History in James Joyce’s Ulysses: From a Nightmare, to a Dream

If history is a night from which Stephen Dedalus is trying to awake, writing could be said to be a dream into which James Joyce awakened, his pen a machine to turn bad dreams into good…[1].

From the illustration copy of Ulysses drawn by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino.

From the illustrated copy of Ulysses drawn by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino.

In Ulysses, James Joyce plays with language and non-linear narration, disrupting our sense of time while also using the text as a demonstration of him becoming an artist. It is thus written in light of the inevitable event – the creation of Ulysses as a text, and the fulfillment of history as Joyce perceives it [2]Ulysses relies on history and its direction to make its central argument; it transforms the past to work towards this end by using mythology, national history, and even syntax. If it is as Stephen famously said, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” then Ulysses is Joyce’s nightmare made into a dream.

Ulysses is able to play with categories – history, fiction, mythology, etc. – to create a narrative that is a radical break from prior forms. Its end goal is one of salvation: just as Odysseus in the ancient Greek classic The Odyssey comes back to reclaim Ithaca and bring it peace, Ulysses is a prescription for the Irish nation, for the next artistic epoch, and for the modern age more generally. This essay seeks to historicize the text by tracing Joyce’s views on history and its direction, while also using Ulysses as a means with which to understand history conceptually.

I.   Joyce’s Theory of History

Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico in The New Science and his other works theorized on a concept he called “corsi e ricorsi” or a cyclical theory of history. He posited that “man [creates the human world, [and] creates it by transforming himself into the facts of society” [3]. Thus, the individual is a creation of the world or, to put it alternatively, “society is a book in which to read the soul” [4]. History, according to Vico, runs in three stages – theocratic, aristocratic, and democratic or the divine, the heroic, and the human [5]. Eventually, there is a break (ricorso) and then a return to the divine, after which the cycle repeats itself indefinitely. Joyce was so moved by these theories that he himself remarked that they “forced themselves upon him through the circumstances of his own life” [6]. He also possibly saw the stages Vico described manifest in his own progression – starting from his early fear of God, to his then newfound love of his family, to his final dispossessed, ordinary state [7]. It is also likely Joyce saw in Vico’s search for a scientific form of history an analogy to his own struggle for new art or literature [8]. Both Vico and Joyce can be said to be pushing back against the authoritative traditions that have kept narratives and histories tightly sealed, and both are interested in mapping “counter-histories.” Altogether, Joyce and Vico find their answer in mythology, transforming fiction and using it to make history anew [9]. Although these might seem to be contradictory — history and fiction — they form a special relationship in Ulysses and every telling of history more generally.

In the second chapter of Ulysses, Stephen has ironic contempt for history as an authoritative subject [10]. For the students he is teaching, and also for himself, “history was a tale like any other too often heard” [11]. His students do not want to hear positivist interpretations of history as fact, irrelevant to the lived experiences of its people – his pupils simply want “a ghoststory” [12]. They turn instead to poetry and fiction by reading Lycidas by John Milton. Later in the chapter, Stephen denounces Mr. Deasy’s claims on history and his argument that its direction is “towards one great goal, the manifestation of God” [13]. Stephen so strongly disputes this because he sees it as history being destructively taken away from humanity; it obscures history as the real force it is, placing it outside of the human realm from which it was created. We see this “reclaiming” of history in another crucial passage in the text, from Scylla and Charybdis, where speaking of Shakespeare, Joyce writes: “He found in the world without as actual what was in his world within as possible” [14]. For Joyce, Shakespeare was great because he embraced in his artistic vision the “all in all in all of us” [15]. The details of everyday life were part of his subjects. And what made him a great artist was his relationship to this World, and that he was “able to go beyond the limitations of his own ego in order to achieve the impersonality and objectivity that is necessary for dramatic art” [16]. As Vico theorized that man creates history, then is it within the artist’s power to do more than reproduce the known World; he can create it himself, and from cultural and personal fragments he can create it anew. To harken back to Mr. Deasy’s claim – it is therefore not history that tends to God towards the manifestation of His will. Instead, “it is the artist that creates the world, rather than God” [17]. And history being circular rather than linear, the artist therefore “goes forth, but returns to the same place” [18]. It is then through this intersection between history and art, as Joyce derives from Vico, that we can read the soul like a book. History is thus art’s necessary impetus. “In apprehending his soul, Stephen sees what is possible for him” [19] and, in doing so, also sees what is possible for history – be it Irish or otherwise – because the world cannot be divorced from the soul. If anything, according to Joyce, it must be viewed through it. It is through our imagination that our past becomes incorporated into our present.

II.   Meta-history and Mythology

Even though Stephen teaches history in Nestor, it makes little sense to him. Watching the schoolchildren play, he laments:

I am among them, among their battling bodies in the medley, the joust of life… Time shocked rebounds, shock by shock. Jousts, slush and uproar of battles, the frozen deathspew of the slain, a shout of spearspikes baited with men’s bloodied guts [20].

