The Inner Working of the Individual in James Joyce’s Ulysses

January 13, 2021 by Essay Writer

This essay will examine James Joyce’s use of a different narrative voice in his novel Ulysses (1922). It will discuss how his focus on the inner workings of the individual mind, provides a deeper look into the perspective, thoughts and feelings of the characters of the novel. It will highlight the use of stream of consciousness within the novel and how this causes the reader to have to create their own image of the characters. It will do this through examining both Joyce’s use of this style and through discussing some events which take place in the novel.

Joyce is concerned with hyperrealism, as “The realism of Ulysses is important in an Irish context” Hand, D. (2011) and this is emphasised by his use of stream of consciousness within Ulysses. What better way to explore “quotidian experience of the everyday” (Hand, D. 2011), than to present much of the story within their own personal experience as they are happening. This allows for an extremely realistic understanding of the characters and provides proper insight into why they may do what they do. Rather than focus on the less important physical world around them, Joyce delves into the worlds they are living in in their minds. This fixation on the inner workings of the mind of the individual allows for a deeper exploration into the true everyday life of ordinary people. There is no grand quest nor mighty beast to vanquish, Joyce is more interested in what is going on within the minds of the people living at that time.

It can be said that Ulysses is a novel about characters, as such we are brought into the minds of each character individually. Initially, we meet Stephen, who appears to be in search of a father or father figure (Levitt, M. P. (2005). even if he is not consciously aware of this himself, this point being quite easily noticed. Joyce’s fixation on the inner workings of the individual mind may also lean towards the desires of the subconscious, this being explored in Stephen’s rejection of his birth father yet desire for a guiding, paternal figure. As pointed out by Derek Hand (2011), Stephen believes that in order to find himself, that he must be self-made. This thusly explains his desire to be completely separate form society and his desire to become his own father. This desire being a sign of his “pompous sense of his own significance” Hand, D. (2011), brought about by his belief that he is a modernist artist. That he must reject all that came before him or that paved the way for him, in order to cement himself as a true artist. From this, it may be deduced that though he unconsciously desires a paternal figure to help him to decipher who it is he will become.

Through this access into Stephen’s mind we are aware of the guilt Stephen feels over his mother’s death, describing how he dreamt of her “tortured face” (p.10). When walking along Sandymount strand there is an imagining of several meeting Stephen has had or hopes to have with people he met in France, and the feelings he has about his own future. These meetings appear real but are truly only taking place in Stephen’s mind. He is not living in the moment, he is present in several moments or even in motion through his thoughts. “His gaze brooded on his broadtoed boots” but his mind on “a girl [he] knew in Paris” (p.45). We are provided a look inside of Stephen’s head, and we must take the information we are gaining from this stream of consciousness and piece them together to create an image of Stephen. Stephen, though appearing selfish, does also feel guilt for not praying with his mother and for his abandonment of his sisters. The way in which we are brought into the mind of Stephen, we also experience with Leopold and Molly, this, in turn, making an understanding of reality or what is really happening hard to fully grasp.

Truly, more is known about Leopold Bloom than most literary characters. More is understood about everything from his eating habits to his deeper sexual fantasies “he wanted to milk me into his tea” (p.655). It is noticed that Leopold is isolated by his community as he is an outsider as he is a Jew, though through the thoughts we see him having and it is through Molly’s descriptions in chapter 18, Penelope, the image of Leopold can create many different images of him. Leopold may also be seen to reflect Joyce’s interest with the individual mind as he finds himself often so lost within his own thoughts, so much so that he forgets he is a real person living in the world, at one point even imagining seeing his dead son “Rudy” (p.522) in chapter 15. Similar, to Stephen and his rejection of the real world. Even the characters within the novel are transfixed on the workings of their own minds, this being noticed in Joyce’s use of stream of consciousness at several points in his novel.

Some of Leopold’s thoughts are shown in Hades, in which he thinks of his dead son, “If little Rudy had lived. See him grow up. Hear his voice in the house. Walking beside Molly in an Eton suit. My son. Me in his eyes. Strange feeling it would be.” (p.79) and what it would be like to pass heritage and knowledge onto him (Levitt, M. P. (2005). this moment allows for a glimpse into some of the emotional struggle Leopold may be facing at the reality of the loss of his son. These moments of insight into the character’s thoughts providing further understandings into each character individually and making them more realistic to readers of the novel.

There is a blurring of lines between the real world and the imagined world. The idea of realness can be questioned in Ulysses, as the experiences are not described objectively but experienced from the viewpoint of the character. There is no need for a strict plot, as the plot is the characters and how they are like us, rather than us like them. There is an engagement through literature which places one in the fore of the events taking place, it is not meant to represent nature or reflect it, but rather be a construction of a reality (Deane, S. 1985), that is lived every day. There is no strict notion or idea of how one may be the ‘perfect’ person but allows for an insight into the world within people during this time, and how they are so strikingly similar to us.

Chapter 18, Penelope, it can be argued, fully expresses Joyce’s intrigue with the individual mind, as we are finally given Molly’s point of view. Much of the final chapter appears as more spoken word than it is the typical written word, it is just a free flow of thoughts or the stream of consciousness coming from Molly Bloom as these thoughts cross her mind while she lies awake next to Leopold. Joyce appears obsessed with creating a piece that removes itself and stands separate to the written world, instead becoming the oral world transcribed. This may also be a nod to how Homer’s The Odyssey was originally told only through word of mouth. The final chapter of the novel allows us unhindered access to the mind of Molly Bloom as she addresses taboo topics, such as sexuality, “Mrs Mastiansky told me her husband made her [have sex] like the dogs do” (p.651), and challenges the ideas surrounding the submissive and passive woman. We are shown how Molly views the world and are given new and intriguing facets about her character, thus building a different image of what may have been presumed before.

The final word of the novel being the stream of consciousness of a woman is extremely interesting. We are brought through her experiences as she moved through life, and essentially puts the men of the novel back in their place so to say. There is no censoring by the men around her. Through this delve into her thoughts, one may recognise her reasons for seeking an affair. Though through this thought process, we also witness her reaffirm her choice of Leopold, “yes I will yes” (p.682) ultimately providing a somewhat happy ending. The written word becomes constraining for Joyce, and so we receive all of Molly’s inner monologue without punctuation and similar to how we would receive the spoken word. This stream of consciousness allows the experience to be much more real, even the location in which it takes place adds to the realness of the moment. By focusing on the individual mind, the language is pure and free. It is truly original as a person is articulating themselves and their experiences in an extremely authentic way. The are no limitations on language by focusing on the thoughts of individuals, and so, characters are free to say what they like, how they like. There may be less coherence than the language in a typical novel, this makes the words and exclamations all the more real.

This essay has discussed how James Joyce’s Ulysses is obsessed with the inner working of the individual mind rather than concerned with plot or external detail. It has done this by exploring Joyce’s use of stream of consciousness within his characters and highlighting points in which deeper understandings of characters were gained. It also discussed the blurring of reality and imagination, and the limitations typical written word places on language.


  • Deane, S. (1985) Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880–1980. London: Faber and Faber
  • Hand, D. (2011) A History of the Irish Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.doi:10.1017/CBO9780511975615
  • Joyce, J. (2010). Ulysses. London: Wordsworth Classics.
  • Levitt, M. P. (2005) The Greatest Jew of All: James Joyce, Leopold Bloom and the Modernist Archetype. Papers on Joyce, 10(11), 143-162.
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