Misreading Ulysses



This text was delivered as the T.S. Eliot Lecture at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on October 23, 2022.

In 1923, the year after James Joyce’s novel Ulysses was first published in its complete form, T. S. Eliot wrote: “I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.” Although Ulysses was not yet widely available at the time—its initial print runs were minuscule and it would be banned repeatedly by censorship boards—Eliot was writing in defense of a novel already broadly disparaged as immoral, obscene, formless, and chaotic. His friend Virginia Woolf had described it in her diary as “an illiterate, underbred book … the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are.” In comparison, Eliot’s praise is triumphal. “A book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.” And yet this proposed relationship between Ulysses and its readers may not seem altogether inviting either. Do we really want to read a novel in order to experience the sensation of inescapable debt? In the century since its publication, Ulysses has of course become a monument not only of modernist literature but of the novel itself. But it’s also a notoriously “difficult” book. Among all English-language novels, there may be no greater gulf between how much a work is celebrated and discussed, and how seldom it is actually read.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that very soon after the publication of Ulysses, critics started to speculate that the novel as a form might be dying. In 1925, the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote of the “decline of the novel,” comparing the genre to a “vast but finite quarry.” “When the quarry is worked out,” he warned, “talent, however great, can achieve nothing.” A few years later, in 1930, Walter Benjamin wrote of the “crisis of the novel.” These two very different works, Ortega’s book and Benjamin’s short essay, both make reference, albeit in passing, to James Joyce. In fact, in T. S. Eliot’s piece in praise of Ulysses, he remarks, “If it is not a novel, that is simply because the novel is a form which will no longer serve,” and later adds that “the novel ended with Flaubert and with James.” In the present day, the “death of the novel” is declared so regularly and with so little provocation that this might not seem to be of any great significance: but I don’t know that the novel was ever declared dead even once before Ulysses was published.

Joyce was, as we know, writing at a time of enormous artistic and cultural upheaval. The seemingly stable conventions of classical music were being shattered by composers like Arnold Schönberg; the refined traditions of Western realist painting were revolutionized by the Cubism of Picasso and Braque. And writers like Marcel Proust were already beginning to destabilize the familiarities of the nineteenth-century novel form. It’s easy to understand in this context how a book as innovative and iconoclastic as Ulysses could be seen as striking the final blow against an already ailing literary tradition. In fact, it might be less easy to understand why, one hundred years later, the novel is still lumbering on, not yet superseded by any more popular or critically significant form of textual storytelling. Classical music, after all, effectively gave way to popular music in the twentieth century; figurative painting never again reasserted itself as a dominant cultural form. But novels as we know them are still being written and widely read. And as one of the people writing and reading them, I can’t help but be interested in the question. What exactly did Ulysses do to the novel? And if we can’t escape it, how can we go on?


We might begin by asking a simpler question: what is Ulysses about? That depends on who you’re asking. If you’ve read the book yourself, I hope you’ll bear with the following summary, and please feel free to shake your head in disagreement. If you haven’t read it, try to bear in mind that the book is very confusing, and I might well make mistakes. The action begins in Dublin on the morning of June 16th, 1904. Stephen Dedalus—the protagonist of Joyce’s previous novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, now a twenty-two-year-old university graduate living in Sandycovehas breakfast with his housemates and then goes to teach a class at the private boys’ school where he works. It’s payday, so he picks up his wages and then walks along Sandymount Strand, still wearing black to mark the death of his mother nearly a year before. Next, we meet Leopold and Molly Bloom, a married couple in their thirties living on the north side of the city. Molly earns money as a concert soprano; Leopold is an advertising agent, the son of a Hungarian Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother. When we first encounter them, Molly is planning to begin an affair with her tour manager Blazes Boylan when he visits her at her home that afternoon. Leopold is tacitly aware of her plans and, for whatever reason, makes sure to be out of the house in order to facilitate them. He goes out in the morning, buys a cake of soap, attends a funeral, eats lunch, does incredibly little work considering that it’s a weekday, and has dinner. All the while, he’s thinking of his wife, as well as their teenage daughter Milly and their late son Rudy, who died in infancy. Meanwhile, Stephen Dedalus is also rambling around the city, adrift and increasingly drunk. He visits the offices of a newspaper and later stops in at the National Library to give a confusing and inebriated lecture on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Even after Molly and her new lover Boylan have presumably parted, Leopold Bloom continues to wander. He’s insulted and attacked by an anti-Semite in Barney Kiernan’s pub, and he later masturbates on a beach while looking up a young woman’s skirt. At around 10 P.M., at a drinking session in—of all places—the National Maternity Hospital, Bloom and Stephen finally run into each other, and continue their wanderings together. After a visit to a brothel, Stephen is assaulted in the street by a British soldier, and Bloom gets him back on his feet and takes him to a cabman’s shelter. The men then walk back to Bloom’s house, where they drink cocoa and talk. Bloom invites Stephen to stay the night, but Stephen declines. After he leaves, Bloom goes upstairs and gets into bed with Molly. They exchange some conversation, during which he tells her that Stephen is going to give her Italian lessons, and then Bloom falls asleep. In bed beside him, Molly thinks back over her day and her life, reflecting on her new love affair with Boylan, anticipating a possible future love affair with Stephen, and remembering the days of her early youth and the beginning of her relationship with her husband. Countless other characters appear, and countless other occurrences are described, but this seems (at least to me) like a fair summary of the book’s main events.

