Ulysses Episodes Ranked

Taking inspiration partly from this brillant ILX post, although my list is of favourite chapters rather than easiest. Rankings reflect the fact that I still find Stephen (Joyce's avatar) more fascinating than Bloom. Bearing in mind that Ulysses is a sequel to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, my preference is a bit like when His Dark Materials introduced Will as a protagonist in the second book, and my connection with Lyra carrying over from the first book meant I couldn't detach myself entirely from her perspective. That may explain the top choice, in which Bloom hardly features at all, but to the list itself:

18. Eumaeus
The most frustrating of all the episodes – not because it's difficult to understand, but after the phantasmagoric circus of Circe which unifies Bloom and Stephen at the end, we end up in a limbo of parallel conversations only momentarily connecting with each other. And on top of that, the narrative voice is purposefully designed to annoy you. A couple of moments worth the time spent getting to Ithaca: D.B. Murphy's unreliable tales of heroism contrasted with Bloom's own mundane voyaging, Bloom's quick sketch of a socialist paradise and Stephen's solipsistic response.

17. Proteus
Stephen's solipsism reaches its heights in this chapter, where we hear what his stream-of-consciousness sounds like. I found it by far the most difficult, since I was reading without much recourse to annotations and the incursions into French and Latin lost me completely. I should have tried harder, since the episode covers in scattershot flashbacks the crucial period between Stephen leaving Ireland at the end of Portrait and us discovering him back in Dublin at the beginning of Ulysses. In any case, the commencement of Bloom's stream-of-consciousness in Calypso came as welcome relief (which may not be an accident).

16. Aeolus
The first half of Ulysses is far more stylistically consistent than the second half (after Wandering Rocks). While this early episode breaks up the text with newspaper-like headlines, it still retains the feel of Bloom's narrative in the episodes around it. Bloom leaves the centre of the action for half of the episode, which is then occupied by Stephen, and their almost but not quite meetings throughout the novel are the main (and not-inconsiderable) source of tension in the plot.

15. Hades
I read Dubliners 10 years ago, so it wasn't easy for me to keep track of all the people we meet again at Dignam's funeral. Bloom's (very temporal) observations suggest he was an acquaintance rather than a close friend. Moments that stand out: Hamlet's gravedigger reborn as Corny Kelleher (who will save Stephen in Circe), the acute awkwardness of Power condemning suicide after which we flashback to Bloom's father's suicide note.

14. Lotus-Eaters
Bloom's stream-of-consciousness continues from Calypso. Main enjoyment in this episode comes from his opportunistic letching, his clandestine erotic excursions as Henry Flower, and the final image of him reclining in the bath as we zoom in to his limp, floating (flowerlike) penis.

13. Oxen of the Sun
Reading aloud does help as Joyce cycles through the history of the English language. The Latinate beginning and slang-slinging ending are the most difficult bits – but there's some enjoyment to be had in between (I liked the medieval pastiches in particular, although they are not as good as the ones in Cyclops).

12. Wandering Rocks
This montage sequence appears in the middle of Ulysses and tries to evoke the churn of the city, but the finest moments are the glimpses we see of Stephen's family, and the choice Stephen has to make when he comes across his desperate younger sister. Also priceless is Father Conmee witnessing an illicit tryst in the bushes.

11. Sirens
The musical episode starts with an overture chopping up the sounds we will encounter as we read along, and finishes with Bloom's contribution of a surreptitious fart at the end. Not knowing the context (and a lot of the content) of the songs put me at a disadvantage, but there was quite a lot of enjoyment in working out the various noises and what they mean. Best moments include the intercutting notes of Blazes Boylan's trek to his liaison with Molly, and the drinkers being treated to a flash of thigh by one of the barmaids.

10. Lestrygonians
Perhaps slightly overrating this long section of Bloom's wanderings in search for lunch (vegetarian, in contrast to his carnivorous breakfast), but it's one of the best accounts of the character's fundamental decency in the book.

9. Calypso
Bloom's introduction to the story sets up some of the key plot strands that we follow through in the rest of the novel – his relationship with Molly and their mutual sexual infidelities, as well as their differing relationship to their daughter Milly and the buried trauma of their dead son. Bloom remains caught in Molly's orbit despite these strains, his quiet acts of devotion mirrored in the final moment in the book when Molly is transformed from Calypso into Penelope.

