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A Brief Summary of “Ulysses Annotated” by Don Gifford

Wednesday, September 16, 2009; 08:29 pm Leave a comment Go to comments

“Ulysses Annotated” began as Don Gifford’s struggle with teaching Joyce’s largest and most complex work at Williams College.  As Gifford relates in his preface to his annotations, he found it increasingly difficult to focus his classes on teaching “Ulysses” as a whole rather than having to help his students get their bearings at every turn.  If this is indeed the purpose of the annotations, to provide a sort of compass to students to free up their energies for analysis, then Gifford succeeds admirably.  For each episode, “Ulysses Annotated” provides background summary information for a large portion of Joyce’s incredible amount of references.  Even if the reader does not read “Ulysses Annotated” cover to cover, it can be favorably compared to having a French-to-English dictionary at one’s side while reading French literature.  Besides this primary function, Gifford also includes a map at the beginning of each episode to help the reader understand the physical context of the novel in addition to the cultural context provided for in the annotations themselves. 

While this text is an excellent resource for anyone reading “Ulysses,” it is important to understand what this text isn’t, as much as what it is.  This book will not provide in depth analysis of any one piece of Joyce’s novel, but rather allows the reader to spend more time on his or her own analysis.  Gifford simply gives the reader the tools necessary to begin to make original interpretations about “Ulysses,” and perhaps draw links between some of the references that Gifford does explain. 

This is not the first edition (and though Gifford passed in 2000, it is likely not the last), but rather Gifford’s second revised effort at providing a more complete guide to “Ulysses.”  It is far from a comprehensive secondary source, but for first time readers or anyone revisiting “Ulysses” after many years this companion piece is almost a must.  Because most readers are unlikely to possess the necessary background to even begin to grasp all the various sources Joyce draws upon, “Ulysses Annotated” is almost certain to be of great help in allowing readers to get their feet on the ground with the towering novel and begin to focus on their own interpretations.

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