That’s all very well, of course—even assuming I haven’t made any major mistakes. But none of this explains why Ulysses looms so large in the history of literature; nor indeed why it’s supposedly so difficult to read. Well, part of what my plot summary failed to convey was, of course, Joyce’s use of language. Here’s Stephen Dedalus in the opening pages of the book, looking out the window of the Martello tower where he lives:

Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast of the dim sea.

Joyce’s prose is famous, in this novel and elsewhere, for its density, its radical novelty, and for its exquisite and unexpected beauty. For this reason, I think, Ulysses is a book that is often experienced “partly.” If you ask a person whether they have read, for example, Crime and Punishment, the answer is pretty much always yes or no. But if you ask whether someone has read Ulysses, the answer is often “bits of it, but not the whole thing.” What gives Ulysses this quality—this “bits of it” appeal—is that so many passages of the work can yield a rich and immersive pleasure even outside the context of the overarching narrative. In the history of the English novel, this style represents a definitive break from the established nineteenth-century tradition. Even the word style is misleading, because throughout the novel, as you probably know, Joyce cycles through any number of distinctive styles, using and discarding them as they suit his purposes. In a sense, then, maybe my plot summary was beside the point: maybe the real pleasures and triumphs of Ulysses are on the level of the sentence. To an extent, I think, but not entirely. Joyce’s language is certainly very beautiful, but he wasn’t the first or only talented prose stylist of his generation—and there’s more going on in Ulysses than fine writing.

The brilliant novelist and critic Anne Enright recently wrote: “Apart from everything that you could possibly imagine, nothing much happens in Ulysses.” It’s very true. We might sense something daringly lifelike in the way that Ulysses rejects the contrivances of traditional plots and structures. And maybe it is this quality, this sense of “faithfulness to reality,” that gives the book its special place in literary history. Here are some of Bloom’s thoughts, for instance, as he walks toward Sweny’s pharmacy to get a special lotion made up for his wife:

He walked southward along Westland row. But the recipe is in the other trousers. O, and I forgot that latchkey too. Bore this funeral affair. O well, poor fellow, it’s not his fault. When was it I got it made up last? Wait. I changed a sovereign I remember. First of the month it must have been or the second.

None of this mental fretting on Bloom’s part serves any of the usual purposes of novelistic prose. Nothing in the plot of the book actually depends on whether he gets the lotion made up for Molly or not. On the contrary, he’s just thinking, the way we all think, aimlessly, doubling back, worrying, forgetting, remembering. In our real lives, thoughts don’t occur to us in service of some grander narrative or final meaning: we just wake up, think all day long, and then go to sleep. In that sense, we might propose a Ulysses that concerns itself with the radical banalities of everyday existence, a novel in which nothing of significance takes place. People eat, drink, walk around, use the toilet, often in meticulous detail, but the conventional machinery of narrative is absent: like life itself, it’s just a lot of random events in no meaningful order. This, then, might be the grand attack that Ulysses launches on literary tradition: an unprecedented fidelity to the shapelessness of lived experience. After Ulysses, how could we ever return to conventional narrative devices? How could readers—or writers—go back to breathing in the stale odor of plot after the bracing fresh air of life itself?

But that’s not quite it either. In a way, I’m ignoring the elephant in the room: the title of the book is not “Bloom,” after all, but Ulysses, a Latinized rendering of the Greek name Odysseus. Far from being formless and unstructured, we might therefore read Ulysses as an elaborate rewriting of Greek myth. What seemed like random events are, in this reading, revealed as careful reconstructions of an ancient mythological framework: from the attractions and provocations our hero encounters, to the temptations his wife is facing in his absence. This was the aspect of Ulysses that so particularly impressed Eliot in 1923. “It has the importance of a scientific discovery,” he wrote. “It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” With this mythological key in hand, we can begin to unlock many new and interesting meanings for Ulysses. We start to see Leopold Bloom’s wanderings in the form of an epic journey: and we begin to see Bloom himself, our lonely, tender, funny protagonist, in the light of Homer’s hero. In the opening lines of the Odyssey, Odysseus is described as “polytropos”: “poly” in the sense of “many” and “tropos” in the sense of “turns” or “turning.” Translators into English have tried in various ways to capture the sense of this term: Robert Fagles rendered it as “the man of twists and turns,” while a recent translation by Emily Wilson gives us the simple phrase “a complicated man.” Bloom certainly is that. Like Homer’s Odysseus, he is always turning: through space, geographically, and through circumstances, self-presentations, frames of mind. And if, on our voyage through Ulysses, we start to wonder what Stephen Dedalus is doing in Leopold Bloom’s book, the cracked looking glass of the Odyssey might offer us a clue. If Bloom is our Odysseus and Molly his wife Penelope, then Stephen plays the role of Telemachus: Odysseus’s son and heir. Stephen, adrift and in mourning, might suddenly seem to be in search of a father; Bloom, with all his complications, may be in search of a son.

