This is a coming-of-age novel, about an Irish student named Stephen Dedalus, although the book is really autobiographical - Joyce is really writing about himself. The book explains why he left Ireland, never to return. So far as plot, not so much happens in the story. The main conflict is in Stephen's head - a crisis of faith. Stephen attends Catholic schools and struggles between wanting to be a good Christian, understanding his own personal desires, and growing anger at the church. In this story, James gets into the head of his hero, using of stream-of-consciousness, interior monolugues, and Stephen's memories and imagination - his psychic reality.
This book is also a Künstlerroman, meaning a story about the growth and development of an artist. Joyce explained his ideas about aesthetics. He felt that poets live a true spiritual life, while priests just pretend. True spirituality required freedom, to an extent which the church didn't allow.
His first novel, Joyce abandoned and reworked this project many times, even throwing it in a fire at one point. It was saved by his sister, and with the encouragement of fellow writers like Yeats, and Ezra Pound, it was finally published in a literary magazine called The Egoist.
Considered the best and most important book in modernist literature, this story of 265,000 words describes the life of Stephen Dedalus, now a history teacher, and Leopold Bloom, who works in advertising, on an ordinary day, June 16th, in Dublin. This day has become a bit of a holiday known as Bloomsday to fans of the story. The story has eighteen chapters, beginning at 8 a.m. and ending after 2 a.m. the next morning. Each chapter corresponds to about an hour in that day, and is written in a completely different style. For example, chapter fifteen is written as a play, chapter thirteen parodies cheap romance magazines, while chapter fourteen mirrors the evolution of the English language from ancient Latin all the way to contemporary Dublin slang.
In this book, Joyce compares the events of this day with the epic story, the Odyssey. Odysseus (Greek name for Ulysses) was Joyce's favourite hero, growing up. Leopold represents Odysseus, his wife Molly represents Penelope (Odysseus' wife) and Stephen represents Odysseus' son, Telemachus. This is meant as a parody, because Leopold and his wife are nothing like the noble and heroic Odysseus and his family. Molly is cheating on her husband, and Leopold knows it. And he's cheating on her too. In the first chapter, the postman delivers him a love letter which he tears up in an alley way. Their story is totally unlike the epic poem about love, bravery, and honour, so why the comparison? Well, it defines the modern crisis - that humanity has gone so far technologically, but has fallen so low ethically. We're great, yet pathetic, nothing like the heroes of old.
Leopold's day is unimportant. He goes to work, he attends a funeral, and later visits a woman giving birth in hospital. He buys a bar of soap, he goes to an art gallery, and at one point, he sees his wife's lover, and runs the other way.
The lives of Leopold and Stephen are intertwined, even though they don't know it. They almost meet several times before finally meeting and drinking together in the evening. They then go to a brothel where both men begin to hallucinate, and between bar hopping and a fight with a soldier, they wind up going home late at night, completely drunk. You get a sense that Leopold wishes Stephen were his son.
The story is as much about Dublin as the characters living there. Joyce said, if Dublin were bombed, you could rebuild it brick by brick from the descriptions in Ulysses.
In addition to stream-of-consciousness, Joyce filled his book with puns, parody, and allusions to other stories, making it a comedy, but extremely hard to understand. First, you have to read all the other stories he's talking about, and then, maybe, you'll understand Ulysses. Once you do, congratulations, you're ready to teach literature at university level. Oh, and this book was banned in the US from 1920-33, being called pornography, because of Leopold's fantasy in Chapter thirteen.
Written with the help of Samuel Beckett, Joyce wrote after his eyesight started failing. Taking seventeen years to complete, this book is highly experimental. There is no plot, it simulates a dream. The book uses all Joyce's previous techniques and includes a new language unique to Joyce, consisting of multi-lingual puns, making it one of the most difficult books to read in the English language. A pun is a joke based on similar words, "You can tune a guitar, but you can't tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass." And, the first line of the story finishes the final sentence, so that the reader is meant to go back to the beginning, and the story never ends.