Here we are, the grand-daddy of all the challenges. We’ve reached Oxen of the Sun.
I’m not going to lie — this chapter is a bitch. The only advice I can impart is to not take it too seriously. Joyce certainly had a wicked and unfailing sense of humor, and so I can only deduce that in Oxen we are not being made fun of, but rather there is a hopeful intention on the part of the author that we will join him in his lengthy jest.
To begin with, the Episode is … well, I’ll let Joyce explain it himself, here in a letter to Frank Budgen, from March 20th 1920:
‘Am working hard at Oxen of the Sun, the idea being the crime committed against fecundity by sterilising the act of coition. Scene, lying-in hospital. Technique: a nineparted episode without divisions introduced by a Sallustian-Tacitean prelude (the unfertilised ovum), then by a way of earliest English alliterative and monosyllablic and Anglo-Saxon, then by way of Mandeville, then Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, then the Elizabethan “chronicle style”, then a passage solemn, as of Milton, Taylor and Hooker, followed by a choppy Latin-gossipy bit, style of Burton-Browne, then a passage Bunyanesque. After a diarystyle bit Pepys-Evelyn, and so on through Defoe- Swift and Steele-Addison-Sterne and Landor-Pater-Newman until it ends in a frightful jumble of Pidgin English, Nigger English, Cockney, Irish, Bowery slang and broken doggerel.
This procession is also linked back at each part subtly with some foregoing episode of the day and, besides this, with the natural stages of development in the embryo and the periods of faunal evolution in general. The double-thudding Anglo-Saxon motive recurs from time to time (“Loth to move from Horne’s house”) to give the sense of the hoofs of oxen. Bloom is the spermatozoon, the hospital the womb, the nurse the ovum, Stephen the embryo. / How’s that for high?”
Translation: Setting: The National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street. *Note, this hospital still stands to this day near Merrion Square and is one of the few settings in Ulysses that has retained its original purpose. IE. babies are still born there, although drinking and carousing I believe were never allowed.
Characters: Stephen and his friends (who we didn’t know existed up until this point, Stephen being a bit of a non-joiner). Bloom is there also, and to round things off, some nurses along with Mina Purefoy giving birth.
Plot: As always, minimal, though, also, there is one. Mina Purefoy is suffering through labor over the course of many days. In the waiting room Stephen and a crowd of friends turn the space into a pub-like atmosphere, juxtaposing the sacred (birth of babies) with the profane (drinking, dirty jokes, general carousing)
Style: All of them.
This last point is the primary point of Oxen. Here you will find an exploration of all of Western Literature in roughly 40-pages of imitative text. This is more or less chronological, though there is a bit of jumping back and forth in time periodically. Don’t worry. Do your best. What I found most interesting, if not actually enjoyable, about the Episode was the parody of anthology taking place. Evidently the literary anthology had become a popular point of reference for ingesting great swaths of literature, be it poetry, excerpts from longer works, short stories… if you went to college and found yourself purchasing a Norton Anthology you get the idea. Who determined what would be included in these Anthologies, and how was the canon of great literature sculpted to include or exclude, were questions at the heart of Joyce’s ridiculing Episode 14 as he crashes his way through all of literature.