Each of these readings—poetic, chaotic, mythological—seems, at least to me, to offer the reader something of interest: but they are also to some extent mutually contradictory. How can a novel be realistic and symbolic at once? And how can we be sure we’ve got hold of the right symbols? What about the competing significance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Not to mention the recurring Christian theological motifs, so insistently present throughout the text. Maybe Stephen, Leopold, and Molly are really Jesus Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit; or maybe they’re supposed to be Prince Hamlet, the late King Hamlet, and Gertrude. We could even resort to biographical readings—admittedly not my strong suit—and interpret the characters as concealed likenesses of James Joyce himself (twice, I suppose?) and his real-life spouse Nora Barnacle. At this point it feels obligatory to suggest that the characters could somehow be all of these things. But could they? After all, what sense does it make for the Christian concept of God the Father to merge symbolically with Homer’s Odysseus? And why in the character of a Dublin advertising agent whose wife is about to have an affair?

Let’s return for just a moment to the plot summary I tried to offer at the beginning. Leopold Bloom does this and that, I explained, while Stephen Dedalus does that and this. Naturally, you didn’t believe, despite the assertive nature of those statements, that I was describing real events. I told you that Stephen Dedalus picked up his wages after work, and you understood what I meant, even though you also understood at the same time that there has never been such a person as Stephen Dedalus. I was describing what happens in the internal reality of Ulysses, an internal reality we all agree to “believe in” as part of the contract between reader and text. But while Ulysses may begin by describing an apparently consistent reality, the later stages of the book are less straightforward. When Stephen and Bloom visit Dublin’s red-light district together in the fifteenth chapter, for instance, the text is presented in the form of a play, complete with dialogue and detailed stage directions. At one point, the reigning British king enters the scene:

Edward the Seventh appears in an archway. He wears a white jersey on which an image of the Sacred Heart is stitched with the insignia of Garter and Thistle, Golden Fleece, Elephant of Denmark, Skinner’s and Probyn’s horse, Lincoln’s Inn bencher and ancient and honourable artillery company of Massachusetts.

When we describe what “happens” in the novel, do we include the appearance of the English king wearing an embroidered image of the Sacred Heart? Does that “happen” in the reality of Ulysses? Well, in one very straightforward sense, yes: it’s described in printed words on the page, the same way that everything else that happens in the book is described. But we as readers also know that it isn’t “realistic,” that it violates the internal reality of the scene. Maybe the appearance of Edward the Seventh might be understood as a hallucination, then, or a dream. Okay, but isn’t everything that happens in a novel a kind of hallucination? After all, none of it is “really real”—so how do we go about separating the novel’s “reality” from the novel’s “dreams”? And who exactly is dreaming these dreams?

In the wake of postmodern theory, Joyce’s later critics began to suggest that, far from reproducing the realities of daily life, Ulysses offers us no reality at all. “On nothing is Ulysses more insistent,” Hugh Kenner wrote in his excellent book on the novel in 1980, “than on the fact that there is no Bloom there, no Stephen there, no Molly there, no Dublin there, simply language.” Even earlier, in 1972, the post-structuralist critic Stephen Heath had claimed that: “The grossest, and commonest, misreading of Ulysses is that which derives a single realist narrative of Bloom and Stephen and, with this as centre of reference, explains or abandons the writing.” We want to read Ulysses as a realistic novel, but Joyce refuses to play the game. Just as we start to love and sympathize with his characters, he insists on reminding us that they’re not real: there is nothing to love, nothing to sympathize with, no one there. These postmodern readings pose valuable questions—and no doubt, many readers who get all the way to the end of Ulysses do indeed conclude that there is no Bloom there, simply language. I can only object that when I read it, there is a Bloom there. And I therefore find myself very interested in what that means. How can a fictional character survive what appears to be his own deconstruction? Who exactly is Leopold Bloom?

Each reader, of course, encounters their own Ulysses: the one they create for themselves in the act of reading. Every reading of the novel yields a new text, one that has been pulled this way and that by the attention and inattention, the knowledge and ignorance, the likes and dislikes of the particular reader. And that reader is inevitably an entire person: a person with their own distinctive body, their own feelings, their own vocabulary, their own personal library of sensory memories and associations. These qualities are not unfortunate failures of objectivity: they are what make us capable of reading in the first place. Ulysses demands a reader who can respond as a human being, emotionally, intellectually, physically, erotically, even spiritually. And these demands are made on readers who are by necessity in no two cases the same. In our own particular bodies, reading with our eyes and our hands, with our own thoughts and feelings, we remake and reinterpret every text we encounter. Every interpretation has its weaknesses, its points of interest, its missing pieces. From this small limited partial perspective, embracing its smallness and limitations, I feel I need not worry so much about “misreading” Joyce. Every reading of Ulysses is a misreading, a faulty but revealing translation, a way of drawing the novel into new and perhaps unintended relationships. All that matters to me is finding a way to read the book that is interesting: that opens out instead of closing down.


