Basic Books You Should Read Before Ulysses

Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses is not just entertainment, it is a project itself. Knowing some books before you get your hands on Ulysses is an integral part of that project.

Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses is not just entertainment, it is a project itself. Knowing some books before you get your hands on Ulysses is an integral part of that project. After all, if you want to read Ulysses you surely want to get the most of it.

Let’s be honest, Ulysses is very hard and often frustrating to read. So why read it? Because the rewards are a million times greater than the ones a Paulo Coelho could give. To make this experience more enjoyable there are some readings one should do first.

Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This may seem obvious but it’s not. Some think that just jumping into Ulysses is enough to get it, and it may be true for a few supermen. But if you are like me, for whom reading Ulysses took six months, you may want to know a bit of Joyce’s style and progress first. Joyce’s prose gets more difficult with each work. Dubliners is the most accessible one for beginners, so read it if you haven’t. Furthermore, Dubliners introduces many minor characters that will dwell in the labyrinths of Ulysses.

With A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce started experimenting with the technique of stream of consciousness, heavily used then in later works, and its hero is Stephen Dedalus, an important character in Ulysses. So it is some kind of a prequel as we see what happened to our beloved and troubled young hero. Some have stated that if Ulysses is The Lord of the Rings, Portrait is The Hobbit.

The Odyssey by Homer

Well, this really is the most obvious one. Some think that reading Homer’s epic is not really necessary, saying that all the parallels within James Joyce’s magnum opus are insubstantial. Now, suppose they are truly insubstantial, then Joyce wanted them to be insubstantial for a reason, then, if it has a reason even for its insubstantiality, it is somewhat important. So read it.

Each of the eighteen chapters in Ulysses is named (or rather referred to, as Joyce removed the titles in his time) after some aspect or character of The Odyssey. Protagonist Leopold Bloom stands as Odysseus, wandering aimlessly through Dublin to finally meet with his love, Molly Bloom who stands as Penelope. Stephen Dedalus is Odysseus’ son Telemachus, metaphorically searching for a father figure which will or won’t be Leopold Bloom.

Besides these major parallels, there are dozens more which are more interesting, even funnier. You will have to look for yourself.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Stephen Dedalus has also some echoes of Hamlet. Or at least he himself thinks that. Knowing Hamlet is essential to understanding Stephen’s theory on Hamlet and Shakespeare (and thus his character) which is explained at large in the often obscure chapter called “Scylla and Charibdis”. A little bit of Shakespeare’s life and other works won’t hurt either.

“Who Goes with Fergus?” By William Butler Yeats

Fragments of this little poem by Yeats pop from time to time in Stephen Dedalus’ mind, with some references to it in the rest of the novel. And it is a good opportunity to read a poem by one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.

Finally there are a lot of guides and annotated versions when you already start Ulysses. But my advice is to just read it the first time in any way you can (probably taking a look at some SparkNotes), without worrying if you’re not getting all of it, because nobody does. If you survive the first reading, all subsequent ones will be much more enjoyable, and you can start reading all the theories and debates and what-have-you surrounding this milestone of literature in a more relaxed way. And hopefully you’ll be more open-minded and intelligent. So don’t believe the ones who say Ulysses is overrated, or at least doubt them, and give yourself a chance to experience an utterly beautiful and complex work of art.

Other articles on James Joyce:

A Short and Friendly Introduction to James Joyce

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5 Comments
  1. Posted September 9, 2010 at 1:00 am

    Thanks for the good list.

  2. Posted September 9, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    Nice Share.

    :-)

  3. Posted September 11, 2010 at 7:34 am

    Ulysses seems to be an interesting book albeit difficult to understand. Thanks for the advise, hope I’d get the chance to read this book.

  4. Posted September 12, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    That’s probably one of the best comments on Ulysses I have read in quite a while.

  5. Posted September 16, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    I’ve read The Odyssey and A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man. I’m currently reading some Tolstoy, but Dubliners is definitely on my to-be-read list. I’ll consider Yeats, but I don’t care much for poetry.

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