Ulysses

by: James Joyce

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Lightness and Darkness

The traditional associations of light with good and dark with bad are upended in Ulysses, in which the two protagonists are dressed in mourning black, and the more menacing characters are associated with light and brightness. This reversal arises in part as a reaction to Mr. Deasy’s anti-Semitic judgment that Jews have “sinned against the light.” Deasy himself is associated with the brightness of coins, representing wealth without spirituality. “Blazes” Boylan, Bloom’s nemesis, is associated with brightness through his name and his flashy behavior, again suggesting surface without substance. Bloom’s and Stephen’s dark colors suggest a variety of associations: Jewishness, anarchy, outsider/wanderer status. Furthermore, Throwaway, the “dark horse,” wins the Gold Cup Horserace.

The Home Usurped

While Odysseus is away from Ithaca in The Odyssey, his household is usurped by would-be suitors of his wife, Penelope. This motif translates directly to Ulysses and provides a connection between Stephen and Bloom. Stephen pays the rent for the Martello tower, where he, Buck, and Haines are staying. Buck’s demand of the house key is thus a usurpation of Stephen’s household rights, and Stephen recognizes this and refuses to return to the tower. Stephen mentally dramatizes this usurpation as a replay of Claudius’s usurpation of Gertrude and the throne in Hamlet. Meanwhile, Bloom’s home has been usurped by Blazes Boylan, who comes and goes at will and has sex with Molly in Bloom’s absence. Stephen’s and Bloom’s lack of house keys throughout Ulysses symbolizes these usurpations.

The East

The motif of the East appears mainly in Bloom’s thoughts. For Bloom, the East is a place of exoticism, representing the promise of a paradisiacal existence. Bloom’s hazy conception of this faraway land arises from a network of connections: the planter’s companies (such as Agendeth Netaim), which suggest newly fertile and potentially profitable homes; Zionist movements for a homeland; Molly and her childhood in Gibraltar; narcotics; and erotics. For Bloom and the reader, the East becomes the imaginative space where hopes can be realized. The only place where Molly, Stephen, and Bloom all meet is in their parallel dreams of each other the night before, dreams that seem to be set in an Eastern locale.