Ulysses situates itself insistently in a particular textual lineage: its forefathers, we know, are in Homer and Shakespeare. We know this because the book tells us: in its title, in the schematics Joyce wrote and circulated among friends, through Stephen’s half-drunk discourse on Hamlet at the National Library, and through other references too numerous to mention. From epic poetry, through English Renaissance drama, we proceed to Bloom and Stephen and Molly on a summer’s day in 1904. I want to note here that classical poetry and Renaissance theater are, at least in the way they are staged within the text of Ulysses, overwhelmingly masculine forms. They are written by men, about men, performed by men, read and discussed by men, and their concerns are those of the male public sphere. The terminology provided for us by these generic antecedents has of course filtered into the way we read and think about Ulysses: a book about fatherhood and inheritance, about being and nothingness, violence, imperialism, the state. To deny the centrality of these themes in Ulysses would be foolish, and anyway unnecessary. Instead let’s try, as an experiment, looking away from the center, with its grand towering masculine themes, and directing ourselves for a moment toward the margins. After all, Ulysses is—for all the deafening noise it makes about its own textual forebears—not an epic poem or a Renaissance play. It is neither a poem nor a play of any kind. It is in fact a literary production of an entirely different nature: an English-language novel.

The novel in English has always had a curious relationship with gender. It was in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that this new form of storytelling started to develop: relatively long prose narratives, set mostly in the present day, populated by fictional characters whose romantic lives made up the basis of the plot. These stories were sufficiently new and different from existing forms of popular literature at the time that they started to be called by the simple word novel. Formally, these books sketched out the parameters of a new genre of storytelling, incorporating narrative techniques, like epistolary exchanges, that would be crucial to the novel’s later development; thematically, their concerns were with gender, status, and sexual morality. These were the earliest stories to be described as novels in English, and they were primarily written by women, like Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood. The formal innovations of these early novels, their tales of seduction and sexual intrigue, not to mention their popularity and commercial success, would prove profoundly influential on the eighteenth-century prose tradition that followed. Male writers like Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson drew deeply on the themes and stylistic techniques of the early female novelists, sometimes while openly disparaging their work. Richardson described his novel Pamela as “a new species of writing,” which, “dismissing the improbable and marvellous, with which novels generally abound, might promote the cause of religion and virtue.” Because the term novel had been coined to describe the work of women, Richardson tried to frame Pamela as something else, a “new species,” an attempt to differentiate his supposedly virtuous book from the immoral novels with which it ran the risk of being associated. Considering his disdain for what was then called the novel, we might find it a little strange that twentieth-century histories of the English-language novel generally identified these male writers—Defoe, Richardson, Fielding—as the inventors of the form. In the intervening centuries, the novel had become an important tradition in English prose, and the books that first gave rise to the term were retroactively excluded from the category. Haywood, Manley, Behn, and other early female novelists are generally discussed even today under the euphemistic label “amatory fiction.”

If attempts to reconstruct a history for the novel have tended to diminish its female progenitors, however, I don’t want to go too far in the other direction. The form as we know it certainly owes an enormous debt to the work of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, quite as much as to the early female novelists who began to sketch out a preliminary framework for the genre. But none of these authors, male or female, are widely read for pleasure by ordinary readers today. The eighteenth century was a period of genesis, experimentation and rapid development for the Anglophone prose narrative, but it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that these distinct traditions would reach a transformative synthesis, giving rise to what present-day readers unanimously recognize as the novel. The writer responsible for this extraordinary synthesis—the author of the earliest novels in the English language still widely read and loved in the present day—is Jane Austen. At the beginning of a new century, Austen’s work provided the formal resources that would see the novel develop into the preeminent form of literary writing in English. Her novels represent the culmination of the emergent genre, a kind of mediation between two related but conflicting traditions in eighteenth-century prose.

Before I consider what this might mean for Ulysses, I want to take a moment to discuss what exactly was so formative about Austen’s work. Although the charisma and complexity of her characters may feel new, we know that English literature had produced compelling personalities before: Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for instance; Shakespeare’s Hamlet; even Beowulf. But these characters are dramatized in the context of externally imposed struggles: they get shipwrecked; their father is murdered by their uncle; they are attacked by a powerful monster. “Character” emerges in these works as a conflict between the individual and the challenges they must overcome. In Jane Austen’s work, and in the Anglophone novel since, character is staged purely in relationship to other characters. Her plots arise from the conjunction between particular personalities in what were then ordinary social circumstances. The fact that Elizabeth is Elizabeth while Darcy is Darcy provides all the intrigue of Pride and Prejudice. Austen made of the English-language novel not so much a psychological form as a relational form, its plot provided solely by developments in the relationships between its protagonists. Of course, in Austen’s work, the most narratively consequential form of relationship is marriage: and at a stretch, we could even propose that the novel form is itself a kind of marriage, a union of distinct textual traditions we might label as masculine and feminine. But obviously, marriage serves another important purpose in Austen’s work and in the novels that followed: it represents the only permissible expression of romantic love and sexual desire. Austen’s characters can never speak openly about sex, of course: but the tension that animates her novels, the momentum of Elizabeth’s relationship with Darcy or Emma’s with Knightley, is romantic and sexual in nature. The fact that erotic attraction in Austen’s work is forced out of language—sublimated into ambiguous gestures and looks and seemingly innocuous speech acts—constitutes in very large part the drama of her narratives. In a sense, then, it is from the unavailability of language that the tensions of the novel arise. We might propose the novel as a kind of book in which the most important subject cannot be spoken about. The genius of Jane Austen’s technical achievement is apparent not only in her wide readership but in her formal legacy. Austen’s narrative structures, her command of pacing, her perspectival techniques, her staging of small knowable social worlds: these are the basic ingredients of what we would now call the novel as a form.

