Polycymbolic Language in James Joyce's Ulysses

Janet Bruesselbach

Great Books Term Paper, 2001.

It is likely unwise to attempt any further analysis of Joyce's Ulysses.  The epic epitome of modernist literature, every aspect thereof has been examined and analyzed to the point where several years of intense study would be needed to read all of the criticism, as well as connecting the repeated ideas that appear in a similarly frustrating way within the text itself.  In examining it, we feel we must create something as new as Ulysses itself was at the time; a critic should not, if they have paid attention, be sure of calling it a novel but for the fact that it was new and therefore novel.  Joyce's sheer joy of invention, of breaking and mocking previous conventions of writing, suggests that a critic can play along by doing the same to the structure of criticism.  Thus the following analysis shall be played by a Molly Bloom - or, closer, Milly Bloom - form of perception, refusing the frustration of artistic organization for a celebration of the more clever minutiae of Joyce's language.  True examination of minutiae subtracts the sympathy from writing, as demonstrated in the secondlast chapter known as "Ithaca", which recounts scientifically every aspect of a resultless conversation and Leopold Bloom's preparation for bed, to the point where the information overflow becomes only a series of symbols without emotional value.  Thus references may humanly stray this way and that through the density of the novel, sometimes taking one focus, becoming fascinated by another, ignoring needless repetition even if noted unrecorded in passing.  If such  references are not understood, read the novel. There are clearer analyses already existent in which one may indulge.   

Ulysses is most characterized (a traditional anthropomorphication of the literary work that again fits this mold because, by algebra, the novel is its own main character) by its unreadable use of English on the small scale.  Joyce, rejoicing in cleverness-assured punnery even in self-contempt, called it his "Usylessly unreadable blue book of Eccles"(Russel 31).  The resultant reaction of the reader is to desperately seek artistic unity by the very words themselves.  At this most fundamental level it is the pleasure of the self-conscious language that creates the internal comedy of Ulysses.  The wordplay, using several different games, of Joyce's language led to applications of themes certainly expected by the author in the early criticisms, by readers who placed the clearest aspects of the books within the present framework of western culture.  In a way those who manage to use critical and analytical writing regarding Joyce have triumphed over the language, because the condensed quantity of intelligent patternmaking/patternbreaking is far too overwhelming in actual perception of the novel (via reading individual words in temporal order) to truly require and encompassing structure.  Travel through Ulysses is travel through a day, and whatever small echoes imprint on the reader's mind must be in the very tiniest form, because the structures on which we depend change, at least by the end.  Attempting to experience Ulysses without the benefit of the legacy of cross examinations and connections between its parts, the reader has only the connection of language with the author: the belief that a certain shape creates a certain sound. This effect is used to the maximum, but with sporadic and disorienting exceptions, in the microcosm of the experience of reading.  Yet in knowing the language, the reader is also expected to know its forms, and those forms create another structure upon which the language can be based.  The perception of a greater meaning in the words is only part of the true goal of Ulysses, as many before me have argued, because in creating the purely-surface connections it becomes hilariously apparent that Joyce intended every one.  It is the combination of these acknowledged universalities with the linguistic representation of minutiae in a day's activities that result in reaction: laughter.  By including a second or third meaning to as small a number of physical symbols as possible, the word or phrase has that many simultaneous meanings, and the greater the illusioned contrast between mundane sound and mental creation, a ludically ludicrous cross that mocks the reader's categorization and creates a joy of the pun as unexplainable in simplicity as the entirety of Ulysses is in complexity. Profundity becomes a Pro-fun-ditty through the ear (and metempsychosis met-him-pike-hoses through sub-intellectual reading). 

     The perception of wordplay is a function of knowledge; all sides of the meaning needs be known.  Only Joyce himself could explain every connection created in the minutiae (simultaneously, through metaphor disconnected from linguistic representation, of letters and sensations) of his writing, and the book itself does so in its only possible way.  Some sections' styles intentionally include human creations of puns, while in others the author reveals himself through the doublewords. God, they say, is in the details.

