Help me through Ulysses.

What do I need to know to get through Ulysses? I’m about 60 pages in after a week (though mainly due to a hectic schedule, not a reading disability :D) and enjoying it, but I feel I’m missing something.
My background in literature, while shallow, is thorough enough to appreciate the style and impact thereof of the book. I’m not completely lost, just wondering if there is anything that will help me better understand what’s happening. For one, it’s supposedly about Bloom, yet so far it has mainly been concerning Stephen Dedalus. Is there any overarching significance to the seemingly random digressions into disconnected imagery? Was Joyce just off his freaking rocker?
Please share anything that helped you better appreciate the book.

Buy The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires - it provides the basic structure - translating the text into its chapter and elucidating the themes associated with each chapter and explaining the symbology used with them.


I found Ulysses to be an impenetrable fog of a book by itself. I would suggest reading the Spark Notes, which helped me immensely.

The first section of the book is about Stephen. Bloom will be introduced soon enough, in the book’s long central section. The relationship between these two characters–and the types of people they are–is an important theme in the book.

This is not a book for sissies.

Not a problem here. I’m working my way through the Modern Library’s 100 Greatest Novels list. :eek:

I’m hardcore Joyce geek; I spent three years reading the first chapter of Finnegans Wake. But only, of course, after reading all his work up to that point. My 10-or-so-year obsession with Joyce has had an incalculable effect on the way I perceive the world through art. I commend your efforts and I hope Joyce has as much impact on you, Ilsa.

*Ulysses *is still my favorite.

You know how I got into Joyce? I was on a Burgess kick and I read his Re:Joyce. I’ve never looked back.

One thing, though, that I think is true for everyone who reads Joyce seriously: you’ll read about 17 pages of secondary work for every page of Joyce you read. So don’t be afraid of that. On my bookshelves, during the height of my Joyce phase, I had about one linear foot of Joyce, but three or four shelves of Joyceana.

Read Ellman’s Joyce, possibly the greatest literary biography ever written. (I had a signed first at one time. . . .) And Joyce’s ouevre is one long piece of autobiography à clef. You really should read *A Portrait of the Artist *before you read Ulysses.

I heartily agree with Wordman about using a guide such as The New Bloomsday Book while you read Ulysses.

I had tried to read Ulysses several times, and twice had given up, thinking ‘What a bunch of whooey - Ulysses is so over rated.’

Third time was a charm. I was slugging through it, and as I was reading the Sirens section, I realized I was reading **one of the most beautiful passages ** I’d ever read, in any book or poem, ever. I thought ‘Now I get it!’

It’s a great book, once you find a door into it.

If you fail to get through it, you’re in good company.

The great Argentine JL Borges (who never finished it eaither) once wrote that Joyce is less a man of letters than a litterature, and, incredibly, he is a litterature within the compass of a single volume. Borges never read it from start to finish, but he loved and ofter re-read certain scenes in it, like the Shakespeare dialogue, the Walpurgisnacht in the whorehouse, and the questions and answers of the cathechism…

I love Ulysses, and have read it five times. The first time I had no idea what was going on. Now I can read it more or less like any other novel.

Some suggestions:

First, Books. These are in addition to the ones already suggested.

Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. This is a line by line commentary on what exactly is going on. It has a lot of Dublin history and facts, which there’s no way you could know. Among many other things it has a list of the Rhetorical devices used in ep 5. and the author’s pastiches in ep.14.

Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses. Basically it goes through episode by episode and explains the Homeric parallels and the symbolism. There are several things wrong with Gilbert’s book. Gilbert is “humorless and Naive” as someone said. Joyce was neither and Gilbert doesn’t pick up on his humor. Also Gilbert believed in Theosophy, the new-age belief system of his day, and he sometimes interprets Ulysses as a theosophical tract. Joyce was interested in Theosophy, but was too smart and sceptical to take it seriously, and in fact makes fun of it in parts of Ulysses. Finally Gilbert over-emphasizes the symbolic and allegorical aspects of Ulysses, and pyse more attention to its formalisms than to the story itself.

So why read Gilbert? Well, he remains the best guide to the formal structure of Ulysses. Also he wrote his book under Joyce’s supervision, so he can’t be too far off base.

Frank Budgen’s James Joyce and the making of Ulysses Budgen was a sailor and minor artist who befriended Joyce. Joyce was open with him as he was with no other man. The book gives a picture of Ulysses as a work in progress and also interprets the story as a story, instead of a complex formal structure, thus providing a valuable counterpoint to Gilbert.

Now, How to use said books

This is what worked for me. YMMV, etc.

I would read an episode of Ulysses with Gifford open next to it, going through the notes. After I finished the episode I would read Gilbert’s commentary. Then I would read the episode again, without using the notes. While I was doing that I would also be reading Budgen, sort of parallel to where I was in Ulysses.

It’s a lot of work, but worth it IMO, as Ulysses is a near-perfect work of art. Once you’ve done it you can go back to your favorite episodes and take pleasure in the language without constantly scratching your head.

A couple of other points.

If possible, befriend an Irishman, preferably from Dublin. If you hear the soft Dublin accent and the use of Language, Ulysses becomes much more comprehensible. One of my best friends is a dubliner, so I lucked out there.

Also, Don’t worry about “getting it” There’s a lot of stuff you’ll miss on the first reading, but it really doesn’t matter. Enjoy what you can, don’t sweat what you can’t. No one’s testing you, and the book should be a joy, not a chore.

Good luck to ya

Thanks all. I think I’ll take a break and slog through A Portrait of the Artist for now, then pick up where I left off.

That reminds me. It’s best to read Portrait and Dubliners before Ulysses.

Portrait is a prequel of sorts, and Dubliners has some of the minor characters in it. Also, they serve as an intro to Joyce’s aesthetic.