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.
Nausicaa: Now, here was an interesting episode. It jumps ahead in time quite a bit, bringing us to 8pm, and we arrive back at Sandymount, where we were with Stephen Dedalus early in the day (in “Proteus”).
The major theme of this episode is sex, or perhaps more specifically, sexual climax. Throughout the episode, we see references to objects moving in arc – that is, rising and falling. For example, there is a roman candle that is described rising into the air, where it explodes; there is also the rising and falling of Gerty MacDowell’s leg, and the description of the swinging censer in the church. This theme actually ended the previous chapter (with the rising and falling of the biscuit tin), but it is explicitly related, here, to Bloom and Gerty’s coordinated orgasms. It also, of course, parallels The Odyssey, in that Odysseus, having been stranded on the island of the Phaeacians, is awoken after his shipwreck by a ball thrown by Nausicaa, the island princess. Incidentally, a ball is thrown toward Bloom in this chapter, too, which briefly awakens him from his sexual stupor (until the girls and children leave, at which point he and Gerty return to their mutual and simultaneous self-gratification).
The first part of this episode is mainly about Gerty, and the second part is about Bloom. I think we get a glimpse at Joyce’s thoughts on Irish womanhood (and women in general) in this chapter. Gerty is compared to the Virgin Mary, but she is in no way innocent or pure, as evidenced by the fact that she teases Bloom sexually and keeps at it until they both “finish.” My understanding of the censorship history of this book leads me to believe that much of the outrage stemmed from a few things: first, vivid descriptions of bodily functions; second, mixing sex and religion; and third, presenting women as sexual, passionate creatures filled with their own erotic desires (and willing to seek gratification). All of these things are certainly present in this episode.
We also find out a few things about Bloom’s sexual desires (though not nearly as much as we will find out in “Circe.” For instance, he has been known to visit prostitutes. We learn that he once paid a woman just to say dirty words to him, and we see him recall a moment when he had sex with his wife, but this memory is combined with the memory of Molly and another man (Mulvey). This is the second time where Bloom seems almost willing and desirous of seeing his wife with another man. Also, strangely and surprisingly, we learn that Bloom might not really be Jewish (even though he has been playing the role of the persecuted Jew throughout this book, and especially in the last chapter!). After he ejaculates, he mentions his foreskin, which a true Jew certainly would not have. Weird.
Finally, he discovers that his watch stopped at 4:30pm, which is probably when Molly & Blazes Boylan were having sex, and he writes a message in the sand: “I . . . AM. A.” I’m not sure what this message is supposed to mean, though a search on this topic yielded some probable explanations; still, it seems no one can say for certain.
The Oxen of the Sun: This was a bizarre episode – at least, I thought it was bizarre until getting to the next episode, “Circe,” which is completely insane. Anyhow, the episode begins about 10pm and lasts until 11pm.It takes place at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, where Mina Purefoy (previously mentioned early in the book and thought of by Bloom, throughout) is in labor and about to give birth, after three long days of trying.
Bloom has decided to visit Mina Purefoy, but he also discovers Stephen Dedalus here, visiting with some of his friends who are medical students at the hospital. It is here where the father-son theme really starts to take hold; Bloom decides to stay and watch over Stephen, partly because he (Bloom) and Simon Dedalus (Stephen’s father) are friends, but mostly, I think, because Bloom has been searching for a son ever since his own died. Bloom does not care much for Stephen’s friends and the group are clearly under the influence of something (we later learn that it is absinthe), so Bloom decides to follow them when they leave the hospital.
The parallels between Joyce and Homer in this episode seem more difficult to find, especially following how overt they were in the previous episode. The only obvious connection I can draw is between the slaughter of Helios’s cattle in The Odyssey with the epidemic of foot and mouth disease in Ireland, which is killing their cows. The larger theme, and perhaps the real connection, is that of life and death in general. Joyce, through his characters, seems to go on a tirade against birth control, prophylactics, etc. He staunchly supports family and the idea that married couples should have as many children as possible (despite poor Mina Purefoy’s obvious predicament).
