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A symbol is anything, which signifies something. In this sense all words are symbols. In literature symbolism is applied to a word or phrase that signifies an object or event which in turn signifies something beyond itself. In Joyce's Ulysses the sea, the dog ( in the chapter 'Proteus') are symbols of the material flux. She is our mother because it is from the flux that our bodies emerge. In 'Proteus', the dog is no less protean than the sea. It resembles in turn a rabbit, a buck, a bear, a wolf, a calf, a pard and a panther. Running about the strand it is brought up short when it encounters the corpse of another dog. The body is all that is, and the body amounts to nothing. In the end it decomposes. We all emerge from the endless material flux and eventually merge with it. The sea, of course, is the symbol of the flux.
Other symbols are common properties from the start. The rose is a female symbol, the common property of every female from the Blessed Virgin to Gerty MacDowell. Flowers, of course, include Bloom's name and his alias "Henry Flower". The flower symbolism in "The Lotus Eaters" is significant. Like Ulysses’ crew Bloom too is entranced by the lotus.
Ireland is symbolized as the decayed milkwoman. Stephen sees the decayed milk woman as a symbol of poor, sterile and subjected Ireland.
Joyce’s use of the mythical method in "Ulysses"
The key to Ulysses is in the title. This key is indispensable if we are to appreciate the book’s real depth and scope. Ulysses, as he figures in the Odyssey, is a sort of type of the average intelligent Greek. Among the heroes, he is distinguished for cunning rather than for, say, the passionate bravery of an Achilles or the steadfastness and stoutness of a Hector. The Odyssey exhibits such a man in practically every situation and relation of any ordinary human life. Ulysses, in the course of his wanderings, runs the whole gamut of temptations and ordeals and through his wits he survives them all, to return at last to his home and family and to reassert himself there as master. The Odyssey thus provides a classical model for Joyce attempting a modern epic of the ordinary man. Homer has framed the wanderings of Ulysses in a series of books in which our interest is aroused in the hero before we meet him by Telemachus’s search for his lost father. There is a culminating group of books, which present dramatically and on a larger scale the wanderer’s return home.
Now the Ulysses of Joyce is a modern Odyssey. It follows closely the classical Odyssey in both subject and form. The significance of the character and incidents of its narrative cannot properly be understood without reference to the Homeric original. Joyce’s Telemachus of the opening books is Stephen Dedalus who is Joyce himself. Stephen is in search of a Ulysses. His friend, the medical student, Buck Mulligan, with whom he is living in an old tower, is Antinous, the boldest of Penelope’s suitors. While Ulysses is away, he tries to make himself master of his house and mocks at Telemachus. The old woman who brings the milk for breakfast is Athene in the guise of Mentor who provides Telemachus with his ship.
Little Rudy, as Bloom would have had him live to be--learned, cultivated, sensitive, refined--is Stephen Dedalus. Ulysses and Telemachus are united. Bloom picks Stephen up and takes him to a coffee-stand, then to his own house. In Bloom's mind Stephen has slain the suitors who have been disputing his place, with reference to Molly. It is possible that Molly and Bloom, as a result of Bloom’s meeting with Stephen, will resume normal marital relations; but it is certain that Stephen, as a result of this meeting, will go away and write Ulysses. Buck Mulligan has told us that the young poet says he is going "to write something in ten years": that was in 1904--Ulysses is dated at the end as having been begun in 1914. This is the story of Ulysses in the light of its Homeric parallel. In this way Joyce employs the mythical method successfully.