So if the stakes of the Greek epic are war and peace, and the stakes of the Renaissance tragedy are life and death, then we might say that, at least since Austen, the stakes of the English-language novel are love and marriage. And however much Ulysses might seem to protest otherwise, this is precisely what is really at stake for Bloom, Stephen and Molly on June 16, 1904. The fate of nations is not involved; we never imagine for a minute that any lethal disaster lurks in store for the characters; all that hangs in the balance is friendship, love, family. Ulysses is, like Pride and Prejudice, a purely relational novel. It was Jane Austen who developed the prose narrative techniques necessary to sustain a reader’s interest in such apparently trivial matters, and James Joyce, in writing a novel, necessarily inherited these techniques, though what he did with them was a matter for his own individual genius. Austen’s subtly masterful use of perspective becomes in Ulysses a sort of madcap textual rampage, but with much of the same underlying purpose: to illuminate the events of the novel through the eyes and minds of its protagonists. Even the small circumscribed communities in which Austen stages her plots are echoed in Joyce’s almost implausibly tight-knit Dublin, where Leopold Bloom seems to be acquainted with pretty much everyone he meets. Into the vessel of the novel form, Joyce pours the contents of his story, and if at times it overspills, still we recognize the contours of the container. Formally, it’s in Austen’s lineage, far more directly than Homer’s or Shakespeare’s, that Ulysses participates. But what an unwilling participant it seems to be! Everywhere grasping for the father who isn’t there, and too embarrassed to acknowledge the mother who is. Jane Austen might even be imagined as one of the nightmares from which Ulysses is trying to awake. Its Homeric title, its Shakespearean frame of reference, its endless textual allusions to the works of male forebears: all these come to seem like ways of warding off the uncomfortably effeminate generic history Joyce cannot help but inherit. Referring to Don Gifford’s book Ulysses Annotated, which provides citations for the many thousands of textual references in the novel, we note that Daniel Defoe is cited seven separate times. The later Victorian novelist Charles Dickens merits fifteen mentions. Jane Austen’s name doesn’t even appear in the index. Though I am suggesting that Ulysses ought to be situated in Austen’s lineage, I’m not suggesting that James Joyce would agree. Ulysses kicks back at, picks apart and argues against many of the techniques and conventions Jane Austen established: but then arguing and kicking back are things children often to do to their parents.

Austen is, by the way, not the only novelist conspicuously overlooked in the textual world of Ulysses. In its fourteenth chapter, set in Holles Street Maternity Hospital, Joyce stages a stylistically dazzling passage through the history of English literature, beginning with a comic pastiche of incantatory prayer and continuing through, among others, the works of Chaucer, Malory, Defoe, Swift, Dickens, Walpole, and Ruskin. Not one female author is included in the tribute: no Eliza Haywood, no Mary Shelley, no Brontë sisters, no George Eliot, none. Women are in Holles Street to have babies, obviously, not to write books. But however much Ulysses may struggle against the conventions of the novel form, it is still a novel, and its heritage is anything but patrilineal. Like Stephen Dedalus, haunted by ghostly visions of the dead mother he fears he betrayed, the text is haunted by the unacknowledged women whose work established the parameters of its own genre. We might even propose that the structural pressures of the novel form help to force the stubborn masculinity of Ulysses into a more interesting and complicated relationship with gender.

We might propose that, or we might not. My Ulysses is necessarily enmeshed in the history of the novel, because I approach it as a person who studies novels, reads them for pleasure, and even tries to write them. Another reader reads another Ulysses. I can only talk about mine. And mine is, of course, a woman’s Ulysses; which means that my love for and admiration of the book has had to take account of the fact that the social world in which it is set is almost exclusively male. I do find myself, while reading Ulysses, identifying passionately with the arrogant young writer Stephen Dedalus, and of course with the deeply charming loner Leopold Bloom. But there is another part of my mind that knows myself to be, in reality, a woman: a class of person absent from or unwelcome in most of the book’s environments. From the novel’s opening, we move through a vast array of all-male settings: Stephen’s lodgings at the Martello tower; the boys’ school at which he teaches; Bloom’s carriage to the funeral; the newspaper offices; Davy Byrne’s pub; the National Library; the Ormond Hotel bar and dining room (with the exception of female staff); Barney Kiernan’s pub; the drinking session at Holles Street; a brothel (with the aforementioned exception of staff); and a cabman’s shelter. Men access and use these spaces as free agents, browsing, making purchases, eating, drinking, wandering, while women are either present as workers or not present at all. For another reader—a male reader, for instance, or just a woman who isn’t me—this feature of the novel may go unnoticed, or feel insignificant. And why not? But for myself, I can’t help noticing, and so I have to insist on noticing, these absences and silences. I have to read my own Ulysses, and in doing so, make some sense of how it works on me.

