And we’re back!

After nearly a year break, I’ve returned to my self-imposed Ulysses challenge. The book has been read, and finished nearly a year ago, at the time of my last post in October 2012. In the wake of the challenge of finishing the book, having something intelligent to say about it fell by the wayside. Given this blog has been a public diary for myself more than anything else, I didn’t feel too much guilt in quitting it, or motivation to return to the subjects of James Joyce, Bloom, Steven, Molly, Dublin… until recently.

Last Spring I made a Ulysses pilgrimage when I visited Ireland and took myself on an outing to one of the famed Martello Towers.

Upon returning, I began re-reading sections of the book, and decided it was time to return to the Challenge, this time of finishing the blog. The actual book took a total of 7 months to read.  Blogging about Ulysses is currently at 7 months + 1 year. New goal: get this thing done by Christmas.  Why? Who knows, it maybe pointless, but if so this is in keeping with half the theme of Ulysses.



Episode 7, Part 2 – A Bit More About That Breeze, and The Parable of the Plums

In Episode 7, I failed to mention the connection to the Homeric theme of “wind”. How could this happen!? As in Aeolus is the Greek God of the Winds.  You know, Aeolus?? That guy.

Any reader, or anyone who has persevered this far, can see the metaphor at work in Episode 7.  The most obvious being the wind coming out of all the characters as they go on and on about the events of the day.   Chatter , rhetoric, hot air,  and general rambling juxtapose against the headlines and flurry of activity of the town (the movement of the trams, etc.).

The telling of the “Parable of the Plums”, by Stephen, is attempted to be told in a straightforward manner.  It’s a new  effort by Stephen to enter into the world of intellectuals/artists, and though it’s met with enthusiasm by the men, you can tell they aren’t really paying all that much attention as distractions abound.

The parable itself tells the story of two oldish ladies going for an outing to Nelson’s Pillar.  They take cash from their savings to buy what amounts to a picnic, including some nice ripe plums.  They also purchase tickets to climb up to the top of the monument, which they do in a pant (see the wind theme?).  Once they reach the top, they are too worn out to look at the view and instead begin eating their plums, spitting out the pits through the railings, we suppose to drop on any passersby below.

I’ve been to the monument to Lord Nelson in London a handful of times (and have also seen the spire that replaced the former monument in Dublin, destroyed by the IRA) celebrating his triumph over France, the seas, and the general western world.  When I did a bit of research into the Dublin column, I found it was erected in 1808 and generally viewed, during Joyce’s time at least over a Century later, as a symbol of British “control” over Ireland.  I find this all very strangely sci-fi, the idea of objects being erected to display and exert dominance over a people.  It’s kind of interesting to think about this being an old-y technique.

So, of course it would happen there are all sorts of interpretations of Stephen’s parable, both as it stands as a parable, as it relates to Stephen specifically as a character, within the confines of Joyce’s Ulysses, and within Aeolis the “episode”.

Concerning the first, parable as parable: I’ve read a discussion of the phallic symbol of both the column and the plum tree in relation to the elderly ladies (spinsters = virgins); another journal article discussed the enthusiastic support given by the Freemason’s Newspaper (the office our characters are sitting in during this episode) during the time of Nelson’s death a Century earlier and the general protestant leanings of the paper; still another theory goes into a bit of a stretch drawing parallels between Molly and Nelson’s lover, Lady Hamilton.  In this theory, I think Nelson and his pillar are meant to be symbolic of Blazes Boylan doing one over on Bloom.

It was interesting reading the various interpretations of the Plums tale.  I also learned a bit – including the little known factoid that when Nelson died his body was preserved in brandy in order to get the hero across the seas and home to England before he decomposed too badly.  This doesn’t have much bearing on the story of the day, namely Stephen and Bloom and how they are getting on in Ireland circa 1904.

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Episode 7, Aeolus – the Dubliners, the Sequel

Gah! Just as as this monster of a book was beginning to make sense, we switch genre’s to this, Episode 7, rife with distracting newspaper headlines and a host of characters I can’t keep track of. For my own part, I don’t really see much connection between the headlines and the text that follows. The affect of the headlines does however (grudgingly I admit) serve the purpose of perhaps making us feel like we are following along with the events of the day as would be reported in the news. Similarly, reading this section relates to modern day reading of news via the internet as our attention is grabbed away by various headlines and then the content of whatever it is we are reading is somewhat lost.

As readers we also get a bit of insight into “work” Bloom, curiously populated by many of the same characters we have already met – Simon Dedalas, Deasy, etc. This episode serves as a real slice of life with this cast of characters dominating more than any one individual. Though we learn more about Bloom’s work as a les glam, precursor to Don Draper, Stephen also re-enters the scene to deliver the letter as promised from Deasy (of Episode 2, if you can remember that far back).

We get a bit more of everything here: Bloom’s “outsider-ness” as he’s ridiculed by kids on the street and the men in the newspaper office; Molly’s reputation as a tart is reinforced as the newspaper men remark upon her in a less than gentlemanly fashion; Stephen’s snobbery as he turns down a job of writing for the paper; and more of the exploration of Ireland as a soon-to-be new nation.

There’s also the near crossing of paths between Stephen and Bloom, which occurs repeatedly. There’s a bit of a theme going on in this Episode that also has to do with the trams and various vehicles moving about Dublin, and this sense of motion sets the theme for this episode which is primarily concerned with showing the activity of a group of Dubliners, I wonder if it’s also alluding slightly to the movement of our two hero’s as they go about their various endeavors and activities on this June 16th.

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Episode 6, Hades – In which Bloom attends the funeral of Paddy Dignam and encounters Death, wearing a raincoat..

Bloom cements his role as “outsider” in this section, but also as a thinker of cool new ideas (inserting telephones in a coffin, just on the off chance one is buried alive, similar to Uma Thurman in Kill Bill?  Sheer genius!)

As he is on his way to the funeral of his suddenly departed friend Dignam, he shares a carriage ride to the services with a number of acquaintances. It is pointed out that he is the last to get in to the carriage and then frequently ignored or slighted by his companions.  We’ve all been in this situation: on a long car ride with a group, or in some sort of carpool situation with people you don’t know that well.  I myself spent half a day touring the island of Oahu with a mini-van full of relatives, sitting one butt cheek on, one off, balancing against the door at every curve in the road.  Other times I’ve pretended to be incredibly interested in the scenery due to the distinct feeling that I wasn’t really part of a conversation taking place among a group in a car and that no one was really interested in what I was saying and in fact were more interested in the lyrics to a Lady Gaga song playing just then on the radio.  For these reasons I had no problems relating to our hero/anti-hero Bloom.

One thing I was not expecting was that I would become so intimately acquainted with Stephen’s father, Simon, who turns up in the carriage.  It is a bit fun having this alternate perspective of Stephen’s take on the events of his life, as his father seems like not such a bad fellow, especially as he visits the grave of his recently departed wife later on in the section.

The chapter is overall a memorable one not just for the Occasion that the chapter centers around, but for the real go at traditional story-telling being made by Joyce.  Dialogue, conflict, time progressing at a understandable rate — I can barely believe it!

Joyce death mask?

Joyce had a death mask?  This seemed very unlike him, but then again maybe he had no say in the matter.

Perhaps more importantly, who is this oddball peering at him so lovingly?

Some reporter.

Turns out one of the Martello towers discussed in Ulysses, home to Stephen, Buck, and detested house guest Haines, has recently re-opened to the public, despite the financial woes of Ireland.  The dreamy-eyed reporter was “horrified” by the closing of the tower for the spring and summer months, so has overcome her aversion to public service and volunteered a few shifts along with others, as part of the Friends of the Joyce Tower Society.  Worth a visit for any Joyce enthusiast I suppose.

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Episode 5, The Lotus Eaters – In which Molly remains in bed while Bloom goes out.

Many little things start happening in this chapter.  None of them too consequential in my mind, and in fact I found my mind wandering a bit in this chapter, ur, episode.  That said, Joyce’s cleverness hits me as I realize (after consulting a cheat sheet via Spark Notes) that Bloom’s attention was in fact also meant to be wandering in this episode.

Here are the things I remember/could piece together:  Bloom has a pen pal, i.e. a pre-cursor to an Anthony Weiner-type internet relationship;  Bloom goes to church and as a Jew thinks about the pros and cons of confession and various other topics related to ritualism; Bloom inadvertently gives a horse race tip to a guy named Bantam Lyons who then heads out to place a bet; there is a good deal of focus on sex.  In fact, we see that Bloom is quite randy but hasn’t, we suppose, made the leap of being fully unfaithful to Molly, despite his knowledge of her own infidelity.

More specifically, Bloom has been exchanging suggestive letters with an woman he has never met, under the pen name “Henry Flower”.  However, after reading through the latest letter from his erotic correspondent, he destroys it, possibly as evidence but just as likely as an effort to get rid of his own feelings of doing something untoward.

Going under the railway arch he took out the envelope, tore it swiftly in shreds and scattered them towards the road. The shreds fluttered away, sank in the dank air: a white flutter then all sank.

At the same time, the business with the letter all seems a bit of fun. I wonder if the controversy of the book was caused due to such episodes with explicit language and suggestion, around sex, or due to its expression toward the Catholic church.  My vote would be for the latter:


The priest was rinsing out the chalice: then he tossed off the dregs smartly. Wine. Makes it more aristocratic than for example if he drank what they are used to Guinness’s porter or some temperance beverage Wheatley’s Dublin hop bitters or Cantrell and Cochrane’s ginger ale (aromatic). Doesn’t give them any of it: shew wine: only the other. Cold comfort. Pious fraud but quite right: otherwise they’d have one old booser worse than another coming along, cadging for a drink. Queer the whole atmosphere of the. Quite right. Perfectly right that is.


Again, you can see the humor he brings to most of his observations. Bloom is less critical of the world around him than he is creative in his theories and observations.  He looks at most things, no different than the church offering, with a sense of how they could be improved.

Episode 4, Part 2, Let’s Meet Molly

The second half of Episode 4 finds Bloom returning home from his early morning walk to the Butcher’s shop. He finds two letters delivered in the morning mail, and thus begins the intrigue between Molly and Leopold which forms much of the  framework of their story.  We soon learn of Molly’s ongoing infidelity, and her planned liaison with Blazes Boylan, who is in the running thus far for the character with the best name.

The scene between Molly and Leopold as he prepares her tea and serves her breakfast in bed is somewhat tender despite the tone of suspicion and fear that also clearly haunts Bloom.  At the same time, there is something slightly bawdy about Molly and her depiction as she lounges around in bed:

Following the pointing of her finger he took up a leg of her soiled drawers from the bed. No? Then, a twisted grey garter looped round a stocking: rumpled, shiny sole.

— No: that book.

Other stocking. Her petticoat.

— It must have fell down, she said.

He felt here and there. Voglio e non vorvez. Wonder if she pronounces that right: voglio. Not in the bed. Must have slid down. He stooped and lifted the valance. The book, fallen, sprawled against the bulge of the orange-keyed chamberpot.


Leopold sits and talks over a book Molly’s been reading, discussing the meaning of a particular word, and then small talk continues around the late fee she will incur at the Library, all the while skirting around the issue of the letter she has received, we infer, from Boylan.

Bloom’s burning breakfast causes him to rush away downstairs, where he is then preoccupied with reading the second letter, from his daughter and only living child, Milly.

Molly and our image of her are left in the bedroom while Bloom finishes his breakfast, and the earthyness of the whole episode is completed as we are treated to a scene with Bloom on the toilet.  Thus Bloom is fully contrasted to Stephen, a recurring theme, and in particular to Episode 3 with Stephen where we barely have a sense of Stephen’s body at all.  Here we have the fully spectrum of eating, shitting, and sex before the morning has even passed.


Part II: The Odyssey — A slight relief sets in as I realize I am not going to be stuck with sulky Stephen for the whole 700-something pages.

Episode 4, CalypsoIn which we get a break from Stephen, and are introduced to the much more engaging Leopold Bloom, and his wife Molly. 

Oh Leopold, Leopold, where have you been for the past 47 pages? Episode 4 heralds in a brand new protagonist, Leopold Bloom, who I am immediately enamored of.  Call me a romantic, but the way he dotes on his cheating wife Molly is downright sweet.

The episode opens with Bloom going on his first of many errands of this interminably long day, to obtain some breakfast.  Right away he is distinguished from Stephen in his lust for life and embracing of it, and yet as we will find out over the subsequent 635 pages, there are also some parallels between the two.

We get our first glimpse of Dublin through Bloom’s eyes as he steps outside of his door, and yet curiously he is preoccupied with sensations of foreign places that he has never been to:

Somewhere in the east: early morning: set off at dawn, travel round in front of the sun, steal a day’s march on him. Keep it up for ever never grow a day older technically. Walk along a strand, strange land, come to a city gate, sentry there, old ranker too, old Tweedy’s big moustaches leaning on a long kind of a spear. Wander through awned streets. Turbaned faces going by. Dark caves of carpet shops, big man, Turko the terrible, seated cross-legged smoking a coiled pipe. Cries of sellers in the streets. Drink water scented with fennel, sherbet. Wander along all day. Might meet a robber or two. Well, meet him. Getting on to sundown. The shadows of the mosques along the pillars: priest with a scroll rolled up. A shiver of the trees, signal, the evening wind. I pass on. Fading gold sky. A mother watches from her doorway. She calls her children home in their dark language. High wall: beyond strings twanged. Night sky moon, violet, colour of Molly’s new garters. Strings. Listen. A girl playing one of these instruments what do you call them: dulcimers. I pass.

Probably not a bit like it really. Kind of stuff you read: in the track of the sun. Sunburst on the titlepage. He smiled, pleasing himself.

And a short while later, Bloom’s mind wanders again to a far off locale as he considers and re-considers the prospect of a land purchase in Turkey, advertised in a flyer, “Nothing doing. Still an idea behind it.”

I’m not sure if this sort of reverie is meant to mark Bloom as the foreign — a Jew with immigrant origins, dressed in black no less — but very much connected to the soon to be newly independent Ireland, or serves some other purpose. For as much as Bloom is rooted in the current, complete with saucy wife, a profession, a child, a grilled Kidney for breakfast …  he is also shown to be a bit dreamy in these passages. He is of the same vein as Stephen. Despite being grounded, or rather immersed in, the messy to-do of life he is also caught up with his own regret and sadness.  These passages remind me of the gentle fantasy-making of far off places and romance of exploration that most of us have at some stage or another, whether it be to replace the current doldrums or to take our mind on an adventure.

Joyce himself was writing his masterpiece amid the turmoil of the 19-teens, at a time of world war and revolution, yet set placidly 14-years earlier as the momentum for what was to happen in his own country was taking up steam.    In a book that is so specific upon every comma and made-up word choice, I have to think this return to the past had some significance.

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Sandymount Strand

Sandymount Strand

Flann O’Brien and friends, circa 1954 on Bloomsday

Episode 3, Proteus – In which Stephen thinks a lot, while walking along the beach.

Our group’s reading schedule is one-part ad-hoc, two-parts relentless. We meet every two weeks and for now are tackling two Episodes per meeting. Given this, we read Episode 1 on its own, as an introduction to the novel and to each other, and then met for our second discussion (with snacks) to discuss Episode 2 and 3 together.  This turned out to be a good pairing.

Episode 3 is the biggest challenge thus far.  We find Stephen taking a walk along Sandymount Strand. Sentence to sentence the pages jump from thought to idea to sensation and we are stuck inside Stephen’s mind. Not the most  pleasant place to be.

I’ll be the first to say I couldn’t tell anyone what happens in this chapter. This is Joyce at his most experimental, it’s very hard to follow. I imagine English professors every where could use this chapter as an example of stream of consciousness writing. Despite the difficulty though, as a reader I found myself transformed.  Events and narrative go out the window, and I stopped caring about the ability/inability to follow the flow of thought and reference. Instead I found myself entertained by the word-play and the experimentation and challenge to the reader of our expectations of a novel. Of course this is one of the many prime things being accomplished in Ulysses.

Stephen is moody and we are largely stuck amid his shifting mood and thought only occasionally leaving his mind for a glimpse of setting/action:


Ay, very like a whale. When one reads these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once…

The grainy sand had gone from under his feet. His boots trod again a damp crackling mast, razorshells, squeaking pebbles, that on the unnumbered pebbles beats, wood sieved by the shipworm, lost Armada. Unwholesome sandflats waited to suck his treading soles, breathing upward sewage breath. He coasted them, walking warily. A porter-bottle stood up, stogged to its waist, in the cakey sand dough. A sentinel: isle of dreadful thirst.

Stephen moves from questioning the purpose of his own study, self-reflection, reflection on old dead texts, wondering all to what purpose, to considering the ground beneath his feet, until  a bottle stuck  in the sand brings him back to Ireland, his return here, and again the theme of nation.

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