     Some puns appear as tropes throughout the book.  For example, the "key".  Both Stephen and Bloom have no key to their respective home.  Bloom fails to get an ad for "Keyes" consisting of two crossed keys.  Key is to phallus.  An encryption key is presumably what the author has and won't give you (Stuart Gilbert will if you really want to go in).  The detail of the coincidence of the advertisers names is the key to, however falsely, assigning meaning to an echoed word.

The intellectuality of wordplay is apparent in the three chapters of Stephen Dedalus's opening narrative.  Stephen's thoughts, claims Karen Lawrence (13), are temporarily conjoined with the shared narrative, and thus are the language.  The poet's mind is rich with multiple meaning, which makes it the rule rather than the exception.  In his isolated middle chapter, known as "Scylla and Charybdis", Stephen proposes a meaning-laden plot upon Shakespeare's life.  His play on Ann Hathaway as seductress: "If others have their will, Ann hath a way."  Will = William Shakespeare.  Now, divided, a name can be a sentence.  Or a single mention can send the words on babbling flights of textual tongue-tripping:

"-Piper!  Mr. Best piped in.  Is Piper back?

Peter Piper pecked a peck of pick of peck of pickled pepper."

Further discussion reflects ironically back at itself: "Humor wet and dry"  "They talked seriously of mocker's seriousness"(195).  This very well applies to extextual response to Ulysses.  Buck Mulligan (Malachi Mulligan, whose name resounds with dactylic hexameter) notices language tricks as the reader-for-comedy does, although because the format lacks quotation marks, the play is simultaneously the author's, a slice of which every character inevitably simultaneously is. "Telegram! He said.  Wonderful inspiration!  Telegram!  A papal bull!"(196) The papal bull is a common trope, although why exactly it must pop out of Mulligan here is unknown absurdity.  This particular passage is usually an example of Stephen's tragic failure against his mocking "usurper". Briefly "Scylla and Charybdis" takes on the dramatic style to be later used throughout Circe, yet the speakers are not specific objects or characters, no matter how impossibly present, but Stephen's archetypal characterizations.  The words, through what we only with removal see as Stephen-laced narrative, become poetry.  Syllables are rearranged by rhythm to create images and possible meanings, so that the comedy of the story is ridiculed by fracturing the words of the real-life punchline, and placing unidentified onomonopeia to separate known speaker from ambiguous poet, then to a universal, reader-sympathizing anticipation of reaction.

Mocker:...He left her his












Later sections deliberately structure their very style to be entirely different from Stephen's; the more alien from a multiple-meaninged mind the narrative is, the fewer multisided words appear.  Leopold Bloom, when he appears in the fourth part, is accompanied by less ambiguity in meaning and more emphasis on onomonopeia.  Still, in the first Bloom-era sentence is a blatant pun: "Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls."(54)  Does the word represent a condiment or an emotion, and why do even stylistic critics favor the latter?  The humor of the word is only apparent when one realizes how much meaning could be assigned if one allows human empathy to choose the emotion, versus a meaningless statement of preference.  "Wait a moment, Professor MacHugh said, raising two quiet claws. We mustn't be led away by words, by sounds of words."(129)  Here is a buried self-reflection in "Aeolus", the episode of rhetorical variations, as many as the letters in the alphabet.  Buried clues are, through some magic of Joyce's writing, so predominant that almost any page can support an analytic argument; the trick is not finding anything.  Professor MacHugh's claim works more specifically as well to the "headline" that precedes it, the headlines in "Aeolus" being the first taste of the absurdist obscuring methods that batter the reader with the fact that they are looking at words on a page and not events. 

