Tag Archives: James Joyce

Episode 15, Circe, i.e., A Dream Play!

For those drama lovers among you, fear not. You thought Ulysses was just a novel? In the great tradition of something for everyone literature, or, the smorgasborg that is Ulysses, we have, (two-thirds of the way through the novel, just as you thought you were through with the tricky bit, ie. Oxen of the Sun), a play!

And not just any play, a DREAM PLAY. For those, like me, who needed to refresh your university knowledge of Dream Plays, think Strindberg. Any Joyce fan worth their salt knows that Joyce had a hero-worship going for Ibsen. But less commonly know is the influence of Strindberg.

Really, Strindberg is less commonly known altogether. I discovered this on a recent visit to Stockholm when I spent an hour at the Strindberg Museum, where I startled a very polite and helpful young staff-member/volunteer (who can say if the place makes enough to pay someone, though one would suspect the impressive State of Sweden might just support the museum regardless of whether they get any visitors, ever), by coming to visit the museum.


Strindberg’s Desk

I can understand how the ABBA Museum would be more popular, but still I’m betting the Ibsen Museum over in Oslo is getting more attention. Everyone knows A Doll’s House, but name one Strindberg play?

That’s just it. After Miss Julie, there’s A Dream Play. While I’m not a Nordic drama scholar, or any kind of scholar, I can say from the enthusiastic lay-person’s point of view that A Dream Play dramatizes the unconscious and also paved the way for expressionist and surrealist playwrights to come.

This seems exactly what Joyce is attempting in his play-within-a-novel. In my text this play takes up 134 pages. So, quick synopsis:

We find our two heroes in Night Town, the red light district. Bloom is separated from Stephen and finds a snack in a pork shop, after which, let the hallucinations begin! Bloom goes on public trial accused, among other things, of being a cuckold. This is the nightmare portion of the play. He then eventually finds Stephen at Bella Cohen’s brothel. Many hallucinations later, including images of Bloom briefly becoming a woman and the appearance of both Stephen’s dead mother and a lucky potato, the episode ends with Stephen being punched in the face by a British Army officer. The father-son relationship becomes complete as Bloom, caring for Stephen, sees him as an apparition of his dead son Rudy. How’s that for a six-sentence synopsis!


The sanitized James Joyce Street, formerly Mabbot Street of the Monto District — the largest Red Light district of its time in Europe.

If it wasn’t clear before I’ll say it now — I did not enjoy Circe. I’m sure in many ways it is the most ambitious and experimental portion of Ulysses, and if we aren’t here for experimentation than what are we doing here? Still, perhaps it came too late in the novel for me to have patience with it. Maybe the whole exploration of Bloom’s virility was lost on me when he “became” a woman and this was a degradation. (I understand it was avant-garde for the male character to morph into a woman, but in the post-trump era we are living in I’m not so keen on indulging passages on the humiliations of “becoming” female. if we were reading the same passages of a character “becoming” black … well point taken and not trying to be PC-cop but just, Trump.)

All that said, I can see the importance in a book focused on the inner monologue delving beneath the surface of thought into the subconscious. Also, as I dove into the whole thing further myself, I learned that this chapter was written following the censorship of earlier episodes — namely Nausicaa — and allowed Joyce a reaction to this as well as the current war for independence. As the ever-trusty Declan Kiberd explains: “Because the episode was completed during the final phase of the Anglo-Irish war, he also offers an attack on the Anglicisation of the Irish life, via the brothels, the soldiers who patronised them, and the English songs which they made current. Joyce joked that ‘Circe’ was the most realistic episode of Ulysses, but he was stretching realism to the limit, as one way of responding to charges of obscenity.

Putting aside readability, there are other interesting aspects of the episode. The ability the dream-state allows for time to stand still in a novel organized around the clock is pretty facinating and also just practically why it is fun to read novels. In addition to Ibsen and Strindberg, Joyce was also obsessed (apparently) by Einstein’s newish theory of Relativity (1905), which is all explored in this episode.

So time is a perception which itself can slow down depending on the relation to the person observing it? Such was my experience with Circe.


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Episode 11, Sirens, or “Ulysses, The Musical”

Nations of the earth. No-one behind. She’s passed. Then and not till then. Tram. Kran, kran, kran. Good oppor. Coming. Krandlkrankran. I’m sure it’s the burgund. Yes. One, two. Let my epitaph be. Karaaaaaaa. Written. I have.