This is undoubtedly the nightmare of history; it is chaotic, bloody, and harsh. It is senseless, a “meaningless progression of names, dates, and places.” History is like a specter haunting the living [21]. A string of brutality, it reminds Stephen of Rome, asking Bloom in Eumaues to “oblige me by taking that knife away. I can’t look at the point of it. It reminds me of Roman history” [22]. In Eumaues, for example, the cabman’s shelter is filled with historical insight, oftentimes nonsensical. The Phoenix Park murders, the Irish nation, Roman history, Judaism and Christ, the Evening Telegraph – “all are points on an indiscernible compass” [23]. History’s presence is totalizing, almost as a thing outside of ourselves, as Haines remarks in the beginning of the novel: “we feel in England that we have treated you [the Irish] unfairly. It seems history is to blame” [24]. And too, for the Irish, “history was like a tale too often heard, their land a pawnshop” [25]. Stephen is thus trapped in its spell and Joyce, also, is under its boot for he, too, is forced to confront it to create his Irish epic.

Unlike Stephen, Bloom is able to humanize history. For it is true, “persecution… all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations,” [26] but Bloom retorts this remark brilliantly: “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life” [27]. That which is really life, to Bloom, is “love” [28]. While history is a nightmare to some, it is altogether “rendered more beautiful still by the waters of sorrow which have passed over them and by the rich incursion of time” [29]. Therefore, history gives life depth – it exists in sorrow, but it also brings love. History is also familiar, and unlike Stephen, Bloom is able to act with it. And it is familiar because it is cyclical for “history repeats itself… so it returns. Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way around is the shortest way home” [30]. Bloom thus unifies two ways of looking at experience to produce a meta-history incorporating fiction to “produce a kind of reality that… is more clearly enunciated and immediate than anything which might have occurred in documented history” [31].

It is through literature and art that Joyce is able to make the nightmare into a dream. Although history is cyclical, it is “repeating itself with a difference” [32]. This gap or difference allows for the dream. If it was a “matter of strict history,” it would not be explanatory of anything besides fact. Thus, art and history intersect on some level if we consider that narratives repeat themselves with difference, as does art and life [33]. It is all a matter of perspective. We are exposed to history in Ulysses through varying perspectives: Stephen’s, Molly’s, and Bloom’s, all of whom are no less valid in some sense than the other, along with other minor perspectives. They cycle through each other and what better way to demonstrate history as being precisely that, the cycling of perspectives. This constant shift was commented on by those who spoke to Joyce himself. After Joyce asked his friend Frank Budgen about if “[Cyclops] strikes [him] as futuristic,” Budgen responds in a fashion that (appropriately) might as well had been Joyce:

Rather cubist than futurist, I said. Every event is a many sided object. You first state one view of it and then you draw it from another angle on another scale, and both aspects lie side by side in the same picture [34].

Mythology and fiction then, on some level, are necessary to account for the gap, the difference, in history. And Ulysses is a textual embodiment of this necessity, and how myth – the mystical, fictitious, etc. – is required to make sense of history in some relevant way. A bare example would be the format of Ulysses as a text. Being based on the Odyssey, the entire novel is dotted with references to the Homeric epic poem. This mythology frames the novel past what could have just been a mundane, boring day. In one such instance, in Cyclops, the entire framing of Bloom and the Citizen as analogous to the battle between Odysseus and the Cyclops is a mythologized rendering of a relatively common, non-event in Irish public life. Yet, this myth gives it life for it is through fiction that we understand what is actually at play.

Mythologies are found throughout the text – from the relationship between the Holy Trinity and Bloom and Stephen [35], to even comparisons between Ulysses and Hamlet or Ulysses and Divine Comedy. These tie the connection between facticity and fiction, history and art, making both intelligible. In harkening back to previous great literature to create his own Irish epic, Joyce demonstrates what made Shakespeare so great: he was able to “actualize the real world” because he “[drew] the political reality of history out of his own ‘long pocket’ because he and the history of his nation inhere within one another” [36]. Bloom represents this actualization because for him, although history is brutal, nightmarish even, it can be redeemed. Bloom tries to convince Stephen of this ultimately and holds the key to his nightmare. He hints at this in Ithaca where Bloom discloses his meditations to “his companion” (i.e. Stephen), first talking about the vast expanse of the universe to place it all in perspective and then remarking:

… of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity [37].

Given that Ithaca relies on Divine Comedy for some degree of inspiration, the closing line of Dante Alighieri’s text is alluded to in just the few lines before Bloom’s remark to his companion. I think it is appropriate since it illustrates what the “key” to Stephen’s nightmare would bring, quite beautifully said:

[Virgil] and I entered by that hidden road to return into the bright world; and without caring for any rest, we mounted up, he first and I second, so far that I distinguished through a round opening the beauteous things which Heaven bears; and then we issued out, again to see the Stars [38].

