Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

The Ulysses Lexicon



Ulysses, uselyss

Related Terms



As the namesake of Joyce's novel, Ulysses demands attention. Interestingly, the name is an auditory anagram for the word "useless" ("uselyss"), giving readers a coincidence begging to be explored. Although we probably assume that the name Ulysses will invoke the Romanized version of Homer's Odysseus, within the novel the name is mentioned most often in reference to a Shakespearian incarnation of the famous hero in the play Troilus and Cressida. Since the play is centered around two Trojan lovers, the Greek character Ulysses is cast as a sly, almost villainously cunning character, and possesses some of the most memorable and lengthy speeches in the work ("Troy, yet upon his basis, had been down..."). Interestingly, one of the references to Ulysses as being made to "quote Aristotle" is incorrect, for "it is Hector and not Ulysses who 'quotes' Aristotle in Troilus and Cressida" (Gifford 248).

This theme of mistaken identity comes up in the next mention of the name Ulysses in "Cyclops" (U 12), cited as "Ulysses Browne of Camus," one of the Irishmen sent to fight overseas (U 12.1381). While both Odysseus and the Ulysses cited in this quote were sent to fight overseas, the latter is a combination of two historical figures: "Nolan is confusing two field marshals: Ulysses Maximilian, Count von Browne, . . . and George, Count de Browne (Gifford 360). Yet again, the name Ulysses is associated with a failure: the Shakespearian Ulysses was given the wrong speech, and the Irish Ulysses was given the wrong name, both the subjects of confused identity.

The last mention of the name Ulysses comes in reference to the American President Ulysses S. Grant, during his visit to Gibraltar (November 17, 1878). Here, President Ulysses S. Grant is present through Molly's memory, associated with the sounds of "damn guns bursting and booming all over the shop . . . and throwing everything down in all directions" (U 18.679-80). Here, the man with "universal acclaim abroad" for his "stature and bearing as soldier" comes by ship to a celebration, and although he is not technically "returning him" home, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see this as a reference to the arrival of Odysseus. However, Molly states in her recollection that she does not know who President Grant is, ("whoever he was or did supposed to be some great fellow landed off the ship" [U 18.683-684]), giving the grandiose welcome a cynical dose of humor—why so much fuss for someone unknown by the average citizen?

These three examples of the name Ulysses all share a common theme: not only are they not in reference to Odysseus from The Odyssey, but they are also subject to mistaken identity, their heroic statuses being reduced to comic misunderstanding. Such a reading feeds into the deconstruction of the hero so prevalent in Ulysses scholarship (see Mahaffey) as well as the comical degradation the protagonists face throughout the work. In this way, Ulysses is reduced to "useless"—a reference that is either mixed up or goes over everyone's heads—despite the fact that the novel is named for him, undermining our notions of what makes a mythic hero.

Definitions and Examples

  1. I. Ulysses, n. (OED) Used as the type of a traveller or adventurer; occasionally, also, of a crafty and cleaver schemer.

    "What softens the heart of a man, shipwrecked in storms dire, Tired, like another Ulysses, Pericles, prince of Tyre?" (U 9.402-04).

    "That was Will's way, John Eglinton defended. We should not now combine a Norse saga with an excerpt from a novel by George Meredith. Que voulez-vous? Moore would say. He puts Bohemia on the seacoast and makes Ulysses quote Aristotle" (U 9.993-96).

    "We gave our best blood to France and Pain, the wild geese. And Sarsfield and O'Donnell, duke of Tetuan in Spain, and Ulysses Browne of Camus that was field marshal to Maria Teresa. But what did we ever get for it?" (U 12.1381-84).

    ". . . their damn guns bursting and booming all over the shop especially the Queen's birthday and throwing everything down in all directions if you didnt open the windows when general Ulysses Grant whoever he was or did supposed to be some great fellow landed off the ship . . . " (U 18.679-84).

Related topics

Irish History Transformed
Language and Linguistics
Native and Foreign

If you are an editor of Ashplant, you can edit this page.