8. Ithaca
Joyce may have derived much of his enjoyment in this episode from subverting the form of Catholic catechism into a relentlessly secular investigation into the causes of things. The moments of ponderous detail weigh into what should be the dramatic climax of the novel, and there is the slight frustration that we cannot hear Bloom and Stephen talk to each other in their own voices. The displacement is all to the novel's purpose – the omniscient perspective circles around the characters without providing final solutions to their dilemmas. Stephen refuses the offer of a place to stay and walks out homeless (his, and Joyce's, odyssey is just beginning), and Bloom and Molly are deprived of their symbolic son. The finest moment is Stephen chanting the anti-semitic poem, which to me has echoes of a Fall myth in which the boy loses his (maiden-)head. This transformation from innocence to experience comes as Joyce anchors Stephen to the Ithacan rock of Bloom's open, curious, de-mythologised view of the universe.

7. Nestor
Stephen's musings on history and his recalcitrant attitude to authority was always going to win me over, even though this is a comparatively slight episode in the book. Stephen's silent inward retorts to Deasy's arguments are like catnip to me, and none are finer than his rapid mental calculation of all the debts he owes when exhorted to pay his way in the world.

6. Circe
Circe's comically absurd nightmare is at its finest when it exposes Bloom's very kinky sexuality, and the weird persecution/punishment complex he has developed. It also underlines Stephen's association with Hamlet, as here he is confronted with the ghost of his dead mother, and the guilt he feels for abandoning his family in order to pursue his own freedom and development. The drama whirls around unceasingly up until the final moments in which Bloom sees another apparition of his son, this time bringing hope. It's a bravura performance, bewildering but impressive.

5. Cyclops
The down-to-earth unnamed narrator taking over the episode makes this a comparatively easy read, and the lapses into sarcastic reproductions of heroic, legal and other styles provide some of the funniest moments in the book. The final sentence, in which Bloom's ascension is described as being "like a shot off a shovel", merges the different voices together and reveals the digressions to be part of the unnamed narrator's consciousness – the background linguistic and ideological formulae that underpin the average Dublin male's world-view. The narrator's exasperation at Bloom's multi-polar take on every subject ("till he near had the head of me addled") is both hilarious and underlines his own simplistic, one-eyed P.O.V.

4. Nausicaa
After the macho Cyclops, Nausicaa puts us in female company. As devotions are offered to the Virgin Mary, the various expectations imposed on Dublin women are exposed on the rocks below. Gerty's crush on the boy with the bicycle is sweet, but her misplaced romantic daydreams about Bloom add a bitter edge to her story arc. The revelation of her disability is a crude assertion of reality knocking down the sexual and romantic fantasies conjured by the fireworks display.

3. Penelope
Molly's final "yes" comes after a long and looping screed in which she complains about Bloom almost incessantly. But while she seems exasperated by her husband, the fact that her thoughts keep reverting back to him reveals her underlying longing (and loneliness). The strain in Bloom's marriage is in part due to him ignoring or condescending to his wife. They haven't had sex in 10 years, since the death of their son Rudy, and neither of them are fully satisfied by their extra-marital entanglements. Bloom's discovery of paternal feelings towards Stephen, and Molly's own idealised view of the "professor and author", may (it appears, and I hope) lead to some kind of reconciliation in the future.

2. Telemachus
The first time I read Ulysses I think I understood about 60% of what was going on. This time around I may have raised that to about 85% with the help of the internet. But I started, as before, with no guidance whatsoever. Thankfully, I knew both The Odyssey and Hamlet a bit better, and the way Joyce layers the parallels in Telemachus is a wonder: the prince deprived of his castle, his mother slandered, his father absent. Reading without the Gilbert schema would be a huge deprivation, and it's puzzling why Joyce (and some commentators) believed revealing the structure underpinning the novel would be distracting.

1. Scylla & Charybdis
Stephen's finest hour, puncturing the inflated Platonism of his contemporaries with appeals to the material reality of producing literature and the fact that art is always embedded in life. Joyce here is at his most self-reflexive (even more than when he lists the episodes of Ulysses in Circe and Ithaca), not only giving his avatar his own ideas on Shakespeare, but his justification of the novel itself. This is the only episode which refers to the Roman hero (twice!). Stephen mentions how tired Ulysses can have his heart softened by his son, teasing his own encounter with Bloom at the end of the book. Furthermore, John Eglinton mocks Stephen's attempt to make "Ulysses quote Aristotle", and insists they cannot now "combine a Norse saga with an excerpt from a novel" as Shakespeare would. And yet this is exactly what Joyce does, outgunning the entire Irish Literary Revival in the process (Stephen's inward response "Bear with me" may be my favourite moment in the novel). While Bloom is almost entirely absent in the episode, there is symbolic portent in the final image of the way he passes unrecognised between Stephen's inflexible and self-obsessed genius and the whirlwind of Buck's superficiality, the golden mean which proves him to be the true philosopher.

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