Ulysses is named after the most dramatic adventure story the ancient Greeks handed down to western civilization. It is seen as a pinnacle of high culture and tells the story of the long wanderings of the hero, Ulysses, on his journey back from the siege of Troy to his home Ithaca.
The major character of James Joyce’s novel is not a warrior king or a grand hero. He is instead a very flawed, quite kindly and quite foolish man, named Leopold Bloom. He works as a minor player in the advertising industry, he is married but his wife is having an affair, he’s been sacked from a string of jobs, and he’s very much given up to daydreaming about all the things he would love to go right in his life. But which we know won’t happen. He farts, he likes looking at women in the street, he dreams of winning competitions in weekly magazines and of owning a cottage by the sea. Being Jewish he’s a bit of an outsider in Catholic Dublin, and there are various little humiliations which he has to put up with all the time.
Bloom is very unlike a traditional hero, but he is representative of our average, unimpressive, fragile but still rather likable everyday selves. Joyce lavishes attention on Leopold, he treats him as deeply worthy of respect and immense interest. He is someone Joyce suggests that we should learn from and try in certain ways to be like. Just as in the ancient world, Ulysses was held up as an inspiring model of resourceful and brave conduct.
We follow Bloom for a whole day as he wanders around Dublin. We see him having lunch, buying a supper, drinking coffee and cocoa. He worries about his relationship with his wife and daughter, he goes to work, he listens to someone singing, he has various conversations.
Joyce is saying that the apparently little things that happen in daily life: eating, feeling sorry for someone, feeling sorry for oneself, putting the washing on the clothesline; these aren’t really little things at all. If we look at them through the right lens, they are revealed as beautiful serious deep and fascinating. Our own lives are just as interesting as those of the traditional heroes. It’s just we are less good at appreciating them. The helpful lens is supplied initially by Joyce’s novel. But ideally, we should internalize it and make it our own. We should accept ourselves as minor, legitimate heroes of our own dignified lives.