Episode 1: Telemachus
Ulysses opens on a sunny morning in June with the talkative, funny, and jovial Buck Mulligan getting ready for the day with his surly, rather emo roommate, Stephen Dedalus. Stephen’s cranky because Buck’s friend kept them up late last night, but also because Ireland is controlled by England, because the Catholic church exists, because he can’t make a living as A Great Poet, because he no longer lives in Paris, and because months ago when Stephen’s mother died, Buck said something thoughtless in Stephen’s earshot. And probably some other reasons. Stephen’s kind of a drag. Buck gives Stephen clothing and shoes, tries to cheer him up, forgives his overdue rent payment, and barely comments on the fact that Stephen hasn’t bathed since last October, and Stephen still acts like Buck is beneath him. Unfortunately, we follow Stephen, not Buck, for a significant portion of the narrative. But at least we’re still in a section that can be called a “narrative”!
Episode 2: Nestor
Remaining in a pretty straight-forward narrative style, Stephen heads to his day job shaping young minds. He’s a pretty terrible teacher, spending most of the class thinking about how clever he is. And it’s a half day, so after about an hour, he’s done. He talks with the school principal for a bit to collect his pay, and it’s exactly like talking to a conservative today who wants to tell you how everything really is and should be and would be if it weren’t for these uppity women or Jewish people or whatever. At this point, you’re thinking my dislike of this book is too harsh. But hang in there.
Episode 3: Proteus
This is the chapter that causes most people to walk away from Ulysses. And with good reason. The entire thing is Stephen wandering on a rather dingy beach, being self-pitying and snotty and composing poetry in his head. And, of course, still thinking about how clever he is. He remembers living in Paris, which seems to have been the highlight of his life, and he bitterly blames his family for pulling him back and keeping him in Ireland. He also ponders obscure Catholic philosophy and imagines himself debating fine points with dead scholars, then picks his nose. Take a moment to consider: is it worth continuing? If you found this chapter infuriating, give up all hope. There’s no reward for you here. Take back your time and read something more fulfilling.
Episode 4: Calypso
Okay, you get a short relief here. We’ve switched to Leopold Bloom’s point of view and, while not entirely relatable, he at least understands reality as something that exists beyond his own noble head. His relation to people and things around him seems maybe a little odd, but they develop him as a character. Then Joyce ends the chapter with a detailed first-person account of Bloom taking a shit, because we can’t have nice things.
Episode 5: The Lotus Eaters
Bloom wanders around the neighborhood, killing time before going to a funeral. He gets a suggestive letter from a woman he’s not really having an affair with. He stops by a church and a drug store. He gets a bath. We learn that he’s a bit kinky in a submissive way. The beat goes on.
Episode 6: Hades
Bloom becomes more vulnerable here. We see him interacting with acquaintances who don’t treat him particularly well, although he doesn’t have much reaction. This is setting a pattern—Bloom tends to let things happen to him, and doesn’t react much to others in his own defense. Personally, I find this frustrating in fiction.
Episode 7: Aeolus
The first chapter where the writing style takes a turn. No longer are we diving in and out of characters’ consciousnesses in the same way. Now, we’re keeping up with the headline-driven bustle of a newspaper office, curated by an outside hand. It doesn’t seem too flashy yet, but Joyce is going to show off his versatility a lot more throughout the rest of the book. In this chapter, the characters talk over each other, bump into one another, mock and admire each other, and ultimately head off to the bar—before noon on a Thursday. This seems like a good idea to everyone but Bloom, who is, of course, marginalized.
Episode 8: Lestrygonians
Bloom thinks about food a lot. He stops in one tavern and decides the people eating are too disgusting. So he goes somewhere else and has a sandwich and a glass of wine. People talk about him, kind of like they already have been, but different people. He also pees. You’re less than halfway done.
Episode 9: Scylla and Charybdis
You’ve been doing well. You’ve made it this far. You’re making connections—sometimes slippery—between Ulysses and The Odyssey. Welcome to an interminable analysis of Hamlet! On the recording, this chapter lasts more than three hours. Yes, fathers and sons and the life of a poet. We get it.
