‘Ulysses’: How the Breakthrough Book Inspired Bloomsday

‘Ulysses’ is a novel that has baffled, entertained, and enraged people—all depending on who you ask. Here’s why this book is a huge part of the holiday Bloomsday.

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Bloomsday, first held in 1954, celebrates the life of Irish author James Joyce on June 16. This is the same day that his most famous novel, Ulysses (published in France in 1922), is set in. Bloomsday is largely based on the book as well; it’s even named after the main protagonist, Leopold Bloom. (For a comprehensive online version of the book, click here.) Now, Bloomsday is celebrated around the world. There are readings, musical performances, Bloomsday runs, and more, depending on locations and availability.

Joyce used the basics of Homer’s The Odyssey for Ulysses. The epic adventure tale changed to a normal day in Dublin, following not a hero but an average man. People obsessed over when it came out, and it is still considered one of the best modernist novels. It’s a classic, one that everyone could benefit from a read during their lifetime. Why is this novel such a big part of this holiday? Here are a few reasons why.

1. Showing Real People

Authors tend to write idealized versions of people. They don’t show individuals as people with weird habits and quirks. For example, the character’s speech and thoughts are more direct and succinct. In reality, our speech and thoughts are scattered and sporadic, including pauses and abrupt changes in subjects. We also use speech fillers: “you know,” “like,” and “um.” These are usually absent in novels.

Joyce includes the real ways that people talk and think. Parts of the novel are written in a stream-of-consciousness style, such as in the final episode/chapter. Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife, thinks about her marriage, her affair, her childhood, her career, etc. Her thoughts aren’t necessarily linear but rather reflections of the real thought process.

2. Writing Styles and Language

Each episode uses different writing styles. There are 18 styles, including stream-of-consciousness, playwrighting, newspaper headlines, etc. Each choice influences readers’ understanding and perspective on the episode and characters. It also changes the difficulty levels—stream-of-consciousness is naturally harder to read than newspaper headlines.

Language, and how Joyce uses it, are two of the most important components of the novel. For example, episode 14 cycles through different types of English used in history, from Old English to the English used at the time. Also, the episode titles all refer to The Odyssey in some way; and each has its own style that reflects these names. Language is, of course, important in any piece of writing; it makes up the text, after all. But it’s also the type of language used, the different combinations of words and phrases, that sets each writer apart. (For more on this, click here.)


3. Puzzles and Enigmas

Joyce was quoted as saying, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” Some are skeptical that he truly said this quote, but it seems true for many people. There are actual riddles in the book, and he was said to have written about a lot of problems, but not any solutions.

Joyce’s word choices, various details, etc., are not always explained. That, combined with the book’s hundreds of pages (depending on the edition), makes Ulysses an incredibly difficult book. Many people, those with English and Lit degrees even, are intimidated by the book’s sheer size and complexity, and perhaps this enhanced its popularity. Someone saying they got through this long, challenging book is almost like an ego boost, or a way to say they’re better than someone else.

Ulysses isn’t Joyce’s first or only work. He wrote other novels, poetry collections, short stories, non-fiction pieces, and even a play. Most of his works received critical acclaim, but none reached the same level of fame. His other works likely weren’t as groundbreaking or didn’t push as many boundaries. (Ulysses was actually banned in the U.S. for a few years for promiscuity.) Or Ulysses may have been published at the right time. Regardless, his other works are worth looking into—even if they didn’t inspire their own holiday.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


This novel, published in 1916, is a sort of prequel to Ulysses. It’s loosely based on Joyce’s life using the character Stephen Dedalus. The story follows Dedalus from childhood into adulthood. Readers can see his struggle with religion, specifically Catholicism, identity, the world around him, and his struggle with Irish nationalism.

There are only five chapters in this 300-page book. Dedalus’s language and understanding of himself, and the world, improve as he gets older, and readers can easily see his growth. It is mostly in the third person until the end, when we see Dedalus’s diary entries written in the first person. This book was a way for Joyce to express himself through someone else, making it more personal for him.



This was Joyce’s only play, published in 1918. Its first major performance wasn’t until 1970 in London, nearly 30 years after Joyce’s death. There are two couples in this three-act play: Richard Rowan and his wife Bertha, and Robert Hand and his ex-lover Beatrice. Bertha and Hand start developing a sort of relationship, and the acts go back and forth between them. The play toys with its characters and the audience.

Joyce used his own life as inspiration, though it isn’t strictly autobiographical. He exiled himself from Ireland in the early 1900s, as he took issue with nationalism and identity. (It is important to state that he was never officially exiled.) Nora went with him, sharing in his exile, yet she was not yet his wife; they did not wed until 1931. This was unheard of at the time, and this may have influenced the play. (For more on their relationship, click here.)

While Bloomsday celebrates Joyce’s life and works, Ulysses is the main work celebrated. It was groundbreaking and even controversial at the time. It has earned a reputation as a classic, difficult book that continues to inspire and challenge both readers and writers today. His other works are still great, but they never reached the same level of fame or critical acclaim as Ulysses.

For more on Ulysses, click here.