5 of the Greatest Lines from James Joyce’s Ulysses with Which Not Even the Bible Can Compete

I measure the greatness of all other books against the greatest literary backdrop of all-time, the Bible, and I find with Joyce’s Ulysses, the Bible doesn’t even come close. If you’re a writer, and you haven’t read Ulysses, that fact is probably apparent in your writing (read that here).

Joyce would have said as much. Joyce said a lot of things, such as: If Dublin was to be destroyed, Ulysses would be the book used to put it back together again. He said the same thing about the universe in accordance with Finnegans Wake. FW is a literary work that seems to have condensed time and space into a nutshell. Joyce also said of Ulysses: I’m writing a book to keep the scholars and professors guessing for centuries. That is the only way to ensure one’s own immortality.

In celebration of all things Joyce, and to flaunt the greatest novel ever written, here are five of the most impressive lines from Ulysses:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine (55).

OK, that’s not just a line, but a paragraph, but it’s one hell of a passage. These words introduce the reader to Bloom, who is the most developed character in all of Western literature-I can’t prove that, but I’ll stand by it, and I don’t even eat meat.

Read this passage aloud, hear the music, the mellifluous quality of the placement of the words. Does Leopold Bloom sound like he’s a bit of a masochist? Enjoying the fine tang of faintly scented urine? Organ meat? I don’t know….

Buck Mulligan slit a steaming scone in two and plastered butter over its smoking pith (249).

Here’s a line displaying an action by the suspicious Buck Mulligan that Joyce scholar, Hugh Kenner, says captures Mulligan’s ill intent.

Here’s a line that bolsters Aldous Huxley’s famous quote about an intellectual being nothing more than a person who has found something more interesting than sex. Here it is, a line in a book of nearly 800 pages filled with nearly equally-wondrous lines, the proof that something more interesting than sex exists. Try Ulysses, give James Joyce a try, he would not disagree that his work is better than gratuitous copulation.

And, if you liked scones before…you should be lusting after scones now.

The playwright who wrote the folio of this world and wrote it badly (He gave us light first and the sun two days later), the lord of things as they are whom the most Roman of catholics call dio boia, hangman god, is doubtless all in all in all of us, ostler and butcher, and would be bawd and cuckold too but that in the economy of heaven, foretold by Hamlet, there are no more marriages, glorified man, an androgynous angel, being a wife unto himself (213).

Wow. Take a moment with that one. The last two lines are the most powerful, and to see them being gratuitously used, please click here.

The superior, the very reverend John Conmee S. J., reset his smooth watch in his interior pocket as he came down the presbytery steps (219).

Reading that line is like the literary equivalent to running your hand along smooth silk. Also, many readers hate how harshly Joyce treats his characters. This sentence is an insidious example of that. The superior, the very reverend….

Of the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, its universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible component bodies, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough nought nowhere was never reached (699).

If we can imagine the atom being divided, again and again, no matter how small the divided pieces become, can there truly be a base particle of matter? Can we not divide forever, to infinity, “far enough nought nowhere was never reached”? Anyway, the best part of this passage is its roots in the alchemical spiritual movement: As above, so below. The microcosm is the macrocosm. Read the passage over a few times, and it will become clear.

In summation: read the entire novel (click here). Ulysses is historically important, its language is some of the most lyrical to ever have been written, and the characters are fully developed and filled with a literary humanness that shouldn’t be ignored.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Vintage International. New York. 1961.