Cheat’s guide to Joyce’s Ulysses

Wednesday, June 16th, 2004

Today is the 100th anniversary of “Bloomsday”, an event in Jame’s Joyce’s Ulysses.

Strangely enough, while walking into work today I was thinking about books I haven’t read that I probably should have. Recently I blitzed Amazon for things like To Kill A Mockingbird and Catch 22, Lord of the Flies and The Wind in the Willows. I read Mockingbird (wow) and A Clockwork Orange (er…) but that’s as far as I’ve got (you should see the pile of books I have to read this summer!). So on the walk this morning I was wondering what else to add to the list, just to do my bit to keep Amazin afloat, you understand.

The BBC did us all a service last year by coming up with The Big Read. I’m no fan of “top 100” lists, but this one is quite useful, particularly as I have actually read a lot of them so can feel quite smug! Some of them are controversial (although I’m a Pratchett fan I’m not sure I’d feature him so heavily), and some downright questionable, but a list’s a list.

One that’s on there is Ulysses of course, and I might give it a go, maybe with a few pints of Guinness, just to say I have.

But what’s this? Spotted over on the BBC News web site (obviously a budding comedy writer in their building!) is a Cheat’s guide to Joyce’s Ulysses. Having read this, I actually think I want to tackle the book, and may go off now and get a copy.

But click on the link and read what others have said – there are some real philistines out there, prepared to dismiss something just because they don’t like it or without even trying it! You wouldn’t catch me doing that. Oh no.


The first three chapters introduce would-be writer Stephen Dedalus, familiar to Joyce readers from his earlier novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

On the morning of 16 June 1904, Stephen leaves the disused watchtower he shares with “stately, plump Buck Mulligan”, vowing never to return.

After teaching at a nearby school he talks to an ageing master who gives him a letter to deliver to the offices of a Dublin newspaper.

He then goes for a long walk on the beach that gives him plenty of time to ponder his literary aspirations and dead mother fixation.


Jewish advertising salesman Leopold Bloom buys a kidney, then returns home to 7 Eccles Street and has it for breakfast. He then defecates. Upstairs Molly, his unfaithful opera singer wife, waits for him to leave so she can entertain her lover.


Bloom attends a funeral at Glasnevin Cemetery, his symbolic encounter with death mirroring Odysseus’s descent into Hades. It’s a real barrel of laughs.



Bloom and Stephen almost meet in a chapter peppered with tabloid-style headlines.


It’s lunchtime, so Bloom stops at Davy Byrne’s “moral pub” for a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy. He then pays a call to the National Library where he overhears Stephen sounding off about Shakespeare.


Lots of short episodes. Lots of different characters. All connected by a Vice-Regal parade from one side of town to the other.


In a chapter full of song – Joyce’s allusion to Homer’s deadly Sirens – Bloom narrowly avoids meeting Molly’s lover, concert promoter Blazes Boylan.


Bloom has an argument with a pub boor whose blinkered anti-Semitism mirrors Homer’s one-eyed Cyclops. He exits, closely followed by a cake tin.


As evening falls, Bloom sees two young girls on the beach and masturbates in a chapter written in the florid style of a romantic penny-dreadful.


Stephen and Bloom meet at last in a maternity hospital in a chapter whose structure is meant to represent both the nine months of pregnancy and the birth of the English language. And they say this book is hard.



(horrorstruck) Blimey, this looks like heavy going.


No kidding! There’s over 100 pages of this stuff, all written in the style of a play script. But all you need to know is that Bloom follows Stephen to a brothel where they have lots of freaky hallucinations.


A weary Bloom takes Stephen to a cabman’s shelter where they listen to the ramblings of a tattooed sailor who makes little or no senzzzzzzz


Q. What happens next?

A. Bloom and Stephen walk back to Eccles Street. Bloom offers Stephen a bed for the night but Stephen refuses and leaves. Bloom goes to bed. The section is written in a question-and-answer format like a religious catechism.


yes Molly Bloom sits awake in bed yes and remembers her youth in Gibraltar yes and her many sexual partners yes in one unbroken stream of consciousness yes and recalls the day she yes gave herself to Bloom while munching some heavily symbolic seed cake yes

(The 35-page chapter consists of just seven sentences. The final words are: “…and yes I said yes I will Yes.”)

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