If we accept for argument’s sake that the “novel” as a genre represents a synthesis of masculine and feminine writing traditions, can we locate a version of this synthesis in what seems to be the stubbornly male world of Ulysses? We can try. Let’s return to the episode set at the maternity hospital, which describes such a rigid gender dichotomy: women give birth and men write books. Women are physical, natural, sensuous, erotic; men are cerebral, cultured, rational, intellectual. Women represent the body, men the mind. According to this system, Stephen Dedalus is the book’s most rigidly masculine character. In a very basic and literal sense, he surrounds himself almost exclusively with other men: male friends, male enemies, male intellectual and artistic influences. Even the God he doesn’t believe in is a man. But Stephen also represents the novel’s masculine “qualities”: logic, intellect, erudition. In some of the passages presented from his point of view, he hardly seems to have a body at all: we experience his consciousness as a kind of floating perceptual device, an abstract stream of language and images. “Ineluctable modality of the visible,” he thinks: “at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.” So immersed is Stephen in his ineluctable thoughts that it’s often difficult for a reader to know where he is physically located and what he is actually doing. His body is neglected in other ways too: he doesn’t wash himself; he repeatedly shrinks from being touched by other people; and although he drinks enormous quantities of alcohol during the course of the book, he never eats.

Bodily appetites are something of a feminine quality in Ulysses. Appropriately, although Stephen thinks in crudely explicit terms about sexuality, his own desires are muted. His relationship with his housemate Buck Mulligan has erotic overtones, but the pair also resent one another, and spend most of the book avoiding each other’s company. Stephen’s sexual feelings for women are even more abstract and theoretical. “She, she, she,” he thinks to himself on Sandymount Strand. “What she?” He offers himself one possible answer: “The virgin at Hodges Figgis’ window on Monday,” a stranger he glimpsed in the street. But within a few sentences, he has talked himself into reviling her. The only other erotic connection in his life seems to be with a sex worker named Georgina Johnson, but he reproaches himself bitterly for spending so much money on her, and in any case we learn in the course of the book that she now has a husband. (In Stephen’s words, she’s “dead and married.”) Thus Stephen’s attitude toward women offers a miniature illustration of what feminists call the virgin/whore dichotomy. He bristles with contempt not only for the prudish middle-class women who are his peers, but also for the uneducated sex workers who he considers beneath him; and this contempt is far more palpable, far more emotionally intense, than the desire by which it is apparently provoked. Interestingly, although Stephen is a regular frequenter of brothels, we never see him—either in the course of the narrative or even in his memories or dreams—getting into bed with anyone.

Molly Bloom, on the other hand, is pretty much always in bed, and rarely alone. She represents everything that is feminine in Ulysses, and a very horizontal form of femininity at that. In the morning of the novel, Bloom brings her breakfast in bed; in the afternoon, she goes to bed with Boylan; and at night, she lies in bed awake beside the sleeping Leopold. With a lover, or with her husband, or with her recollections and fantasies of other men, Molly is always in bed with someone; just as Stephen, no matter much time he spends in brothels, never is. Molly’s appetites are famously erotic, but she also loves to eat, and she makes little distinction between these two great sources of satisfaction in her life. Fantasizing about the men she might meet at the fruit market in the morning, she abruptly breaks off to think longingly: “Id love a big juicy pear now to melt in your mouth.” She is as voluptuous as Stephen is undernourished; as joyously unintellectual as he is grimly cerebral; she is a pagan who believes in God, just as he is an excruciatingly theological atheist. Rather than masculine rigidity, Molly embodies flow and variation. She spends long passages of her monologue looking forward to another encounter with her new lover, possibly as soon as Monday; but she spends even more time contemplating her husband, known to us as Bloom but to her, lovingly, as Poldy. “what a madman,” she thinks tenderly: “nobody understands his cracked ideas but me.”

It’s not so much that Molly is comfortable with contradiction: it’s that she doesn’t seem to experience much contradiction between the erotic excitement of her new affair, and her deep complicated love for her husband. “O much about it,” she thinks at one point, “if thats all the harm ever we did in this vale of tears.” It’s not so easy, for a reader submerged in the seductive flow of her soliloquy, to disagree. The control and regulation of erotic life comes to seem like a masculine imposition on the free unbounded nature of female sexuality—at least in the world of Ulysses. Molly is not an “everywoman,” but a living antithesis, an example of femininity completely unmodulated by the qualities Joyce designates as masculine. Approaching its close, the novel hovers over the possibility of a communion between the two extremes. Stephen admires a photograph of Molly, and after seeing it, he agrees to accompany Bloom back to their house; Molly herself indulges humorous fantasies about having an affair with Stephen. But the two never meet, and Stephen ultimately declines to stay the night. Whatever forms of relation remain in suspended possibility between these characters, Joyce declines to bring their opposing poles into direct contact. A synthesis declined or deferred.

