Melissa over at Avid Reader’s Musings is hosting a read-along of James Joyce’s Ulysses this month, and I promised to post my reading guides/reactions for anyone who might want another perspective on this difficult read. This post covers Episodes 1-6. If you are reading along or want to join, remember to use #FebBloom for social media.
Aeolus: Episode 7 begins around 12pm (noon), in the office building that houses Dublin’s major newspapers. There are two major comparatives between this episode and the corresponding chapter of The Odyssey, as far as I can tell. The first is a play on the character Aeolus who, in The Odyssey, provided Odysseus with a great gift – the sea winds trapped in a leather satchel, making it easier for Odysseus to get home. The parallel here is with the “windy,” journalism being parodied in the episode – all these newspapers printing bold headlines but are devoid of any real, meaningful news. In the second place, a parallel can be drawn between the instance of Odysseus’s men opening the satchel and releasing the winds, which threw them wildly off course just as their ship was coming in sight of home. In Ulysses, Bloom’s goal (in this episode) is to navigate the demands of Keyes (who is placing an advertisement) and Myles Crawford, Bloom’s boss & editor for the paper. Bloom comes very near to completing the “quest,” but at the last moment is foiled.
The symbol of keys is reproduced heavily in this episode. The advertisement Bloom hopes to place is for a man named Keyes, first of all, and that advertisement would be accompanied by Keyes’ logo, which is a symbol of two crossed keys. Bloom (and Stephen Dedalus) are both keyless, from their first episodes, so the idea of isolated, homeless wanderers is reinforced here in the workplace, too. It is deepened even more when Bloom is placed in relation to his colleagues, as we saw in the “Hades” episode (there, Bloom was isolated by differences in humor and religion; here, he is literally struck by a door and essentially shoved out of the conversation).
What is a bit ironic, I think, is that half of this episode is devoted to the conversation being had by Stephen, O’Madden Burke, Professor MacHugh, and Crawford, and throughout their chat it becomes clear that they idolize long-dead heroes, people who can do nothing for them, while missing the fact that Bloom, perhaps this story’s epic hero and/or Christ-figure, is standing right in front of them the whole time. The reader learns in later chapters that Bloom is thought quite highly of by many other people, but his peers dismiss him without second glance – certainly another allusion to the Christ story (worshiped by commoners, vilified by those in power).
Also in this episode are more comparisons between Ireland and “slave nations” of the past. Ireland is essentially in bondage to England at this point in time, and this relationship is compared to that of Israel’s bondage to Egypt (Professor MacHugh even makes a point about preferring to teach Greek over Latin, the Romans having “conquered” the Greeks, so we get a similar comparison there, too).
Lestrygonians: “The Lestrygonians” finds poor Leopold Bloom headed into the National Museum in hopes of avoiding his rival, Blazes Boylan. In the museum, Bloom finds himself examining the statues of Greek goddesses or, more specifically, their anal details. Ah, Bloom. Ah, Joyce. The episode begins about 1pm and lasts about an hour.
Before reaching the library, which is where the episode will end, Bloom is wandering through the center of Dublin. He meets and observes various people along the way, including a Christian Brother, a YMCA youth, a Mrs. Breen, and Dilly Dedalus, Simon Dedalus’s daughter (Stephen’s sister).
The only connection I can find between this episode and The Odyssey is in the scene at the Burton restaurant. In Homer’s original epic, the Lestrygonians were cannibals, responsible for killing and eating a great deal of Odysseus’s men. In the Burton restaurant, Bloom describes men eating and drinking in a disgusting, bestial, and primitive way. He is so offended by their actions that he decides to leave and eat someplace else.
Like the scenes which describe characters urinating, defecating, nose-picking, and other such everyday unspoken activities, this scene and much of the chapter is one of observation. Bloom is clearly a sharp observer of human activity, and the idea seems to be to reveal the humanity, the “realness” of common events. These things happen, and they matter – probably one of Joyce’s major themes.
Bloom also thinks about Molly (his wife) and her soon-to-occur affair with Blazes Boylan. He worries that Boylan might have venereal disease and wonders if he would risk giving it to Molly. We also learn more about the strain in Leopold and Molly’s relationship, having to do with the death of their son, Rudy. Apparently, ever since Rudy died, Leopold has not “finished” inside of Molly, preferring coitus interruptus instead. Perhaps his fear, or hers, or both of theirs, that another pregnancy would result in another dead child?
A couple of recurring symbols also become strengthened. We know of the “jingle” sound now being meant to signify Boylan & Molly’s affair, but we also have the lemon-scented soap as Bloom’s good luck charm (Odysseus’s moly) and of Boylan’s straw hat and tan shoes which, when described, always signal his presence, even when he is not named explicitly.
