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Ulysses | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Ulysses | Themes


Sex, Love, and Everyday Empathy

James Joyce's ambition for his epic of Dublin meant nothing should be left out, including love and sex. His main characters masturbate, have adulterous affairs, visit a brothel, and also attempt to connect through love and compassion. Bloom and Molly are the sensualists. Bloom has some unusual sexual tastes, including an attraction to being cuckolded by his unfaithful wife, although it also pains him. Molly lounges in bed like a queen and has adulterous liaisons. Stephen searches for "the word known to all men," and it is possible the word is love. Bloom displays a touching capacity for empathy, imagining himself as a woman in labor, a blind man, or a scorned son.

However, it is possible to overemphasize the importance of love in Ulysses. What is epic in Ulysses is its presentation, not its message about love and compassion. The welter of styles, the prodigious command of so many details of urban life, and the rich patterns of allusion and repetition—these are monumental achievements in modern literature. Its characters' accomplishments remain ordinary, and June 16, 1904, is an average day in their lives. To look for something life-changing in their experiences of sex, love, and empathy on that day could miss the novel's true achievement. Joyce transformed the modern novel by attempting to include everything about his ordinary characters, including their sex lives and their capacities for love and compassion.

Having said that, it is important to acknowledge an alternative—that there actually is something remarkable, if not necessarily "life-changing," about what happens to Stephen and Bloom (and Molly) during the course of the novel. This is one of the key questions raised by Joyce's use of Homer: does the "mythic method" debase Homer's heroes or elevate Joyce's? Well, it does both. Yes, the characters' accomplishments remain ordinary, in the sense that much of what happens is recognizable to us as part of ordinary life, but Joyce prompts us to rethink the opposition between ordinary and extraordinary, between mundane and heroic. Stephen slays the ghost of his mother, which has been haunting him for a year—how ordinary is that? Bloom has a vision of his dead son—how ordinary is that?

Moreover, the day is not, strictly speaking, an "average day." Stephen chooses to surrender his key to his dwelling: he opts for (at least temporary) homelessness. Even for someone with as difficult an upbringing as he had, this is no small thing. Bloom suffers through the knowledge of his wife's infidelity, and while he (and others) seem to imagine this is nothing new, Molly's monologue suggests otherwise.

Obviously, there is no way to know if any of the day's events will turn out to be life-changing: anything is possible, but it lies outside the novel. The idea of the life-changing event is itself something of a melodramatic cliché: "I have often thought ... that small act ... determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives." If that's the case, then every moment is a life-changing event.

Fathers and Sons

Ulysses emphasizes the fragility of the bond of fathers and sons. Ulysses is replete with thematic fathers and sons, but the novel's central father-son relationship, Bloom and Stephen, is anticlimactic. On a thematic level there are parallels to Homer's epic with the reunion of the son, Telemachus, and his long-absent father, Odysseus. There are parallels with Hamlet, the grieving, fatherless son. And there are meditations on Christian doctrines and heresies concerning how much God the Father shares the same substance as the Son. Stephen is particularly concerned with the "mystical estate" of fatherhood. He calls it mystical because it cannot be seen or biologically proven. (Ulysses was written before DNA testing for paternity.) Fatherhood can only be attested to, and such testimony is open to doubt. This doubt is spoofed by Joyce's use of quotations from a sacrilegious book by Léo Taxil in the "Proteus" episode. Taxil writes that when Joseph asks Mary how she got pregnant, Mary, apparently unable to explain the concept of the Holy Ghost, says it was "the pigeon." Bloom also occasionally wonders about paternity, stating in the "Oxen of the Sun" episode, "The wise father knows his own child."

Because fatherhood is so easily doubted, Stephen focuses on authorship as a mystical or invisible fatherhood. In Stephen's theory of Hamlet, Shakespeare is the ghostly father, King Hamlet. Even though the ghost is insubstantial, Shakespeare's authorship makes him "the father of all his race."

In Ulysses the meeting of father and son can be dramatic only on a symbolic and thematic level. Bloom and Stephen do not come together until episodes 14 through 17, and they converse directly only in the "Eumaeus" and "Ithaca" episodes. As an epic of ordinary life, the story of Ulysses does not unfold by way of crises, plot points, and dramatic resolutions. Nonetheless, there is a compelling tenderness in the way Bloom follows, rescues, and guides Stephen home at the end of the night.

Irish Nationalism and the Catholic Church

With the themes of Irish nationalism and the Catholic Church, Ulysses both supports Irish independence and satirizes the forces dominating Ireland. Those forces include England, the Catholic Church, and a fanatical Irish nationalism. Stephen often refers to Ireland's being in servitude to Britain. He calls the maid's cracked mirror a "symbol of Irish art" because it is "a servant's" mirror. Stephen is irritated by Haines's remark about the wrongs done to Ireland: "It seems history is to blame." However, Ulysses also satirizes a romantic attachment to Irish history's betrayed heroes, lost causes, and doomed self-sacrifice. The citizen endlessly ruminates on Ireland's heroes of the past, but he is holed up in a pub, grousing and drinking, not "working for the cause" as the narrator of "Cyclops" says. Rather than remain lost in history, Stephen wants to "awake" from the "nightmare" that is history. Bloom also wants to be freed from that history—he contrasts "life" and "love" with "force, hatred, history, all that." But is an escape from history possible? Can Bloom find a world without violence and hate? Everyone has a laugh at his expense when he preaches love in "Cyclops"—should the reader be laughing too? Joyce identifies the central political problems facing Ireland throughout history, but does his writing here indicate he takes it all seriously?

