Ulysses begins at about 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, June 16, 1904, in Dublin, Ireland, when one of its major participants, young Stephen Dedalus, awakens and interacts with his two housemates, the egotistical medical student, Buck Mulligan, and the overly reserved English student, Haines. The narrative ends some twenty-four hours later, when Stephen, having politely refused lodgings at the home of two other principal characters, Leopold and Molly Bloom, discovers he is no longer welcome to stay with Mulligan and Haines. During the sixteen hours of narrative time, the characters move through their day in Dublin, interacting with a stunning variety of individuals, most of whom are fictional but some of whom represent actual people.
Ulysses stands as an inventive, multiple-point-of-view (there are eighteen) vision of daily events, personal attitudes, cultural and political sentiments, and observations of the human condition. It is written in a number of differing literary styles, ranging from internal monologue to first-person speculation to question-and-answer from a catechism to newspaper headlines. The work has eighteen chapters. When taken in context with James Joyce’s grander design for it (a playful comparison to Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey), Ulysses gains complexity, irony, and dramatic intensity. Not only does Stephen Dedalus become all the more vivid because of his comparison to Telemachus, the son of Ulysses, King of Ithaca, in the Homeric epic. The other main character, Leopold Bloom, may be seen as the wandering Ulysses. In The Odyssey, Ulysses is seen returning to his wife, that symbol of womanly and cultural virtue, Penelope; in the novel, Joyce uses irony to represent Penelope as Molly Bloom, who that very afternoon had an adulterous encounter with her lover, Blazes Boylan.
Incidents in the novel have counterparts in the Homeric epic, sometimes to a broadly farcical effect, other times to a more punning or humorous effect, and still others to fit Joyce’s own sense of social or political irony. For instance, Chapter One in Ulysses, referred to as “Telemachus” by Joyce, establishes the link to come between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. It shows Stephen getting up and leaving for work. Those familiar with The Odyssey will be amused by the parallels between Mulligan and Haines and the suitors of Penelope. In The Odyssey, Telemachus, son of Ulysses, King of Ithaca, is persuaded to venture out in search of his long-absent father. Chapters Two and Three of The Odyssey show Telemachus meeting Nestor, an old windbag of a counselor to his father. In the novel, Stephen is shown in conversation with Mr. Deasey, headmaster of the school where he teaches. In addition to being anti-Semitic, anti-feminist, and wildly pro-British, Mr. Deasey is a repository of misinformation.
The first three episodes of Ulysses focus on Stephen Dedalus, a problematically autobiographical character first introduced in Joyce’s published work through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In Chapter One, Stephen, Mulligan, and Haines prepare for the day. In Chapter Two, Stephen is teaching in a boys’ school. While the class recites Milton’s Lycidas, he broods about his life so far, his ambitions to be a great writer, and his doubts. In Chapter Three, Stephen walks along the seafront and reflects upon the things he sees — midwives, cockle-pickers, boulders, a dog, the body of a dog, “seaspawn and seawrack.”
The next twelve chapters take the reader on Leopold Bloom’s Odyssey (the wanderings of Ulysses). His and Stephen’s paths cross but they have no meaningful meeting until later on.
In Chapter Four, Leopold Bloom is at his and Molly’s home at 7 Eccles Street in the northwest quadrant of Dublin. He is preparing breakfast for himself and his wife (and his cat) before departing for Paddy Dignam’s funeral. The jingling springs of the bed upstairs show that his wife Molly is awake. He goes out into the world like Odysseus in The Odyssey. Bloom’s wanderings become the major part of the novel.
In Chapter Five, Bloom walks through the streets of Dublin and performs several errands. In Chapter Six, Bloom and his fellow mourners travel to the cemetery for the burial of Paddy Dignam, which evokes from Bloom a wealth of meditations on birth, death, and human frailty, including his reminiscences on Rudy, his own dead son, and his father, a suicide. This theme and anti-Semitism, tactlessly arise in various conversations, with Bloom the target.