Or maybe not. Between Stephen and Molly—between them in more ways than one—we have Leopold Bloom. He is the book’s central protagonist, its organizing principle, and just as the form of the novel itself has an intriguingly androgynous history, Bloom is an intriguingly androgynous character. He is, of course, a man: but unlike Stephen Dedalus, he fails to exemplify the book’s masculine values. Bloom is intellectually curious, interested in ideas and the life of the mind; but he also thinks a lot about his body, his appetites, about eating, about washing himself. And while Stephen seethes with contempt for women, Bloom is capable of looking on the opposite sex with warmth, understanding, attraction. He enjoys their company, even regrets their exclusion from civic life. (Passing a urinal, he thinks sensibly: “Ought to be places for women.”) When the men in Barney Kiernan’s pub are cruelly making fun of a mentally ill character named Mr Breen, Bloom speaks up to say defensively: “Still … on account of the poor woman, I mean his wife.” Mrs Breen happens to be a friend, possibly even an old girlfriend, of Bloom’s, but his remark still draws vitriol from the others present. In an environment where his Jewish heritage already makes him the subject of bigotry, Bloom’s sympathy for women marks him out further as unmanly, suspicious, disloyal. By failing to combine his attraction to women with the proper degree of hatred and distrust, he risks identifying too closely with what he desires, threatening the boundary on which the system of gender domination is built.

His relations with his fellow men can be even more curious. Though initially his interest in Stephen Dedalus may seem parental—the symbolic Odysseus in search of his son—Bloom’s motivations quickly grow more oblique. When Stephen and Buck Mulligan are leaving the National Library together in the ninth chapter, they stop at the doorway to allow another man to pass out between them. It happens to be Leopold Bloom, who bows in greeting and walks on. “Did you see his eye?” Mulligan whispers to Stephen. “He looked upon you to lust after you.” Mulligan may have his own reasons for making this particular joke, but when Bloom and Stephen finally meet later on in the novel, we begin to feel that the joke had a point. Late at night in the cabman’s shelter, Stephen is sullen, even rude and unpleasant, but Bloom doggedly persists in trying to make conversation with him—describing him as “someone of no uncommon calibre.” and “educated, distingué and impulsive into the bargain, far and away the pick of the bunch.” When they leave the shelter together, Bloom unknowingly replicates an earlier gesture of Buck Mulligan’s by offering Stephen his arm—but while Stephen rejected Mulligan’s offer, he accepts Leopold’s. The two continue their journey arm in arm, but the reader stays behind, sharing the perspective of a nearby cab driver as he watches the men “walk towards the railway bridge, to be married by Father Maher.” This last phrase is a lyric from a comic love ballad by the Irish composer Samuel Lover. Ulysses’s sixteenth chapter closes with this image of Bloom and Stephen walking away together, an image that puts the onlooker in mind not of a father and son, but of lovers on their way to be married.

So Bloom desires women, but identifies too closely with them; and he identifies with men, but also seems to desire them. Back in Barney Kiernan’s, the character identified only as the Citizen asks derisively: “Do you call that a man?” Another agrees: “One of those mixed middlings he is.” Taking up the middle section of the novel, Bloom mediates between the text’s ideals of masculinity and femininity, between the corporeal and the intellectual, between the body and the mind. In this sense, Bloom is something like the personification of the novel as a form: a complicated synthesis of masculine and feminine traditions, a way of mediating between seemingly opposing values.He represents what is most compelling and most strange about the novel, its unsettling refusal to be one thing or the other, male or female, insider or outsider, elite high culture or mass entertainment. From its earliest history, the English-language novel has occupied an unstable position in the gender system: a form invented by women who dared to claim a literary authority reserved for men; a form appropriated by men who struggled to conceal the influence of women; a form perfected by a woman who was drawing on the lineage of those men; and on and on. Whenever the novel has been considered inane and immoral, it has been relegated to the domain of women; when it comes to be considered important and serious, it is attributed to the efforts of men. These tensions are present in the structuring principles of the form itself, and nowhere more clearly than in Ulysses. Leopold Bloom embodies the formal problems—and the strange subversive pleasures—of the novel itself.

