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It is the book to which all of us are indebted and none of us can escape.
T.S Eliot
"Finally, I venture a prophecy: not ten men or women out of a hundred can read Ulysses through, and of the ten who succeed in doing so, five of them will do it as a tour de force. I am probably the only person, aside from the author, that has ever read it twice from beginning to end."
Joseph Collins, from the original 1922 NY Times review

James Joyce's Ulysses (no, not that Ulysses, nor that one), despite having a reputation for being unreadable (though a degree in literature or a working knowledge of Classical Mythology, William Shakespeare, modernism and Irish political history do help) is still among the most important novels since Don Quixote, influencing every writer from Stephen King to Salman Rushdie. It was first published in serialized form from 1918 to 1920. Then collected in book form and republished in 1922.

The actual story can be jotted on the back of a matchbook. Taking place in a single day - June 16th 1904 - in Dublin, Ulysses follows the daily routine of three people: young and jaded would-be artist Stephen Dedalus, passive outsider Leopold Bloom and his sensual, unfaithful wife Molly. As Stephen and Leopold wander the streets of Dublin, Molly lies in bed all day and cheats on her husband. Eventually, Leopold saves Stephen from a beating at the hands of British soldiers and invites him home to recuperate. Stephen visits his home, but declines to stay the night and Leopold joins Molly in bed.

The End.

The treat of the novel is in its style and the rendering of the characters in remarkable detail, often using their direct Inner Monologue, or having their style of thought influence the third-person perspective. Their meals, visits to the bathroom, work, affairs, prejudices, fantasies, are all recorded. Nothing is spared. Every chapter mimics, parallels and/or parodies a section of Homer's Odyssey (for example, Ulysses' battle with the Cyclops becomes the Jewish Leopold debating religion and politics with a raving, bigoted nationalist with a glass eye). Every chapter is also a literary experiment, where Joyce breaks every rule of novel writing. It's fair to say that the novel is 700 pages of equal parts gibberish and blarney, but because of the strict thematic framework, it's actually possible for determined literature geeks to get their brain around it. More details here if you need 'em.

The full novel is public domain in most parts of the world, and can be found here.

Ulysses uses the following tropes:

  • A Date with Rosie Palms: On a public beach, no less.
  • Abusive Parents: Simon Dedalus: neglectful drunk (based on Joyce's own Dad).
  • Affectionate Parody: the Oxen of The Sun chapter, which spoofs the styles of Johnathan Swift, Daniel Defoe and Charles Dickens amongst others.
  • Anti-Hero: Leopold Bloom. While he is very pleasant, nothing about him is classically heroic.
  • Author Avatar: Stephen Dedalus. Joyce's first book (which centered around Stephen) wasn't called A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man for nothing, though Joyce is very critical of his avatar. Also worthy of note is the enigmatic man in the brown mackintosh.
  • Badass Boast: Arguably, saying that you've read it.
  • Beige Prose: On purpose in the antepenultimate chapter.
  • Big Yes: The very last word, as Molly recalls when she accepted Leopold's proposal.
  • Country Matters: Complete with related wordplay.
  • Creator Provincialism: All of Joyce's work is set in Dublin or the surrounding area.
  • Deconstruction: Novels as an art form, and English as a language.
  • Defictionalization: All the locations are real, some still exist, and real-life Dubliners crop up as characters with their real names.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: the riffs on Homer's Odyssey.
  • The Everyman: Deconstructed. Bloom has some weird trains of thought.
  • Evil Brit: The soldiers in Circe.
  • Gender Bender: In one of Bloom's masochist fantasies, he is turned into a woman and raped by the Brothel Madam, who has turned into a male ringmaster.
  • Genre Roulette: the Circe chapter is written as a play, Ithaca like a catechism, Aeolus like a newspaper column, and the final chapter is a punctuation free list of the thoughts going through Molly's mind as she has tries to fall asleep next to her husband. There are too many examples to list here.
  • Guide Dang It: A rare literary example. Spoilers and annotations are often necessary to get what the hell is going on, especially in the eye-watering "Oxen of the Sun".
  • In Dublin's Fair City
  • Kangaroo Court: Bloom fantasies being 'tried' by all the women he has ever lusted after.
  • Kavorka Man: Blazes Boylan.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: In the last Chapter, Molly thinks "O Jamesy let me up out of this pooh" and may be referring to James Joyce. Or something else. It's not really explained.
  • Mad Artist: Carl Jung read the book and concluded that Joyce was schizophrenic.
  • Meaningful Name: Stephen Dedalus.
  • Mind Screw: The Circe chapter where Bloom roams the red light district, hallucinating.
  • No Punctuation Period: The entire final chapter contains only three punctuation marks.
  • Oireland: Every cliche is averted, except for the ones Joyce confirms.
  • Precision F-Strike: The thuggish British soldiers who attack a drugged Stephen.
  • Real Place Background: Joyce claimed that if Dublin was destroyed you could rebuild it from the detail provided in this book.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The identity of the Man in the Macintosh.
  • Rule of Symbolism: In spades.
  • Shout-Out: To almost every major novelist and poet in the history of Western literature.
  • Spiritual Sequel: It carries on from A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, and it's considered a necessary primer for Finnegans Wake.
  • Stylistic Suck: Nausicaa, 'narrated' by a drippy teenage girl, acts as a Take That to slushy romance novels. But there's a twist: the girls 'narration' may actually be Bloom's inner monologue, part of his pretty sad sexual fantasies while he watches her and wanks on the beach., which would actually make it even more of a Take That.
    • Although that interpretation is rather unlikely. It's generally accepted that Bloom's just not intelligent enough to alter his own internal monologue like that, even if he wanted to.
      • Additionally, Bloom imself is earlier shown to like crummy fiction. It's most strongly implied in the chapter itself that the narration reflects Gertie's escape into adolescent fantasy as her way of avoiding the reality that, due to her lame leg, she will likely never be courted, let alone married. Note that she's also revealed to be much older than the narrative leads the reader to believe.
  • Take That: Privates Carr and Compton, the two drunken British soldiers who confront and assault Stephen Dedalus in the "Circe" episode, are named after two British consular officials in Zurich Joyce was having difficulties with.
  • Twice-Told Tale
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Leopold and Molly.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses
  • Writer on Board: While Joyce does support Irish emancipation, he sketches a negative portrait of the more radical, excluding nationalists such as the one-eyed man. Bloom's humorous thoughts during his visit to the church can be seen as mocking Catholicism, but it's in good humour.
  • Written Sound Effect: According to Joyce, the sound a cat makes isn't "meow," it's "mrkgnao."

WARNING: This book can drive you mad, and its follow up will.

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