Annotated: Notes for James Joyce's Ulysses

Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses


Don Gifford’s annotations to Joyce’s great modern classic comprise a specialized encyclopedia that will inform any reading of Ulysses. The suggestive potential of minor details was enormously fascinating to Joyce, and the precision of his use of detail is a most important aspect of his literary method. The annotations in this volume illuminate details which are not in the public realm for most of us.The annotations gloss place names, define slang terms, give capsule histories of institutions …

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I started reading Ulysses by James Joyce, got lost on the first page(r/books)

Everyone should read Ulysses at some point in their life. It’s a book unlike any other, a book that knocks you out of your comfort zone. A book that makes your brain strain like you’re reaching for something on a high shelf. And it’s really, really funny. I’ve read it a couple of times and here’s my advice:

Step 1) RELAX. You’re going to miss things. It’s okay. Some things are worth missing, some things are boring, some things are references that don’t make any sense in today’s world, so who cares? Joyce didn’t want people to puzzle out his book like the answers to an exam, he wanted to present a slice of life in all its freaky majesty and stupidity. Keep looking up at the stars, not down at your feet.

Step 2) Like a shark, keep moving forward. Reading this book is like trying to drink a waterfall. The point is the overall impression, not so much the individual details. Just keep pushing ahead, don’t sit there with a magnifying glass trying to appreciate every single word. Joyce himself said he put in a shit ton of puzzles and tricks and things that don’t make sense for literary critics and scholars, just to mess with their heads, so don’t get hung up on them.

Step 3) There are no such thing as spoilers. Seriously. Buy yourself the Seidman Annotations. These are your best friend. The introduction to each chapter will get you oriented, and if you get hung up on a phrase, a detail, a bit of wordplay, they’re like the board you stick under the wheels of your jeep when it’s stuck in the mud.

Step 4) Remember that Joyce wasn’t living in Dublin when he wrote this. He hadn’t lived there in a long time. So what Ulysses is to some extent is his attempt to rebuild Dublin in his mind, recreating the sights and smells and mind set and beliefs and feelings and streets and people he remembered, but doing it in an impressionistic way. What the impressionists and modernists did for painting, Joyce is doing for books. That’s why it reads like he wrote it on drugs. Keep this in mind, the way you keep the north star in mind when you’re navigating a ship (which I’m sure you do a lot, right?). This is why the book is “important,” because it’s an amazing act of sustained imagination. The same way that Superman has the Kryptonian city of Kandor trapped in a bottle, Joyce has one day in Dublin in 1904 trapped in a book.

Step 5) It’s funny. It’s really funny. You just have to rewire your brain a little to get the jokes. Joyce always thought of himself as someone who was writing, primarily, a comedy. He’s sending up the epic form by using the structure of The Odyssey to talk about people going to the bathroom, and masturbating, and getting drunk and making idiots out of themselves. But by doing this, he’s not only elevating everyday life to the level of an epic but he’s lowering the epic to the level of everyday life. But also: fart jokes. Everywhere.

Step 6) It’s okay to skip. Even the biggest Joyce scholars in the world agree: some chapters in Ulysses suck. Here’s my breakdown of the book, chapter by chapter. I’m using the chapter names that Joyce gave the book in another document, not the chapter titles that are in the book:

1- TELEMACHUS – come on, it’s the first chapter. You’ve gotta read it. It’s basically two roommates squabbling over money.

2 – NESTOR – a bit of a bore but also relatively short

3 – PROTEUS – this is the first long, boring, skimmable chapter. If you’re deep on Joyce it’s very “important” but it’s also pretty impenetrable.

4 – CALYPSO – now we’re in Leopold Bloom’s part of the book and this is one of the three most famous chapters in ULYSSES (the other two are “Circe” and “Penelope”)

5 – THE LOTUS EATERS – fine chapter, a bit dense, but readable

6 – HADES – one of the best in the book in my opinion, just totally Irish and death obsessed and there’s even some plot!

7 – AEOLUS – from this chapter forward to “Cyclops” you’re in a dense, unforgiving part of the book. I recommend breezing through these chapters and keep up with what’s going on with the annotations.

8 – LAESTRYGONIANS – not so bad, but tough stuff.

9 – SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS – ouch. Even Joyce scholars think this one’s like getting hit in the head with a brick. Lots of academic nattering about Shakespeare.

10 – THE WANDERING ROCKS – a neat trick (19 bits, told from around a dozen points of view) but otherwise it’s really just a walk around Dublin

11 – THE SIRENS – a sweet, lovely chapter but it’s all pretty wordplay

12 – CYCLOPS – alert! alert! The least loved and worst chapter in the book. No one can read and understand this one. Fortunately, it’s the end of the worst section of Ulysses.

13 – NAUSICAA – a really perverted, really dense, very funny chapter.

14 – OXEN OF THE SUN – scholars love this chapter and it is fun, but don’t take it too seriously. The point is to trace the history of the English language from early speech to 20th Century speech in one chapter. It’s very complex and kind of unrewarding, which makes it a bit like “Cyclops” but not nearly so bad.

15 – CIRCE – essential

16, 17, 18 – EUMAEUS, ITHACA, PENELOPE – the last three chapters, and completely lovely, moving and awesome.

So my recommendation is to read about it as you read it so you can know what’s going on, and save your strength for the better chapters, while avoiding getting hung up on chapters like AEOLUS (which is a bunch of hot air, like its namesake) PROTEUS and CYCLOPS. Also, this is one of the few novels you can read in almost any order and enjoy. If you just want the highlights, I recommend the following order:


Then you can go back and read the tougher chapters however you like.

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Book Author

Don Gifford

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2 Rev Enl

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University of California Press

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Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses

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I started reading Ulysses by James Joyce, got lost on the first page

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