The question of gender, here as elsewhere, is inextricable from the question of sexuality. While undergoing a kind of hallucinated medical exam during the nightmarish scene at the brothel, Bloom is described by his doctors as “bisexually abnormal” and “a finished example of the new womanly man.” The novel itself could be called a bisexually abnormal form of writing: a genre that returns obsessively, from no fixed gender perspective, to the question of sexual desire; an almost intrinsically erotic narrative form. Just as each of Jane Austen’s plots is propelled by the problems of sex and marriage, the English-language novel that flourished throughout the following century continued to reinscribe the fraught significance of erotic desire. In Wuthering Heights, in Jane Eyre, in Middlemarch, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in The Portrait of a Lady, the novel is a form driven by sexual impulses that cannot be freely spoken of or even thought about. This inexpressibility provides the form with its own distinct narrative tensions: unlike any of the literary traditions from which it descends, the novel has traditionally concerned itself with the drama of the unsayable, what cannot be articulated in words. But by the early twentieth century, literary writing had to contend with the emergence of new social realities around sex and gender. In the Europe of 1922—in the wake of war, communist revolution, and women’s suffrage—the repressive sexual morality that had provided the dramatic context for the nineteenth-century novel was beginning to fall away. This posed such a problem for the narrative tradition that it might be no wonder it seemed to be facing a crisis: and it’s within this moment of cultural upheaval that we have to position the work of James Joyce.

Perhaps the most famous thing about Ulysses is that it is a sexually explicit book: a novel in which the characters permit themselves to think openly about erotic desire. Just as they navigate the world around them with their intellectual and moral and aesthetic faculties, they also navigate the world with their erotic faculties, responding to themselves and one another as sensual beings. They acknowledge the existence of a sexual culture: the prevalence of sex work, varieties of different erotic practices and preferences, the disparity between the edicts of official Catholic Ireland and their own lived realities. Sometimes, as with Molly and Boylan, sexual desire pulls Joyce’s characters strongly in one particular direction; often, as with Bloom, it turns their attention in multiple directions, toward strangers, friends, women and men, backward into memories, forward into the future, or away from real life into sheer fantasy. In a way, Ulysses represents the moment at which sexuality entered into the language of the novel. On its pages, the novel as a form is forced to collide with social realities it was never designed to accommodate: and the chaotic, difficult, radical, exciting prose of Ulysses is the result. But like the nineteenth-century novels from which it descends, Ulysses is still driven by the particular formal tension of what cannot be expressed. Throughout the novel, all day long and into the night, the quietly pressing narrative momentum is provided by the fact that Bloom refuses even to think about Molly’s affair. We follow Leopold’s odyssey through Dublin, attending to his every fleeting thought, without ever really understanding why he is going out of his way to facilitate his wife’s infidelity, or how he feels about it, or what he thinks the future of their marriage might hold. Joyce retrieved the drama of the unsayable from the moral context of the nineteenth century and made it new. The narrative structure of Ulysses is still novelistic, still relational, still derived from the distinctive dynamics between its characters: but it is also profoundly changed, even unrecognizable; we might say entirely novel.

Okay, okay, you might be thinking. James Joyce is the successor of Jane Austen, really? Ulysses is an updated version of the marriage plot? That’s enough misreading for today, thank you. And indeed, past a certain point I do begin to feel like a little girl who has been allowed to play for too long with her brothers’ toys, and is now surreptitiously making the action figures kiss. Ulysses is for girls, I mutter under my breath. I don’t really mean to convince you this evening that Ulysses is a feminist novel; I don’t know whether I believe that it is, or even what that might mean. I do think that it inherits the novel’s formal concerns with gender and sexuality, and does so in a way that enriches both Ulysses itself and the tradition of novel writing in which it participates. As a reader, I find the book extraordinarily moving: I care very deeply about Molly’s relationship with Bloom, Bloom’s relationship with Stephen, what they say and don’t say and can’t say to one another. This, to me, is the beauty—we might even say the magic—of the novel as a literary tradition: its ability to involve us emotionally in the relationships of its protagonists. This feeling is produced, of course, by meticulous technical construction, in the work of James Joyce just as much as that of Henry James or Jane Austen. But if we are to acknowledge that fiction has any effect on us other than what is strictly intellectual, then I think we have to admit that the feeling itself is important. Works of art don’t succeed or fail on their technical or logical merits: they succeed or fail according to how they work on their audience. Yes, the language of Ulysses is radically inventive; yes, its symbolic structure is dense with significance; yes, it destablilizes textual conventions; but it seems at least to me that it does these things so that we can meet all the more directly, the more vividly and beautifully, with Molly and Stephen and Leopold Bloom.

Naturally, I lay no claim to objectivity. The Ulysses I present to you this evening might sound suspiciously like a novel about attractive young people in their twenties and thirties hanging around Dublin, doing no work, and thinking about sex; and there may be reasons such a reading appeals particularly to me. But the intervention that Ulysses made—the intervention it continues to make even now—in the history of the novel demands a personal response. It is a book not only worth reading, but worth misreading, arguing with, reinterpreting, even rewriting, making our own. In her wonderful new play Joyce’s Women, staged recently here at the Abbey, the Irish novelist Edna O’Brien asks: “Who owns James Joyce?” It strikes me as an endlessly complex and interesting question. But when it comes to the question of who owns Ulysses, I believe the contemporary reader—perhaps particularly the contemporary novelist—must permit themselves to answer: I do.



Sally Rooney is the author of the novels Conversations with Friends, Normal People, and Beautiful World, Where Are You