“A Dostoyevsky, a Jane Austen, a Stendahl, a Melville, a Tolstoy, a Proust, or a Joyce seem to show a grasp of human behavior which is beyond the methods of science.” – B.F. Skinner

June 16th, 2022 marked the 100th Bloomsday1 since the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The novel is widely regarded as the finest example of modernist literature, and follows the lives of two characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, over a relatively ordinary twenty-four hours in the city of Dublin. In the time since its publication, the novel has provided us insights on topics as wide-ranging as economics,2 psychology,3 and law,4 but the deep link between Joyce’s work and evolution science has been largely unexplored to date. This link is seen both in Joyce’s efforts to develop a writing technique that mirrored advances in the evolutionary science of his day and in the insights that are present within the novel, which have only been rediscovered in recent years by evolutionary science.

To explore this link, we can begin by looking at the most direct references to evolution science. Amidst the range of references to cultural figures in Ulysses, Charles Darwin makes a number of appearances, most notably in the fourteenth chapter, Oxen of the Sun. This chapter takes place in a maternity hospital as Leopold Bloom visits a friend who is in labor. Allusions to evolution science begin in the later stage of the chapter, firstly with the humorous description of an inconsiderate medical student as the potential “missing link of creation’s chain desiderated by the late ingenious Mr Darwin,” with additional references to natural selection scattered throughout the remainder of the chapter5. At this point in the chapter, the prose technique that Joyce uses begins to mimic that of nineteenth-century scientific literature, a style that will be familiar to readers of Darwin.

Later, in the seventeenth chapter, Ithaca, Leopold Bloom’s youthful advocacy of Darwinian evolution is offered as evidence of the moral virtue he held from a young age:

During a juvenile friendship … he had advocated during nocturnal perambulations … the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, expounded in The Descent of Man and The Origin of Species.

We are told that Bloom advocated these positions in the year 1882, suggesting that Bloom had indeed “loved rectitude from his earliest youth,” as holding such a position was at that time controversial to the Catholic institutions of Ireland, as Joyce’s works would later prove to be.

Joyce’s references to evolution science at times seem like mere wordplay, and indeed this perspective is easy to hold when considering the allusions in Joyce’s later work, Finnegans Wake, to evolution, which makes reference to a character called Erasmus who seeks out the “origin of spices” and “Charlotte Darlings” (presumably a pun derived from the name of his grandson). However, there is reason to believe that Joyce’s use of references to evolution science denoted a deliberate effort to incorporate the insights of evolution in his writing.6

Beyond the profundity of the above claims that there was something virtuous to Bloom’s advocacy of evolutionary theory, we can see in Joyce’s own correspondence that he wanted his prose technique in Oxen of the Sun to mimic “the periods of faunal evolution.” The writing techniques in this chapter serve as a phylogenetic tree of English prose, commencing in a style that is a crude mix of Latin and early English, then moving through narrative styles that reference works such as the King James Bible, the historical works of Edward Gibbon, and the popular fiction of Charles Dickens. As previously mentioned, Darwin’s writing technique is included in this stream, but it is worth noting that in The Descent of Man, Darwin anticipates Joyce’s approach to writing, pointing to developments in philology that show that languages and dialects grow and change through a form of natural selection.

Next, we turn to the insights that Ulysses holds for the behavioral dimension of contemporary evolution science. There have been numerous psychological interpretations of Ulysses, but none have been more striking than that of Carl Jung, who in his essay Ulysses: A Monologue declared that James Joyce was “the unwitting mouth-piece of the psychic secrets of his time. Psychological analyses of Ulysses are typically tied back to Joyce’s iconic stream of consciousness writing technique, which was firmly grounded within early experimental psychology through the works of William James and Alexander Bain, who developed the concept of stream of consciousness to describe the characteristics of the mind.

The consistent feature of this narrative style is the way that descriptions of the here-and-now are interrupted, not just by the thoughts that the protagonists are having about their current situations, but by evaluations of their past and future. Take, for example, the opening chapter where Stephen Dedalus engages in an early-morning conversation as his peer Buck Mulligan is shaving. During this interaction, he is not really there in the room with them, but rather he is being swept away by thoughts of his recently deceased mother:

Stephen, an elbow rested on the jagged granite, leaned his palm against his brow and gazed at the fraying edge of his shiny black coat-sleeve. Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes … A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.

