Joyce's novel is set in Dublin on the day of June 16, 1904 and the protagonist, Leopold Bloom, is a middle-aged Jew whose job as an advertisement canvasser forces him to travel throughout the city on a daily basis. While Bloom is Joyce's "Ulysses" character, the younger hero of the novel is Stephen Dedalus, the autobiographical character from Joyce's first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While Joyce develops the character of the young student, most of the novel is focused on Bloom.
Bloom's wife Molly is a singer and she is having an affair with her co-worker, Blazes Boylan, and early in the morning of June 16, Bloom learns that Molly intends to bring Boylan into their bed later that afternoon. The Blooms have a daughter named Milly (age 15) who is away, studying photography. Ten years ago, Molly gave birth to a son, Rudy, but he died when he was eleven days old and Bloom often thinks of the parallel between his dead son Rudy and his dead father Rudolph, who killed himself several years before.
Stephen Dedalus is the central character of the novel's first three chapters, which constitute Part I of Ulysses. Dedalus is an academic and a schoolteacher and he has left Ireland for Paris but he was forced to return upon hearing news that his mother was gravely ill. The initial depictions of Stephen indicate that he is guilty because he has separated from the Catholic Church and refused to pray at the side of his mother's deathbed despite her pleading. Stephen has literary ambitions but his desire to write Ireland's first true epic is tempered by his fear that the island is too stultifying for him to be a success. Stephen lives in Martello Tower with Buck Mulligan and a British student, Haines, and Stephen's introverted personality prevents him from asserting himself. Instead, his friends patronize him and take advantage of him.
The opening three chapters, "Telemachus," "Nestor" and "Proteus," track the early morning hours of Stephen Dedalus who eats breakfast, teaches at a school in Dalkey and wanders Sandymount Strand. The opening chapters of Part II ("Calypso" and "Lotus-Eaters") begin the day anew, charting the early morning rituals of Leopold Bloom, who must later attend the funeral of his friend, Paddy Dignam. In "Calypso" and "Lotus-Eaters," the reader learns that Bloom is a servile husband who prepares breakfast and runs errands on behalf of his wife Molly, who remains half-asleep. We also learn that Bloom is preoccupied with food and sex. He relishes eating a slightly burned kidney and has a penchant for voyeurism.
The "Hades" chapter of Ulysses recounts the burial of Paddy Dignam in Glasnevin Cemetery and it is at this point that Joyce begins to develop his theme of Bloom as a Jewish outsider in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic society. Bloom's insecurities are only heightened by his foreknowledge of Molly's infidelity. Both Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are set on a long winding tour of Dublin that occupies most of the afternoon and they continually cross paths before eventually meeting later that night. The afternoon chapters begin with "Aeolus" and conclude with Bloom's altercation with the Citizen in "The Cyclops."
After Dignam's funeral, we get a more detailed view of Bloom's routine day. Bloom immediate heads for the downtown newspaper office-a building that is shared by three companies. Considering the frenetic pace of the news building, the employees' treatment of Bloom seems excessively rude and dismissive and Bloom's attempt to secure an easy advertisement renewal requires a trip to the National Library. Bloom's library visit in "Scylla and Charybdis" presents another occasion for him to talk to Stephen as their paths cross again but they continue on their separate paths, neither cognizant of the other. Bloom's suffers the afternoon, dreading his wife's adulterous act, scheduled for 4:30 pm. Joyce uses the "Wandering Rocks" chapter to mirror Bloom's desperation with the squalor of the city's poorest families before contrasting Bloom's unhappy solitude with the jovial and musical atmosphere of "The Sirens." Bloom simply shrugs off the prejudice of his acquaintances, accepts his solitude as his fate and even at this point, tries to ignore the serious problems in his marriage.
