Ulysses: Structure, Style, and Characters
- Track Progress
- 0:56 Bloomsday
- 1:17 Stephen Dedalus
- 2:45 Leopold Bloom
- 4:51 Stephen & Bloom Meet
- 6:38 Why Ulysses?
- 10:15 Literary Style
For James Joyce's masterpiece, we'll look at the differences between protagonists Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, understand what Homer's Odyssey has to do with the structure, and talk about the novel's ever-shifting style.
James Joyce's Ulysses
Hello. I'm just brushing up on Ulysses, one of the most famously difficult and impenetrable works in the English language. These scribblings are my attempt to penetrate it, which I will share with you.
We're just going to roll through this. We're going to take about 15 minutes. That is absurd, because Joyce wanted to keep people busy for hundreds of years. Literally, he said this. He wanted to keep scholars busy for hundreds of years studying this, trying to work out all of his puzzles.
We're just going to ignore a lot of his puzzles, but we are going to go through the plot, characters and basic things you need to know. We're going to try to get a sense of why this is such a lasting work and why people think it's so important.
There are legions of crazy people who celebrate every June 16th who celebrate Bloomsday. Leopold Bloom is the main character in this book. People go to Dublin and follow the footsteps of the people in this book. It's kind of like how crazy Harry Potter people go to Platform 9 3/4. That's basically what people do with this giant, giant tome.
Plot & Characters: Stephen Dedalus
So plot and characters are first, just so you have a framework to hang everything else on. If you've read Joyce's previous novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or if you've watched the video on it, you probably remember Stephen Dedalus.
He spends that book figuring himself out and finding himself as an artist. When we meet him in Ulysses, it's kind of like when you wander into the Starbucks in your hometown and you're placing your order and then you see that the girl behind the counter is that girl who was going to go off to L.A. and become an actress; now she's taking your order at Starbucks.
That's kind of how it feels when we run into Stephen at the beginning of Ulysses. He spent the last book going off to Paris where he was going to be an artist. Now we find that he is back in Dublin. He's living with an awful guy named Buck Mulligan. He's working as a schoolteacher. He's not doing too well.
But what he's hoping will happen is that he'll give a great talk on Shakespeare and then all will be well. He's going to be famous. That might not be how you or I would do it, but we can probably identify with how he's feeling.
The thing about Stephen is that he's really annoying. I guess that's a matter of personal preference, but he's very intellectual and self-conscious about being intellectual. Part of this is written in his stream-of-consciousness, so we get his thoughts. They're very elevated thoughts and kind of snooty.
Plot & Characters: Leopold Bloom
It's really quite a relief when, in the fourth chapter, we get a new character. His name is Leopold Bloom. I mentioned him earlier on account of Bloomsday, which is named after him.
He also lives in Dublin. He's a friend of Stephen's father. He's an older guy, in his 40s or late 30s. Stephen's in his early 20s.
Right away, we really get a sense of what kind of dude Leopold Bloom is. The opening line of his first chapter is: 'Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.' So he likes to eat meat, essentially, and you get a real sense of him being a grounded kind of guy.
Stephen's kind of highfalutin and intellectual. With Bloom, we see him eating and the chapter ends with him using the bathroom. We get a very detailed description, right down to the wiping. So that's Bloom. He's a man of the earth, essentially. He's very smart, but he's not an intellectual in the same way that Stephen is. This is pretty refreshing to run into after we've spent three chapters with Stephen.
For the rest of the book, we follow Bloom around on his day. He goes to a funeral. He makes breakfast. He has lunch and dinner. He goes to a pub, which is a fun thing about doing Bloomsday because it involves a lot of going to pubs.
He also hangs out on the beach. This is a part you might know about Ulysses. It got banned because it was obscene. That's because Bloom goes to the beach and watches a girl. As he's watching her, he masturbates. It was not cool in 1923 to write about that. It's still a little creepy to write about now, but it wasn't allowed to be published serially after that happened. So you might want to take a look just for that; it's a fun little scene.
Plot & Characters: Stephen & Bloom Meet
So about this much of the book is just following Bloom around. And then what eventually happens is that he goes to the maternity hospital to hang out with some dudes while one of their wives gives birth. Here he runs into Stephen. They're just kind of hanging out and drinking. That's probably not something we have a lot of experience with.
As we get a little break from Bloom about midway through, we find out that Stephen has given his talk about Shakespeare at the National Library in Dublin. It hasn't gone that well, as you can probably predict from Joyce's attitude towards Stephen throughout the novel.
