Lectures/Literary criticism/James Joyce/Narrator of Ulysses

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This lecture is intended to provide background on the James Joyce's narrator in Ulysses.


According to Stuart Gilbert, June 16, 1904 is an ordinary and boring day in terms of history. It is also the day that the main events of Ulysses take place. The book can be divided into three sections with the first three chapters serving as a prelude to the story of Leopold Bloom and Bloom’s day. In this makeshift prelude, the narration follows Stephen Daedalus, a character that originates in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, between the hours of eight and noon. The character Stephen, according to Gilbert, is "an intellectual exile, proudly aloof from the mediocrity of his contemporaries".[1]

The beginning of the work is connected to the "Telemachiad", the name for the episodes of Homer’s Odyssey that describe the actions of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus. They take place in a tower on Dublin Bay which serves as home to Stephen, Buck Mulligan, and Haines. However, Joyce is doing what Homer does not: Stephen is from a previous novel that has a strong biographical connection to Joyce. As such, there continues to be a strong autobiographical element as the character is reused.[2]


Many critics have many different views on the narrator within Ulysses. Some believe that the work has a traditional narrator: Michael Seidel claims, "Joyce begins with a very traditional mode of narration in which a neutral third-person voice describes what a reader needs to know in order to keep track of a scene, characters, time, locale, names, gestures, and of object."[3] However, some argue that there is no narrator while others argue that there is a consistent form of narration although not necessarily third person. Of the first group is Norton Levitt, who declares that "There are times when those techniques [of Joyce] are straightforward ... that fanciful titles for them are both unnecessary and potentially destructive. Speaking of a 'narrator' where there patently is none is one potent example. We see this especially clearly in 'Telemachus,' the novel's opening chapter."[4] To the contrary, David Hayman claims, "The narrator of the early chapters with his marked concern for the word and its mutative powers and his relatively objective stance operates as a brake on the very flux his language generates if only because his voice is consistent."[5]

Some believe that individual characters take on the narration while others claim that Joyce is the only voice in the work. Levitt criticizes those of either narratorial view because there cannot be an individual telling a story, as there is no tale, audience, or narrator in "Telemachus". A narrator would serve as a "intermediary between the events and the reader; we are saying, in effect, that the author himself is telling us this tale, that he is, in other words, acting omnisciently" and "No one would call Joyce an omniscient author".[6] Daniel Schwarz argues that Joyce would not want an omniscient narrator: "In the modern world there are no epic heroes; nor are there omniscient narrators who consistently and reliably provide translucent summaries of the characters’ thoughts for the reader."[7] I agree with Schwarz’s view, but I cannot agree with the conclusions that Levitt makes in claiming that it proves that there is no narrator. Instead, there appears to be a strong presence that guides the novel, and the changes in the narrator’s behavior reveal a connection between Joyce and his characters.

Part of the reason I am drawn to this view is from what Hayman claims of the first section: "There are large gaps in the action of 'Telemachus,' despite the meticulous attention to details. For one thing, while Stephen thinks, the action continues. What Stephen overlooks, we too miss."[8] The narrator selectively describes incidents that involve Stephen, and, as it seems, only reveals those that describe moments of Stephen’s life that deal with his mother or similarly important matters to Stephen.

My own position is complicated: assuming that Portrait is autobiographical, Stephen represents elements of Joyce’s younger self. Since there is a connection with Stephen and Bloom, it is likely that Bloom represents aspects of Joyce, a more developed younger self, or even an idealized version of what Joyce wishes to be. This does not need to be determined for my purposes. Instead, the autobiographical nature is enough. Vivian Heller states, "Joyce strips away the detachment of the third-person narrator, cultivating a symbiotic relationship of narrator and narrated."[9]

I will go one step further; I believe that there is a psychological connection between Joyce and Stephen which is revealed within the narration. In essence, I will be agreeing with Schwarz’s original claim about the narrator’s reliability and not his later claim: "By providing a traditional omniscient narrator whose voice is separate and distinct from Stephen’s…"[10] I will not claim that Joyce is the narrative voice, but merely that the narrator shifts in a manner that allows Stephen (and sometimes Bloom) to dominate in order to reveal thoughts or ideas that are psychological important for Joyce and the novel as a whole. I will demonstrate through analysis of the narrative technique how this merging of identities between character and narrator happens.