Upon entering Kiernan's pub, late in the afternoon, Bloom is confronted by the Citizen, a half-blind patriot whose outspoken anti-Semitism forces Bloom to assert his identity, arguing that he can be a Jew and an Irish citizen, simultaneously. Citizen is quiet before resuming his offense. Having burdened the entire pub as a menacing drunk, Citizen focuses the brunt of his attack on Bloom, accusing him of "robbing widows and orphans," even as Bloom readies to leave, in order to visit the widow of Paddy Dignam. Bloom coolly replies to Citizen who becomes indignant when Bloom asserts that Christ, himself, was a Jew. This altercation is the first of the novel's two dramatic climaxes. When Bloom exits the pub, the raging drunk hurls a biscuit tin at his head, but Bloom escapes unharmed. Even as the Citizen's depressed faculties hindered him, he was blinded by the sun, guaranteeing Bloom's victory. The "Wandering Jew" "ascends" into the heavens and the concluding prose of "The Cyclops" strongly suggests that Joyce modeled Bloom after Elijah who ascended immediately after completing his course. While Bloom's problems with Molly remain, his victory in Kiernan's pub anticipates his final transformation into Stephen's temporary paternal figure. As an Elijah, Bloom passes the "mantle" to Stephen Dedalus.
The earliest chapter of night is "Nausicaa," which depicts Bloom as an incredibly solemn and tired man. As he walks the beach of Sandymount Strand we understand that the eclipsing evening corresponds to his aging and depressing loss of virility. Even though Bloom is only a middle-aged man with a fifteen-year old daughter, he bears the image of an elderly wanderer. A young woman named Gerty MacDowell is sitting within their range of mutual sight and as she is overcome with emotional longing and maternal love, she notices that Bloom is staring at her while he is conspicuously masturbating himself in his pocket. MacDowell seeks to offer Bloom a "refuge" and she abets his deed by displaying her undergarments in a coquettish manner. After masturbating, Bloom is enervated, complaining that Gerty has sapped the youth out of him.
Joyce's deliberate narrative structure produces the interaction between Bloom and Dedalus right as Bloom contemplates the diminution of his own masculinity and youth. Bloom meets Dedalus in the National Maternity Hospital, unexpectedly, having arrived to visit Mrs. Mina Purefoy, who had been in labor for three days. Stephen had accompanied several friends to the Hospital, including Mulligan who has corrupted his friends into a loud table of young drunks. Bloom worries for Stephen's safety and he eventually accompanies the young man to "Nighttown," the red-light district where the "Circe" chapter is set. Undoubtedly, "Circe" is the most memorable chapter of the book: Bloom suffers "hallucinations" while walking on the street and they continue inside the brothel of Bella Cohen. Joyce's "Circe" employs Freudian theories of the subconscious, of repression and sexual desire. Bloom's hallucinations conflate feelings of religious guilt, acts of sado-masochism and the shame of being cuckolded by the popular ladies' man, Blazes Boylan.
When Bloom re-emerges from his hallucinations, he finds that Stephen is completely vulnerable, having degenerated into a limp and intoxicated creature. It is unclear what is causing Stephen to jump around the room and half-climb the furniture until we see him smash his walking stick into the chandelier, resisting the ghost of his dead mother who has returned from the grave to use guilt in order to coerce Stephen into Catholicism. The scene becomes chaotic as Bloom assists Stephen out of Cohen's brothel. Stephen is alone after his friend Vincent Lynch forsakes him. It is Bloom who tends to Stephen when he passes out after a pugnacious British soldier delivers a heavy blow, aware that Stephen is incapable of defending himself. Bloom sees the development as an opportunity to forge a relationship with Stephen. Bloom succeeds in transporting Dedalus to the Cabman's Shelter for some coffee and they continue their conversations about love and music in Bloom's home at 7 Eccles Street. Despite Bloom's insistence, Stephen declines the offer to spend the night in his home and as the novel concludes, it seems likely that Stephen, like Bloom, must embark upon his own heroic quest. "Penelope," the final chapter of Ulysses, presents Molly's assessment of Bloom. Just as we come to understand how Bloom's lack of empathy largely motivated Molly's infidelity, we also come to understand that Molly truly loves her husband, independent of the question of their marriage.