• The Polyphony Team

A Close Reading of Joyce’s Ulysses (pg. 33, ll. 3-25)

by Ciara Healy

Polyphony, Volume 1, Issue 1

First Published March 2019, Manchester


Joyce's Ulysses is widely considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. In this essay, I examine an extract from the text in order to dissect its meaning. This is a difficult task, as the novel is intensely sceptical of our attempts to pursue a singular 'truth' or purpose. Again and again, the text undermines the authority of the narrator, and the ever-changing form often serves to obscure meaning rather than to illuminate it. Nevertheless, I propose that Ulysses poses the most radical challenge of all, that beneath the collapsing narrative and form Joyce points to the only authority there is: life itself, begotten by woman.

Ulysses is a text that resists our attempts to impose meaning on it, and this passage is no exception. In much the same way as the individual struggles to find meaning in the irregularities and commonalities of ordinary life — and thus turns to God, Nation, or Government — the text proves to the reader that searching for a singular meaning or purpose is, as the narrator states, ultimately ‘futile’. (See note 1) Ulysses, then, is a novel that eschews meaning. The larger ideologies or institutions that attempt to chain the individual to a singular meaning or purpose are called into question. Stephen must reject their history in order to transcend it. In this sense, the themes in the passage reflect those that belong to the text as a whole. However, the passage also poses a radical challenge to the patriarchal authorities that have governed society and the individual. Joyce leads us back to the only true authority there is — life, begotten by woman. This is perhaps the only authority that Stephen ultimately cannot shake, as he is haunted by images of his dead mother.

One of the ways in which authority over the individual is reasserted or challenged is through pedagogy. In this passage in particular, Stephen battles with conventional modes of teaching which involve the act of copying answers.

Stephen touched the edges of the book. Futility.

- Do you understand how to do them now? he asked.

- Numbers eleven to fifteen, Sargent answered. Mr Deasy said I was to copy them off the board, sir.

- Can you do them yourself? Stephen asked.

- No, sir. (p. 33, ll. 5-10)

This direct exchange between Stephen and Cyril explores the uneasy relationship between teacher and student, or author and reader. How can Cyril know the answer to be true if he does not understand the process by which he got there? It is the ability to think creatively and counter existing knowledge that encourages dissent. Stephen favours modes of teaching that help the individual to think rather than police their thoughts. Mr Deasy’s mode of teaching discourages this. This is evident in the very structure of their conversation. Stephen is questioning Cyril, forcing him to think for himself. The first time he does this, Cyril automatically repeats what he has been instructed to do by Mr Deasy. Eventually, Stephen breaks through and Cyril is forced to admit that he does not know how to do the sums for himself. This is evidence that this pattern can in fact be broken, that we can move away from traditional or established modes of teaching and learn to think for ourselves. This exchange is perhaps a microcosm of a larger exchange happening between the text and the reader. In Ulysses, Joyce avoids conventional modes of storytelling. Woolf describes the way in which ‘he disregards[...]whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence, or any other of these signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader whose called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see’. (See note 2) Without these ’signposts’ the reader is no longer afforded the benefits that come with an orderly structure or a classical narrative. The multiplicity of perspectives and styles means there is no single authority in the text that the reader may depend upon in order to derive meaning from it. Just as Stephen is trying to break away from these dominant and centralised authorities, so too, then, is the reader. The text demands our critical and interpretive labour, just as Stephen’s method requires his pupil to interact with rather than imitate him. This new pedagogy is democratic rather than elitist. In a much freer way we are encouraged to make our own interpretations rather than work towards the pursuit of a singular truth.

