So, You Want to Read Ulysses? Or; A Guide to Joyously Reading Joyce

“The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole Life to reading my works.”  – James Joyce

James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s difficult, it’s long, and oh my God is that a stave of musical notation? It is a notorious novel because people who haven’t read it call it a notoriously difficult novel. Sixty years ago it was considered filthy and today it’s considered an exercise in masturbation. Figure that one out. These things said though, Ulysses is also hilarious, moving, sexy, intelligent and all the other adjectives you’ll find on the latest edition of a novel that’s just won the Booker. It is, in short, well worth reading. It always helps, though, to be prepared.

First, it’s important to recognise that you might “fail”. Joyce will do his best to defeat you, to scatter your mind like debris in a wash. This is fine. Consider your failure a tactical withdrawal, a phased retreat. Joyce is always playing with his terms, there is no reason you can’t play with yours. This’ll be cold comfort if you’re an undergraduate/graduate student who has been assigned it as required reading, but all this means, as stated above, is that if you have to try make your first attempt a stimulating and enjoyable one, then it helps to show up ready. If you have the luxury of coming back when you’re feeling it, exercise that luxury; your next attempt and the one after that will be the richer for it until you reach the final Yes.

I first heard of Ulysses when I was in my mid teens. I was heavily in to the band Nirvana, and I found out that Kurt Cobain was a big fan of William S. Burroughs. I looked Burroughs up, and found that Naked Lunch was his most famous novel, and asked for a copy of it for Christmas. I devoured it, and it, I am afraid to say, damaged me irreparably. I sought ever trippier thrills. Doing some research on Naked Lunch, I discovered that the main narrative technique that Burroughs employed was called stream of consciousness. Looking up this term, I discovered that James Joyce, having written Ulysses, was considered one of the modern pioneers of this form, and resolved to read it when I got a chance. At seventeen, I was browsing in my school’s library when I found an Everyman Library hard cover edition of Ulysses. I checked it out, and began reading it in free periods and spare minutes between classes. My head swam with the language. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, but I knew that whatever it was, I loved the way he was describing it. I was not able to finish it on this attempt, though. I can still remember the passage that made me think “fuck this” and return the book. It was the stave of music in the library chapter, Schylla and Charybdis. What the hell was he playing at? I was struggling already by this point, and I would later learn that Schylla and Charybdis is considered one of the most complex chapters in the novel, but at the time, I simply could not fathom why Joyce included musical notation, with no forewarning or explanation, in a work of fiction. When I returned Ulysses, unfinished, I decided to try some of Joyce’s later work, which I’d heard was even crazier. The look on the librarian’s face as I checked out Finnegans Wake will never leave me.

After another false start in between my A levels and going to university, I gave up for a couple of years, only trying again during the Christmas break of my second year, figuring I’d get a head start, because it’d probably be on the third year modernism module. I was finally ready, and finished it that time. Around Circe, I realised it was now my favourite novel.

Joyce had high expectations of his readers, and these high expectations are higher today, when so much that was common knowledge in his time now requires (even more) research and reading to be aware of. You might not be in the right frame of mind, and you might not have all the information needed to understand every reference and turn of phrase. In fact, no one does. There is no “perfect” or “ideal” reader of Ulysses, and anyone who might have been is long dead. A person ideally equipped to read Ulysses would be a native Dubliner born in the mid to late 19th century. They would have an intimate knowledge of catholic practices and theology, and ideally would have had some doubts regarding them. They would be a polyglot and a polymath, particularly they would have proficiencies in several romance languages, plus some latin and greek, as well as some medical training. They would have a solid grounding in the canon of European literature and history, and a keen interest in politics, both Irish and abroad. They would have travelled widely, both alone and with their partner and children. The partner and children, would also be ideal. I have probably forgotten some things.

Sounds intimidating right?

Don’t worry.

“Ulysses was designed to produce readers capable of reading Ulysses” – Declan Kiberd

Were there ever an ideal reader, they were a very rare breed indeed. Joyce was very aware of this as he constructed his text. The difficulty of Ulysses is most helpfully considered as the work you are putting in to learn how to read in an entirely different way, to read a writer who is giving you, the reader, far more creative control than many writers themselves ever exercise. The epigraph to this essay may seem to be Joyce at his most arrogant, but it is actually him at his most faithful with regard to his readers. He wants you to spend your life in his lovingly constructed playground because he wants you to have fun, and fun you will have, once you get the hang of using the climbing frame. In fact, the only fully prepared, ideal reader, was probably the writer himself, and he spent seven years of censure, controversy, poverty and war, enduring near blindness and multiple painful eye surgeries, while working to put Ulysses together.

