On Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses

No one has ever really read Ulysses. And if they try to convince you otherwise, they’re either lying or pulling your chain.

That’s what our high school English teacher used to tell us about James Joyce’s epic novel, Ulysses. The natural skeptic that I am, the day after I first heard this proclamation, I went to my local library and decided to check out the book. However, it didn’t happen. I found the book on the shelf, opened it up, and started reading:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: INTROIBO AD ALTARE DEI

It was at this point that I said, “Whaaa?” Nevertheless, I decided to keep reading. I finished the first page. The damage was done. I put the book back on the shelf, defeated. I realized that perhaps those who say that they have read Ulysses, they maybe read the first page, or even the first chapter. But I have a hard time believing that they’ve read the entire book and understood what they’ve read.

Here is Joseph Collins writing in the New York Times in 1922 (I echo his sentiment and appreciate the critique):

A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may understand and comprehend Ulysses, James Joyce’s new and mammoth volume, without going through a course of training or instruction, but the average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from iteven from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of itsave bewilderment and a sense of disgust.

I recently met someone—let’s call her Emma—who mentioned that Ulysses is one of her favorite books. Curious, I inquired further. The conversation went like this:

Eugene: Wow, so you’ve read James Joyce’s Ulysses? [Editor’s note: I am always careful to preface works of literature with an author’s name; for all I know, Emma might have thought I was talking about Tennyson’s poem of the same name]

Emma: Yes, it is one of my favorite books. I’ve put blood, toil, tears, and sweat into that book, and I am proud of having read it.

Eugene: Okay, I understand the tears, sweat, and the toil. But did you really bleed while reading Ulysses?

Emma: Yes. Paper cut!

So there you go. Apparently that’s what it takes to read Ulysses.

Question for the reader: have you read Ulysses? Have you, really?


[Resource: Analyzing Ulysses, in which Avinash Vora estimates that the book contains a (unique) vocabulary of 30,030 words. That’s incredible!]

20 thoughts on “On Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses

  1. I am so glad to hear someone say that about Joyce’s Ulysses~! I’ve read it…well, most of it…well, some of it…well, enough of it to know the story is boring. But studying it is an interesting examination of writing technique.


    • Thanks for the comment, E Boyd.

      I read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in high school, and that was a challenge. However, I think Ulysses is at another level (I find it inaccessible).

      >But studying it is an interesting examination of writing technique.

  2. “Ulysses” is in very good company with “War and Peace,” “Moby Dick,” and “Don Quixote.” If I read these four I’ll die a happy man!

    • Hmm, interesting perspective. I’ll concur with you on Moby Dick (I have read passages from it, but never tried reading from beginning to end), but I have to disagree with your stance on the other two books. War and Peace is a challenge primarily because the reader has to keep up with so many characters (more than 500!). Don Quixote is somewhere in the middle, I would say.

    • I thought both Moby Dick and War and Peace really repaid their demands on my time and attention. I finished Ulysses out of shear doggedness, but do not feel that I received much in return. Yes, Yes, there were all these techniques, but it felt like Joyce showing off.

  3. I think one day I’ll have to read it. It’s like Everest. I have to climb that mountain because it’s there.

    (So says the guy about to crack open Gravity’s Rainbow…)

  4. Okay, it’s confession time: there are 3 versions of Ulysses – the 1922 version, published by Oxford UP; the 1937 version, published by Penguin Books, and the 1996 ‘Corrected Text’ version, also published by Penguin Books. If you read Homer’s The Odyssey, then Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, you’re then ready for Ulysses. In fact, you can read all three versions – I did.

  5. I am about to start reading Ulysses. Partly I’m curious. I recently took a course where we read and discussed Homer’s Odyssey, so I think I have some background now. Also, a local lecturer will be talking about Ulysses in the fall and I want to be prepared. Long books don’t daunt me (I loved War and Peace) but obscure or overly-cute text sometimes turns me off.

  6. Moby Dick. Now there’s another book that most people haven’t read, mainly because IT’S SO BORING. I tried reading it once, and I may try again, but for most of the book Melville decides to write about whaling, and forget the story altogether. I could only stomach two chapters of how great whaling is before I returned the book to my bookshelf–the only book I picked up but couldn’t finish (and I finished The Red and the Black, which is almost as cringeworthy–though the ending is much better than the sagging middle).

    As for Ulysses, I am still building up the courage to read it, though I did meet someone in college (a fellow English major) who read it and understood it. Now I’m just waiting for someone to say that they’ve read Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and understood it….because that person probably IS lying.

  7. Moby-Dick was actually a good book that simply needed the liberal application of the editor’s blue pencil. (Or whatever they used in 1851.) Cutting it by half would have improved it more than 2X. Similar to Tom Clancy’s books after he became rich and famous and editorially untouchable.

    Ulysses was a massive practical joke played on the public by literature majors. Horrified that everyone took them oh-so-seriously, they’ve been playing along ever since publication.

  8. Hmmm, now THERE’S an idea. Instead of doing abridged versions of the classics (which I hate), we should do the re-edited versions. A few other books suffer from bloat, as well, including Les Miserables (though the highlights of that book are usually what gets chopping in abridged versions–like the entire Waterloo chapter, which is awesome!). Not sure what you could do with Ulysses, as the style is so much a part of the book. Maybe transform it into Dubliners? 😉

    • Indeed. Instead of abridged versions, re-edited versions could be billed as “Now accessible to the general public.” I envision a sticker proclaiming: “Moby Dick: now half the length, same great content!”

      Have to disagree on Les Miserables: I didn’t find it excessive/long. No comment on Ulysses.

  9. I disagree with those saying Ulysses is difficult for the sake of being difficult. Yet, as a friend of mine just told me, The Great Gatsby is the most boring piece of literature he has ever read. I disagree, again.

    To comprehend the vast riches of Ulysses, one needs an understanding of Hamlet, The Odyssey, the Bible, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Greek mythology. Not to mention Irish politics and anti-semetism in the early twentieth century – foreshadowing of WWII. It’s a work of art, not a novel. And don’t say that people haven’t read it, just because you don’t want to. It’s the finest novel of the past two-hundred years. It revolves around the Greek concept of Metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls. According to legend, Odysseus said he would prefer to be a simple man, rather than live the same life over. So he did as an Irish Jew on June 16th 1904.

    It deals with the insufficiency of intellect (Stephen), the hatred of jingoism (both Stephen and Leopold), the struggle for “The word known to all men.”

    Tell me Ulysses is awful, and I’ll tell you that you don’t understand art. And it might fell good to blast me for saying it, to blast Joyce for writing it, but no matter… there will be doubt in your heart, because you will be missing something amazing.

    History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

    • Amen. I just finished reading Ulysses for an independent study, and it was beautiful, the most beautiful novel I’ve read. It was definitely challenging since my version wasn’t annotated and I haven’t read either Hamlet or The Odyssey in its entirety, and I used SparkNotes as my guide (just so I could follow the plot more easily), but Joyce’s use of language is simply breathtaking.

      Thanks for providing a counterpoint to most of the other comments on this page.

  10. I love the last line:
    Resource: Analyzing Ulysses, in which Avinash Vora estimates that the book contains a (unique) vocabulary of 30,030 words. That’s incredible!

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