The "Sirens" episode is the first to fully indulge in almost pure wordplay, allowing language-as-sound to transcend language-as-meaning in a pages-long piece whose "Woa!" is the simple "done" with which it finales.  The effect comes through best when sections are read allowed, but others use the note-letters impronounceably, removing the upbeats of vowels for reduced chords.  The result is a transfer of meaning from eyes to ears, the deliberate wonder at the absurdity of black ink shapes becoming noises.  "Luring", pause, "Ah" an equation: "alluring." (270)  The multiplicity of a suffix is rhythmically repeated to witty effect, commenting with avian references on Simon Dedalus: "the endlessnessnessness... / - To Me! / Siopold!"  While characters are experimentally combined through their names, a proposition of ambiguous possibility through jumbled letters. "Musemathematics." (273)  The words laugh at their own punnery and the words of the pun combine with the laughter, the rhythms repeating both shortened and lengthened, experimental speedy variation on a comedic theme; read the following aloud like the distorted "peter piper" play:

Pat is a waiter who waits while you wait. Hee hee hee hee.  He waits while you wait.  Hee hee.  A waiter is he.  Hee hee hee hee.  He waits while you wait.  While you wait if you wait he will wait while you wait.  Hee hee hee hee.  Hoh.  Wait while you wait. ( 275)


In the following chapter, all fun in detail is lost.  The rhetoric uses of alliteration and a mild patina of Joyce's style remains)  ("Arrah!  Bloody end to the paw he'd paw..."[299]), but the format of the sentences bounces between multiple styles driven by opinion and not physicality of sound or feeling.  The occasional mockery of language appears in "Cyclops", and one finds oneself searching the long lists of apparent drivel for it.  "He had heard from more favored beings now in the spirit that their  abodes were equipped with every modern home comfort such as talafana, alavatar, hatakalda, wataklasat..."  Among overblown references to characters: "...S. Anonymous and S. Eponymous and S. Pseudonomynous and S. Synonymous..."(332)  Here distortion is used satirically, combining known character with one-perspectived stereotype: "Herr Professor Luitpold Bloomenduft"(298)  "Love loves to love love" (326) Or twisted words provide new meaning this time unnoticed: "could a swim duck?"(306)  Or misuse of words in mockery of sesquipidalian* speech: "Don't cast your nasturtiums on my character"(314).  The word "civilization" is twisted to "syphilization"(325) in support of nationalism.  And through subtleties of words the allusion to the intended metaphor of the chapter is created by combining, in Janusic joy, the biblical "beam" in the eye with the sharpened poker used to blind Polyphemus, combining two presupposed, samemeaninged allusions by combining the transparency of the small-scale reference with the growing theme of the larger one: "Some people, says Bloom, can see the mote in others' eyes but they can't see the beam in their own."(319)

In "Oxen of the Sun", more knowledge must be brought into the reading than simple meaning.  The chapter's language actually ages historically; a reader perceives nothing of the syntactical mockery of centuries-old writers but a slow increase in comprehensibility and a shift in terminology, a fracturing of speech so that every sentence eventually becomes a group of multimeaninged words, varying from drunken style to style.  The language forces a new accent each sentence for the reader.  Ununiform, the uninformed reader is lost in a plotless jumble of syllables. 

In Circe, the narration between the lines contains the most wordplay, followed by drunken Stephen, who mostly comments on Ulysses itself, while Lynch acts as ironic foil:



(looks behind) So that the gesture, not music, not odours, would be a universal language, the gift of tongues rendering visible not the lay sense but the first entelechy, the structural rhythm.



Pornosophical philotheology...