Episode 10: The Wandering Rocks
It took me a while to get into this chapter—I was still angry about the Hamlet thing—but it ends up being one of the more memorable in the book. Imagine a camera in a single-shot careen through Dublin, dropping in on conversations with major and minor characters and strangers. Pretty much none of this advances the plot, but if you’re still holding on for that, save yourself the effort of finishing the book. Oh, and some of this is in Italian, so good luck.
Episode 11: Sirens
The opening of this chapter is like an orchestra warming up, playing disconnected fragments of the pieces before the concert. But if no one tells you this, it sounds like the jumbled ramblings of a madman. There’s a lot of music in this one, and a lot of Bloom acting weirdly standoffish to one of the only characters who seems to want to spend time with him. Jingles, pats, taps, and farts throughout. Always farts.
Episode 12: Cyclops
And suddenly, we have a nameless first-person narrator we’ve never met before. Because that’s what you’d want an author to do, right? He heads to a bar to hang out with some nationalistic racist who also has no name. And, because this isn’t enough, the narrative starts taking on dramatically different tones, like old Irish myths, the Bible, Renaissance writing, early scientific studies of the supernatural, newspaper celebrity columns, etc. This game will be repeated later, with more intensity.
Episode 13: Nausicaa
Apparently, this chapter had a lot to do with the book’s banning in the US. It’s written in an overwrought, romantic style popular at the time, which actually makes it clearer than most chapters. But it does gloss over Bloom masturbating in public, and the girl, Gerty, who apparently gets a thrill out of encouraging this from afar. But that’s only because her period has just started, and you know how randy women get when they’re bloated and cramping and bleeding! Farting, pissing, pooping, menstruating, and now climaxing into one’s clothes on a public beach. A classic, I tell you!
Episode 14: Oxen of the Sun
A quote from SparkNotes: “The narrative technique of Episode Fourteen is meant to represent the gestation of the English language.” Is that a sentence you ever thought you’d read? It also calls this chapter “one of the most difficult in the novel.” Indeed, various sections of this chapter take us from old English (think: Beowulf) through the Middle Ages, Defoe, Dickens, and up to the twentieth century. All these words are describing Bloom and Stephen getting drunk in a hospital with a bunch of doctors and medical students while an unseen minor character gives birth upstairs. They say lots of crude things about women and pregnancy. Why are they getting drunk in a maternity hospital on Thursday night?
Episode 15: Circe
Oh god. The chapter that only works if you imagine John Waters and David Lynch as co-writers and directors. Stephen and Bloom have both had absinthe, which has apparently made them hallucinate. This makes their trip to the brothel… unsettling. Bloom mostly hallucinates, in long and vivid detail, about being humiliated, mostly in sexual ways. Stephen, naturally, hallucinates his dead mother’s rotting corpse. This smut takes up the longest chapter in the book.
Episode 16: Eumaeus
Well, Bloom and Stephen have had an adventure together, finally, so how will their relationship blossom? They sit in a cab shelter, talk past each other, and hear a sailor show off his tattoos. From SparkNotes: “The error-ridden and banal narrative is the main device by which this climactic meeting of Bloom and Stephen is rendered anticlimactic.” If someone ever writes that about a story of mine, I will know I have failed.
Episode 17: Ithaca
Nearly done. Only two chapters to go. Joyce rewards your endurance by framing this chapter in the form of more than 300 questions (asked by who to who?) and painfully detailed, often irrelevant answers. Stephen and Bloom go to Bloom’s house, sip a little cocoa, pee together outside, and then Stephen leaves. Bloom goes upstairs, notices evidence of Molly’s daytime affair, kisses her literal ass, and chats with her about his day. They go to sleep, he upside down on the bed. Ulysses has returned from his Odyssey, the day is complete.