It's kind of a crazy talk. It's about how he thinks that Shakespeare is the ghost of Hamlet's father. He tries to make a biographical argument about Hamlet and Shakespeare and things like that. But it just doesn't go over that well. No one really gets it, so he's disappointed.
When Bloom runs into him at the maternity hospital, he's disappointed. Then they all decamp and go to a brothel. They hang out there and drink more. It gets crazy.
The book basically ends with Bloom taking Stephen under his wing. Stephen is crazy drunk and can't take care of himself. Bloom corrals him and takes him to his house, where they have a nice little conversation. Bloom invites him to stay, Stephen says no, and he wanders off into the night. Then Bloom goes to bed.
Then we get a very long and impossible to parse monologue from Bloom's wife in extreme stream-of-consciousness. And that's Ulysses.
Throughout all of these pages? That's what happens. There are lots of little things I didn't describe, but plot-wise, that's basically what you need to know.
What probably occurs to you at this point is, 'Why do we care?' This is not that interesting of a story, right? This young, annoying dude wants to be a good literary scholar. An old dude who likes to eat and poop goes about his day and tries to help out young Stephen. And in the end, Stephen says no.
So yeah, after hearing all that, I think maybe the inevitable question is, 'Why is this book considered the best book in the English language?' I'll give you a hint: it's not really the plot. You kind of need to know that to understand the rest.
You might have been wondering where the Ulysses comes into Ulysses. No one is named that in the book; Stephen and Bloom are our main characters. What it is is one giant allusion to The Odyssey. Ulysses is just another name for Odysseus; it's his Latin name.
So all of the plot that I just outlined for you is divided into chapters. They're known as episodes among Joycean people. Each one of them is associated with a different thing in The Odyssey, essentially.
This actually wasn't in the original text. Joyce just published this and I think some of his friends were like, 'What are we supposed to do with it?' So he wrote up these little schemas and gave them to his friends. They say what is supposed to correspond with each chapter. It's basically which chapter in The Odyssey is supposed to correspond with which chapter in the book.
Just to give an example, when Bloom brings Stephen to his house and they talk, that one's called 'Ithaca.' Ithaca is Odysseus' home. That's one's pretty obvious and it makes a lot of sense as to why it'd be called 'Ithaca.'
Other ones aren't nearly as obvious. When Stephen gives his talk about Hamlet, that episode is called
'Scylla and Charybdis.' In The Odyssey, these are two monsters. As Odysseus is sailing, he has to avoid both of them.
You could make an argument that Stephen is dealing with this in some way in giving his talk. He has to avoid lots of things while he speaks. He has to avoid seeming one way or avoid seeming another way. While you could make an argument for it, you can see that it's clearly not as spot on as the Ithaca one.
These correspondences are really meant to tell us how to look at this book. The story of The Odyssey starts to frame Ulysses as really concerned with the idea of fathers and sons. Stephen is associated from the beginning with Telemachus. His episode is called 'Telemachus,' the first one. Bloom is associated with Odysseus and, at some point before the novel takes place, he lost a son.
You really get the sense, as it moves along and they meet each other that at the end of the book, that Bloom is trying to get Stephen as a son. Stephen resists this. He doesn't stay over at his house.
But this father and son dynamic is not only in The Odyssey, but is echoed throughout in all sorts of other ways. If you remember Stephen's talk, it was about Hamlet, his father and Shakespeare and how that was all related to each other.
It really starts to resonate on lots of levels. The idea of the father, the son and the mysterious bond between them and what that really means. That echoes throughout the whole book.
What becomes one of the more interesting things that changes from chapter to chapter is this idea of different styles. It's sometimes stream-of-consciousness. There's one that's set in a newspaper office that is written in headlines. My personal favorite chapter is 'Ithaca' and that is written entirely in question and answer format.
I don't want to say the book is about any one particular thing. That's a little bit of a bold statement to make. But I think a really productive way of looking at it is that it's not so much about the plot, but more about organizing a story and organizing information. You can see this with all those different schemas, which are all different ways of organizing it.
In a way, the styles are all different ways of organizing it. You kind of get the sense at the end when you get this very, very long stream-of-consciousness monologue from Bloom's wife that he's kind of just throwing up his hands and saying, 'I'm not going to do a style.' Essentially, he's not going to filter this information. He's just going to give it to us all, whereas all of these others represent choices in filtering information.
To bring this home, I'll leave you with one of the coolest quotes from the novel and it really summarizes this point: 'We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.'
That's really kind of what he's doing. He's taking us through the same thing, but really always meeting the subject and what he's trying to convey in many, many different ways.
So that's Ulysses summed up. I hope you enjoyed it. There's a lot more in there that I left out, but I think I covered the good stuff.
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