Preceptorial Spotlight: Joyce’s Ulysses

[If you’re wondering what a “preceptorial” is, please visit this post first.]

It may not top every list for best novel of the twentieth century, but every compiler must answer to its reputation: James Joyce’s Ulysses, regardless of rankings, is a certain masterwork. 

First serialized in America (which, of course, led to an obscenity trial), the modern epic follows an Odyssey-like cast of characters over the course of June 16th, 1904, in and around Dublin. Simple enough slice-of-life, right? Wrong, when Joyce is at the helm. Eighteen episodes of multiple narrators, copious styles, countless references, even to itself — and then theres oh yes the stream of consciousness right without yes any they know punctuation right between except except right the final got it yes period.

Infinite reasons to steer clear of this monster? Infinite reasons to sail into its reach? I’ll let David Townsend, the tutor and pilot of this preceptorial, explain why he and his students chose the latter:


“This complicated book of many wiles and facets is a marvelous modern mate to its ancient paired text. And like its predecessor, Homer’s Odyssey, Joyce’s Ulysses cannot be contained by any single genre, idea, theme, or rubric; each of its eighteen chapters is codified by the author according to symbols, organ, art, colors, and technique. Is it primarily a novel, a poem, an extended comic drama, a work of philosophy, theology, psychology, ethics, morality, autobiography, or politics?  Yes, in some way it is.  As does our own curriculum, Ulysses smashes categories and overrides departmental barriers of subject-matter.

“Joyce’s Ulysses is not likely to be considered a translation of Homer.  Is it an imitation?  How would Odysseus appear ripped from context?  Is the interpretation of him as Leopold Bloom a fair and accurate account?  Can an ancient text of such weight and precedent be imitated by a modern?  Can it be matched in quality, characterization, poetry, and thought?  Insofar as we at St. John’s like to read and think while leaving context primarily on the periphery, Ulysses is the ideal opportunity to test the limits of our principle.


“Also, Joyce examines many of the authors on our curriculum in the overt speech and stream of consciousness of his characters. Catechetical chapters allude to Thomas Aquinas. The Circe chapter echoes ancient dramas by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Philosophical dialectics invoke every philosopher on our reading list. The Nostos echoes Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Chaucer. Allusions to poets abound. There are discourses on Shakespeare, and Stephen channels Hamlet. Music sounds from every page, and the theory of music is discussed and debated.

“A careful reading of the text will be a challenge and delight for those in the Graduate Institute. Addressing questions raised in this preceptorial will enable us to enjoy a long-lived conversation that will go well beyond this semester.”




  1. I appreciate this approach about to reading Ulysses this way, but it is a disservice to all who can read the book. It is not difficult if one has the life experiences that Bloom, Molly, Stephen and others have. It is about jobs, money, displacement, walking, stalking, drunkenness, sexual taboos, sexual frustration, acceptance, trauma, loss, and fear. As an SJC alum, I have stumbled from being Stephen while I was 25 to being Bloom while in my forties. Trust me, it is hard to understand a drunk or to determine why you are at maternity ward drunk. Readers of Joyce need to work to open up this book about the common people to the common people rather than create a priesthood predicated in obscurity.


    1. Thank you, Keith, for your insight. While I’m neither in the class, nor have I attempted to read it on my own, I’d only like to point out that many graduate students have plenty of life experience which they bring to class. Whether they be mid-career teachers or entrepreneurs, artists or veterans, or happily retired, the students who’re in the preceptorial have all been able to resonate with this text, even those just out of undergraduate. Besides, no class at St. John’s is supposed to make any student an expert on a text, but rather serve as an internship, albeit an intensive one, with which he or she may then continue to grow. I truly believe you when you say understanding Joyce required years of work; I think it’s the task of the preceptorial to spark the student’s desire to put in such work!


      1. I think you have missed my point. The article points to a very specific way to read Ulysses. This is hunting for hidden meanings, word games, changes of voice, and style. I admit this is part of the book. But the book it self can be read without regard to these facets. In pushing a more erudite reading, it is easy to forget that this is a book for everyone. Erudition destroys the story of these common men and common women. This does a disservice to the common people who can get the meaning of the book without any further education than what anyone one of the characters have in the book.


      2. I think I did miss your point. While I can’t second your opinion that this book is “for everyone” — as I haven’t read it — I would certainly hope such a text could impact us all (and give each of us that much more of a chance to connect with so many others via a universal topic of conversation). I do agree that there’s more than one way to read a book, but I hesitate to think that attempting one method somehow destroys the capability of attempting another. Perhaps it’s naive of me, Keith, but I’d like to think Johnnies would be capable of an erudite reading and of one or more in a different vein. Thank you for your comments!


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