Narrative Form in Ulysses

Chapter seven from Jonathan Culler’s book, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction focuses on Narrative. Culler gives readers narrative’s position within literary theory as a whole, uses framing questions to underscore how different presentations of text (that is, how a plot is realized) produce widely different narrative experiences, defines various types of focalization, and finally, addresses how stories influence, or define, societal norms/culture.

As a way of moving through Ulysses, we thought it might be helpful to use Culler’s questions around presentation and focalization as a way to better explore some of the mechanisms operating throughout the text. As a first step, our group has written about focalization/“voice”, the implications of Joyce’s use of allusions for readers, and the “collapsing” of time in various places in the novel.

Who sees?

Focalization, as described by Jonathan Culler in Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, is about “who sees” and how (89). There are many sets of eyes through which we make sense of Ulysses, but each character sees differently. Focal “speed and distance” are two narrative elements that govern how and what a particular character sees or cares about (90). Because Joyce uses over 600 pages to chronicle the events of a single day, the narrative moves through time very slowly and often employs a “zoomed in” method of seeing. The degrees of speed and distance vary, therefore varying the nature of the reader’s experience and their understanding of the events and characters in Ulysses.

For example, Stephen Dedalus tends to guide the narrative to smaller details than Bloom does. In this way focal distance informs their personalities and voices. Stephen is more introspective, brooding, and neurotic than the good-natured and easygoing Bloom.

Stephen becomes absorbed in the appearance of the characters on the page while helping Cyril Sargent with sums: “Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes. Give hands, traverse, bow to partner: so: imps of fancy of the Moors” (23). The structure of the last sentence somewhat mirrors Stephen’s close and layered scrutiny of the world: a part of a sentence meant to elaborate on something is elaborated upon. Stephen goes on “seeing” the sums for three or four more lines before actually speaking to Cyril, effectively “pausing” time while he ruminates on the history and aesthetics of algebra.

At the butcher’s shop Bloom notices small details around him, but his mind moves more quickly between them than Stephen’s mind does. Bloom observes that “a kidney oozed bloodguts on the willowpatterned dish: the last. He stood by the nextdoor girl at the counter. Would she buy it too, calling the items from a slip in her hand? Chapped: washingsoda. And a pound and a half of Denny’s sausages. His eyes rested on her vigorous hips” (48). The focal distance in this excerpt changes often: from the zoomed-in view of a pattern on the plate to the zoomed-out view of his position in line, and back into the condition of his neighbor’s hands. While Stephen’s intense mind often brings the reader to an increasingly close focal distance, Bloom’s is freer to observe and then move on.

Who speaks?


Two-headed Cyclops...

Some starting thoughts/questions:
  • As we noted above, the novel is heavily focalized through main characters (Stephen, Bloom). The narration oscillates between third person narration (i.e. “All crossed themselves and stood up. Mr. Bloom glanced about him and then stood up, looking over the risen hats”, 5.414) and sudden interjection directly into the thoughts of Stephen/Bloom (i.e. “Were those those buttons of my waistcoats open all the time? Women enjoy it. Never tell you. But we. Excuse, miss, there’s a (whh!) just a (whh!) fluff”, 5.452). The reader experiences seamless transitions from observable, narrated action to internal dialogue. The “I” thoughts are not self-narrated (i.e. “I thought she was pretty”).
  • When we dip into these thoughts, are we experiencing a direct stream of consciousness? Or is it mitigated by “someone”? And, is the third person narration infused with the language/tone of the character that is being described? To what degree is the novel a mix of the Uncle Charles Principle and direct stream of consciousness?
  • And…Is stream of consciousness narration at all? Or does it circumvent the presumption of a narrator altogether (or, alternatively is one merely narrating to oneself)?
  • What do these techniques/the mixing of these techniques afford us that other techniques (first person, third person limited, etc.) do not?

Who speaks to whom?

