The Homeric Parallel in Ulysses: Joyce, Nabokov, Homer, and Maps

Gilbert Schema 2

When Ulysses was published on 2 February, 1922, it was the culmination of a flurry of activity extending back to the previous summer. James Joyce had begun writing his novel in late 1914. By the spring of 1915, he was already onto the third episode, which would become ‘Proteus’. Yet it was not until the summer of 1921 that Joyce began receiving the proofs of these early episodes – having augmented the typescripts which he had previously provided for the serialisation of his novel in The Little Review, then sent these off to Maurice Darantière, his printer based in Dijon.

At this point Joyce was still in the process of writing his novel’s final two episodes, ‘Ithaca’ and ‘Penelope’. ‘Penelope’, the eighteenth and final episode – which comprises Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy – was completed first, on 24 September. ‘Ithaca’ – described by Joyce as a ‘mathematical catechism’ – took another month, and was completed 29 October. While he composed these episodes, Joyce began simultaneously  to revise the proofs which he was receiving from Darantière.

Joyce’s revisions were copious. Across multiple galley and then page proofs, his novel grew by a third, solely through the augmentations which he scrawled upon the proof sheets. In this last surge of creative activity, Joyce focused especially on elaborating a series of correspondences throughout the episodes of his novel. According to Michael Groden, it was at this late stage of his work that Joyce ‘added many new Homeric and other correspondences to the earlier episodes, and he “recast,” “amplified,” or “retouched” them to resemble the later ones more closely’.

From his earliest conception of the novel he was to write, Joyce had intended for Ulysses to parallel Homer’s Odyssey. ‘Ulysses’, his work’s title from the outset, is the Latin form of ‘Odysseus’; and from the first mentions of his work in letters to friends, Joyce referred to his episodes by appellations drawn from Homer. Yet through the early stages of composition, the parallel between his own work and Homer’s was only broadly drawn. Leopold Bloom, a Jew, was to be his Odysseus, and would spend the day of 16 June, 1904, wandering about the streets of Dublin; Molly Bloom would be his Penelope; and Stephen Dedalus his Telemachus.

The nature and the extent of the correspondences which Joyce elaborated during his later work on Ulysses is suggested by two schemata, which Joyce wrote as a means of explaining his novel to his closest acquaintances. The first of these schemata was sent to Carlo Linata on 21 September, 1920. Having left Trieste for Paris in July of that year, Joyce was keen to publicise his forthcoming novel back in Italy, where he had lived for eleven years – interspersed by a period in Zurich – after moving from Dublin in 1904. Linati had translated Joyce’s play, Exiles, into Italian; and Joyce was hopeful that Linati would use the schema he sent him to publish an article in Italy on Ulysses.

In the schema Joyce sent to Linati, each episode of the novel was given a Homeric title, an hour of the day, a colour, person, technique, science, sense, organ, and symbol. In the end, Linati couldn’t find the time or the impetus for an article, and he returned the schema to Joyce. Yet this first schema shows how the correspondences between episodes were coming to the forefront of Joyce’s mind, shaping his understanding of the novel he was still writing, and compelling the spate of revisions which was to come.

Still, at this point Joyce was in the middle of difficult work on ‘Circe’, and ‘Ithaca’ and ‘Penelope’ were only in the early stages of planning.  After finishing ‘Circe’ and ‘Eumaeus’ by the spring of 1921, and working through recurring problems with his eyes, Joyce began on his final episodes. He had met the French critic and poet Valery Larbaud at the end of 1920, and Larbaud  – now a friend, and enraptured with Joyce’s work, having read the episodes which had been serialised in The Little Review – informed him that he planned to give a ‘séance’ on Ulysses. Larbaud hoped to read from Joyce’s most recent work, and to provide a contextual analysis of Ulysses which he would later publish in the form of an article.

Eager to promote his novel, Larbaud’s plans stirred Joyce to deviate from his writing and revision. Larbaud’s séance was planned for early December; so in early October, Joyce asked Darantière to pull proofs of ‘Penelope’ for Larbaud to read and translate – even though this disrupted the order of printing, as Darantière was still in the middle of pulling the proofs for ‘Circe’. To aid Larboud’s interpretive endeavour, Joyce then produced a second schema, which he had typed and sent in early November. Later in the month, he sent a modified version of this second schema to Jacques Benoist-Mechin, who was working with Larbaud on translating ‘Penelope’ into French.

