About the Notes

When Joyce was writing Ulysses he called it, among other things, "a sort of encyclopedia." The novel's greatest challenge to readers––its practice of constantly alluding to things outside its own pages––can also be a source of great pleasure, because these external contexts richly reward study. They are interesting in their own right, they create a universe of meaning around the narrative of events, and they inform the narrative far more subtly and variously than may appear on a first (or second, or third, or fourth) reading.

This site's notes add to the work of scholars who have produced print collections of Ulysses notes over the last six decades, but their format is different. Weldon Thornton (1961, 1968), Don Gifford (1974, 1988), Sam Slote (2012, 2022), and others have imitated the style of footnotes or endnotes, usually supplying contextual information in the briefest and most objective way possible and leaving it up to readers to imagine how the information might affect a reading of the novel. The commentaries on this site are more like encyclopedia entries or short literary essays. Freed from the limitations of print publication, and intended to guide the reading process rather than simply to give it raw material, they can explore contexts in greater detail (within the limits of what seems relevant to the novel), show how these contexts may shape readings of the fictive text, elaborate on issues more discursively, and illustrate verbal content with visual, aural, and cinematic images.

"Notes," then, is something of a misnomer for all but the shortest essays on this site. While I hope that the expanded scope will provide an attractive alternative to the minimalism of other collections, I am also aware that length comes with a cost: it may appal people new to the novel. The readers that literary critic Margot Norris calls "veterans" may be looking for new, fresh insights to add to all the others they hold in their heads, but "virgin" readers are simply trying to keep their heads above water. For them, too much information is worse than too little. Therefore, each note here starts with an opening paragraph that offers new readers what they need and no more. After taking in these brief summaries of essential context and its significance, people who have an appetite for more can click on “Read More” to find further contextual details, close readings of Joyce's prose, mentions of related passages elsewhere in the novel, discussions of relevant scholarly studies, and considerations of rival interpretations and textual variants. These later paragraphs will sometimes contain "spoilers"––but nothing can really spoil the reading of Ulysses.

All notes quote from the passages they are glossing to save users from having to go back and forth between note and novel, and to help them quickly locate commentary on passages that interest them. In notes comprising many paragraphs and discussing many different passages it may be difficult for a user to locate a particular passage, so in later paragraphs boldface type is often used in quotations to help catch the eye. When notes are keyed to passages in different chapters of the novel, as happens frequently, at least one colored hyperlink is supplied in the text of each chapter, on the assumption that a user may be reading only that chapter or may have forgotten something learned in an earlier one.

The notes do not attempt any global interpretations or readings of the novel; they simply elucidate passages ranging from one word to a few sentences. But by pointing out connections to other passages, and sending the reader to other notes through additional hyperlinks, they may assist larger readings. Nearly every detail in Ulysses has relevance, not only to details immediately before and after it in the order of the narrative, but also to ones that may lie hundreds of pages off. The notes supply threads to begin multi-directional navigation of the labyrinth that Joyce constructed—whether to pursue perfect comprehension, or become happily lost, or simply seek the nearest exit, will be up the individual.

All notes conclude with authors and years of posting. Although minor changes are sometimes made without changing the year, substantial revisions receive new dates. When additional material is tacked on to an existing note, there is sometimes a bracketed date––e.g., [2018]––at the start of the new text.

These notes will, I hope, take users farther into Joyce's great novel and also farther outside it. The implications of Joyce's allusions are often subtler and more far-reaching than may readily appear, so brief summaries often fail to adequately plumb their depths. But the book that Joyce wrote is not only something to mine for buried meanings. It also opens windows onto countless external landscapes: poetry, fiction, drama, people, places, history, music, language, philosophy, science, religion, mythology, technology, clothing, commerce, psychology, sexuality, race, and every other imaginable aspect of human culture. The title index and the subject index will give some sense of the range of topics.