It is impossible, when reading Ulysses, to be unaware of the fact that the text is highly allusive (and elusive). Indeed, it seems as if Joyce wants the reader to struggle to “comprehend” the novel. Not only is it somewhat difficult to follow the actual plot (what is happening), but it is also difficult to trace, connect, and analyze the thousands of symbolic, literary, and historical allusions imbued throughout the text. As the Joyce epigraph to our annotation states, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” Viewed one way, this struggle is a thrilling interactive adventure through a masterpiece - searching for clues, diving down rabbit holes, feeling as if you are “in on the joke” with Joyce. Viewed another way this struggle is simply frustrating and exhausting. To what audience, after all, is Ulysses directed? And who is meant to understand it?

In answering these questions, I think the language of Joyce’s own quote is helpful - it is the professors, not the regular population, that will be arguing over what he meant. Although the text is infused with allusions of all sorts, overall, the text best lends itself to, and is immortalized through, academia. While Joyce may have incorporated elements of popular culture, that is not, ultimately, the genre to which the novel belongs or the class of people who will be dedicated to its explication. R. Brandon Kirshner admits as much when, in his essay “Intertextuality” he notes that “the longer scholars study Joyce’s writing, the more passages that were thought to have originated with Joyce turn out to be adapted quotations” (Cambridge Companion, 174).

Joyce weaves a pastiche of allusions together (some conscious, others subconscious) and does so “without supplying the reader with a useful context” (Cambridge Companion, 173). He blindfolds the reader, ships them off to an unknown destination, and leaves them there without a guide.

In order to understand Ulysses effortlessly, without the benefit of an annotation [sidebar: our group wonders: how/by what process did people read Ulysses before the publication of annotations?], one must be one of the following:

  • A highly educated middle/upper class Irishman living at the turn of the 20th century, preferably with literary inclinations
  • Stephen Daedalus
  • Leopold Bloom

So: if the text is meant to be a struggle, and a struggle only deemed worthy of undertaking by professors, what could be other uses for or functions of intertextuality in the novel? Here are some thoughts:

  • Because the novel relies on stream-of-consciousness narration, we can assume that our inner thoughts are indeed “hypertexts” comprised of narrative pastiches. Our brains are allusive by nature. Joyce is merely accurately reflecting the nature of the mind.
  • Joyce’s novel exposes, or elucidates, what Roland Barthes would later describe in The Rustle of Language about the fundamental difference between “works” and “the Text”:

The Text is not achieved by some organic process of maturation, or a hermeneutic process of ‘delving deeper,’ but rather by a serial movement of dislocations, overlappings, variations; the logic governing the Text is not comprehensive (trying to define what the work “means”) but metonymic; the activity of associations, contiguities, cross-references coincides with a liberation of symbolic energy (if it failed him, man would die) (Barthes 59).

Barthes’s ideas ring pretty true to the experience of reading Ulysses. The point, then, is not to “make sense” of the intense intertextuality of the novel, but to perceive/conceive/experience the text as “radically symbolic” (Bathes 59).

  • The intertextuality of Ulysses creates a plurality of readings for the reader. Not only does it expand the scope of the narrative to the past, it also directs it toward other texts and, via the annotation and this wiki project itself, actually creates new texts.

Now that I have done some work mapping basic thoughts about allusions and narrative form, I would like to add my own area of perplexity:
Does all the intertextuality of the novel divorce the reader from the emotive properties of the text? Or, does it increase these properties? If readers find themselves distanced from the characters by a wall of allusions - does this reduce the proposed mythic “authenticity” of the text - particularly if the majority of readers are academics?

Who speaks when?