Stephen also resents the church for dominating Ireland. In "Telemachus" Stephen says, "I am a servant of two masters ... an English and an Italian." When asked to explain, he says the English master is "the imperial British state." The Italian master is "the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church." Stephen also parodies the Gospel of Matthew: "No man can serve two masters ... Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6:24). "Mammon" was a common Aramaic word for wealth. This passage intends for readers of the Bible to conclude they should serve only God, while Stephen's point is that he is stuck serving both the church and the English state when he wants to serve neither.

Femininity and Maternity

In Ulysses the characters celebrate, fear, and envy femininity and maternity. Stephen reflects on the universality of mothers' love when he looks at the awkward pupil Sargent. In "Circe" he pleads with his mother's ghost to tell him "the word known to all men," which is perhaps love. But on a physical level there is something repellent or threatening about mothers' love in Ulysses. Sargent's mother must have loved "his weak watery blood drained from her own." May Dedalus's love threatens to pull Stephen down and drown him.

Some of the male characters in Ulysses impersonate maternity. Mulligan claims to be a "Fertiliser and Incubator," not of eggs or chicks, but of people, although it is not possible for him to become pregnant. In the "Circe" episode Bloom does become pregnant and gives birth to octuplets, outproducing all other mothers in the novel. But Bloom is in some ways a "womanly man" all the way through Ulysses, not only during the chaos in Nighttown. In the "Cyclops" episode Bloom is derided for having something like a woman's menstrual period: "Lying up in the hotel ... once a month with headache like a totty [whore] with her courses [menstrual period]." Bloom later confirms this in "Circe," thinking "Bit light in the head. Monthly or effect of the other."

The themes of femininity and maternity unite in Molly's lengthy interior monologue in the "Penelope" episode. Molly speaks by the light of the moon, her speech unfettered by rules of grammar, punctuation, or models of rhetoric. She scoffs at the memory of the doctor who asks her about her vagina, a term she mocks as "cochinchina," and she is unfazed confessing to a priest. Science (the doctor) and religion (the priest) attempt to interrogate Molly about her femininity, but Molly evades their questioning. She also shrugs off Bloom's sexual obsessions, unlike Bloom's cruel characterization of her in "Circe." In "Penelope" her words stream forth in a torrent just as Joyce associates her with flowing liquids, the Poulaphouca waterfall, and bodily secretions. Ulysses ultimately celebrates Molly, maternity, and femininity with her last words strongly affirming love: "yes I said yes I will Yes."


An important theme in Ulysses is that death is universal, ordinary, and extraordinary. Stephen still has the telegram he received in Paris from his father, Simon. It is unusual, a "curiosity to show." It should have said, "Mother dying come home father," but, perhaps because of the French-speaking telegraph operator, it said, "Nother dying come home father"—as in, another is dying. Death happens to everyone, it is universal and commonplace. But that does not assuage the suffering of the survivors. Death strikes Stephen's mother, May Goulding, and Bloom's 11-day-old son, Rudy. These deaths hurt deeply and are anything but ordinary to those closest. But it also happens to Paddy Dignam, a person few people will miss. (Bloom keeps having to assure people he is in mourning but not stricken by grief.) At the graveside ceremony for Dignam, Bloom thinks, "How many! All these here once walked round Dublin."

The universality of death makes it possible for some characters to bond over mourning. Both Bloom and Stephen are in mourning on June 16, 1904, wearing black clothes to signify their recent losses. Stephen has lost a parent, and although Bloom technically mourns Dignam on this day, deep down he still mourns for his son. Stephen's experience shows how grief oppresses the mourner. His mother's ghoulish image, with its "loose brown graveclothes" and "faint odour of wetted ashes," haunts his dreams. When he imagines his mother conceiving him, it is the ghoul his father beds. In this way mourning takes over Stephen's memory of May. Bloom, too, appears to perpetually mourn both his son and his father, Rudolph.


In Ulysses there is a fascination with people and locales seen as exotic from the perspective of Dublin in 1904. Bloom's imagination often turns to images from the Middle East. In the "Circe" episode he sees Molly as "a handsome woman in Turkish costume" in a "mirage of datepalms." He also takes notice of an advertisement for tracts of land in a place called Agendath Netaim: "To purchase vast sandy tracts from Turkish government and plant with eucalyptus trees."

Joyce may have intended these Eastern and American images as a contrast to the anti-Semitism of Haines and the bigotry of the citizen, who want to keep Ireland from being "overrun." For other characters it is Bloom who is exotic. Characters continually emphasize Bloom's otherness, referring to him as "Ikey Moses" or "of the tribe of Reuben." Stephen and Bloom, the Irishman and the son of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, become a symbolic father and son. In so doing they fulfill a cosmopolitanism hinted at in "Circe": "Jewgreek is greekjew. Extremes meet."

There are also the parallels, in "Aeolus" and elsewhere, between the Jews in Egypt and the Irish under English rule both to flatten out some of the exoticism attached to Jewishness and to remind readers that, from an English perspective, the Irish were a bit exotic and "other," especially those who spoke Gaelic.

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