In breaking away from these outdated modes of teaching, Stephen finds himself in constant conflict with the past. Conventional thinking views history as a linear progression, the gradual triumph of progress — but for Stephen history is a tale of conflict and struggle, the ongoing clash between past and present. The authority of the various institutions and ideologies that Stephen attempts to break away from rest on these foundations. The State, the Church, the Nation — the weight of history is behind them. Stephen must therefore reject the past in order to transcend its legacies. However, this is complicated by his own emotional and psychological ties to the past. Stephens’ perspective will always be shaped by the institutions that educated him. He still uses arcane references despite his resistance to outmoded systems and institutions: ‘His mother’s prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode’ (p. 33, ll. 17-18). This Columbanus refers to the Irish monk who abandoned his mother to spread the gospel across continental Europe during the dark ages. In much the same way, Stephen abandoned his own mother in her dying hour, but for lack of faith. His reference suggests that he will always see the world through the lens of religious philosophy and Catholic dogma. Stephen’s refusal to say a prayer by his mother’s bedside is mentioned by Buck Mulligan in the first episode: ‘You could have knelt down, damn it, Kinch, when your dying mother asked you’ (p. 4, ll. 9-10). For Stephen this is a matter of principle. It is a statement of his refusal to acknowledge the existence of God and therefore the authority of the Catholic Church. And yet in this section he is still haunted by the image of her ‘prostrate body’ ( p. 33, l. 17). He may have rationalised his decision, but emotionally he is still burdened by guilt. He fears he is digging up her memory rather than burying it. But is this not what the text itself is doing? Ulysses breathes new life into the most ancient of tales. The text reinvents a classical form to serve a modern purpose. T. S. Eliot described this as ‘a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’. (See note 3) Yet in this passage we do not find order. The past converges with the present to horrifying effect: ‘A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped’ ( p. 33,ll. 22-25). It is an image of destruction, of chaos. Note the repetition of the fox’s action, this is not the first nor the last time that Stephen will be plagued by thoughts of his dead mother, as we see throughout the text. It is not only Stephen, but the text itself that carries the burden of the past. Ulysses is as much a response to the old as it is a rallying cry to the new. Perhaps, as Stephen discovers, the past cannot be entirely forgotten.

This idea is most fully realised in Stephen’s vision of motherhood. In biological and reproductive terms, the closest one can be is to their mother.

Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him under foot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. (p. 33. ll. 12-16)

Stephen’s personal history allows for a real connection between Stephen and his pupil. Prior to this his interactions with the class had been distanced and cryptic. The narrative technique encourages our compassion and empathy for Cyril, who despite being ‘ugly’ (p. 33, l. 11), must be loved by someone. Stephen’s interior monologue gives depth to a character we would otherwise overlook. Declan Kiberd notes that Sylvia Beach described the author as having ’treated everyone as an equal, whether they were writers, children, waiters [...] he confided in her that everybody interested him and that he had never met a bore’. (See note 4) One could argue that Ulysses takes the same approach. It takes place on an ordinary day, with ordinary people, describing ordinary events. Perhaps the most radical statement of all is declaring everyday life as the modern epic. This is explicitly realised through childbirth, the most ordinary and extraordinary event to take place in a person’s life. In order to create new life the mother gives of herself: ‘She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own’. In a sense, it parallels the Catholic Eucharist in which wine is transformed into Christ’s blood and then drunk by his followers to replenish them spiritually. It is a ceremony that Buck Mulligan parodies in the opening of the text. In this passage it is inverted, or perhaps reverted back to ‘the only true thing in life’ (p. 33, ll. 16-17). It is woman that gives of herself to replenish her child physically, and she does this by allowing it to literally drain her blood in the womb. This act of life-giving has been appropriated by male figures, but it is the mother that begets life, not the father. It is from her that new life springs forth. The myth of paternity is based on a premise that is inherently flawed. If men are not made to create, perhaps they can only repeat the mistakes of the past, by digging it up over and over again. Of course, the birth of Cyril is juxtaposed with the death of Stephen’s own mother. This suggests that there must be death in order to create new life. This is reflected in the very form and language of the text. The traditional novel must die, or be killed mercilessly by the author, in order to forge a new form that does more than simply imitate what came before.

As much as Ulysses tries to resist the past, it is beholden to it. It is forged in response to the very ideologies and institutions Stephen so desperately resists, and yet still clings to. But ultimately, this passage reveals that it is not the burdens of Nation, State or Church that prove unshakable, but a mother’s love. The history Stephen cannot bare to part with is his own. While the language he uses may be shaped by the institutions that educated him, his view of the world is defined by his mother and her passing. Ulysses is a text that goes out of its way to reject any meaning that is imposed by external forces or institutions. Perhaps the only true meaning is the most simple one, the physical act of giving life.


1. James Joyce, Ulysses: Annotated Student Edition (London: Penguin, 2011), pp. 33, l.5. All in-line references are from this edition of the text.

2. Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction’, The Common Reader Vol. 1, ed. by Andrew McNeillie, (London: Vintages, 2003), pp.146-154 (151)

3. T. S. Eliot, ‘Ulysses’, Order, and Myth’, Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. by Frank Kermode (London: Faber & Faber, 1975), pp. 175-178 (177-178)

4. Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber & Faber, 2009), p.3

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