My favorite line of the novel thus far (with the line from “Hades” still a close second) occurs in this episode as well: “Me. And me now.” The emotion behind this, the sadness and loneliness, is incredible. It is Bloom’s own way of restating a previous thought, “I was happier then.” What makes it so moving are the glimpses we have now had into Leopold and Molly’s first meetings and romance.
The scene where Bloom recalls Molly feeding him chewed seedcake from her own mouth first struck me as a kind of mother-son psycho-sexual situation; Molly is, after all, the one in charge, at least so it seems from the earlier episodes; but then I thought perhaps this is another way in which Molly’s sexuality, much more overt than Leopold’s, brings Leopold to her level. He wanders around buying her pornographic books, thinks about hanging pornographic paintings above their bed (for her), all thoughts which likely would not occur to him except in the hopes of pleasing her – why did Molly choose him, someone not clearly passionate or “studly,” if not for the challenge of “awakening” him? Of course, then one wonders why she is having an affair with the novel’s Don Juan – is this, too, because of Rudy and how her relationship with Bloom has changed since?
I think of most importance in this chapter is that we begin to see common people (Byrne and Flynn, in this episode) who remark upon what a decent guy Bloom is. This will happen again and again in future episodes.
Scylla and Charybdis: Here we are at the Dublin National Library, which is where the last episode ended (with Bloom staring at goddesses’ anus’). The episode begins at 2pm and lasts until 3pm – getting ever closer to the fatal hour.
This was one of the more difficult chapters to read because it doesn’t seem to have much at all to do with the Ulysses story. Instead, we find Stephen Dedalus discussing his theories on Shakespeare with a group of academics. One idea that is reinforced here, though, is that of Stephen’s obsession with paternity. The father-son thing strikes full-force in Dedalus’s ruminations on Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s ghost(s).
The Scylla and Charybdis connection, too, is hard to find. In The Odyssey, we know that these are two monsters, Scylla being a six-headed monster and Charybdis being a massive whirlpool. Homer tells us that Odysseus was forced to pass between the two and, having been advised by Athena, chose to pass by Scylla and sacrifice one man for each of Scylla’s heads (or mouths). It seems that the set-up, here in Ulysses, is to compare the poet George Russell (A.E.), an Irish nationalist, mystic, and Platonist, with Stephen Dedalus, an Aristotelian – sharp-witted and willing to jab at his interlocutors. In this comparison, the mystic Russell would surely be Charybdis, the whirlpool, and the cutting/biting Dedalus would have to be Scylla.
Alternatively, though, it is also true that Dedalus finds himself, throughout his lecture on Shakespeare, opposed by six forces – which would make Dedalus not Scylla, but the hero, Odysseus who, as in the Homeric epic, chose to navigate toward the six-headed monster. In this case, the six foes to “satisfy” would be Lyster, Russell, Best, Eglinton, Mulligan and, oddly enough, himself (Stephen Dedalus). Dedalus is clearly his own foe, as he is asked near the end whether or not he even believes his own theories about Shakespeare, and he must admit – no, he does not. What this chapter does for Dedalus is, I think, what the previous episode did for Bloom – reinforce the fact that Stephen is an outsider, one who thinks and feels differently from his peers.
What I loved about this episode were two things: First, the experiment with “composition of place,” which is a rhetorical technique used by orators (most notably, as Dedalus points out, the Jesuit St. Ignatius Loyola) to help the audience imagine a physical picture of what is being described by the speaker. It was fun to witness Dedalus’s thoughts as he prepared to lead his audience any which way.
Also, I loved the debate between those who believed Shakespeare’s life and biography should be kept separate from the interpretations of his work, versus those, mainly Stephen, who feel the “man” Shakespeare, and all his history, played a significant part in crafting the plays & sonnets, and should therefore be considered in discussion. As one who lives in the academic world, I can say this is still an ongoing debate with two staunch campus – those who feel a text should be read as text and only text, and those who feel that author and history should accompany any study of a text. The debate, here, leads Stephen to analyze Hamlet as a psychosexual drama, well before it became popular (as it has been for some time) do so. It also reminds us of the theme of dispossession, which is clear in Hamlet but also, again, in Stephen and Bloom.
Finally, I begin to wonder about Mulligan’s sexuality – is he homosexual, perhaps? A quick search reveals that many critics seem to think so, and many others do not. And, of course, there are those who think it doesn’t matter in the slightest. I find it curious that Mulligan remained conspicuously silent during the discussion of Wilde and Shakespeare and male love. Normally, Mulligan has something to say about everything. What’s more, however, is the fact that he seems obsessed with Bloom’s sexuality – warning Stephen Dedalus that Bloom is “Greeker than the Greeks” (165) and is likely lusting after Stephen (179). Perhaps the lady doth protest too much?
