Don't be afraid to open James Joyce's "Ulysses" these cheeky quotes will give you a different perspective to this daunting book.
There are books that are inevitably intimidating. They’re masterpieces, yes, but intimidating as hell. I remember when I started my English degree how afraid I was of certain texts. I mean, everybody said how difficult Old English was (and oh, boy they were right) or how you had to have an acute literary sense to fully grasp Shakespeare. But one of the texts most professors scared us with was James Joyce’s Ulysses. They really tormented us with that. Yes, it’s complex, I won’t deny that, and you must be really focused when you read it. Ulysses has an intricate narrative scheme, perhaps not entirely because of the plot, but due to the way this is constructed.
Divided into 18 books, or episodes, Joyce’s novel is somehow parallel with Homer’s Odyssey. In fact, the name of the book is the Latin version of Odysseus. However, the parallels are made in Joyce’s unique way. The novel tells the story of Leopold Bloom throughout one day as he walks through the streets of Dublin. He, as well as the characters he’s connected to, represents one of the characters in the Ancient Greek epic, so you can also find characters that parallel with Telemachus and Penelope (Odysseus son and wife). However, more than being a mere rewriting or adaptation of the classic poem, Homer's epic becomes a source of inspiration to deal with other subjects in Joyce’s mind, such as the economic, social, and political situation of Ireland (after all, the book was published just one year after the “official” partition of the island following a terrible war).
Being such a classic book, there are obviously tons of quotes academics love mentioning to show how this is one of the greatest novels ever written (and I presume, they also do it to let us know they managed to fully grasp its meaning), but just as Joyce was genius, he was also cheeky and had a great sense of humor. For that reason, we’re going to talk about five of the funniest and cheekiest ones in one of the most complex narratives in the English language.
"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."
Belonging to episode two of the novel, this is a great phrase Stephen Dedalus (Joyce's alter ego in the novel) mentions to Mr. Deasy. Stephen is a history professor at a boy’s school directed by Garrett Deasy. He approaches the principal to get paid for his services but then the latter starts arguing with Stephen about how life should be about. Not happy with this man lecturing him, he decides to give the principal an overview of his own perception of life. Being history his area of expertise, he mentions this phrase to show him he’s not falling for the principal’s outdated perception of history which, according to him, points at one main theme: God and religion. Stephen doesn’t really agree with the way history has been portrayed, especially when it comes to the current situation of Ireland, and contrary to the principal, he doesn’t agree with the idea of the validity of violence as God’s will. Now, the phrase has naturally two meanings, the literal one he throws in the conversation, and the one referring to his own personal history and experiences. If you’ve started the book, you’ll notice that at the beginning, Stephen talks about the hopelessness he feels when trying to overcome his own upbringing, so this phrase is a way of reinforcing his negative perception of life.
"Mr. Bloom with careful hand recomposed his wet shirt. O Lord that little limping devil. Begins to feel cold and clammy. Aftereffect not pleasant. Still, you have to get rid of it someway. They don't care. Complimented perhaps."
This is just a spicy quote from one heated scene. It’s chapter thirteen and Bloom is seating in the seashore when he sees three women hanging there with two children. While he’s narrating the story we learn a bit about these women and Bloom’s own personal thoughts about Molly, his wife. However, when these lines hit, we notice that actually, Bloom has been masturbating while watching Gerty MacDowell, one of the three women, and wonders if she had noticed what he was doing. Based on Joyce’s explicit and erotic way of writing at some times, these lines are great due to their subtlety.
"—What is it? says John Wyse. —A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place. —By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years."
As we mentioned the book is filled with commentaries about Ireland’s situation at the moment, and of course, there are many lines in which the characters express their own views on the situation. Here, with a comic tone, Bloom is arguing with some men. He’s constantly considered an outsider from the community due to his own heritage. He has Jewish roots coming from Hungary, and for that reason, he doesn’t really fit with the Catholic religious ideas of the fully Irish citizens. Wyse asks him what is a nation. Bloom tries to give an answer that shows where he stands in terms of national identity, but rapidly, one of the men, characterized by his witty and sarcastic way to make people feel inferior, debunks his phrase by mocking him.
"Wanted smart lady typist to aid gentleman in literary work. I called you naughty darling because I do not like that other world. Please tell me what is the meaning. Please tell me what perfume does your wife. Tell me who made the world."
While Bloom continues wandering through the streets of Dublin, he starts thinking about the relationship he has with the places he passes by. When he passes the Irish Times’ building he starts remembering one of the ads he placed on the paper asking for a female typist. Naturally, the ad is not something people are used to, but this makes him think about how he met Martha Clifford, the woman he’s exchanging correspondence with. This part of the book could be a reflection of Joyce’s own correspondence with Nora Barnacle, which, in case you haven’t read it, it goes beyond mere eroticism. In a way, Bloom is wondering how his sex life has changed and became just a written form of his sexualized being.
"Don't know what death is at that age."
This is actually kind of a nice quote where Bloom starts thinking about his daughter Milly and her enthusiasm in life, proper of her young age. Then he starts reflecting on how time changes your perception of life and how we all are optimistic and happy at a young age, and as we mature and have a broader understanding of our role in the world, it becomes inevitable to see the horrors and dark realities around us. In a more obvious way, it shows how as long as we become older, we become more aware of how inevitable death is and thus, we came to understand it better.
James Joyce has become one of the top authors not only in the English language, but one of the best minds in the history of literature. His short stories and novels are considered masterpieces and have acquired an academic prestige that has made people believe he’s not accessible for everybody. However, as you can see, his book isn’t as serious as it might look, and just as he was during his life, his satiric and humorous style makes his work quite inclusive. It’s just a matter of how you decide to approach it.
Here are some further reading recommendations you might enjoy:
Images from the movie Bloom (2003), an adaptation of the novel.Images from the movie Bloom (2003), an adaptation of the novel.