This second schema provides each episode’s title, scene, hour, organ, art, colour, symbol, technique, and correspondences. In this latter category, Joyce makes explicit each of his characters’ Homeric equivalents. Even relatively minor characters like Mr Deasy are Kevin Egan are related to figures from the Odyssey. Naturally the second schema –  put together over a year after the first, with ‘Ithaca’ and ‘Penelope’ written, and the process of revision well underway – follows more closely the details of the novel as it was published. Significantly, by this point Joyce has clarified the temporal relationship between Stephen’s first three episodes and Bloom’s first three; while the schema for the later episodes is accurate rather than speculative.

Through this second schema in particular, which brought into focus the results of his late work on Ulysses, Joyce entrenched a reading of his novel which centred upon its Homeric parallels. The lecture which Larbaud gave at his seance drew crucially upon the parallels explicated for him by Joyce. His lecture was expanded, and published in the journal La Nouvelle Revue Française on 1 April, 1922. An English translation of the article appeared in the first edition of T. S. Eliot’s The Criterion, on 1 October. The piece opens by stating that ‘The reader who approaches this book without the Odyssey clearly in mind will be thrown into dismay.’

Largely following Larbaud, T. S. Eliot would continue to stress a symbolist reading of Ulysses, with a focus on its Homeric correspondences. Eliot’s review of Ulysses appeared in The Dial in November, 1923. Entitled ‘Ulysses, Order, and Myth’, Eliot argues that ‘Mr. Joyce’s parallel use of the Odyssey has […] the importance of scientific discovery […] In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him […] Instead of narrative method, we may now use mythical method.’

Stuart Gilbert’s book-length study James Joyce’s Ulysses, which appeared in 1930, published for the first time Joyce’s 1921 schema. Gilbert’s analysis of Joyce’s novel rests heavily on the schema, interpreting each episode according to its claimed correspondences; but it was supplemented by Joyce himself, who encouraged Gilbert’s work, and continually dropped hints directing Gilbert towards pertinent source material. Most notably, Joyce suggested that Gilbert read Victor Bérard’s Les Phéniciens et l’Odyssée, a work published between 1902 and 1903, which argues for the Phoenician origin of Odysseus.

Joyce later lamented asserting all this symbolist apparatus upon his work. He told Vladimir Nabokov in 1937 that his use of Homer was a mere ‘whim’, and that he regretted his collaboration with Gilbert, calling it ‘A terrible mistake, an advertisement for the book. I regret it very much’.

It is worth noting that despite his schemata, Joyce ultimately published Ulysses without headings, with its three parts and eighteen episodes only numbered. The practice of referring to the episodes by their Homeric titles is a dubious matter of practicality, rather than a critical evaluation of the importance of the Homeric motif.

For his part, Nabokov dismissed the importance of the Odyssey for an understanding of Joyce’s book. He regarded Ulysses the greatest work of literature of the twentieth century. In his Lectures on Literature – drawn from over a decade of teaching literature at Cornell – he writes of Ulysses, ‘That there is a very vague and very general Homeric echo of the theme of wanderings in Bloom’s case is obvious, as the title of the novel suggests […] but it would be a complete waste of time to look for close parallels in every character and every scene of the book’. Calling Joyce’s schema ‘tongue-in-cheek’, Nabokov concludes that ‘All art is in a sense symbolic; but we say ‘stop, thief’ to the critic who deliberately transforms an artist’s subtle symbol into a pedant’s stale allegory’.

Nabokov argues that ‘Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings, instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom’s and Stephen’s intertwining itineraries clearly traced.’ This was precisely the sort of detail which Nabokov liked to provide: whether depicting the specifics of the larch and laurel garden in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park; the façade of Dr. Jekyll’s house in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; or the diversity of train carriages in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin.

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Nabokov drew his own map of Joyce’s Dublin, which is reproduced in Lectures on Literature and can be seen below. When viewing Nabokov’s map, we should be aware that it focuses on Bloom’s wanderings through the day of 16 June, 1904. What is marked as ‘I’ by Nabokov relates not to the first episode of Joyce’s novel, which belongs to Stephen Dedalus, but to the fourth episode, ‘Calypso’, which is when Mr Leopold Bloom makes his first appearance. The map then charts Bloom’s winding and criss-crossing path throughout Dublin episode by episode, until in ‘Ithaca’ he returns to his home at 7 Eccles street.


