He’d been in my head for 5 weeks and now he was just going to fade out?

Now I’ve finished Molly’s final soliloquy I realise that it’s Joyce voice I’m going to miss. His omnivorous attention to the world of flesh and blood, light and form, word and meaning. He makes it feel good to be human.

I’m going to quote (and again it’s sort of misleading to extract from the context because this comes from the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter where every paragraph is a parody of a historical prose style). And I’m choosing a quote that is Joyce’s voice distanced by pastiche but still moving. He’s alluding to nurses in hospitals but in a very illuminating way:

The aged sisters draw us into life. We wail, batten, sport, clip, clasp, sunder, dwindle, die: over us dead they bend. First, saved from waters of old Nile, among bullrushes, a bed of fasciated wattles. At last the cavity of a mountain, an occulted sepulchre amid the conclamation of the hillcat and the ossifrage.

Isn’t that beautiful? I could quote endless bits I’ve highlighted, or mention the dozens of words I had to click and look up on my Kindle. Crubeen, occiput, sennet, mulcted, lycopodium, rebus, luteofulvous, munches and lacustrine. But I guess it would be better to come back and re-read it again.

I’d love to know your thoughts about Joyce. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Click here to sign up for Alistair’s newsletter. Find out more about The Mindsprings School, a series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

35 views0 comments

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page