In discussing narrative form in Ulysses, it may be useful to examine a particular passage from Chapter 1:

— Are you a medical student, sir? the old woman asked.
— I am, ma’am, Buck Mulligan answered.
— Look at that now, she said.
Stephen listened in scornful silence. She bows her old head to a voice that speaks to her loudly, her bonesetter, her medicineman: me she slights. To the voice that will shrive and oil for the grave all there is of her but her woman’s unclean loins, of man’s flesh made not in God’s likeness, the serpent’s prey. And to the loud voice that now bids her be silent with wondering unsteady eyes.
— Do you understand what he says? Stephen asked her.
— Is it French you are talking, sir? the old woman said to Haines.
. . .
— Irish, Buck Mulligan said. Is there Gaelic on you?
(pg. 12, 1.415-4.27)

One thing we’re seeing in this passage is what was discussed in class as “free indirect discourse,” wherein there is a shift in focalization from the third person narrator to the character himself, in this case Stephen. As is seemingly typical of Joyce’s style, there is no marker or indication signaling this move into first person narration, as the shift simply begins with the start of a new sentence. Not only is there a shift in focalization with regard to who is speaking, but there is a change in tense, from a narrative told in past tense to one told in the present, as indicated by the verb tenses: “bows,” “speaks,” “slights.” Of course, the dialogue is always happening in the present tense, but it’s interesting that Stephen’s internal narrative makes this shift as well.

A sort of peculiar thing that happens in this passage is the unfolding of events: Buck and the old woman are conversing, and then we move into Stephen’s thoughts, coming back to a scene in which Haines has spoken (in Gaelic), but it hasn’t been narrated, only implied in the dialogue which occurs afterwards. A question this raises for me is: what does it mean to have dialogue which is not narrated by anyone (third person narrator or Stephen), but still referenced after it has been spoken? What does this say about how time unfolds in the text? One thing to say would be that it is perhaps a more “accurate” portrayal of time: while Stephen is thinking resentful thoughts about the milk woman, Haines is speaking, but because we are moved into Stephen’s inner narrative, the one outside of it ceases to exist, momentarily.

On a level of formal technique which relates to broader themes the book seems to be dealing with, I think it’s significant here that the omitted speech of Haines comes in the form of Gaelic. As has been discussed in class, Stephen is constantly grappling with questions of language and nationality. As we have noticed, it is significant that the old woman mistakes the language of her country to be “French” (not to mention it’s an Englishman speaking it to her), but it seems just as important that Gaelic never even makes an appearance on the page. Connecting this to the idea of focalization and time, we might say that in this passage the speaking of Gaelic happens “outside of time,” or outside of the temporality of the book, a fascinating move on Joyce’s part given the attempt to revitalize the teaching and learning of Gaelic that was happening in Ireland during the time when he was writing Ulysses.

Who speaks what language?

Some starting thoughts/questions:
  • The novel presents at least two sets of distinct languages - Stephen and Bloom’s. How can we know when/if the narrative is picking up language from other characters beyond these two? Is there a discernible pattern?

Who speaks with authority?

Some starting thoughts/questions:
  • Because there is not an identifiable narrator per se, the question is not about the unreliability of the narrator, but about whether the reader is meant to take the thoughts of the characters at face value - which thoughts have a hidden “wink” attached to them.
  • Where can we pin down Joyce’s own intent? We’ve already noticed the unbearable seriousness with which Stephen treats his own philosophical thoughts as being one of these “winks” (Stephen is supposed to be frustrating and not, perhaps, a brilliant auteur).
  • Additionally, Joyce appears to be actively subverting the idea that a narrator needs to possess authority, or more specifically, that we have to agree with their authority. Once again, this isn't to suggest that he's implementing the “unreliable narrator” device, but that Joyce wants to disabuse his audience of the notion that a narrator's authority is infallible.
  • This is going to be best illustrated by “Cyclops” where Joyce gifts us with a first person narrator unique to this particular chapter. By providing this particular narrator with a first person perspective, Joyce is offering this character a more immediate authority than he's lent his two primary characters. This is noteworthy not only because its the first time this occurs in the novel (some couple hundred pages in), but because Joyce is a lending a dominant narrative voice to a character who acts as his sort of stand in for the cyclops of the odyssey.
  • This narrator's relationship to Homer's cyclops is two fold, namely a social myopia that stands in for the monster's own singular vision, and his presence as a violent threat towards Bloom. Likewise, Joyce's decision to employ this character as his sole first person narrator can be explained in a couple of ways.
  • First, this character offers a contrast to Stephen Dedalus and Bloom that deepens the comparisons Joyce has already made throughout. If we were to offer up a very, very broad synopsis of what Joyce is trying to achieve by playing his two leads off of one another, we could say that its a case of humanism versus intellectualism; Bloom is grounded, compassionate and feminine, Dedalus is aloof, cold and masculine. The narrator of “Cyclops” is a fairly one note character, so it wouldn't be terribly useful to try and compare him as succinctly with the other two, but what he does offer is a third counterpoint that further inform Joyce's characterizations and intent.

