Some Stuff To Know About Ulysses Before Reading It, Part 1: Ulysses and the Odyssey


I may have oversystematized “Ulysses.”
–J.J. to Samuel Beckett

To help everyone who’s preparing to read Ulysses beginning on June 16th (and even for those few eager beavers who started early), I will tell you about stuff that might help. And I will do so with slick levity, utilizing my marketing career-honed bulletpoint skill, to ensure–respectively–fun and easy-reading.
I’ll contain my first set of bullets to Ulysses’ tangled relationship to the Odyssey
Caveat: I am no expert. So take my information with great suspicion, or lax scrutiny.

  • The Odyssey takes place over years. Ulysses is just one day.
  • The Odyssey follows Odysseus all over the Mediterreanean. Bloom just wanders through Dublin.  
  • Leopold Bloom is a comic Odysseus. He’s an advertising salesman, not an exulted king/military leader. He can’t go home, not because a cyclops or a charybdis or a sea is in the way, but because he knows his wife (Molly Bloom) intends to boink a douchebag (Blazes Boylan). He’s also looked down upon by most his contacts because of their anti-semitism (Bloom is Jewish, furthering his identification with exiles…more on that later). And he has major paranoia and self-consciousness issues concerning his wife’s adultery and his own feelings of impotence. 
  • Leopold Bloom is a real-deal Odysseus. Whatever laughs J.J. intended with Bloom’s homeric parallel, it also amplifies Bloom’s more tragic and heroic characteristics. Much like Odysseus, Bloom is also motivated by the same love of home. But unlike Odysseus, his wife is unfaithful, his child died very young. His return to a loving home is irrecoverably lost to him. He also displays similar heroic qualities such as presence-of-mind and paternal protectiveness, generosity.
  •  The Odyssey is used to structure Ulysses. Although Joyce didn’t explicitly title his chapters based on the Odyssey, he did lay out the Odyssey-system in letters to various critics at the time (each chapter also has its own color, symbol, body organ, style, etc…we’ll get into that later…or not). Now it’s customary to see the book in three parts: Part 1. “The Telemachiad”–The first three chapters focusing mainly on the Telemachus-like character, Stephen Dedalus. Part 2. “The Odyssey”–The next 12 chapters (and the majority of the book) focusing mainly on Bloom’s wanderings, culminating in Bloom’s and Dedalus’ meeting in Dublin’s red-light district. Part 3. “The Nostos”–The last 3 chapters depicting Bloom’s homecoming and the infamous  “Penelope” chapter (an unpunctuated stream of Molly Bloom’s consciousness as she drifts to sleep).
  • Homeric references recur throughout Ulysses, to both comic and dramatic effect. There are cameos from a cyclops, sirens, a Nausicaa-like hottie. If you have the Odyssey fresh in mind, you can have a pretty satisfying time picking out the subtle (and not s0) correspondences.  

I’ll probably add to this list. I just started rereading the Odyssey (this time, the Fagles edition!). 29 days before we start our voyage, just enough time to do your own reading of the Odyssey!


7 Responses

  1. Alright, this just got me excited to read this bitch of a novel. Congratulations, I’m buying in.

  2. Aw baby, I thought I had you on day #1.

  3. Moving through Homer right now. Having a hard time convincing my wife to name our next child Agamemnon.

  4. Agamemnon Smith does have a ring to it.

    Has anyone contacted Professor Lentz about this project? Perhaps he could pen a guest post on Homer?

  5. If anyone can bring in the Professor, it’s the voreblog. Though I can’t imagine the withering vitriol he had for my prose would have lessened.

    Ug. I just mixed my metaphor. He’ll destroy me.

    Agamemnon is a pretty fraught name (as in, fraught with significance). Ever hear of nominal determinism? (How one’s name can determine their fate…like John Law becoming a lawyer). Keep him away from the Clytemnestras.

  6. Thanks for this.

    However, an explanation of how Red Dawn relates to our syllabus would comfort me more. I have watched it 18 times and I do not see the connection. (Red Dawn = Homer’s Rosy Fingered Dawn?) I might just move on to Faust Part II.

  7. Yeah, move onto Faust. The Red Dawn thing will be revealed to you.

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