Told throughout one day on June 16th, 1904, Ulysses follows the lives of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom as they move through the city of Dublin, Ireland, before ending with a monologue by Bloom’s wife, Molly. As the novel progresses, we witness Stephen and Bloom’s encounters with the various characters they meet in the span of the day, each encounter recalling topics that range from history, family, paternity, art, religion, and politics.

Stephen, having just returned from Paris, and whose mother has recently died, works as a history teacher, but he aspires to be an artist. For much of the novel, Stephen deals with a variety of struggles: the struggle to establish a sense of identity; the struggle of whether, and how, to be an active or passive participant in the world; the struggle to find a symbolic father who will affirm and support his artistic endeavors; and his related struggles with God’s authority, the authority of the British Empire on Ireland, and the struggle to contend with his own ideas about art, the artist’s place in the world, philosophy, and history. Furthermore, Stephen struggles with the guilt he feels over the death of his mother and his reluctance to pray by her bedside.

While Stephen is detached and more concerned with cerebral matters, Bloom is very much of the world, and his incredible propensity for compassion and innate ability to empathize with the world around him mark him in stark contrast to Stephen. Bloom, a thirty-eight-year-old advertising canvasser with Jewish ancestry, struggles with anxieties revolving around his masculinity. These struggles are played out through Molly and Blazes Boylan’s affair and his search for a symbolic son (his actual son, Rudy, having died shortly after birth) that will reinforce his identity and heritage through progeny, his own humoring of artistic endeavors, and his religious identity. Meanwhile, Molly, whose characterization is mostly portrayed in the novel by the gossip surrounding her, is a thirty-three-year-old professional singer who is peeved with Bloom’s refusal to express his romantic interest toward her after Rudy’s death.

As a novel, Ulysses is told within a parallax narrative frame. Parallax refers to the way in which something changes when viewed from a different vantage point. This narrative frame in which Ulysses is narrated, along with its stream-of-consciousness style, provides us with multiple ways to read and interpret the events and characters. As the novel progresses and moves away from the third-person narrator, the narrative becomes increasingly ambiguous. The differences in style and narrative techniques, seen in such episodes as Fourteen and Seventeen, make the understanding of the plot, and what is actually happening, obscure. As our attention fluctuates between characters, their motivations, and narrative presentation, the novel forces us to contend with the ways in which style affects narrative.

The inciting incident of the novel differs for each of the main characters. For Stephen it occurs after Buck Mulligan asks him for the keys to Martello tower and Stephen’s subsequent refusal to return home. Stephen feels like his household has been taken from him and mentally aligns his own usurpation with that of Claudius’s usurpation of Gertrude and the throne in Hamlet. Bloom, on the other hand, feels usurpation from Blazes Boylan, who is scheduled to meet Molly later in the day to have sex with her, thus usurping Bloom from his home as well as his position as the head of house.

Stephen’s sense of homelessness and Bloom’s sense of being replaced and removed from his household feed into their status as exiles. For Stephen, his status as an outsider is attributed to his detached, philosophical nature, and the fact that he has been away from Ireland in Paris. Much of Bloom’s anxieties about being an outsider revolve around his being identified as a Jewish man. Indeed, Bloom’s Jewishness becomes the object of attack throughout the novel and upsets his sense of identity.

Most of the episodes that take place after these incidents involve those that occupy these men’s minds. Stephen ruminates about his place in the world, his current occupation as a schoolteacher (especially under the employment of the narrowminded and prejudiced Deasy), his guilt over his deceased mother, the fraught relationship with his aloof and distant father, and the desire to be recognized as an artist, particularly an Irish artist. Stephen’s struggle to have his literary pursuits affirmed can be seen when he proposes his “Hamlet Theory” only to be ridiculed and not taken seriously. Furthermore, throughout the course of the novel, Stephen is constantly drinking, is morose and absent from the world around him, and is mainly concerned with metaphysical ideas.

Bloom’s anxieties about Molly’s affair with Boylan take up most of his thoughts, even though Bloom himself is engaged in his own extramarital sexual dalliances: he exchanges erotically charged notes to a pen pal; masturbates to Gerty MacDowell at the beach; and indulges in frequent voyuerism. Bloom’s role as a father to a deceased son also figures deeply into the novel and its thinking about what family and fatherhood signify.

Much of Ulysses sets up the eventual union of Bloom and Stephen, the symbolic father and son. Their climactic moment takes place when Bloom follows Stephen to a brothel, and the two experience several hallucinations related to their own particular anxieties. For Bloom, his anxieties revolve around his masculinity; for Stephen, his anxieties center on guilt over his mother’s death. Stephen gets into an argument and fights with a British Army private, who knocks him out. In this moment, Stephen fights for Irish independence, accusing the soldier of being a symbol of the violence of colonialism and the negative influence of Great Britain over Ireland and its Irish sovereignty.

When Stephen wakes after being knocked out, it is not his biological father who stands over him offering to lend a helping hand, but Bloom, the parental figure Stephen has unconsciously searched for who would support his artistic and personal endeavors. In turn, standing in for Stephen’s father gives Bloom the confidence and grace to grapple with his own anxieties over Molly’s affair, as well as reestablishing his sense of paternal power and responsibility. 

The falling action of the novel reveals Bloom’s paternalistic nature as he takes Stephen to a shelter to help him sober up, and even later, he invites him back home where the two have cocoa and talk about their mutual lives and pasts. By the novel’s end, Stephen recognizes that he must break with Buck Mulligan, quit his job at Deasy’s school, and accept Bloom’s hospitality as a marker for the importance and power of what a reciprocal relationship can bring.

Once Stephen leaves, refusing Bloom’s offer to spend the night, Bloom returns to Molly, all the while knowing about her affair with Boylan, the relationship he has been anxious about all day. However, Bloom overcomes his insecurity through his fluid capacity for empathy and clear-sighted view of the circumstances. When he finally falls asleep, Molly reminisces about the events of the day, her life, her relationship with Bloom, and her past suitors. She ends the novel with a joyous memory from her and Bloom’s past, enabling her to reconnect with her husband through her own vivid recollection and pride she takes in him. By ending the novel with the perspective of a character who has thus far been only referenced, Joyce invites us to reconsider our preconceptions of people through Molly’s final testimony.