The novel begins with a description of Buck Mulligan. It is matter of fact, in the past tense, and speech is distinguished from the narration. When Buck says, "Come up, Kinch!" (1:8), the narrator refers to Stephen in the third person: "Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase…" (1:12-13). The only peculiarity of narration occurs in the narrator’s describing Haines as a "voice". Derek Attridge claims, "It is as though the narrator, in spite of Mulligan's address, remains in ignorance of Haines's identity".[11] Attridge continues by arguing that Joyce is playing with the narrator conventions in introducing characters. However, it seems that, when combined with later knowledge of Haines, it appears that the narrator is not yet willing to give Haines an actual identity at the time. If this is true, then it reveals a sympathy that exists between the narrator and Stephen’s own dismissive view of Haines. Over all, the narrator begins in an objective manner and does not reveal the inner thoughts or intentions of the characters that would reveal omniscience. This changes when the narrator describes Stephen’s dream: "Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood…" (1:102-103).

Although the narrator soon returns to describing Stephen at the tower, the discussion of the dream temporarily reveals a psychological aspect of the past that seems to occur over and over. Following that moment, the narrator depicts Stephen viewing the bay in a manner that relates to his mother’s death. After the paragraph ends, the narrator returns to a matter of fact style. This is broken by the appearance of the mirror: "Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, clef by a crooked crack. Hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogs body to rid of vermin. It asks me too" (1:135-137). This is not a paragraph of dialogue, and yet it contains Stephen speaking.

In terms of criticism, Margaret McBride believes that the gazing into the mirror and the question asked is a fundamental theme within Ulysses. Stephen is focused on himself and he is afraid of death, which comes with time.[12] However, the narrator focuses on Stephen to the point of merging with Stephen and asking the question with him. Kimberly Devlin claims that Joyce depicts "the self-conscious subject, the subject intensely aware of and sensitive to an other's eye".[13] If Devlin is correct, then it is possible that Joyce merges the narrator in order to suggest that he too is self-conscious and aware of others or Joyce merges the narrator in order to emphasize the self-conscious aspects and allow them to stand out with the full power that a narratorial voice allows one to have over a book.

"Laughing again"[edit]

The image of the mirror continues into this section. Action takes place, as Buck leads Stephen around the tower. Buck teases Stephen and the narrator follows: "Parried again, He fears the lancet of my art as I fear that of his. The cold steel pen" (1:152-153). The "he" and the "I" are unknown. The previous "he" is Buck, which would connect the "I" with Stephen or an unidentified observer. Buck speaks again, and this is followed by "Cranly's arm. His arm" (1:159). The response seems to be disconnected from what Buck says and yet seems to be a response to Buck’s words.

Stuart Gilbert points out that an aspect of Stephen's/Telamachus's character is their reserved and deliberate manner when it comes to speaking their mind.[14] The "my art", the "pen", would be a form of deliberate speech that is thought out and prepared. As such, the narrator is referring to both Stephen’s character and possibly his own description of Buck. However, Attridge points out that the narrator does put emphasis that the other characters, like Buck or Haines, speak as a "voice" with constant emphasis on the term. However, when Stephen, or even Bloom, speaks, he is not limited to just being a "voice". Attridge uses this to claim that "one is much less likely to reduce one's own subjectivity to a vocal production."[15] As such, there is a connection between the narrator and Stephen even when the pronouns do not allow for one.

As Buck speaks again, the narrative follows with "Young shouts of moneyed voices…" (1:165). This is a memory of events that happened before. There is a heavy use of "I" within the paragraph, but they seem to be from one of the characters in the memory. However, this is uncertain, as there is no notification of anyone speaking. The paragraph is followed by another discussing events during one evening, which is a different time than that of the current story. Before returning to the current events, the narrator says "To ourselves" (1:176). The narrator returns to a matter of fact third person description of events as Buck and Stephen talk. Then the narrator characterizes Stephen’s speech: "Stephen, depressed by his own voice, said" (1:188). This is followed by a discussion about the death of Stephen’s mother.

After "He shook his constraint"[edit]

The narrator continues in a matter of fact manner as Buck offends Stephen while talking about Stephen’s mother. Once Buck leaves, Stephen begins to look out on the water with a poetic description, "White breast of the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstrings, merging their twining clouds" (1:244-246) Sheldon Brivic argues that the narrator's voice is Stephen's own: "Stephen is watching the winds rippling the sea, a symbol of the contact between spirit and matter or God creating the world. He thinks of the rhythm of the words he speaks, and the fullness of its beauty generates the thought of an invisible maternal creative power implied by this rhythm."[16] Following this is Fergus’s song and the introduce of the "I" again with the implication that it is part of the song. Following this, the narrator refers to Stephen and then asks a question; "Where now?" (1:254). The narrator drifts away from the plot to discuss memory and Stephen’s dream. During the discussion, the narrator says, "Her glazing eyes, staring out of death, to shake and bend my soul. On me alone" (1:273-274). This breaks down into Stephen crying out against his mother but not in the standard dialogue form. It ends with Buck interrupting by calling for Stephen.