Circe culminates through hallucination all of the subtle themes we have been given throughout the novel, so that every word is more a connection to something pages away then of actual need within that time frame.  Thus reading becomes a game of count-the-tropes.  Teasing rhymes such as "I am not on pleasure bent.  I am in a grave predicament"(439) lead to analyses of the word "grave" by connection to the "Hades" chapter, because context has disappeared despite the dramatic format that demands setting.  A dog switches breeds from sentence to sentence.  The walk through Nighttown becomes a debasing trial against Bloom.  "If the accused could speak" which he can, we thought, but now he is turned to a mute mongoloid idiot, "he could a tale unfold one of the strangest that ever have been narrated between the covers of a book."  Self referentiality within the absurdity of "Circe", as well as the increased word echoes, serve to clarify the novel while simultaneously destroying any sense of present action.  Comic imagery heavily sprinkled with connections provides all the value of the reading experience, while not even inconsistency is consistent.  Allegorical figures, quickly changing costumes, parade across the reader's mind.  Bloom becomes multiple symbols one after the other, then returns briefly to the action in Dublin's setting, tiny compared to the enormous amounts of imagery behind it.  "Mirus" a variation on "many" but also connected by spelling to a possible "mirror"  "bazaar" when the spelling "bizarre" is expected; the word evokes noise, variety of options, chaos regardless "fireworks" seen in "Nausicaa" "go up from all sides" as Ulysses attacks its so-called subject "with symbolical" in the text used the first letter is nearly gone so this could really be "cybolical" "phallopyrotechnic designs."(472)  The wordagglutination crowds our mind with sensation, and the whole vision has the equivalent effect of "Circe."  Nearly everything critics say is not created by them but from this chapter; to propose more meaning than Joyce himself already has is to transcend the absurd, the simultaneously mocking and universal style of the novel.  We could base the situation of attempting to interpret the allstated meaning of Ulysses the way Stephen assembles, in a disorientingly lucid form of speech, what is the potential philosophy of the novel (Which could equal witch could equal Circe, why not?):


Here's another for you. (he frowns) The reason is because the fundamental and the dominant are separated by the greatest possible interval which...



Which?  Finish.  You can't.



(with an effort) Interval which.  Is the greatest possible ellipse.  Consistent with.  The ultimate return.  The octave.  Which.





(outside the gramophone begins to blare The Holy City)



(Abruptly.) What went forth to the ends of the world to traverse not itself.  God, the sun, Shakespeare, a commercial traveller, having itself traversed in reality itself, becomes that self.  Wait a moment. Wait a second.  Damn that fellow's noise in the street.  Self which it itself was ineluctably preconditioned to become.  Ecco!



If the reader cannot ride along on the poetry, when it becomes dominant, by turning shapes into mental sounds, the shift in scope, from trying to assemble the characters and plot necessary for at least one meaning, to the dance of style-ranging words, the results are jarring.  Fritz Senn proposes that the novel's fractured structure is the unity thereof, by the graces of the title and intent: the one true theme* is based on the very first sentence of the Odyssey, translated with significant word order intact: Man, sing muse of, much traveled..."  The word "polutropos" applies simultaneously to man as a whole and to Odysseus, and "much-traveled" also means "many-turned" or capable of many directions.  The language itself turns in all the directions of the English language the same way Bloom (and Stephen) wander throughout Dublin in one day.  This is another formation of what Stuart Gilbert claimed was one of the strongest themes of the novel: the lotus or fractal shape, in which smaller elements of the whole represent the same structure as a wider scope that contains them, and which is also contained within an even larger structure bearing the same qualities, perhaps to infinite degrees. The random multimeaning of the novel is the very quality echoed through every scale of its structure as can be perceived by Polytropic Man.  A letter can have several sounds in the context of different letters, a word can have several meanings, a sentence several functions varying with syntax, a story several intents judged in contrast with other stories, a novel multiple interpretations, a canon varying genre, humanity ultimately ending the chain in a godless world because, as yet, there is no trope to which we may link or differentiate ourselves.

Of course, one must accept that even this concept is yet another attempt of the artist's patternmaking mind to tie two concepts together and thereby create meaning, an act which is the inescapable goal of the critic and which Ulysses ruthlessly perplexes.  The previous sentence just did exactly that; the sentences in Ulysses that seem not to have that meaning, that seem to be only symbols for sounds, almost escape such things but for the fact that Joyce was human and such acts are the mental bliss of humanity, another aspect we accept, Bloomily, with a knowing smile.