Buck Mulligan wiped again his razorblade.

According to Relational Frame Theory,7 human language and cognition come from the ability to form complex networks of relationships between things in the world. Part of these networks deal with perspective as we begin to distinguish how it seems to be me vs you, here vs there, and now vs then; this becomes the basis for our self-concept: who we believe we are and how we make sense of our experiences.

Research has shown that there are three distinct experiences of self: self-as-story, self-as-process, and self-as-context. An example of self-as-story is what we might share in a job interview or on a date when someone asks us “tell me about yourself?” We share some of this self with others, but we often keep painful self-evaluations, such as “I am a worthless person,” hidden away.

Self-as-process refers to how we understand our bodily sensations and thoughts in relation to our emotions. We may notice our heart pounding, or our hands begin to shake and instantly recognize it as fear, or notice a fuzziness in our chest and recognize it as love.

Self-as-context is the most elusive of the three, referring to the sense of ‘I’ that always exists within the present moment. We say things such as “I am tired”, “I enjoy this”, “I don’t understand what he is on about,” ad infinitum, and the only thing which remains consistent is the ‘I’ who is always there and always will be. This is self-as-context.

The literature on Relational Frame Theory notes that “humans spend practically all of their waking hours responding (in the here and now) to events (then and there) as good, bad, easy, difficult, beautiful, ugly, and so on.” We can see this in the above excerpt, where Stephen is supposedly in the here and now, talking with his roommate as he shaves, while is really then and there, reacting to what is nothing more than a mental recreation of the room where his mother passed away. Joyce’s use of stream of consciousness shows this to the reader as it shows the characters being carried away by evaluations, then jumping back to the present, often abruptly.

While this is an ordinary part of human experience, it can also be a source of real suffering. Most people can think of a time when a happy event was ruined by the sudden appearance of an old painful memory, or of a time when they were stressed or anxious about an event that hadn’t even happened yet. Insights from contemporary cognitive behavior therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) tell us that we can improve our mental health by being a little bit less like the characters of Ulysses. By grounding ourselves and contacting the present moment, leaving the there and then where they belong, we can live more rich, more engaging, and more flexible lives.

To conclude, we have seen that Ulysses by James Joyce makes a number of meaningful references to early evolution science, through the inspiration that Joyce took from this science in his elegant outline of the development of English literature, and the use of the once-controversial works of Charles Darwin to outline the protagonist Leopold Bloom’s commitment to his beliefs. Furthermore, we have seen the insights that the novel contained, which have been rearticulated through the behavioral dimension of contemporary evolution science.


[1] Vallance, E. (2022). Why Dubliners celebrate Bloomsday, a uniquely Irish holiday. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/why-dubliners-celebrate-bloomsday-a-uniquely-irish-holiday

[2] McWilliams, D. (2022). Bloom or bust: what James Joyce can teach us about economics. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/0cb3929c-e165-4bbf-8f23-b8b3cf68e0b5

[3] Jung, C. G. (1966). Ulysses: A monologue. In Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 15: The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature (pp. 109 – 134). Princeton University Press.

[4] Birmingham, K. (2013). The Prestige of the Law: Revisiting Obscenity Law and Judge Woolsey’s “Ulysses” Decision. James Joyce Quarterly, 50(4), 991-1009.

[5] Nash, J. (2013). James Joyce in the nineteenth century. Cambridge University Press.

[6] Bowers, P. (1999). “Variability in Every Tongue”: Joyce and the Darwinian Narrative. James Joyce Quarterly, 36(4), 869-888.

[7] Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D. B., & Roche, B. (Eds.). (2001). Relational Frame Theory: A Post Skinnerean Account of Human Language and Cognition. Plenum Press.


Published On: September 26, 2022

Conor McCloskey

Conor McCloskey

Conor McCloskey is a writer and a postgraduate researcher in the School of Psychology at University College Dublin. His research focuses on rule-governed behavior and how rules can contribute to rigid behavior patterns. His writing focuses on scientific communication and affairs within higher education. 

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