How to Read Ulysses

How to Read Ulysses

It’s Ulysses, after all. Reading Ulysses, widely regarded as the second most difficult book in the English language (due to the fact that the hardest book in the English language requires a working knowledge of eight other languages to read), is both enjoyable and provocative. Despite its reputation, it is not particularly difficult to read.


1. Recognize Ulysses. Before you start learning how to read Ulysses, you should be aware of what you’re getting yourself into. Ulysses is divided into 18 “Episodes.” Each of these episodes was serialised separately, and they all read differently. For example, Episode 14 parodies all of the great English authors, from Chaucer to Dickens, and Episode 18 is a 10,000-word monologue that consists of two massive run-on sentences. The beauty of Ulysses is that each episode reads like a completely different book.

2. Don’t rely on a guidebook. When conducting a formal, academic study of Ulysses, you should purchase a guidebook. These books are about 400 pages long and explain Ulysses line by line. This is beneficial because Ulysses contains numerous esoteric puns and references, and the guidebooks explain everything. However, switching from guidebook to guidebook is very inconvenient. If you’re reading Ulysses for pleasure, the best way to approach it is to dive right in, saving all of those guidebooks for a college course.

3. Recognize that it’s amusing. No, seriously, this 700-page book is hilarious. The novel’s entire premise is that Joyce is transforming the epic heroes of The Odyssey into these pitiful Dubliners. A ten-page poop joke written in the same elevated language as The Odyssey appears at the end of Episode 4. Understanding that every sentence contains some kind of joke, whether it’s an esoteric literary reference or a subtle pun, transforms Ulysses into a very intelligent comedy.

4. You will not comprehend everything. But that’s mostly because Joyce intended it to be that way. Part of the joke is that you won’t get everything, and there’s some irony in that. Whenever you don’t understand something, laugh because you’ve just stumbled upon one of the most brilliant practical jokes in literature.

5. Take your time reading through each chapter. It takes a few pages to get into the rhythm of each episode because each chapter is written differently.

6. Know your episode. Since each episode has a different style, knowing what to appreciate beforehand can help. As such, here is a list of all of the episodes and their brand of comedy.

Episode 1: Normal novel.

Episode 2: An informal catechism.

Episode 3: Elitist masculine monologue.

Episode 4: Poking fun at great historic heroes.

Episode 5: The hypnotic nature of religion.

Episode 6: Death.

Episode 7: Making fun of journalism (it’s written like a newspaper; pay attention to the headlines).

Episode 8: Food puns, everything can be eaten and everything eats in this chapter.

Episode 9: Making fun of Hamlet and elitists who debate over obscure pieces of literature (in particular making fun of certain scholars who would later analyze Ulysses).

Episode 10: This chapter has nothing to do with the main characters. It is instead presented as a series of short stories surrounding the side characters. The humor is that it is in fact largely pointless and that most of the side characters make fun of the main characters.

Episode 11: Everything is a music pun. A lot of onomatopoeia is used.

Episode 12: There are two narrators: one is hyper-colloquial to the point of not making sense and one is hyper-scientific to the point of not making sense. The competition between the narrators produces the comedy.

Episode 13: Narrated by a young girl and everything is a sex joke.

Episode 14: An elaborate parody of all the great English authors.

Episode 15: Written as a hallucinatory play in a red-light district.

Episode 16: This chapter is very ambiguous and the comedy comes from mistaking characters for other characters.

Episode 17: Written as a catechism, the comedy comes from the hyper-scientific question and answer format being applied to the mundane.

Episode 18: Streaming consciousness of Bloom’s wife.

7. Use the schemas. Joyce wrote two graphic organizers. They are called the schemas. Use them to introduce yourself to the chapter. They can be found here: and here: 

8. Read it aloud. In an Irish accent, preferably. A lot of the puns make more sense when heard.

9. Set up a schedule. Reading this novel is difficult, so you have to set up a schedule for yourself or you’ll give up.

10. Before you begin, read James Joyce’s other works. Because much of Ulysses makes fun of the novel’s Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, reading them beforehand allows you to practise reading Joyce’s style and provides context for some of Joyce’s jokes.

11. Annotate. When you get a joke, write it down in the margins. It’ll help you understand other similar jokes.

12. Laugh. This is a work of comic fiction. Laugh aloud. Laugh at everything. It’s funny.

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