  • This brings us back around to authority and narrative voice/form. By providing an ignorant, anti-Semitic character with a narrative voice that instantly accredits him extra “authority”, Joyce is poking holes in the way an author can employ a first person voice for instant credibility, while also subverting his own subtle suggestion (in the form of Bloom) that the nobility of the common man and the necessity of his voice isn't a given, but one earned through the othering that Bloom has experienced as a Jewish man and a cuckold.
  • Furthermore, Joyce's subversion of a first person voice and the authority that is meant to accompany it (or any narration really) is part of what makes Ulysses both challenging and rewarding. Being able to lean on authoritative narration to guide our reading is in some ways a luxury. By subtracting this device from his narrative Joyce is making apparent the ways in which we aren't completely in control of our own readerly experience, and forces the audience to put forth their own conclusions about the characters based on their actions, as one would in real life.

Two Headed Cyclops?


Although the title character of Cyclops in The Odyssey is a one eyed monster, Joyce’s narrative structure involves two distinct narrators. The first narrative point of view we are introduced to is the first person perspective of the tax collector. His barstool tale largely drives the narrative but is broken up, interrupted by a second interpolating voice which takes the action or themes articulated by the tax man and amplifies them to absurd proportion. We see this particularly in climactic finish of the chapter.


“A large and appreciative gathering of friends and acquaintances from the metroplolis and greater Dublin gathered in the thousands to bid farewell to Nagyaságos uram Lipóti Virag . . . The ceremony which went of with great éclat was characterized by the most affecting cordiality” (12.1814).

The epic discrepancy between what the tax collector relates and what the interpellator describes makes the reality of the nasty tiff seem silly. This serves to highlight the facileness of the Citizen’s patriotic chauvinism. It’s also very funny. Humor serves to deflate a bit of the tension in the scene (Bloom is plainly not sent off with “affecting cordiality,”) and reduce the stakes of the fight.

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For example, after the biscuit tin is thrown, the description that follows drastically exaggerates the effect of the Citizen’s actions and Bloom’s flight: “ The catastrophe was terrific and instantaneous in its effect. The observatory of Dunsink registered in all eleven shocks, all of the fifth grade of Mercalli’s scale . . . “And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glories of the brightness” (12.1859). That the interpellator’s histrionic retelling is so far from what actually happens, makes the silly and pathetic reality stand out: a drunk guy throws a piece of trash (“Dunsink”) at another man who rides away in a carriage.


While the interpellator does the most work as an exaggerator, I would say that comparing Bloom to a fabled messiah-like character is not inconsistent with Bloom’s actions in the novel. Bloom does exhibit Jesus-esque qualities. He advocates for “love” as the ideal tenor of relations between rival nations, (12.1485) he looks after Paddy Dingnam’s widow, and the drunk Stephen. It’s interesting to think that although the interpellations certainly exaggerate, perhaps they don’t fabricate. That is to say, the second narrator works with the materials the tax collector gives us, and through the very amplication that makes so much of “Cyclops” ridiculous, enables us to recognize certain insights that, before being blown up by interpellation, were too subtle notice.