Deeply rooted in the Greek myth of the hero of the Trojan War, Joyce bases his novel on Ulysses or Odysseus, who is doomed to voyage for ten years before returning home to Ithaca. Joyce had been deeply influenced by the Iliad and the Odyssey, which he had read from Charles Lamb’s adaptations as a child.
In fact, he considered him the epitome of the heroic ideal and constantly thought of giving the myth a new dimension in modern literature. However, the reader must be cautioned that it is not an easy book to read.
It was also burdened by a strange and complicated publication history. Joyce’s original handwritten manuscript was typed by a number of less than competent typists who made a series of grammatical and spelling errors, leading to great confusion.
It went through 18 different versions, each of which was full of more and more mistakes. Attempts to correct the text were being made as late as 2010 but the appeal of the book lies in its overall theme and in its rich symbolism. Ulysses is divided into 18 chapters, or episodes, each one referring to a Homeric character or episode in the Greek myth.
Though Joyce did not originally title the chapters, he did refer to them by such names in private letters to his friends. He also gave them obscure titles from his researches in French translations of the Homeric sagas.
Joyce himself understood the significance of his work. He is reputed to have remarked to the effect that he had stuffed the book with so many enigmas and puzzles that it would keep academicians buzzing for centuries!
The names of each character are rooted in the deep symbolism and every episode sets the reader harking back to the Homeric myths. Apart from Greek legend, Joyce also used aspects of Celtic traditions of storytelling. Essentially, the plot deals with many ideas that have found echoes throughout human history.
Paternity, the idea of the everyday hero, regret and personal conscience, the paradox of individual perspectives all conveyed through a plethora of symbols and motifs makes Ulysses a compelling if difficult read.