Mulligan is made the villain (again) in this episode because he is pro-contraception. There is a funny scene where Mulligan goes on and on about how he will offer up his “services” to any and all women who choose it, but he’ll make sure he doesn’t “pay” for it (by becoming a father) nor ask them to literally pay for it (meaning, he wants to screw around, free of charge). The next page or so that follows is rife with puns about condoms – umbrellas, cloaks, etc. It is really quite funny.
The true genius of this episode, though, is that Joyce has essentially recreated the history of the English language, from Beowulf to modern slang, and put it into practice. Every few pages or so, the dialogue and narration move from one moment in the history of the English language to another, and the reader must keep up with it in order to both understand what’s happening in the episode and more importantly, what Joyce is trying to say about language – which is the real message. I had to backtrack a bit and begin rereading, as I only realized what he was doing after moving into the third moment. Essentially, he evokes Beowulf to Bunyan, through the University Wits, Dickens, the Gothic novel (probably my favorite part) and even Socratic rhetorical dialogue. He ends the episode in modern slang, with bits of American black slang included, which seems like clear condemnation of the “destruction” of the English language. Apparently, Joyce was not happy with where English had gone & probably feared that there was no turning back, no reclaiming of the greatness of earlier prose. Is Ulysses, then, an ode to the English language? Or a eulogy for it?
Circe: This is probably my favorite episode of the book, so far, which is ironic because it was the one I most feared (it is enormously long – about 150 pages). It was also again difficult to find parallels to the original epic. In The Odyssey, the goddess Circe turns Odysseus men into swine, but Odysseus managed to resist her spells and remain human. In this chapter, Circe is clearly Bella Cohen, who runs a brothel. Is the parallel, then, that Bella turns men into swine by providing these kinds of services? Certainly there are some bizarre, descriptive sexual scenes between Bella and Bloom – and Bloom does ultimately break free of the spell, which would reinforce the Bloom-as-Odysseus idea. I suppose, now that I’ve talked my way through it, this is indeed connection enough!
Like “Nausicaa,” I think this could certainly be an episode, if not the episode, which had censors bringing charges of obscenity against the book. The overarching theme seems to be psychological – a fear of free sexual expression. If we dare to act out are fantasies, will we become animals? Almost the entire episode, though, is narrated as if in a bizarre dreamworld fantasy – and both Bloom and Stephen Dedalus suffer from hallucinations, sexual and terrifying.
One of the most important parts of the episode, and probably of the entire book, is the moment when Stephen Dedalus, after suffering through terrible hallucinations of his mother (who has appeared to further guilt him for not praying at her bedside) breaks free of the fantasy by smashing a chandelier and shouting the word, “Nothung.” At first, I thought this was another silly sexual reference “not hung – impotent?” but I looked up the word and learned that it is actually a reference to Wagner’s The Ring of the Niebelung, whose hero is named Richard (also Wagner’s first name) Rowan (an Ash tree). The hero’s name not only stands for the Ash tree, but he also has a sword made of Ash , which is the same wood that Stephen’s walking stick is made of. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about Wagner or about this opera, but clearly Joyce was heavily influenced by it. The major significance, though, is that Stephen refuses, through the haze of his blurred vision, his absinthe-induced delusions, and his fevered dancing with whores, to succumb to his mother’s guilt-trip.
Another deeply interesting and important element of the episode is how very much (too much?) we learn about Leopold Bloom and his wonderfully, deliciously, seriously gross fantasies. As it turns out, Bloom is a serious masochist. He has a foot fetish, he is a coprophiliac (sexually attracted to the anus/fecal matter), and he is turned on by transvestism. In his mind, Bloom sees Bella become “Bello,” a man, who then dominates Bloom and calls him “girl.” She/He sits on Bloom’s face, spanks him, has him worship his (her) foot, and much more. We also learn that Bloom has watched (or has had fantasies of watching?) his wife have sex with other men. I think it is possibly this episode which leads some scholars to make the claim that we (readers) learn more about Leopold Bloom than any other literary character, ever. There are no secrets left.