Wandering Rocks: Now, this was a fun chapter. It is an interlude of sorts, coming after the first 9 episodes and before the remaining 9 episodes. So, Ulysses itself consists of 18 episodes and this chapter also has 18 very short episodes with a coda – a mini-odyssey, almost Chaucerian, in its own right. It begins just before 3pm and ends at 4pm, and within it are descriptions of various characters meandering about the streets of Dublin. In The Odyssey, Odysseus was given a choice, by Circe, to sail either through the moving rocks or to pass by Scylla and Charybdis. Odysseus knew that the only hero to have ever made it through the wandering rocks unscathed was Jason of the Argonauts, so he chose the other route. To read Ulysses, though, we must go through Scylla and Charybdis and the wandering rocks – the significance? Possibly Joyce just having fun at our expense.
While each of the short vignettes is interesting, what I find most-fascinating are the two which bookend the chapter. These two bring a kind of balance to the whole chapter and remind the reader that Joyce, as an Irishman, is concerned with two oppressors: The Roman Catholic Church (Father Conmee, S.J. – vignette #1) and Great Britain (William Humble, earl of Dudley, G.C.V.O. – vignette #18). Ireland is at the mercy of religious and political powers not its own. Another piece to look at is vignette #10, which would be the middle (interlude) of the chapter which is the middle (interlude) of the book. In this vignette, we find Bloom buying a pornographic book (Sweets of Sin) for his wife Molly. Thus, at the center of the entire story is what? Sex, Romance, Love, Marriage, Betrayal – a man trying to please his wife.
The “movement” or “wandering” of this chapter seems to come in two forms. First, the obvious movement of the various characters who are being described throughout this episode, as a panoramic of Dublin. Second, though, are all the little misdirections Joyce lays out for his reader. I’m sure I didn’t catch all (or even most?) of these traps, but some I found include the fact that we are told twice Father Conmee is walking through Clongowes’ playing fields – was he walking in circles? No! He is actually remembering Clongowes’ playing fields, not actually walking through them in real-time. Then, there is also the funny little episode with Boylan’s secretary and the Wilkie Collins novel, The Woman in White. She makes the mistake (Freudian Slip?) of wondering whether Boylan is in love with “that Marion,” meaning Marian Halcombe of the book (those who have read Woman in White probably caught this) but instead saying Marion, which is Molly Bloom’s real first name.
There are other moments of ambiguity, too, such as when Lamppost Farrell bumps into the blind lad, who then calls Farrell blinder than himself, and also the “Dentist Bloom” who is mentioned in passing, but who is not our Bloom. In addition, there are rather funny juxtapositions of events or situations which lead to an expression of a rather sardonic nature. Take, for instance, the moment when Father Conmee, engaged in deeply religious thoughts, stumbles across a young couple who just finished making love. The horse game, and the mistaken “Throwaway” comes up in conversation just as Bloom arrives to find a book for Molly. And, finally, though I’m sure I’m missing some, there is the song “The Croppy Boy,” which is an anti-British Irish ballad, but it is being sung as Kernan eagerly runs to see the royal cavalcade. Joyce certainly gets two thumbs up for accurate (and entertaining) use of irony!
In this chapter and in the next, we witness a great deal of sentimentality and compassion. Joyce, though, for some reason (perhaps being a naturalist?) ends this episode and the next one with antitheses to the sentimentality which pervaded the episodes right up until their endings. Here, he does this by ending the chapter with Patrick Dignam, son of the dead Dignam whose funeral accounted for the first few episodes of the book. Rather than displaying young Patrick as sad, in mourning, etc., we see a boy whose primary concerns are the vacation time he will get from school and the popularity (or attention) he’ll have upon returning, thanks to his dear old Dad’s having kicked the bucket.
The Sirens: This chapter begins about 3:30pm and lasts about one hour, ending around 4:30pm. It is the fateful hour to which the first half of the book has been leading. The Sirens is probably one of the most popular/well-known episodes from The Odyssey – even those who haven’t read the poem are likely familiar with the dangers of “the siren song.” Here, the sirens include three women, two are barmaids and one is a prostitute. None of them holds much power, though, and their relationship to the original sirens seems tenuous at best. Bloom does evade all three, though, whereas other men of this episode are perfectly happy to be enticed by them, so there’s certainly that parallel.
The larger theme, though, and possibly the real connection to Homer’s epic might be music itself. In The Odyssey, the Sirens did not have physical power over anyone – it was their song, their music, so beautiful and captivating, which held all the strength. Here, too, the power of the episode is in its musicality. Joyce begins the episode with a composition of themes – 57 of them, it seems- which are then recalled throughout the score. The episode itself is difficult to follow because not much is said explicitly; instead, each line from the original outline corresponds to an action in the episode, which in turn has a larger meaning or significance.