In Chapter Seven, Stephen and Bloom (father and son, or Odysseus and Telemachus) meet in the newspaper office for the first time in the novel, although each knows who the other is. Bloom attempts (unsuccessfully) to complete an advertising contract, and Stephen (successfully) hands over the letter schoolmaster Deasy entrusted him with. Note the shift in narrative as newspaper headlines appear to interrupt straightforward narrative.
In Chapter Eight, Bloom gets hungry and decides to lunch at Davey Byrnes’s pub. The dominant motifs are related to food and eating. Bloom continues to wander, thinking about birth and family life, Molly, her previous lovers, and his own past. He is handed a religious pamphlet, sees Stephen’s sister Dilly in the street, feeds some seagulls with cakes he has purchased, then starts noticing and thinking about advertising. Bloom meets Mrs. Breen, sort of an old flame, and sympathizes with her because of her “cracked” husband. (He had earlier sympathized with women’s lot in general when thinking about families — “Life with hard labor.”) He learns that a mutual acquaintance, Mrs. Purefoy, is in the maternity hospital.
In Chapter Nine, at the National Library, in the office of the director, Stephen, A.E. (the pseudonym of noted Irish man of letters, George Russell), John Eglinton, and Lyster the librarian discuss Shakespeare. The others mock Stephen for his youthful enthusiasm for complex theories of literary creation. A.E. is a Platonist (an idealist), and mocks all readings of Shakespeare that suppose that Hamlet is a real person. After some banter about the Dublin literati, A.E. leaves and Stephen begins to expound his theory (it is a theory that must chart a course between the idealism of A.E. and the simple-minded, literal approach of Mulligan in order to define the ways in which art [the ideal] and life [the material] interact).
Chapter Ten takes place at about 3:00 p.m. on the streets of Dublin. It’s made up of eighteen small episodes, which makes it a sort of doubling of the book itself (which has eighteen chapters). In these mini-episodes, we meet Father Conmee, the Dedalus sisters, and Stephen (who, at the sight of one of his sisters, is wracked with guilt because she is so obviously in poor financial straits and he is doing nothing to help her), a one-legged sailor, and an arm that throws a coin and belongs to Molly Bloom. We also meet Blazes Boylan, and a host of other characters.
In Chapter Eleven, it is about 4:00 in the afternoon, nearly time for Boylan’s assignation with Molly. We are at The Concert Room Saloon in the posh Ormond Hotel. The barmaids at the Ormond Hotel see Bloom pass by. Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father, is there, and he turns his attention to the piano, which has just been tuned by the blind stripling. Bloom is elsewhere, buying paper. Boylan enters. Bloom spots his car outside and also enters with a friend, Ritchie Goulding. Boylan leaves, on his way to meet Molly. Simon sings, and Bloom thinks of Molly.
In Chapter Twelve, it is nearly 5:00 and the locale shifts to Barney Kiernan’s pub, where Bloom is going to meet Martin Cunningham and discuss the affairs of the Dignam family. The unnamed narrator (a debt collector) chats with Joe Hynes, and they meet the Citizen, a fierce nationalist with a dog called Garryowen, who does not take kindly to Bloom. Several characters enter the pub, including Bloom, behind whose back the Citizen starts throwing insults.
Chapter Thirteen takes place at 8:00 p.m. Cissy Caffrey, her twin brothers, and her friends Edy Boardman and Gerty MacDowell (who sits a little apart), are on the Sandymount Strand. Gerty is impatient with the boys and their noise and mess, as well as her friends, who are a little common, and she daydreams at length about herself, her romantic aspirations, and her spiritual strivings. The twins kick their ball to Bloom, who is also on the beach, and Gerty weaves him into her thoughts (she notices that he is in mourning and constructs a tragic but romantic tale around him). Cissy cockily goes to ask Bloom the time, but his watch has stopped. A fireworks display begins. Her friends run along the beach, but Gerty stays near Bloom and leans back to watch the fireworks (she knows that men can be excited by immodest women, and she is allowing Bloom to see up her skirt). When she leaves, Bloom notices that she has a limp, and we learn that he has masturbated.
