I'm about halfway through Ulysses. What's sustained me through this famously difficult novel is the quality of the prose and characterisation. However, I was struck by the thought that what makes it "difficult" is the sheet volume of internal, stream of consciousness, monologue.

These passages chop and change in subject with great rapidity, making them difficult to follow. The manner in which they chop and change with the actual narrative of the plot - often at great length - in turn makes that difficult to follow.

Now, I'm quite aware that Joyce was deploying these novel techniques to bring a new degree of character and realism to his writing. And I would agree it was successful: these confused narratives ring true as an attempt to describe a thought process.

I'm left wondering, though, why he felt the need to deploy them in such a huge novel. Arguably they would have been more successful in short stories such as the Dubliners collection where, indeed, he first trialed these ideas. There does seem to be a body of serious critical though on Ulysses which does regard it as bloated and self-indulgent. So, do we know why Joyce chose to experiment with stream of consciousness at quite such extreme lengths?

  • The simplest answer to your question would be to think of a journal that you might write which included every internal and every external conversation which you either thought or spoke and further, which describes the entire course of every detail of your experiences as you passed through one selected day in your life. Now add the same script to a number of additional characters that you could splice into your narrative. Connect everyrhing together into one coherent rendering of your take on your culture, your personal history and the mythology of your people and, voila! You have Ulysses! Commented Sep 9, 2020 at 3:36

1 Answer 1


You are correct to point out that Joyce's use of the stream of consciousness technique developed over his career. While there are only inklings of it in his early work, there is quite a bit of it in Ulysses.

Ulysses, however, is not the apogee of the stream of consciousness technique in Joyce. That spot is reserved for Finnegans Wake, a work in which Joyce carried the technique (and all of its attendant experimental devices) to the limit.

As to why Joyce used the technique, a probably unsatisfying answer is that it was simply something that greatly interested him. Over the course of his career, as his ideas about writing and his personal aesthetics developed, he used the technique more and more because it was in tune with those ideas and that aesthetics.

In particular, Joyce came to believe that following the automatic impulses of his own mind in his writing was exceedingly valuable. So he experimented with the technique to a greater degree. Further, he was adventurous and unafraid of potential failure. All of these sentiments are expressed in the following quote:

Emotion has dictated the course and detail of my book, and in emotional writing one arrives at the unpredictable which can be of more value, since its sources are deeper, than the products of the intellectual method. In the intellectual method you plan everything beforehand. When you arrive at the description, say, of a house you try and remember that house exactly, which after all is journalism. But the emotionally creative writer refashions that house and creates a significant image in the only significant world, the world of our emotions. The more we are tied to fact and try to give a correct impression, the further we are from what is significant. In writing one must create an endlessly changing surface, dictated by the mood and current impulse in contrast to the fixed mood of the classical style. This is ‘Work in Progress’. The important thing is not what we write, but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously: everything is inclined to flux and change nowadays and modern literature, to be valid, must express that flux. . . . A book, in my opinion, should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality.

Conversations with James Joyce (1974), by Arthur Power (also quoted here)

While this quote is from Finnegans-Wake-era Joyce, and directly references that work, we can expect that Joyce held similar sentiments when writing Ulysses. This quote reveals why, in general, Joyce was fond of the stream of consciousness technique.

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