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Ulysses | Narrative Styles


Although James Joyce's Ulysses is justly famous as a masterpiece of stream-of-consciousness writing, Joyce employed many other literary genres and styles in Ulysses—more than can be summarized here. The "Oxen of the Sun" episode contains more than 20 different styles of English prose, from translated Latin to the 18th-century essay and the Gothic novel style. The "Sirens" episode takes the form of a musical fugue. Mention must be made that, as in his first two novels and again in Ulysses, Joyce explores traditional third-person style writing and pushes it into unexplored territory. Parody or mimicry is employed in at least three episodes. The style dominates the first nine or so episodes. The cumulative effect of all the styles is to destabilize the reader's sense that any one style is sufficient or authoritative, and indeed, as the novel progresses, the shifts in style offer new perspectives on the narrative and the characters. The following discusses some of the most inventive of Joyce's prose styles in Ulysses.

Stream of Consciousness

Stream of consciousness represents a character's thoughts and sense impressions more directly than a traditional third-person narrative style might. A first-person narrative style differs because it views the world from an individual's perspective, while stream of consciousness can transmit the thoughts of any and all characters randomly in time allowing writers great latitude on their exploration of the mind and heart. Joyce exploits this to great effect. The way it works is ordinarily a character's thoughts are framed so that the reader understands they are thoughts, such as, "He thought to himself, 'This kidney is done to a turn.'" Or, less directly, it could be written as, "He noticed the kidney was done to a turn." The omniscient, omnipresent narrator reports the character's thoughts and sensations. In stream of consciousness, the narrator drops away: "Done to a turn."

In Joyce's use of stream of consciousness, the perspective often shifts from character to narrator. For example, when Bloom eats his kidney: "Done to a turn. A mouthful of tea. Then he cut away dies [cubes] of bread." It is a fluid, flexible style that can incorporate trivial and not so trivial thoughts and sensations freed from the necessity of narrative framework or quotation marks.

Expressionist Drama

Drama is not usually a narrative style, but the play-script style passages in "Circe" are meant to be read, not performed. Expressionist drama emphasizes emotional experience rather than events in the external world, and puppets and other props play a part along with actors. Thus Bloom's button and Stephen's hat also speak in "Circe." Joyce uses the form of expressionist drama to reveal truths about Bloom's and Stephen's inner worlds, echoing Freud's theories on sexuality, repression, and the subconscious mind. Their interior worlds could not be as effectively presented in narrative dialogue or stream-of-consciousness writing. Stephen may have repressed his need to banish his mother's ghost. Bloom may not be aware of his sexual attraction to cuckoldry underneath all the pain it causes him. Joyce made full use of the form to reveal the interior worlds of the novel's central characters. More than objects as props, characters change form, ghosts and ghouls appear and speak, inner dreams and inner struggles are staged and directed for optimum dramatic effect utilizing a parade of characters readers have gotten to know. At the end of "Circe" readers have come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Stephen and Bloom.

Interior Monologue

The terms stream of consciousness and interior monologue are often used interchangeably, although they have different origins in the history of literature. The first stream-of-consciousness novel, Pointed Roofs, was written by Dorothy Richardson and published in 1915. Interior monologue first appeared in 1887 with the publication of Les Lauriers sont coupés (We'll to the Woods No More) by Édouard Dujardin. Generally, the technique creates an effect similar to the dramatic monologue or soliloquy in plays.

In the "Penelope" episode Joyce uses interior monologue to represent Molly's thoughts directly. There are no quotation marks and no interruptions by a narrator; it's almost as if Molly were giving a soliloquy onstage in a play. Her interior monologue moves through the story of her whole life—girlhood, her marriage to Bloom, her affair with Boylan, and everything in between. The style overcomes her physical limitation as it ranges and flows from present to past, Dublin to Gibraltar. (Molly's interior monologue has been adapted for stage and screen. One well-known example stars the Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan in James Joyce's Women.) Molly's speech lacks punctuation, correct spelling, and proper grammar; her thoughts freely make connections. The unruly style of her speech resonates with her unruly passions.


Catechism is a form of religious instruction that summarizes doctrine for new members. Often it takes the form of questions and answers, a style Joyce parodies in the "Ithaca" episode. Although there are religious overtones, the point of Joyce's catechism parody is to induct believers into the church of Ulysses, rather than to use Ulysses to win converts to the church.

Unlike a philosophical dialogue, in which Plato might question other citizens, a catechism always seems to be authored by one mind or voice. The questioner and answerer in Ulysses is the same remote narrator or "arranger" of the text. Even though episodes, and especially "Ithaca," sometimes detail the movements and specific moment-to-moment thoughts of characters on a day in Dublin in 1904, Ulysses is not a story to be read to find out what happens. Like a catechism, the one-person discourse in "Ithaca" is something to be learned, perhaps even memorized. Events do not unfold in simple linear sequence, first to last. Instead of telling a story, it presents a tangle of doctrines and analyses, as well as snippets of poetry and song. Catechism is studied, recited, analyzed, and taught rather than read or listened to once. "Ithaca" is not a story to be told so much as a ritual to be repeated.


Parallax is a word that appears throughout Ulysses, most often uttered or thought by Bloom, who seems to be wrestling with two distinct viewpoints with which to understand himself, his life, and his relationships. Joyce makes use of the device both in juxtapositions of characters, their different perspectives of the same event, and juxtapositions of symbols to represent two or more narrative themes. Parallax in science and in literature speak to the same phenomenon: an object or event viewed from different perspectives will result in different received views of that object or event. To obtain any understanding of reality, all perspectives must be collated, compared; scientists call it triangulation. In the case of Bloom's thinking, he needs to reconcile his understanding, especially his relationship to Molly, through the lenses of science and spirituality. He tries out the former but soon realizes a purely conceptual view gives him a limited view. Throughout the story, Bloom seems preoccupied with the workings of gadgets, trivial and not so trivial facts of nature, and even parallax, which he says, "I never exactly understood." Parallax becomes for him a spiritual endeavor through an invocation of belief in God to quell disorder in his life. In the former he equates Molly with celestial bodies so as to come to grips with his troubled marriage and Molly's adulterous behavior. This gives him an insufficient answer. So he connects Molly with the "everlasting virgin," "a beacon ever to the storm-crossed heart of man."

Parallax comes to the fore again in the penultimate episode, "Ithaca," opening with parallactic questions such as: What parallel courses did Bloom and Stephen follow returning? Did Bloom discover common factors of similarity between their respective like and unlike reactions to experience? Were their views on some points divergent? In the explications the narrator catalogs both their convergences and divergences in perspective touching on myriad factors of concern in the daily lives of ordinary people. Joyce seems to be, like Bloom, attempting to understand his two protagonists through the lens of didactic or instructional discourse. Arriving at the end of the discourse with few conclusions, he presents us with Molly's perspective in "Penelope," wholly unscientific, unruly, emotional, reactive, chaotic. It seems that all the triangulations Joyce attempts give us no certain or complete answers, only more questions.

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