In Chapter Fourteen, at 10:00, Bloom enters The National Maternity Hospital to check on the condition of Mina Purefoy, who went into labor in Chapter Eight. To reinforce the theme of childbearing, Joyce delivers a running analogy between the development of the English language and the gestation of an infant. While at the hospital, Bloom sees Stephen carousing with other young men and worries that doing so will spill and waste the seed of his talent.
In Chapter Fifteen, it is midnight at Bella Cohen’s brothel on Tyrone Street. This chapter is a series of fantastic events, partially the result of drunkenness on Steven’s part, partially due to hallucinations induced by guilt and remorse on Bloom’s part. Stephen and Lynch stagger in drunk and are mocked by the hangers-on and patrons of the place. Bloom follows, events and characters (Gerty, Molly, his father, and his mother) stimulating his mind and sense of guilt in a hallucinatory fashion. Bloom is arrested for committing an unnamed nuisance and undergoes a protracted trial in which he never knows for certain what the charges are. His identity constantly changes as characters from his past and personifications of perverse desires enter the court. Bloom speaks with one of the whores, Zoe Higgins, who knows where Stephen is. When Bloom finds him, Stephen, in his drunkenness, is attempting to settle his bill. Bloom ensures that he isn’t cheated. The ghost of Stephen’s mother appears, Stephen breaks the chandelier, and they end up on the street. A fight with some English privates (he has allegedly insulted the King) leaves Stephen prostrate on the pavement. The police appear, but Corny Kelleher and Bloom smooth things over. Bloom gazes at the unconscious Stephen and experiences a vision of his dead son, Rudy.
The remaining three chapters, may be seen as Ulysses’ homecoming to Ithaca. These segments cover the following events from The Odyssey: the hero’s return, his slaying of the treacherous suitors of his faithful wife Penelope, and his joyful reunion with her.
In Chapter Sixteen, it is 1:00 at a cabman’s shelter. Bloom and Stephen drink coffee. A number of minor characters appear, and Stephen and Bloom interact with them. Bloom shows Stephen a photograph of Molly, the implication being that Stephen’s talents might be used to further Molly’s career (and thus oust Boylan from her affections). They leave and discuss music as they walk.
In Chapter Seventeen, it is 2:00 in the morning at the Bloom’s home at 7 Eccles Street. The narrative style is in the dry, question-and-answer style of the catechism. Stephen and Bloom are brought together for the last time here. Stephen seeks a father, Bloom seeks a son. At the same time, each of them is individual, yet harmoniously joined. In the text, they are united by a word play, becoming “Stoom and Blephen,” but their union or reconciliation is ephemeral. They urinate in the garden, Bloom invites Stephen to stay, Stephen declines and leaves.
In Chapter Eighteen, called “Molly’s Soliloquy,” Molly is in bed, just on the cusp of sleep. The entire chapter is from Molly’s point of view, revealing Molly’s thoughts. She is thinking about her husband, her meeting with Boylan earlier that day (in that very bed), her past, her hopes. Among other things, she suspects Bloom of having an affair, she thinks of woman’s lot in the games of courting and mating, she thinks of her lovers, and she longs for a glamorous life. She thinks of beauty and ugliness, and her thoughts are interrupted by a train whistle. She thinks of her past life in Gibraltar and laments the drabness of her present. She thinks about her health and her daughter, she thinks about her visits to the doctor, and muses about Stephen. Her thoughts turn to Rudy and Bloom. She thinks of humiliating her husband, she recalls the time when she and Bloom first made love, letting the reader see she clearly prefers Bloom to Boylan. Punctuation, selection, comment, things usually associated with authorial control, are missing.
Those familiar with The Odyssey will see the ironic comparison between Molly Bloom and with Penelope, who uses her knowledge of the construction of hers and Ulysses’ bed to confirm the identity of her long-absent husband. This chapter begins and ends with the affirmative Yes. The yeses represent Molly’s ongoing optimism to life in general, punctuating the choices she has made and the memories she has revisited during the entire soliloquy. The yesses also represent Joyce’s belief that women are a positive life force, a notion he was at pains to demonstrate in this remarkable soliloquy. The key here is to be found in Molly’s ultimate decision to serve Bloom breakfast in bed tomorrow.