Ulysses provides an in-depth perspective on life in Dublin at the beginning of the twentieth century, told through the thoughts and perceptions of a number of its citizens over one day, June 16, 1904, and in a kaleidoscope of styles. As Joyce commented to a friend, he wanted "to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book." This included aspects of life that until then had not been seen as fit for literature, from a trip to the outhouse to a voyeuristic encounter at the beach. The book was initially published in serial form in the journal The Little Review, but in 1921 it was banned in the United States for obscenity. Sylvia Beach published a complete edition of Ulysses in Paris in 1922, but it remained banned in the United States until 1933, although copies were smuggled in and the book was widely known. When the American edition was published, the response was sometimes fierce. A reviewer in The New York Times commented that "the average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it," and that its narrative fashion was "in parodies of classic prose and current slang, in perversions of sacred literature,...in symbols so occult and mystic that only the initiated and profoundly versed can understand." When Joyce died in January 1941, the Times obituary stated that his status as a writer "never could be determined in his lifetime" and quoted critics who held a range of views. One placed him among the "Unintelligibles," with Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot; another argued that Ulysses was a novel "which only could have been written 'in an advanced stage of psychic disintegration'"; and a third hailed Joyce as one of "the great innovators of literature...whose influence upon other writers of his time was incalculable." Today, the latter assessment is the one that prevails.

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