Annotated Bibliography


All page numbers for Ulysses taken from the 1961 page numbers given in the margins of the 1990 Vintage Books/ Random House reprint of the unabridged 1961 text.


Looking at such a limited (!) list as this only serves to encourage longing for all the criticisms still out there, unchecked, unfound, unread (in fact, a good many of these are partially unread). As is, the list includes some only briefly (or non-) annotated auto-recommendations.


1.   Adams, Robert Martin.  Surface and Symbol: the consistency of James Joyce's Ulysses. New York: Oxford U. Press, 1962.


2.   Blamires, Harry.  The Bloomsday Book, a Guide through Joyce's Ulysses.  London, New York: Methuen, 1966 (1984 reprint)

This is essentially an extremely good Cliffs Notes, summarizing all of the events and standard themes throughout the book on a page-by-page basis.  It also references the sources of all the symbolic ideas it references, otherwise sticking to creating succinct story-map out of embellished literary terrain.  I carried this around for when my recognizable-structure-per-page ration fell to one word or less.


3.   Bowen, Zack R.  Ulysses as a Comic Novel.  Syracuse, NY: Sycracuse U. Press, 1989.

Bowen views the "comic novel" as that celebrating life, and uses a different comic theory each chapter to argue that Ulysses is in a comic tradition and mainstream. C. 1 is based on the "Biological and Cultural Approach" of the awkward triumph over adversity; "Comic Theory" follows, then "Comic Narration" which is the only chapter I fully read as it proposes to examine the language, then Predecessors and Reader Response (Which may clarify why Dante called it the Divine Comedy...).  Bowen does tend to qualify comedy as being less intellectual than tragedy, and claims this explains the tendency of critics to examine Ulysses seriously.  The several books focusing on comedy were read in the hopes that they might be as internally funny as the book, but that was very na´ve; they all tend to insist that everybody takes Ulysses too seriously, then proceed to remove all the fun.


4.   Burgess, Anthony.  Joysprick.  London: Andre Deutsch, 1973.

Anthony Burgess is a novelist, or so he says, so this second examination on Joyce is flavored by his empathy with the author.  The most useful information here is the insight into the process.  I stuck with this by the virtue of its writing.  Burgess's first act is to quote a version of Telemachus which appeared in the New York Post, written in traditional transparent language.  He persists in rewriting Joyce's phrasing in a simpler (i.e. his) style throughout the book.  The analysis begins with Ulysses and transitions into examination of Finnegan's Wake; the chapter "Oneiroparonomastics", on Jabberwocky, focuses much more on the latter novel.


5.   Day, Robert Adams.  "Joyce, Stoom, King Mark: Glorious Name of Irish Goose".  James Joyce Quarterly Vol. 12 #3 (1975) p. 211-250.

This was about as confusing as its title suggests, but the point is a succinct one: that Ulysses only makes sense taken as a whole, and any specific mundane words may have meaning only in repetition.  The "microdots" metaphor is cute in light of evolving technology.


6.   Evans, William A.  "Wordagglutinations in Joyce's Ulysses".  Stdies in the Literary Imagination Vol.III #2 (1970) p.27-36.

Finds best instances of combinations of two words with the help of a concoordinated pagefinder, but leaves analysis of meaning in the broader sense to future critics.  Essentially "This is important.  You discuss it."  My paper could have continued Evans's observations with theory, but the Wise principle kicked in (everybody think they're an innovator).


7.   Gilbert, Stuart.  James Joyce's Ulysses, a study.  New York: Random House, 1930 (renewed 1958).

The first full examination and standard outline of Joyce's symbols and themes.  Almost all directly from text or from personal correspondence with the author.  In understanding the philosophical content of Gilbert's analysis, one should be able to identify patterns and make sense of the text of Ulysses.  This, of course, spoils the reader.  I refrained from thinking too hard about themes instead of the text of the novel, because I note that the more recent critics spend a good deal of time disapproving of previous critics' tendencies to analyze Gilbert's work instead of Joyce's.


