I read Ulysses once, and I used the following sources for annotations:

(There are many other great sources on Ulysses, which I also consulted, such as Gilbert's guide, The (New) Bloomsday Book, The Ulysses Guide, James Joyce: online notes, the re:Joyce podcast, etc., but they are not relevant to what I'm about to discuss).

The thing is, the annotations in all of these sources are mostly focused on explaining the allusions and symbolic meanings in Ulysses. While this is very interesting and helpful, I also had a great need for someone to explain what many sentences literally meant (or at least suggest possible explanations).

I'll give a few examples to show that I mean.


Example 1

Some sentences I just did not know how to read. For instance, consider the following sentence:

His eyes sought answer from the river and saw a rowboat rock at anchor on the treacly swells lazily its plastered board.

I had to read this sentence a hundred times before I understood how to read it. (None of the sources above mentioned it). Eventually I understood that "rock" is used as a verb, "swells" as a noun. That is, what happens is that his eyes saw a rowboat (at anchor) rocking (lazily) its plastered board (on the treacly swells).

This is an example where in the end I didn't need help; I'm giving it because I think it's a good model for the sort of help I'm looking for.

Example 2

Fifteen children he had. Birth every year almost. That's in their theology or the priest won't give the poor woman the confession, the absolution. Increase and multiply. Did you ever hear such an idea? Eat you out of house and home. No families themselves to feed. Living on the fat of the land. Their butteries and larders. I'd like to see them do the black fast Yom Kippur. Crossbuns. One meal and a collation for fear he'd collapse on the altar. A housekeeper of one of those fellows if you could pick it out of her. Never pick it out of her. Like getting L.s.d. out of him. Does himself well. No guests. All for number one. Watching his water. Bring your own bread and butter. His reverence: mum's the word.

(Emphasis mine). The sentence I put in bold confused me for a long time. I understood his general flow of thoughts, but then I had no idea what it has to do with the priest's housekeeper. Picking what out of her?

Luckily for me, this time Gifford came to the rescue. It suggests this is a reference to the suspicions of the Catholic clergy's vows of chastity. So I suppose he was thinking "he's probably not really keeping his chastity vows; his housekeeper knows if he doesn't; if you could get her to admit you'd know for sure; [but you won't get her to admit, it'd be as hard as getting money out of the priest]". (To be honest, I'm not really sure I'm convinced: I don't see anything in the text referring to chastity... But that's irrelevant to my point, which is just to explain what I'm looking for).

This is an example I think (or hope) I managed to understand in the end, thanks to one of my sources. I'm giving it because I think it's another good example of the sort of help I'm looking for.

Example 3

As he set foot on O'Connell bridge a puffball of smoke plumed up from the parapet. Brewery barge with export stout. England. Sea air sours it, I heard. Be interesting some day get a pass through Hancock to see the brewery. Regular world in itself. Vats of porter wonderful. Rats get in too. Drink themselves bloated as big as a collie floating. Dead drunk on the porter. Drink till they puke again like christians. Imagine drinking that! Rats: vats. Well, of course, if we knew all the things.

This time what I don't understand is what he's thinking about. What is he trying to say, what is the thinking about? I think that perhaps he means "Well, if we knew everything that happens to the things we eat and drink before they get to us.. [we'd be disgusted]". But I'm hardly sure.

Example 4

Alright, let's take it up a notch. The best examples are from Chapter 14, where I needed help the most. I would say that in this chapter I needed help parsing most of the sentences. However, the sources I gave above usually only indicated the style/author Joyce is imitating at each point, and what things he is alluding to.

I realize that this chapter is considered by all to be extremely difficult, and that some sentences are even considered almost impenetrable. However, there's still a lot that can be said. More or less all of the annotations I mentioned say nothing other than what style each passage in this chapter is imitating.

Some other sources do explain what is going on throughout the chapter, but without explaining how they figured it out. I'm not looking for an explanation what happened in Ulysses - I want to understand what's written inside it, to understand why and how it means what it means.

In order to explain what I'm looking for, I'll give one of the few examples where I did find elucidations in one of my sources.

Universally that person's acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held as most profitably by mortals with sapience endowed to be studied who is ignorant of that which the most in doctrine erudite and certainly by reason of that in them high mind's ornament deserving of veneration constantly maintain when by general consent they affirm that other circumstances being equal by no exterior splendour is the prosperity of a nation more efficaciously asserted than by the measure of how far forward may have progressed the tribute of its solicitude for that proliferent continuance which of evils the original if it be absent when fortunately present constitutes the certain sign of omnipollent nature's incorrupted benefaction.

Gifford and others just explain what a few unfamiliar words mean, or that this part of the chapter is meant to give the impression of a word-for-word translation, ignoring English syntax, which is what makes is so difficult to read.

But it does mean something, and there is a lot that one can understand from it. In this case, only the Joyce Project provided help on that front, by providing tips how to read and understand this sentence (at least partially).

Summary of Examples

The point of all of my examples is this: there are many sentences and passages in Ulysses that are completely obscure to me, even literally. None of the sources for annotations that I'm aware of supply significant help in understanding, literally, what these passages mean or how to read them.

I am aware of sources that explain what happened in each chapter of Ulysses, without referring to specific sentences or phrases. However, that's not what I'm looking for; I'm looking for a text that will elucidate individual sentences and explain how to read them.

My Question

To summarize, my question is as follows:

Is there a source (either a site, a book, or an annotated version of the text) that provides help understanding Ulysses literally? That is, a source that elucidates individual, obscure sentences in the text of Ulysses, by explaining how to read them, or how to understand them correctly in context?

(Of course, I don't mind if the same source also gives background information, explains the allusions in the text and so forth; what's crucial is that it will also explain things literally, or at least more so than the sources I cited above).

Hopefully my examples help explain what exactly I'm looking for. I also understand that no one can ever be sure; I'm not looking for certainty, just some help.

  • 1
    The question is, unfortunately, off-topic as written: we don't take recommendation requests. But if, instead, you asked a question about the meaning of one of those sentences, then that would be on-topic, and good answers would cite sources that might be useful more generally. Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 12:20
  • 3
    "Is there a source... a site... that provides help understanding Ulysses literally?" - the one you're on right now! :)
    – bobble
    Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 14:12
  • 3
    More seriously than my other comment, this site is really a good resource for this kind of thing. We can personalize answers to your level of understanding (since you can describe to us what you already know), specifically address whatever you have trouble with (since you can describe to us what you want to understand), and iteratively update answers if they don't work the first time (since you can clarify needs in comments etc.). We can focus on any section needed, even if no one else has bothered to write a guide to that particular sentence before.
    – bobble
    Commented Jul 15, 2021 at 20:37
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    @Ell, when I answer questions like these my "sources" are dictionaries, a native speaker's understanding of English, and plot synopses. Sorry, I can't help more than that.
    – bobble
    Commented Jul 16, 2021 at 13:44
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    @ChappoHasn'tForgottenMonica I don't find it essential - I read the book once and loved it. I think it is immensely enjoyable even without annotations at all. But you can always discover more, and I would be happy to hear other people's interpretations. I mean, why not?
    – Ell
    Commented Jul 16, 2021 at 16:03


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