So, where do you get your crash course in theology, medicine, geography, literature, philosophy, political economy, history? And love familial, sexual, and platonic?

You’re in luck, kind of. Joyce, like Shakespeare, is one of those writers, around whose life and work there has been erected an entire industry. There is a panolpy of secondary material on Joyce, and it is easy to not know which material might most succinctly aid your understanding before, during and after reading Ulysses. I recall one of the main blocks to my understanding of the text was that, as mentioned above, despite being intoxicated with the language, I had no idea what was actually happening, and this stopped me being able to retain many of the events or bits of dialogue, and, unable to retain them and think over them, I was unable to tease out any meanings or significances. Below you will find a list of secondary texts that I found (still find) immensely useful regarding Joyce and Ulysses, and also a short explanation of the differences between editions of Ulysses itself, should you be wondering which is considered the “best” one.

The Essentials

James Joyce’s Ulysses – Stuart Gilbert

This is the main one for starting with Ulysses. Published in 1930, this was one of the first critical books on Ulysses, and was written with both Joyce’s consent and aid. Gilbert, who was a friend of Joyce’s, begins with an essay that ranges over the various themes in Ulysses as well as some information on its composition history, then breaks the novel down chapter by chapter, detailing the events of the day as well as the techniques that Joyce used. When I say “with Joyce’s aid”, I mean that Gilbert showed his drafts of this book to Joyce, who was satisfied. Where he wasn’t satisfied or thought Gilbert has missed something, he inserted text of his own. This is the guide to Ulysses. Also includes the Gilbert schema, the table Joyce provided Gilbert, that equivocated chapters with colours, figures from Greek myth, and bodily organs, among other things.

James Joyce – Richard Ellmann

The definitive biography of Joyce and one of the best literary biographies ever written. Absolutely huge (bigger than Ulysses), but if you want detailed information about Joyce’s life, particularly details about Joyce’s compositional methods, this is the place to go to. Also reprints some of Joyce’s letters, many of which provide crucial insight into Joyce’s intentions and plans for Ulysses, both before and after he’d written it. In this sense it will do as a replacement for the collected letters of James Joyce, which Ellmann edited, but is sadly out of print.

Ulysses Annotated – Don Gifford

Line by line annotations for Ulysses. Do you wonder just what exactly Agenbite of Inwit is? It is explained in here. Very useful if you are a student who is doing a close reading of a passage and is attempting to look at as many angles as possible, but also just as useful if you’re reading for pleasure and coming across things that sound interesting that you’d like to look up. Doesn’t include the text of Ulysses itself. This is not a strictly necessary book to have to hand, but is indispensable for an in depth study of Ulysses. Penguin publish an annotated student edition of Ulysses, which I have not personally used, but have heard functions perfectly well for university study, and would probably eliminate the need for a separate Ulysses Annotated.

Other Useful Material

Vladimir Nabokov – Lectures on Literature

This collection of lectures, each focussing on a different work, includes a lecture on Ulysses in which Nabokov, similarly to Gilbert, breaks the novel down chapter by chapter. I read this before the Gilbert, and it was just what I needed to be able to picture the events in my head and get enough of a handle on it to finally finish it. I literally mean picture, this book includes Nabokov’s handrawn map of Dublin on which he traced Bloom’s movements, and also reproduces a sketch of Bloom’s front door. Definitely worth it, particularly if you like Nabokov, and the other lectures, particularly the explication of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, are illuminating.

Cambridge Companion to James Joyce

The Cambridge Companion series is fantastic, so there’s not much more to say. Includes some critical material on all of Joyce’s work, including the less famous things like his poetry and his play, Exiles. A good starting point for further Joyce study if you’re reading or have just read Ulysses and want to know more.

The New Bloomsday Book – Harry Blamires

I haven’t read this myself, but from what I know it is a common starting point with Joyce and is often cited as an immense help with getting in to Ulysses. Breaks down the novel chapter by chapter, similarly to Gilbert.