In the end, though, Bloom wakes from the frenzy and becomes that same Bloom from “The Cyclops,” a man with self-confidence and a voice – one who can break Circe’s spell. He cares for Stephen Dedalus by handling his money, by standing up for him when he breaks the chandelier and refusing to allow Stephen to pay any more than the damage is actually worse (and Bella demands about 10x more), and by running after Stephen when he “escapes” the brothel. He also stands up to bully-British military men and Irish policemen, all of whom could be a serious threat to the delusional Dedalus. This says, again, very much about the goodness in Bloom, and about his strength (often veiled).
At the very end, Bloom has a vivid fantasy of his own, where he sees his dead son, Rudy, alive and as he would be had he lived; a boy at Eton, well-dressed and healthy. As he is caring for Stephen, his newly adopted son, at this time – the father-son motif is even doubly reinforced. More importantly, though, we see that Bloom has an enormous capacity for awe, for beauty. The finale to this episode is definitely the best thus far.
Eumaeus: Episode 16 begins around 1am and immediately follows the whirlwind action of “Circe.” In Homer’s Odyssey, Eumaeus is a swineherd, faithful to Odysseus. When Odysseus returns to Ithaca after his long absence, he meets with Eumaeus, who is still loyal to the family after all this time, and then joins his son, Telemachus, to rid their home of Penelope’s many suitors.
In Joyce’s episode, we get a sort-of “meeting” between this epic’s Odysseus and Telemachus, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. They meet in a coffeehouse that is run by a man nicknamed “Skin-the-Goat,” who we learned in “Aeolus” drove the decoy car for the Phoenix Park Murderers. The real parallel between this episode and the original epic, I think, is in its description of the returning wanderer. There are three characters, here, including Bloom, Parnell, and “W.B. Murphy,” a sailor who seems to be using a pseudonym, though we don’t know why, who are all “returning” to their wives/lovers, just as Odysseus was in The Odyssey.
We learn in this episode that Stephen does not plan to return to his job as a schoolteacher (he meets a friend on the street, lends him money and tells him that there will be a job opening at his school – referring, of course, to his own position). We also learn a bit more about Bloom, as we do with each episode. We have seen that Bloom is in general a good man – caring and altruistic in many ways. He displays that altruism here with Stephen, warning him away from Buck Mulligan, whom Bloom does not trust, and decides to bring him home since it is late and Stephen clearly has nowhere to go (having given up his key early in the book).
This kindness is in many ways double-edged, though. Bloom ruminates on Stephen’s talents and abilities, and he imagines how Stephen’s talents as a writer could help Bloom gain publicity for a project he has been considering (starting a new opera). Bloom also imagines writing stories of his own, as he did earlier in the book, and considers extending his evening with Stephen for the single reason that it might add fodder to the stories he would write, and then publish in Titbits (the magazine he mentioned previously). So, Bloom is willing to part with a bit of food and maybe give up a bed for the night, in exchange for what he hopes will become a creative, and even a business, relationship with Stephen Dedalus.
Two important things to note about this episode are its syntax (style) and the dichotomy it establishes between Bloom and Dedalus. First, the syntax is notable because it mirrors the tone of the story at this point. The sentences of this episode tend to be long, rambling, and many times unfinished – petering out into nowhere. This creates a sense of tiredness and exhaustion in the reader, which mimics the way Bloom and Stephen must both be feeling after this very long day (and night). In addition to the fatigue-inducing syntax is the perpetual theme of miscommunication between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. The two never seem quite in sync or in agreement on any topic. Not only does this confusion add to the tiredness of the episode, but it also clearly establishes them as two distinct personalities – they are not both Christ-like figures, after all, nor, I think, is the father-son dynamic, one so often reinforced throughout the book (and so hoped for by Bloom), necessarily going to come to fruition. Stephen represents the non-religious, intellectual artist, while Bloom is the faithful mercantile opportunist. Stephen is concerned with deep issues, like the soul of the Irish people, while Bloom only comments on the surface beauty of an unknown language (having heard a couple arguing in Italian, Bloom found the language beautiful, but Dedalus knew they were arguing about money).