Episode 18: Penelope
Molly, who has spent most of the day in bed, either sleeping or having sex, stays awake after Bloom’s return and thinks. She thinks of the men in her life, how men perceive her, how men perceive other women, and what she likes and doesn’t like about men. She farts, pisses, and also gets her period, which obviously explains why she’s always thinking about sex, according to Joycean logic. But it’s finally over: yes!
One does not simply *read* Ulysses. Because Ulysses is not simply a book. It’s in the format of a book, but I think that has more to do with the technology of the time than a conscious attempt by Joyce to find the medium that best expressed the artistic vision he had. Today, I imagine it would be some kind of interactive website or even museum space, filled with video, lights, music, and maybe some hallucinogens.
One needs a strategy for tackling Ulysses. A friend of mine swears she read Ulysses, in print, one summer while following along with Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. She says she really enjoyed it, and that the 640+ pages of fine-print annotations made her feel like she was doing the detective work needed to fully understand the context of Ulysses. She’s likely both more intelligent and more patient than I am, because trying that made me feel like I was going insane. I couldn't get myself to care about the biographies and geographies and histories of every real and imaginary reference, some of which I’m pretty sure were supposed to be a joke anyway.
Since finishing this marathon, I’ve found that most other people who claim to love Ulysses took a class, usually during their undergraduate years, with a professor who almost exclusively studies the book. This intense, semester-long focus led by a knowledgeable and experienced tour guide seems to help make the whole thing more bearable. I imagine it’s a gift to have someone to tell you which parts of the text you can safely skip and which have something really interesting happening just under the surface. But if a book needs an expert guide to be made tolerable, then can it really be considered a “good” book? What about all the readers out there who don’t have first-hand access to such an expert?
I eventually developed my own strategy. I got the audiobook on CD from the library (with much thanks to Columbus Metropolitan Library for letting me keep it for 6 months!) and listened to it during my commute every day… or every day I could while still avoiding the temptation to drive my car into a river. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and this is the first one I recall with an intro explaining the process behind its creation. Apparently, Joyce’s heirs would only release the rights for the audiobook if Donal Donnelly was the narrator (he does a pretty great job), and the production staff spent way longer than usual on research and notes to figure out how the text should be read aloud. I can’t imagine it could be done any better than what Recorded Books managed to pull off. This made it much easier to keep up with the sound effects, songs, and dialogue than the printed text would have allowed.
Near the beginning of each episode, I also read the summary and analysis on SparkNotes. (Hey, if it’s good enough for Bob Dylan’s Nobel speech…) Really, this was invaluable to me. I could keep up with the incremental plot movements and character interactions without getting too frustrated with the layers and layers of obscurity piled on top of them by this sadistic author. OK, maybe I still got a little frustrated. But having a broad understanding of each episode in advance helped me push through.
As a novel, Ulysses is miserable. The characters don’t develop, many of them are indistinct from one another, and they don’t have stakes or goals. They mostly just get drunk, complain about the state of Irish culture all day, and entertain deeply repressed thoughts about sex. The plot is barely worth mentioning. The writing is (intentionally) inconsistent, obscure, and overwrought. You’re as likely to encounter a fart joke as a reference to Jesuit philosophers. There’s a whole chapter that critiques Hamlet, and another in which the main character masturbates in public. It’s a mess.
And the women characters are the worst. It made me wonder if Joyce had ever really spent time listening to a woman, let alone understanding her in any significant way. The very very few female characters exist entirely through a man’s lens. Even when the narration enters their heads (even Molly’s), they define themselves entirely by the attention they draw from men based on how they look and act and speak.
But I get why Ulysses is considered important. Joyce shows off a wide range of writing styles here, and he does all of them well (although I’m admittedly more familiar with some than others). It’s impressive that all these words and tones came from a single author. If Ulysses were turned into some kind of epic movie or mini-series, you’d need a different director for each episode; one person alone could not capture what makes Ulysses unique. That doesn’t mean it’s worth reading, just that it’s “important.”
I actually finished Ulysses in July, but I'm just now finishing this review. In a week or so, I’ll post my rather grumpy plot summary of Ulysses here. Stay tuned!
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