Bloom is responsible for Stephen’s self-actualization, not just in his view of history, but in art, and in life. History is far from being alien, nightmarish, or a material force outside of us; it is rooted, if anything, in the opposite of all of this, just as Bloom exclaimed: it is rooted in “love,” the particulars that become overshadowed by history’s ghastly scope, the interminable camaraderie that must exist for history to press onward despite the “waters of sorrow” passing over it.

III.   Conclusion

As Ulysses demonstrates, history is a spectral force. It possesses an overbearing weight, one that is felt on all levels of the human psyche. Yet, it is not rooted in anything beyond that which is human – and it is not tailored towards an end beyond us alone. Because it is rooted firmly in our own doing, it must be humanized or else it is haunting. In Irish history, or even just Dublin, Joyce hoped to find something greater than just historical particulars. Just as the Odyssey, Hamlet, the Bible, and others defined their respective epoch(s) by transcending them, Joyce hoped to do the same. Through particulars, he hoped to find the universal — that which binds all history together, and one that would represent his respective epoch.

For Joyce, history returns and comes in cycles; it is a recurring movement and a melody of ever-changing ebbs and flows. However, with each returning wave, history comes back with difference. And brought this difference to light. History alone could not do this because calculated fact-based narratives place us underneath it. Instead, Ulysses hoped to bring it closer to us. It demonstrates how a telling of history cannot distance itself from humanism. For the nightmare of history to be overcome, we must be put squarely in its reigns, to make it anew once again into the dream that it is meant to drive. We should take Ulysses to be this metamorphosis, of a nightmare to a dream.


[1] Christine Froula, “History’s Nightmare, Fiction’s Dream: Joyce and the Psychohistory of “Ulysses,” James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4, Papers from the Joyce and History Conference at Yale, October 1990 (Summer, 1991), 857.
[2] This fulfillment is the creation of a new text for the era to fulfill the cyclical history that other great texts have done for their time.
[3] Richard Ellman, Ulysses on the Liffey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 141.
[4] Ibid., 142.
[5] Ibid., 52.
[6] Donald Phillip Verere, Vico and Joyce (New York: State University of New York Press, 1st Edition, 1987), 32.
[7] Richard Ellman, Ulysses on the Liffey, 52.
[8] Donald Phillip Verere, Vico and Joyce, 32.
[9] Ibid., 33.
[10] Stephen’s irony is appropriate given that Vico characterized the “human” or “democratic” epoch as one of irony.
[11] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition (New York: Random House, Inc., 1986), 21 (II, 46–47).
[12] Ibid., 21 (II, 55).
[13] Ibid., 28 (II, 381).
[14] Ibid., 175 (IX, 1041–1042).
[15] Ibid., 175 (IX, 1049–1050).
[16] Daniel R. Schwarz, Reading the Modern British and Irish Novel 1890-1930 (Wiley-Blackwell, 1st Edition, 2004), 17.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Alistair Cormack, Yeats and Joyce: Cyclical History and Reprobate Tradition (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008), 102.
[19] Frederick Lang, Ulysses and the Irish God, (Bucknell Univ Press, 1st edition, 1993), 84.
[20] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 27 (II, 314–318).
[21] Robert D. Newman, Weldon Thornton, Joyce’s Ulysses: The Larger Perspective (Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1987), 239.
[22] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 519 (XVI, 815–816).
[23] Robert D. Newman,  Joyce’s Ulysses: The Larger Perspective, 239.
[24] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 17 (I, 648–649).
[25] Ibid., 21 (II, 46–47).
[26] Ibid., 271 (XII, 1417–1418).
[27] Ibid., 273 (XII, 1481–1483).
[28] As Joyce writes, “love loves to love love” (XII, 1493).
[29] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 272 (XII, 1462–1465).
[30] Ibid., 308–309 (XIII, 1093–1111).
[31] Robert D. Newman,  Joyce’s Ulysses: The Larger Perspective, 242.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid., 243.
[34] Corinna del Greco Lobner, “James Joyce and Italian Futurism,” Irish University Review, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring, 1985), 73.
[35] Frederick Lang, Ulysses and the Irish God, 84.
[36] Alistair Cormack, Yeats and Joyce: Cyclical History and Reprobate Tradition, 102.
[37] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 573 (XVII, 1051–1056).
[38] Don Gifford, Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated (USA: University of California Press, 2008), 581.

  1. Anonymous said:

    This is excellent analysis. I came to the site seeking just the name of the philosopher Vico but came away with a valuable discussion of Joyce’s understanding of the interplay of the artist and the world.

    • Anton said:

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed the piece.

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