I was also intrigued by the presence of a new character, Murphy, who only appears in this episode. I haven’t spent enough time thinking about him to be able to develop any thorough analysis about him, but he certainly seems to perpetuate a few themes, such as the motif of disguises and the theme of the wanderer (like Bloom and Parnell, and Odysseus). Is he just there for comic reinforcement, though? I doubt it. One thing that struck me is the possibility that he might be homosexual (like Mulligan, perhaps). Neither is “outed” in any obvious way, but Mulligan’s possible attempt at drugging (through drink) Stephen, coupled with his silence during the Oscar Wilde/Shakespeare debate and his verbosity about Bloom’s sexuality made me wonder. In the same way, Murphy’s stories about Antonio seem highly suggestive – filled with longing and hints at romantic & carnal attachment. There is also tattoo on his chest, which includes the number sixteen. After wondering about it and searching around the interwebs, it seems that, in European slang and numerology, this number represented homosexuality. It also happens to be the number, in sequence, of this episode. I don’t know nearly enough about European slang nor numerology to be able to attest to this, but an interesting analysis of the whole situation can be found here. It’s possible to read this inter-textually or extra-textually and arrive at the same, or different conclusions. Which is part of what makes reading and discussing this book so fun (and frustrating!).
Ithaca: Bloom has finally returned home, with his Telemachus (Dedalus) in tow. It is about 2am when they arrive, and the episode is set up very much in terms of a religious ceremony, like a communion. The episode is littered with recurrence of the numbers 3 and 9 (suggesting the Holy Trinity). Not only are these numbers simply mentioned repeatedly, but we also learn that this is the third time that Bloom and Dedalus have met in this way, that Bloom was baptized three times, and many of the categorization that goes on in this episode come in lists of 3 or 9. In addition, terms like “mass,” “host,” and “Lucifer matches,” and images of crosslaid sticks, all feed into the allegory of religious ceremony – as does the almost literal ceremony that takes place as Bloom (hatless, with candle and aching side) leads Dedalus into his home (upon the conclusion of which, bells chime). Of course, the episode concludes as it must, with Stephen and Leopold urinating next to one another, mixing, as it were, their sacramental wine.
This entire scene (the entire episode) is delivered in a Question-and-Answer method, very much like that of the Catechism. Each episode has had a unique syntax and structure, matching the episode’s contents. What I wonder about, though, is the purpose of all of this religious imagery. This is a comic novel, very much concerned with humanity and the human experience (down to the very nitty, gritty details of it). Neither Bloom nor Dedalus is “religious” (though Molly is) and it’s hard to imagine that the Trinity, here, could represent a conjoining of the three of them. The mysticism that is infused – the moments of “elevation” and speechlessness that Bloom and Dedalus experience- is, perhaps the real point. The Catholic imagery might be a means-to-an-end, evoked in order to metaphorically explore human potential in creative moments, rather than divine inspiration.
Another important revelation (or reinforcement) from this episode comes from Bloom’s reaction to the physical evidence of Molly and Blazes Boylan’s affair. His reaction is calm, measured. He is portrayed as a humanist and a passive anti-hero, accepting of the affair, understanding it as for the most part natural (though he does have momentary thoughts of possible responses, such as divorce). Whether this reaction, or Bloom as a person in general, should be lauded is hard to say and will likely depend on the reader, but that’s not Joyce’s goal. Instead, I think Joyce wants to fit as much detail about the world, and especially about human nature, into Ulysses as he can (and, being Joyce, he had to of course up the ante by making this all fit into one 24-hour period). We learn even more about Bloom in this episode, as we will in the next, and, by the end, there’s hardly anything more we could hope to learn about him (and plenty which we would probably have preferred not to know).
Penelope: Many readers have described this chapter as being Joycean stream-of-consciousness on steroids. I think, however, that stream-of-consciousness does not quite describe the kind of narration happening, here. Yes, we are witnessing Molly’s uninhibited, raw thoughts, but whereas stream-of-consciousness is typically a steady flow of thoughts, one after the other, Molly’s have little flow or patter to them at all. What we have here is something more akin to word association, where each sleepy thought (Molly is slowly waking up) signals another idea, which Molly’s brain then rambles off on. There is some slight structure to the episode, such as the bookends of Molly’s specific thoughts about Bloom and also the eight sentences that make up the episode (they are sometimes ten pages long, but they are still “sentences” structurally – separated by line breaks and such).