The narration continues with Buck singing and the narrator asking "Why should I bring it down?" when referring to the bowl (1:306). At this point the narrator is describing Stephen’s questioning of himself, which continues by the statement: "I am another now and yet the same. A servant too. A server of a servant" (1:311-312). Later, when Buck and Stephen are together at the pub, Stephen watches buck put on clothes while the narrator says: "God, we’ll simply have to dress the character. I want puce gloves and green boots. Contradiction. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. Mercurial Malachi. A limp black missile flew out of his talking hands" (1:515-518).

In terms of criticism, Hayman points out that this scene "is a curious amalgam of possible and improbable utterance, some of which … is surely Stephen’s, some of which may be remembered utterance, and again some, like the quotation from Whitman … may be a favorite tag. We have entered a dead space between thought and action, and, no matter how vivid the pantomime, we have a sense that the two individuals are momentarily and magically joined by the narrator whose procedures are more comprehensible on the thematic and analogical levels than on the mimetic."[17]


Ulysses restarts at "Calypso" by describing Leopold Bloom’s life and his breakfast. The narrator describes past events in the third person, and reveals the thoughts of Bloom in a matter of fact way. There are occasional interjections of thought, such as "She didn’t like her plate full. Right" (4:12). However, the thoughts are not limited to Bloom as even the cat is given this privilege: "Prr. Scratch my head. Prr" (4:19-20). The narrator then uses the words "They" and "we", but never presents what the groups signify. The narrator then muses about aspects of the cat before planning out a possible menu. When he calls to his wife, Bloom recalls the history of brass quoits. There is little dialogue, but there appears to be a strong internal dialogue that somewhat operates as a discussion.

There is a strong similarity with how the narrator has a tendency to merge with Bloom’s thoughts in a manner similar to how the narrator merges with Stephen's. However, the narrator of the Bloom section is more objectivity and seems to take a larger view of the world in a very detailed manner. This could reflect aspects of Bloom’s personality that are different from Stephen, in that Bloom seems to be an older and more psychologically complete individual.


  1. Gilbert 1955 pp. 3-4
  2. Gilbert 1955 pp. 97-102
  3. Seidel 2002 p. 81
  4. Levitt 2006 p. 93
  5. Hayman 1970 p. 77
  6. Levitt 2006 p. 93
  7. Schwarz 2004 p. 64 – Schwarz later claims that the beginning does rely on an Omniscient narrator
  8. Hayman 1970 p. 21
  9. Heller 1995 p. 79
  10. Schwarz 2004 p. 71
  11. Attridge 2004 p. 164
  12. McBride 2001 p. 40
  13. Devlin 1989 p. 882
  14. Gilbert 1955 p. 104
  15. Attridge 2004 p. 165
  16. Brivic 1987 p. 209
  17. Hayman 1970 p. 78


  • Attridge, Derek. Peculiar Language: Literature as Difference from the Renaissance to James Joyce. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Brivic, Sheldon. "The Other of Ulysses" in Joyce's Ulysses: The Larger Perspective. Edited by Robert Newman and Weldon Thorton. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987.
  • Devlin, Kimberly. "'See Ourselves as Others See Us': Joyce's Look at the Eye of the Other". PMLA, Vol. 104, No. 5 (October 1989): 882-893.
  • Gilbert, Stuart. James Joyce’s Ulysses. New York: Vintage, 1955.
  • Hayman, David. Ulysses, the Mechanics of Meaning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ : Prentice-Hall, 1970.
  • Heller, Vivian. Joyce, Decadence, and Emancipation. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
  • Levitt, Norton. The Rhetoric of Modernist Fiction. Lebanon: University Press of New England, 2006.
  • McBride, Margaret. Ulysses and the Metamorphosis of Stephen Dedalus. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2001.
  • Schwarz, Daniel. Reading Joyce’s Ulysses. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Seidel, Michael. James Joyce: A Short Introduction. Malden: Blackwell, 2002.