Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

The Lost Book Club: Ulysses

For a while, I thought it odd that no books had been shown or mentioned in season 5 of Lost. Then, a doozy appeared when we saw Ben Linus reading James Joyce’s Ulysses in the episode “316.” I enjoyed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the stories I’d read in Dubliners so I gave it a read. Woof.

Ulysses is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set on a single day in Dublin in 1904. Leopold Bloom travels the streets, going about his business, all the while worrying about an affair that his estranged wife may be having at 4:00. Intersecting Bloom’s path is Stephen Dedalus, a young poet whose father is an acquaintance of Bloom’s.

The genius of Ulysses lies not in the story but in the telling. Joyce delves deeper into the consciousnesses of his characters than any other writer I’ve read. At times it seems as though his intent is to record every stray thought that passes through their heads, a technique that sometimes leads to tedium and sometimes the most powerful of insights.

Each chapter is presented in a different style, thus creating slightly different perspectives from which to view Leopold and Stephen. Additionally, each chapter is meant to suggest certain events in Odysseus’ journey back to Ithaca, which Joyce accomplishes at the symbolic level.

By the end of the book, Leopold returns from his wanderings and, though she has had an affair, reclaims his wife from “the suitors.” It’s nothing like Odysseus reclaiming Penelope from her suitors. It’s much more ambiguous and anticlimactic, but therein lies Joyce’s genius.

I admit that this is only the most cursory and superficial rundown of a truly deep book, but it’s not something I can thoroughly describe in a short post where the point is to figure out what it has to do with Lost.

Once again, Lost has led me to great literature and a book I might not otherwise have read. It’s a complicated book, but a joy to read. It’s one of those that throughout reading, I kept wondering, “This is genius. How does a person think to write a book like this?”

My wife suggested absinthe.

On to Lost.

Season 5 is mainly about the return of Ben Linus and the Oceanic Six to the island. It is a long journey full of twists and turns and as with Penelope in Ithaca, the island has many suitors. The question we should be asking about Lost is which of the suitors is the rightful heir to the island: Ben? Locke? The “Shadow of the Statue” people? Alpert? Jacob? Jack? Christian?

It’s easy to assume Ben is the bad guy, but Ulysses reminds us that it is our perspective on events that allows us to make that judgment, and we still do not have a full and detailed perspective on all of the characters. I am inclined to think that Ben is the true heir and though he has been humbled and ordered to obey Locke, this may only be a temporary state and possibly one that is necessary for him to return just as Odysseus had to disguise himself as a beggar and Leopold had to sneak into his house in the dark of night.

Other than that and the fact that Ulysses, like Lost, is full characters with father and fatherhood issues, I don’t have much. Lost has reached a point where the game of analysis has changed. There was a time when analyzing Lost meant trying to understand what was really going on. Now we pretty much know. It’s a time travel show, which I predicted a few seasons ago. The question, now that there aren’t really all that many more questions, is what is going to happen? How will this all play out?

Rather than trying to figure out the island, we are left with trying to predict the choices the characters will make. Lost is truly a story moving toward its climax, which will happen next year in its sixth and final season. The presence of Ulysses suggests that “Ulysses” will return to “Ithaca” and reclaim it by vanquishing the suitors. The question is, who is Ulysses? It’s probably Locke, but I won’t be surprised if it’s Ben. Perhaps the only time he ever told the truth was the moment in the season 2 finale when Michael asked who the Others were, and Ben responded, “We’re the good guys.”

Lostpedia had some good stuff about Ulysses and how it pertains to Lost. From Lostpedia:

A quote from page 316 of the novel is also hidden in the source code of the Ajira Airways website. The final chapter is named “Penelope”. Fionnula Flanagan who plays Mrs. Hawking is famous for the role of Molly Bloom (a character in the book) in stage and film, including “James Joyce’s Women” and “Joyce to the World.”

More pertinently, the reference to Ulysses fronts the father-son relationships in the episode and series. In the novel, Leopold Bloom longs to be a father-figure to a son, while Stephen Dedalus struggles with his own identity as son. The events recorded in Ulysses trace Bloom and Dedalus’ wanderings around Dublin as they miss each other, cross paths, cross thoughts, and finally meet before parting. In “Ithaca,” the seventeenth chapter, the narrating voice refers to the shift between the two characters’ thoughts and perspectives as a sort of parallax, an appropriate model for the differences between the perspectives of Lost‘s main characters (as well as a handy hint concerning the Island’s physics?).

Ben’s pithy comment (while browsing James Joyce’s Ulysses) regarding his mother teaching him to read is Ironic, as both he and the Joycean Ulysses character Stephen Dedalus have issues of guilt over the deaths of their respective mothers despite Ben’s mother having died in Childbirth & Dedalus’ much later in life.

Also, the fact that Ulysses is built upon Homer’s Odyssey should cue the viewer into certain observations. First, the events of ‘316’ are a re-telling, a re-enacting of earlier events. Second, the viewer is left to wonder whether the Oceanic Six are (finally) returning to the Island as Odysseus returns to Ithaca or just on another leg of their voyage.

I must admit, I doff my hat to whoever is going through and reading the code for the various Lost websites in order to find clues. I thought I was hard core just for reading the books.

Check out the rest of my Lost Book Club posts.

Next up, A Separate Reality by Carlos Castenada.


  1. All very interesting. I doubt that I’ll ever get around to reading Ulysses, so thank you for this post. I’m looking forward to your next post about the Castenada book. Maybe I’ll actually check that one out for myself. I am very much looking forward to tonight’s season finale!!! Perhaps reading some of the LOST book club books will be a good way to keep me pumped up for LOST during the off-season!

    • That was precisely my motivation for starting this little project after season 2. It was worth it, both as a way to maintain my excitement about Lost and also for discovering some great literature. I’ll get my Separate Reality post up this week.

  2. You are hard core. 🙂

  3. There’s another major connection between Lost and Ulysses: Both are works that practically explode with allusions and references. They damn near feed upon them, then regurgitate them back out in all manner of crazy new forms. Fun for English majors.

    I actually red Ulysses front to back a few years ago, but I would never have made it had it not been for an Irish lit teacher who was particularly adept at making it accessible to students. Whenever I hear people refer to the book as being unassailable, it makes me realize how lucky I was to be guided through it.

    • Drew, thanks for stopping by. Good point about how both works use previous literature. I’ve been following just the literary references here. I’d never be able to keep up with the theological, mythological, philosophical and pop cultural ones.

      I wish I could take a class for Ulysses. I’m sure I missed alot even though I did read the chapter analyses on SparkNotes after reading each chapter. That helped call attention to things I didn’t pick up on.

  4. James,

    I thought that it was interesting to read the title of your novel because postcards are all over Ulysses. I’m taking a class on the novel right now and there is the famous essay we read by Derrida about postcards in Ulysses. Towards the end Bloom looks at a postcard and notices not message on the back. Good stuff.

    Thanks for blog here.

    I’m doing my term paper connecting Lost with Ulysses.

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