Speaking of the eight sentences, eight is a number that recurs frequently in this episode. We learn that Molly was born on September 8, for example, and that Bloom once bought her eight flowers (poppies – significantly). Her body position, too, curled on her side on the bed, as she is, also recalls the number 8. This allows for, at least, some symbolic structure to a chapter which is relatively free-flowing (even Molly is probably not very aware of her thoughts). Also, the number 8, of course, typically works as a stand-in for the lemniscate (“infinity” symbol ). As for its meaning here, that is as yet unclear to me. My first instinct is that it, like this entire episode, has something to do with womanhood and the “realness” of it (as opposed to what, until this book, was admitted/able to be discussed about womanhood, female sexuality, etc.).
I find it fascinating that Molly’s soliloquy ends a book that has been, for the most part, about Leopold Bloom, her husband. We know the entire time that Bloom knows that Molly is going to have an affair. Now, here we are after the fair, with the could-have-been villain of the story, and yet the irony is she becomes, in many ways, the hero – womanhood personified. Molly is lonely, and sad. She clearly does not despise her husband; no, she even misses him and wishes he would “return.” Even while her thoughts drift off, thinking about Boylan, sailors, Narcissus, and boys from her youth, still she always comes back to Bloom. We learn that she knows how to tease and how to fake an orgasm. We learn that she is jealous of other women and worries about Bloom cheating on her with other women. We learn, too, that she has standards – having been deeply offended by the way Boylan so nonchalantly disrobed in front of her, without even asking for permission.
Most importantly, though, we see Bloom from Molly’s perspective and learn even more about him. We learn that, really, Molly and Bloom both blame themselves for their distance, for their failing relationship. Molly, though, let’s us in on all of Bloom’s little secrets – his dark and dirty fantasies, the way he sleeps at the foot of the bed to be near her feet, the way he kisses her bottom, how he asked for her underwear, and even that he asked her to add her own milk to his tea, when she was nursing. What woman would put up with such a man? Molly does. Like Bloom, or perhaps even more so than he, Molly is completely accepting of the body. Bloom seems to sometimes feel guilty or apprehensive about his desires, but Molly represents almost a new Irish woman, one who is aware of her body, her sexuality, her needs and desires, and not ashamed of them. She also contemplates others’ sexual proclivities and the male body, as well as the female. She wonders what it would be like to be the man during sex, doing the penetrating. We get a detailed description of Boylan’s “manhood,” and also of a woman’s menstruation.
Much of this, in today’s literature, would not be shocking (though some of it – such as Bloom’s coprophilia- probably still would be), but for the time, Joyce was breaking ground by allowing such openness, such raw contemplation of the private elements of everyday thoughts and actions. Who describes a character’s irritated vagina after a period? Joyce does. Who describes a character defecating, picking his nose, smelling someone’s bum? Joyce does. Nothing about the human experience, it seems, should be closed to discussion or rumination, and “Penelope” drives that point home.
The episode also leaves us with the question of Bloom and Molly. There are hints, I think, that the dynamic of their relationship may be changing. We learn at the beginning of the book that Bloom usually caters to Molly, in a masochistic way. He makes her breakfast in bed every day, with care not to make too much noise so as to disturb here. In this episode, we learn that it is Molly who will be making him breakfast. There is repeated mention of “eggs,” which is a common symbol of rebirth – could their marriage be on the mend? Did they need to get beyond the affairs, beyond the jealousy, in order for Bloom to reclaim his space and for Molly to remember (as she does in her winding thoughts) just how much she really does love him? Molly recalling that moment where she feeds Bloom seedcake from her own mouth, something Bloom had recalled himself earlier in the day, links their desire for reconciliation. The fact that Molly knows so much about Bloom (and likely vice versa) and yet they remain together and still enjoy tender reminiscences about each other, perhaps tells us that they will manage to fix what’s broken and carry on. As do her final thoughts before fully waking:
“I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” (644)
So, that’s it! Ulysses complete! If you are interested in reading my thoughts on the rest of the book, you can find my responses to Episodes 1-6 here, and my responses to Episodes 7-12 here. What did you think of the book? Did you finish? Was this your first time reading it?