There are also two songs explicitly sung in this chapter, the first of which is from an opera, Martha and the second of which is a song we are already familiar with from the previous chapter, “The Croppy Boy.” Each of these songs is significant to Bloom’s situation. The opera is a story of love gone wrong – a young man loses his mind over a woman, only to regain his senses when he marries her in the end. While Stephen Dedalus is singing this song, Bloom realizes that he is still in love with his wife, Molly, and he writes a “blotted” letter (perhaps the final one?) to his sort-of mistress-by-mail, Martha Clifford (who is certainly alluded to by the singing of said opera, Martha). This would make the hero of that opera, Lionel, Leopold Bloom – but Leopold is not going mad over Martha, he is instead losing Molly, and himself because of it.
So, it seems Bloom might be destined to lose his two ladies. Near the end of the episode, we see “one last, one lonely, last sardine of summer,” and this is “Bloom alone.” Throughout the episode, we have heard the jingle jangle of Boylan’s carriage drawing toward Molly Bloom, and Leopold in a way hears it, too (or imagines it – as he knows the affair is about to take place). Bloom in fact followed Boylan into the hotel where the singing, and all the action, takes place, but he makes sure to hide in the back, basically alone (with another outcast, actually – Stephen Dedalus’s “Uncle Richie” whom Stephen’s father holds in such contempt). Thus, Bloom creates for himself the very situation which causes him his greatest pain – witnessing another man prepare, and go, to sleep with his wife.
At the very end of this episode, Bloom finds himself with an upset stomach, from the food or the alcohol. He leaves and while walking passes by an antique store where a picture of Robert Emmet, a martyred Irish nationalist and orator, hangs, with the lines: “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth then and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.” Bloom reads this, passing gas throughout, and ends the episode with one long, loud, fart, followed by the word “done.” Brilliant and hilarious. Another episode ripe with sentimentality “blown” apart by comic relief. The point? Possibly that real emotion, raw as it might seem, is preferable to long-winded pomp and circumstance.
Cyclops: Episode 12 begins around 5pm, in Barney Kiernan’s pub. This pub is metaphorically the Cyclops’s cave from Homer’s Odyssey, and there is a character in this episode, known only as “The Citizen,” who is Joyce’s model for The Cyclops. This episode is one of the most explicitly similar to Homer’s epic, so far.
The episode is littered with references to long, cylindrical, sometimes sharp and/or heated objects, which recalls the stave which Odysseus used to blind Polyphemus, the cyclops (and which was burning hot, from the fire). Some of the objects that appear are a cigar (which Bloom burns himself on), a long, thin ear-trumpet, and the handle of a street cleaner’s broom (which almost blinds the chapter’s narrator). These objects are also rather phallic in nature, so there’s certainly something to be made of that as well, particularly when juxtaposed with Bloom’s scientific explanation for why hanged men often sprout erections (and sometimes ejaculate).
One also must wonder if the idea of “blindness” goes beyond just the link to Homer’s poem. In this episode, we meet the anarchistic “Citizen” (another parallel to Polyphemus, actually, as he too was an anarchist), and other drunken guests, all of whom seem to have a rather narrow, bigoted view of the world. We witness something new in Bloom during this episode – he actually stands up for himself and “his people,” in opposition to the racist “Citizen.” The allusions to blindness, then, might be indicative of a metaphorical mental or political blindness – a simpleness of thought. Incidentally, The Citizen is even further paralleled with Polyphemus at the end of this episode, when he throws a biscuit tin at Bloom, just as Polyphemus threw a boulder at Odysseus’s ship. So, as I said, the relationship between Joyce and Homer in this episode are particularly explicit.
Some other interesting things to note are that Bloom twice refuses alcohol, apparently well aware of his own limits. Also, the narrator at one point is describing his own urination, which given the description tells us that he has syphilis – why we need to know that is not quite clear, except that it fits with the types of characters in this bar as well as the overall mood of this setting – violent, dark, filled with hatred and confrontation. A cyclops’ natural lair?
One of my questions about Bloom is also answered in this episode. Sort of. Throughout the book, he seems to be aware that Blazes Boylan and his wife are going to sleep together around 4:30pm. I kept wondering why, then, he doesn’t just go home and prevent it? We learn here, though, that he is going to visit the Dignam family, to pay his respects for their loss. This is, I think, supposed to be another “positive” characteristic – a type of Christlike sacrifice, but, to me, it doesn’t quite work. Unless, of course, Bloom doesn’t actually mind that his wife sleeps with other men? Some issues arise later which make that seem possible.
So, there are my thoughts on the middle 1/3 of the book. What are your thoughts so far? Have you gotten as deep into the book as you hoped by this point? Did I miss anything that you found interesting/important/funny, etc? You can also find my thoughts on Episodes 1-6 here.