Editions of Ulysses

There has, and mostly likely will never be, an entirely accurate edition of Ulysses. Some reproduce mistakes Joyce made, some reproduce mistakes made during the correction of Joyce’s mistakes, and some introduce new mistakes whilst correcting mistakes made during the corrections. In a strict sense, there is no such thing as a Ulysses whose authorship belongs solely to James Joyce, owing to these editorial efforts that have always, to some degree, made decisions regarding the text independently of Joyce himself. This is a subject I intend to go in to more in-depth at a later date, but for now, just bear in mind that the 1961 Bodley Head/Random House edition, that was reset by Penguin in 1968, and is the edition you are buying if you purchase a Penguin Modern Classics edition, is the most common version of the text, and likely the one that your lecturer and fellow students will be using if you are studying this text at university. You will not suffer if you use the free edition from Project Gutenberg, or the Wordsworth Edition, which to my knowledge is essentially a printed copy of the Gutenberg edition. The other “big” version is the version edited by Hans Walter Gabler, which was for a time the standard edition of the text, but met with controversy in the nineties and is now out of favour. Unless you are studying this text in a very, very serious fashion, such as for your MA or PhD thesis (in which case, what the hell are you doing reading this? I only have a BA for God’s sake) then the differences between these versions should not pose a serious problem as long as you reference and cite correctly.

Some Practical Tips

You have your edition of Ulysses picked out, as well as a trove of critical material, a light peruse of which means you now feel prepared to finally start reading Ulysses, or start reading it again, and this time, to really get something out of it, hopefully finish it, and who knows, maybe understand it well enough to write about it in an assignment or… D.I.S.S.E.R.T.A.T.I.O.N.

Sorry for scaring you. You’d forgotten about it, hadn’t you?

So, on to the dirty business of lugging the lump of wood around and maybe actually turning the pages and looking at the blots of ink. Remember, we discussed how Joyce includes a wealth of reference, and has high expectations of his reader, giving them a tremendous freedom to interpret as they chose and act as reader/writer. We also spoke of its apparent reputation for difficulty, this reputation being, at heart, euphemistic. It is difficult because you as reader are expected to do the work of writer, and this is not easy. So, if Ulysses expects reader engagement on a scale we don’t often see, what kind of engagement will we have with it? How to tackle the business of turning and reading pages until 900 some of them are in your left hand?

Well, if we are to write, then we must have a writing implement. Have a pen (or pencil, or highlighter, or crayon. Joyce wrote a lot of Ulysses with crayon!) handy while you are reading and annotate, annotate, and annotate some more. Underline key phrases, circle words you don’t understand or words you just like the sound of. Write your own comments in the margins or between the lines. You’re being given a sacred glimpse in to someone’s mind, surely you should pass comment? I like annotations because, when flicking through a book to find quotes to cherry pick for my utterly mangled point in a 3000 word assignment, they are records of a journey. You can trace your way back through underlinings and circlings to certain phrases and episodes that may well prove useful upon a second look, or simply be fun to read a second time. In the margins, you might have left flashes of insight that you scribbled as you read in bed, shortly before passing out. They might be gibberish, but they might also provide a useful angle for an assignment, or return you to that oh so certain understanding we only seem to be able to reach at 4am.

If you don’t use index flags or sticky notes, consider trying them when reading Ulysses. Again, it is like leaving a trail that will help you retrace your steps. My own system involved flags of various different colours. Each different colour I assigned to a different character or set of characters. This helped me navigate around the book, finding certain passages, certain scenes, certain chapters. For the start of each chapter, I placed an index flag as close to the inside of the spine as I could get it, allowing me to see at a glance where in the novel certain characters were. A chapter focusing on Bloom was orange, Stephen was Blue, Bloom and Stephen, when they appeared in the same chapter, were green, and so on. When I found passages that I knew I would want to return to, to quote in an assignment or to have another go at understanding, I would place an index flag on the outside corner of the page. If I needed more space to comment on these passages than the margins would allow, I used sticky notes in a similar fashion, to extend the margins. This practice serves another, psychological function, too. Because it is such a big novel, people reading it tend to experience those classic feelings of hopelessness, as if they are making no progress, as if they will never finish. This is compounded if you are a student and working to a deadline. Placing these index flags sets you small achievable goals. Instead of feeling depressed that you didn’t even noticeably get closer to the end, you did get noticeably closer to the next chapter. Big things are more easily achieved when broken down in to smaller, achievable goals. The placing of index flags on pages of interest, as we mentioned, gives you a path to follow back, but it also functions as a big dayglo indicator of just how much you have managed to read so far, something that, when tackling a big, tough, novel, is immensely heartening.


The copy of Ulysses I used during my undergraduate degree.