We can see, for instance, the long journey Bloom makes in ‘Hades’ – in a carriage alongside Martin Cunningham, Jack Power, and Simon Dedalus – across Dublin to Glasnevin/Prospect Cemetery for the funeral of Paddy Dignam (on Nabokov’s map, the journey of the episode – the sixth in Joyce’s novel – is marked at beginning and end ‘III’). We see Bloom having made his way – by 8 p.m., several hours after the events of ‘Cyclops’, with neglected time having fallen in between – to Sandymount strand (X). And we see him following Stephen from the maternity hospital of ‘Oxen and the Sun’ (XI) to nighttown and ‘Circe’ (XII); before he begins his walk home, now accompanied by Stephen. Over the course of one day, while taking circuitous routes, he covers the extent of the city.

Nabokov may – given that the two works do share the ‘theme of wanderings’ – or may not have allowed a comparison between the routes taken by Bloom and Odysseus. While Bloom’s wandering is drawn over just a single day, Odysseus’ journey back home to Ithaca after the Trojan War takes him ten years. There are a proliferation of maps of Odysseus’ journey available on the internet, all differing depending on their scale, their precision, the points of interest they identify, and the exact course they suggest Odysseus as having taken. The geography of the Odyssey is disputed, with some scholars holding that it is a fiction which cannot be mapped; others arguing that Odysseus travelled to Spain and even England; while others still take Odysseus only so far west as Tunisia.

The image below is from Gisèle Mounzer’s interactive Esri map of Odysseus’ journey. Mounzer takes Odysseus to Spain, marking fourteen sites on his journey, from Troy to Ismara, the Island of Lotus Eaters, the island of Polyphemus (Cyclops), Aeolia, Telepylos, Aeaea (Circe), the Underworld, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, Thrinacia (Helios and his daughters), Ogygia (Calypso), Scherio (Nausicaa), and finally to Ithaca.


This simplified map travels only to Tunisia, adding Odysseus’ return to Circe after visiting the underworld and the spirit of Tiresias, and splitting Scylla and Charybdis into two distinct points along Odysseus’ journey:


There is this pictorial version, drawn from a school textbook:


This shapely offering from the University of Pennsylvania:


And this, afforded via a poster called Arthur on Google Maps:


Finally, we can view Odysseus’ journey as Victor Bérard envisioned it – locating Calypso, for instance, at the Strait of Gibraltar:


Aside from a very loose similarity in the way both works cluster the locales of ‘Aeolus’, ‘Lestrygonians’, ‘Scylla and Charybdis’, ‘Sirens’, and ‘Cyclops’, a comparison between the shape of Bloom’s and Odysseus’s wanderings appears to bear little fruit. However there is a body of criticism devoted to tracing the specific journeys which we see Bloom make in Ulysses. While it is sometimes suggested that mapping all of Bloom’s meanderings results in the emergence of a question mark, this is in fact the claim which some scholars make regarding ‘Lotus Eaters’. Boston College’s ‘Walking Ulysses’ project allows us to chart Bloom’s course in each episode. The images below show the path Bloom walks in ‘Lotus Eaters’ (the image on the left uses a historical map, contemporaneous with Joyce; whereas the image on the right uses a map contemporaneous with us today):


Clive Hart, in A Topographical Guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses, notes that the description of Bloom’s walk in ‘Lotus Eaters’ suggests two question marks, one below the other. Don Gifford, in Ulysses Annotated, writes that Bloom ‘circles south toward the Westland Row post office (as though he were approaching it surreptitiously rather than directly)’.

Indeed, in the action of ‘Lotus Eaters’, Bloom initially makes his way towards the post office to see if there are any letters for him: he has been clandestinely corresponding with a lady named Martha Clifford, using the pseudonym Henry Flower. The question marks which his feet apparently draw have been explained as products of his pondering over Clifford’s mail; as evincing his own loss of personal direction; or as signifying his inquisitive or impenetrable nature. Thomas E. Stazyk has offered another interpretation, asserting that Bloom’s path in ‘Lotus Eaters’ draws not two question marks, but the Christogram IHS, with Joyce intending for Bloom to invoke in this episode the Stations of the Cross.

Ellmann, R. James Joyce (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983)

Gifford, D. & Seidman, R. J. Ulysses Annotated (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)

Gilbert, S. James Joyce’s Ulysses (New York: Vintage Books, 1955)

Groden, M. Ulysses in Progress (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977)

Hart, C. & Knuth, L. A Topographical Guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses (Colchester: A Wake Newslitter Press, 1975)

Joyce, J. Ulysses ed. Gabler, H.W. (New York: Bodley Head, 1986)

Joyce, J. Ulysses: The 1922 Text ed. Johnson, J. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Nabokov, V. Lectures on Literature (Harvest/Harcourt, 1982)

The James Joyce Collection at Buffalo, ‘The Beach Schema’: