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“Our mighty mother!”: Setting up the stream of consciousness in “Ulysses”

James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is a novel that features one of the most characteristic narrative techniques in Joyce’s trajectory as a writer, which is the stream of consciousness, also known as a seamless interior monologue embedded within the narrative voice. This article proposes to examine how this technique is employed by delving into one key passage of the novel, depicting how the character of Stephen Dedalus deals with the passing of his mother. Throughout this chapter, Joyce scatters a multitude of hints at the protagonist’s inner monologues and thoughts, even if briefly, in order to allow the reader to understand the forthcoming uses of the "streams" and delve deeper into the protagonist’s frame of mind. By setting up metaphors and linking themes or concepts to the imagery of the scenery that surround the characters, Joyce leaves a roadmap of sorts for the reader to decipher how he distributes the stream-of-consciousness of the protagonist, as well as a better understanding of the part it plays in the development of Stephen as a character, and the way the inner monologue works as a whole.

The reader encounters the first use of the stream of consciousness in the following passage:

“Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast of the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstrings, merging their twining chords. Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide. A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly, shadowing the bay in deeper green. It lay beneath him, a bowl of bitter waters. Fergus' song: I sang it alone in the house, holding down the long dark chords. Her door was open: she wanted to hear my music. Silent with awe and pity I went to her bedside. She was crying in her wretched bed. For those words, Stephen: love's bitter mystery.” (Joyce, Ulysses, Part I, chapter 1.)

Figure 1: Photograph of a landscape by the sea shore in Dublin, where the novel takes place.

Reading this interior monologue by Stephen for the first time, it is easy to be diverted and lost in the middle of the description of the ocean; however, the way Joyce uses this narrative device is purposefully subtle, and upon paying close attention to the hints that are planted within the text prior to this moment, associations of metaphors and imagery may be reconstructed by the reader while discovering Stephen’s inner monologue afterwards. For example, earlier in the chapter, Buck Mulligan invited Stephen to gaze at the sea of the Dublin Bay, referring to it as their “mighty mother”; this establishes a direct visual and literary relation between the ocean (or even nature itself), and the concept of a mother or a motherly figure. Furthermore, at one point, the narrator refers to the ocean as a “ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid”, when suddenly, Stephen’s inner monologue interrupts the description of the ocean: “A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting…”. Stephen is reminded of the colours and images that relate to his mother in deathbed, due to Mulligans idea about the ocean as a mother; this parallelism in imagery invites the reader to put themself in Stephen’s shoes by connecting the green of the water to the vomit of a dying mother.

What Joyce is doing here is making sure the reader notices the comparisons that are being made between the ocean and Stephen’s memories and thoughts about his mother coming back to him. Once all those examples are taken into account, when Stephen starts contemplating the ocean and cuts the description of the waves to the memory of him next to his mother before dying, the reader now stands enabled to understand the sudden change of perspective through his eyes. As the connection between the ocean and the mother is presented to him, he is now unable to separate both from each other.

Figure 2: Photograph of a sculpture depicting Irish author James Joyce behind his grave in Fluntern cemetery in Zurich, Switzerland. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Interestingly enough, these fragments of an inner monologue are disseminated in remarkable scarcity during the set-up of the chapter when Buck Mulligan teases or speaks to Stephen, only subtly increasing in number so that once he is left alone at the top of Martello Tower to contemplate the sea, the full inner monologue presents itself, uninterrupted, taking up the whole of the passage. Whereas during the first pages of the chapter, the fragments of Stephen’s inner thoughts would be interrupted by the narration, the dynamic has shifted to the exact opposite by this point of the text, having the narrator interrupted by Stephen’s stream of thoughts. The way in which Joyce is trying to convey and portray the inner voice of one’s own consciousness seems to connect with the reader’s experience reading the first interactions between Mulligan and Stephen, and once the reader finds themself left alone with Stephen, the author has enabled them to connect the dots much more calmly and much more efficiently, given all the prior instances in which Joyce allowed them to take a glimpse into Stephen’s mind, id only for a little while at a time.

Also, given the possible confusion that could be perceived when differentiating an inner monologue and the "streams", it should be made clear that, according to the 'Critical Companion to James Joyce: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work', there is a notable difference between both. It says that: "although it is very similar to, and often confused with interior monologue, stream of consciousness is characterized by markedly distinct technical features. The reason for the confusion is that, as in interior monologue, stream of consciousness jumps rapidly from topic to topic with little regard for logical progression or coherent transitions. However, unlike interior monologue, stream-of-conscious-ness writing is governed by basic rules of grammar and syntax. Although many critics associate Joyce with the stream-of-consciousness technique, it would be more accurate to identify Joyce's efforts as interior monologue, especially in Ulysses..."(Fargnoli, Gillespie., 2006, p. 355).

Joyce seems to entrust to his readers the responsibility to actively draw the correct associations of terms and words early on in the story, not only by simply repeating what was said before, but rather by guiding them into the crucial moments of introspection and self-discovery, given the amount of evidence and clues he provides beforehand. To further expand on the importance of this literary form and how it encompasses for the narrative of the novel, two scholars say the following about it; on the one hand, Robert Humphrey states that "some of the most important and in some ways the most interesting means Joyce uses to compensate for lack of plot and for the intricacies of presenting character on the level of psychic processes are the unities of time and place. Ulysses takes place in one day (eighteen hours and in one city. Again, commentators have examined and pursued this aspect of the book so well that it is unnecessary to do it here, except to indicate the main features."(Humphrey, 1968, p. 88). In other words, rather than constructing the novel's narrative as very plot-centric, Joyce has structured his text in such a way that the narrative itself is pushed forward by delving into the psyche and mental processes of the characters featured, thus making for a remarkably effective passive storytelling.

Figure 3: A modernist reinterpretation of Ulysses's cover by the Modernist Versions Project.

On the other hand, Steinberg says, regarding Joyce’s trust in the readers in regards to the stream of consciousness, the following: “Despite the ellipsis which Joyce uses as part of the technique of simulating the stream of consciousness, therefore, with all the references available the reader can easily follow the passage, even though he may not fully comprehend everything in it. Preparation for this particular stream-of-consciousness passage shows in little how Joyce generally prepared his reader for long stream-of-consciousness passages, which he withheld until later in the novel.” (Steinberg, 1968, p. 54). Joyce’s inclusion of Stephen Dedalus’ fragments of an inner monologue are presented as a way of anticipating the readers what is to come, in order to allow them to seamlessly go along with the moments that feature long instances of stream-of-consciousness, despite those early instances featuring ellipsis from a particular moment in time to another; by the end, the readers find themselces fully equipped to properly understand Stephen’s mental state with his memories and his regret.

The foundation to all the power of James Joyce's portrayal of an inner voice or the voice of consciousness itself, to its efficiency in terms of the way it is written, and the way it conveys the readers a broader understanding of the character’s stance in their lives and within the moment, lies in the fact that it does not leave the audience behind to figure out why the author decided to throw something resembling a monologue in the middle of the narration, but that he instead provides a narration along with a structured play in voices interrupting each other that gives it a much better understanding of its dramatic purposes. The stream of consciousness technique works as something that is locked in the present tense, interrupting the mind-set of the character to give a perspective of a moment in time in particular, and Telemachus works as a perfect set-up for what would come eventually as the reader progresses further into the story of Ulysses, and allows them to better understand the position in which Stephen from A Portrait is at that point, character-wise.

Bibliographical references

Fargnoli, A. N. , Gillespie, M. P. 2006. Critical Companion to James Joyce: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. Checkmark Books.

Humphrey, R., 1968. Stream of consciousness in the modern novel. University of California Press.

Joyce, J. Ulysses. 2019 (Originally published in 1922). Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved January 12th, 2023, from:

Steinberg, E. R. Introducing the stream-of-consciousness technique in Ulysses, in Style, Winter 1968, Vol. 2, No. 1. Penn State University Press, 1968.

Visual references

Figure 1: Photograph of a landscape by the sea shore in Dublin, where the novel takes place. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Photograph of a sculpture depicting Irish author James Joyce behind his grave in Fluntern cemetery in Zurich, Switzerland. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: A modernist reinterpretation of Ulysses's cover by the Modernist Versions Project. Retrieved from:


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