Above are some tips that are useful when studying any text, whether for business or pleasure. I, however, came across a solution to a particular annoyance with Ulysses whilst I was writing my dissertation on it. Most editions of Ulysses do not include either a table of contents for the chapter, the chapter titles, or even any indication that a new chapter has begun apart from a single sentence beginning with a letter in upper-case bold. This made it difficult to range over the text and find quotes and things to cite when I was researching it and writing about it. To solve this, I flicked through the book, noting where the chapter changes occur. Then, on one of the blank pages in the front, I constructed my own table of contents using the titles of the chapters, which I had looked up (they’re on Wikipedia). I then, using this table of contents, went back through the text, numbering each chapter and copying the titles in. Yes, it’s a bit of a palaver, but it made my edition of Ulysses so much more useable that it is, without a doubt, worth doing, if you have an edition like mine. As a quick aside, those chapter titles were included when the novel was serialised. Joyce had them removed when it was published whole as a book, fearing that including the chapter titles, all of which were Homeric allusions, would give too much away. See what I mean about Joyce expecting you to put in a bit of work?

Another general tip, but one that you will certainly find helpful when reading this novel, is to write words that you don’t know on the inside jacket cover. In this case you might eventually have to start using the back jacket cover. Look these words up later (ideally in the OED) to increase both your vocabulary and your understanding of Joyce. Some of these words will probably be Joycean neologisms. I encourage you to steal them, shamelessly. He’d expect no less.

Yet another general tip with a practical particularity to it regarding this novel is, if you are having trouble getting along with the prose, try reading it aloud. Many of the jokes and allusions won’t be evident unless read aloud in a Dublin accent, but if you don’t have a Dublin accent, don’t worry, either way Joyce intended his work to be read out loud, and paid very close attention to the musicality of his prose. The alliteration, assonance, rhyme both internal and otherwise, use of plosives and use of slang come to life when spoken. If you don’t want to read aloud, read along with a voice in your head, which should help similarly. Joyce was known as an excellent tenor and had an exacting interest in speech, song and turns of phrase. He was also, however, scandalously bad at playing the guitar.

As mentioned regarding index flags, don’t be afraid to skip around a bit. If you’re having difficulty with a passage or chapter, and nothing is working, mark it with an index flag or a sticky note and come back to it later. If you’re a student and constrained by time, this may not be practicable, but remember that this novel was first published serially. You don’t necessarily have to read it chronologically, or all at once.

Last, but not least: don’t take it too seriously! Again, for a student this may not be entirely practicable, but this is a funny novel, and you can tell that, despite the travails Joyce went through to get it completed and in print, he did have fun writing it and he wanted his readers to have fun reading it. For example, the serious style that is often employed when Stephen is around, or to portray his mind, is supposed to be so utterly pretentious that you both feel slightly sorry for him, and laugh along as the narrator gently mocks him. A lot of the novel takes place in pubs and a lot of the talk and action is fuelled by drink. Ulysses might have the reputation of being the sole preserve of people in tweed jackets, but it was intended for all the people and, if the people weren’t ready, it was intended to produce a people that would be able to appreciate it and laugh along with Joyce and his big joke, however serious and moving and utterly sad it might occasionally be. It is a representation of life, and that is what life is like.

One more thing. If you really find yourself unable to get in to the spirit, a couple of Guinnesses won’t hurt. Just call it research.

(If you found this helpful and want more content like this, consider supporting me through Patreon or looking at one of my books 🙂 )


7 thoughts on “So, You Want to Read Ulysses? Or; A Guide to Joyously Reading Joyce

    • Maybe something stiffer for Finnegans Wake, mind, which I’ll probably be (attempting) to write about once I’ve managed to at least look at every word in it. “Reading” seems the wrong verb.

  1. AS FOR THE BEST VERSION, I was lucky enough to find a facsimile edition of the ORIGINAL 1922 version, approved by Joyce himself…and only $9.95!! so why would anyone even consider all the other ‘versions’ when a copy of the original is around? if it’s considered ‘imperfect’ by the critics, so what? Joyce himself approved this one!!!!!!!!!! but good luck trying to find it….I got mine from Edward R. Hamilton booksellers……..worth a try to find it still!!!!!!!

  2. re editions of Ulysses: The Alma Press 2012 edition, edited by Sam Slote, is “based on the 1939 Odyssey Press edition” and has extensive annotations. The Oxford World’s Classics 1993 edition, edited by Jeri Johnson, is a facsimile of the 1922 edition and also has extensive annotations. I adore them both.

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