8.   Gottfried, Roy K.  The Art of Joyce's Syntax in Ulysses.  Athens: U. of Georgia Press, 1980.


9.   Gottfried, Roy K.  Joyce's Iritis and the Irritated Text: the Dys-Lexic Ulysses.  Gainesville: U. Press of Florida, 1995.


10.  Hayman, David.  Ulysses: the Mechanics of Meaning.  Madison: U. of Wisconsion Press, 1982.


11.  Kaplan, Harold J. "Stoom: The Universal Comedy of James Joyce".  3rd chapter of In the Passive Voice. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1966.

Kaplan examines the creation of irony through the contrast of the universal and the human, and other unsynthesizable dualities.  I think.  It did make sense.


12.  Kopper.  "Ulysses and James Joyce's Use of Comedy".  Mosaic Vol. 6 #1.

This failed to examine why, exactly, Ulysses is funny; it simply argues that it undeniably is even if one ruthlessly ignores any supposed higher functions.  All that made this bearable were the notes made by my research predecessor, growing increasingly angrier as the essay progresses.  I'm afraid Preddy's skepticism colored the whole experience. 


13.  Lawrence, Karen.  The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses. Princeton: Preinceton university Press, 1981.

The best analysis so far of the flux in narration from episode to section, analyzing the maturation of the style from an invented norm in the first few chapters to deliberate contrast with the diverse distancing techniques later on.  Interestingly, this is the most popular research book so far, accentuated by the highlights and marginal notes of three apparent student predecessors, or at least three types of pen.  Preddy returns with many extremely irritating question marks, although they entertainingly question the practical application of a circled word: "plot".


14.  Poss, Stanley.  "Ulysses and the Comedy of the Immbilized Act".  Journal of English Literary History Vol. 24 #1 (1957), p. 65-83.

An extremely witty and readable argument against overinterpretation of the climax in "Circe", which Poss claims is more verbally textured in order to create the joking illusion of a non-mundane meaning.  Before its time of the herds of New-Criticism opposition a decade later.


15.  Rice, Thomas Jackson.  James Joyce, a Guide to Research.  New York, London: Garland Publishing, 1982.

Provides an index of every book and essay published o Joyce before its publication date.  Most useful for finding critical essays.  Also provided brief descriptions of some criticism, often opinionated, although Rice does tend to be right in judging the clarity of the argument.  (Incomprehensibility is only allowed in art, right?)


16.  Robinson, Fred Miller.  The Comedy of Language, Studies in Modern Comic Literature. "Joyce: Ulysses" p. 25-50.  Amherst: U. of Massachusetts Press, 1980.

The focus on comic detail was much more useful than any of the other works with "comedy" in their names.  The examination of the "arresting" effects of comic language as a funcion of the complexity of ideas ties the strings of other theories together. He concludes that wordplay is the soure of comic joy.


17.  Russel, Francis.  Three Studies in Twentieth Century Obscurity.  New York: Haskell House, 1966.

This provides the accepted viewpoint of Ulysses as a novel shattering of language, but sees the increase in assumed rhetoric at the end as the failing point of the novel, claiming it oversymbolizes rather than accepting it as satire.


18.  Senn, Fritz.  "Ulysses: A Book of Many Turns".  James Joyce Quarterly Vol. 10 #1 (1972) p. 29-46.

Examines the Odysseus-figure as the paradigm for the entire novel and its multi-meaninged style.  Best sense of unity I've every seen, and well supported.  Again sees that the language does what the events do not.


19.  Thomas, Brook.  James Joyce's Ulysses: A Book of Many Happy Returns.  Baton Rouge, London: Lousiana State University Press, 1982.

A booklength response to Senn's essay.  Follows the Reader-Response school and as a side effect Thomas writes in an uncomfortably practical first person.  Again finds unity in ambiguity of the writing, proposing several enticing theories and a good theme.

* I love this word.

* I am the Lord thy Theme thou shalt have no other Themes than I