This is just one example of why Ulysses can barely be read without some sort of guidance, save those who want to read it while on hallucinogens.



For those still interested in event concerning this book: Episode 11 takes place inside the Ormond Bar, (recently saved from demolition, above). The overlying theme of the chapter is “music”, picking up from the Odyssey in which Odysseus instructs his crew to tie him up aboard his ship, while passing the Sirens so that he will not veer off course. His shipmates have their ears plugged, but Odysseus chooses to be put in constraints so as to hear the lovely siren song.

In Joyce fashion, the beautiful but deadly siren calls are converted into a cacophony of noise and melody taking place in and around the Ormond Bar. If Ulysses as a whole is in many respects an homage to the oral story-telling traditions of Ireland, then “Sirens” takes this a step further with its attempt to directly interpret/replicate the experience of listening to music through the written word. Try reading a few passages out loud to yourself and you will, perhaps, find your admiration and wonder at Joyce renewed.

Clock whirred. Miss Kennedy passed their way (flower, wonder who gave), bearing away teatray. Clock Clacked.

Bloom heard a jing, a little sound. He’s off. Light sob of breath Bloom sighed on the silent bluehued flowers. Jingling. He’s gone. Jingle. Hear. 


There is also the return of various passages from earlier in Ulysses – a re-telling of words and phrases and sounds. The whole novel is becoming more experimental (so get ready, or run for your lives and find another book!) with the style largely dictating the narrative, highlighting the restrictions of form upon narrative as well as narrator/author upon narrative.

There is some action to be told, namely the dramatic narrative of the Boylan/Molly rendezvous, close upon us at 4 p.m. Bloom sees Boylan enter the Ormond and, upon running into his friend Richie Goulding outside, agrees to enter to have dinner and keep an eye on Boylan. He can’t help himself. And yet, he also cannot confront or otherwise stop Molly’s betrayal.

Boylan soon exits however, and Bloom is left, quite sad, to distract himself with music. First, a love song, then an operatic aria (similar to the potentially dramatic nature of this Episode, and yet our expectations for a confrontation are cut short, of course), and later, a nationalist tune, “The Croppy Boy”. The gathered men take over the singing, departing from the original Odysseus where the Sirens song is the allure. Here the Sirens are clearly the two barmaids, Miss Kennedy and Miss Douce. (more on these ladies in the next post), though maybe in fact they are the singing men?

Bloom spends this time contemplating all things, the melody of the music drawing him from his son Rudy, once more, to the mathematics of music, to the mimicking relationship of music to every-day noise. As usual, Bloom possesses both wisdom and insight, if not the straightforward ability to join in and be part of the social settings he is flirting with. He sees the sentimentality of singing these old nationalist tunes and rejects this outright as a sort of quick sand that is keeping his country and countrymen submerged in inaction through their romanticizing of the past.









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Episode 9, Scylla and Charybdis — A Missed Encounter

Congratulations! At this stage of the book, you have passed the half-way mark and are solidly within the SECOND half of this monster.

If you are still with us, you will recall that at the very end of Episode 8, as part of the actual, existing “story” of Ulysses, Bloom ducked into the National Library in order to avoid running into the cursed Blazes Boylan and coming face-to-face with the reality, or soon to be reality, that he is a cuckold.

In Episode 9, the reader may find themselves surprised by the existence of continuity in the text as we return to the National Library, wherein we find Stephen, demonstrating his will to become a Young Artist. The careful reader may remark that the term Artist is a bit loose and/or one can assume a varying definition within the early part of the 20th Century as Stephen goes on to demonstrate his more or less loose ability at being an academic.  The entirety of this section is largely devoted to Stephens’ presentation of a theory related to his reading of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Now, the actual theory has some relevance on our own story (Ulysses/reading Ulysses) in two ways:

1. According to Stephen’s theory, Shakespeare envisions himself as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, rather than as the hero of the play, young Hamlet. In general, Stephen is at this stage, (and perhaps throughout the book given the recurring appearance of his own father) obsessed with the father-son relationship:

A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil. …The corpse of John Shakespeare does not walk the night. From hour to hour it rots and rots. He rests, disarmed of fatherhood, having devised that mystical estate upon his son. …Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten. On that mystery and not on the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the church is founded and founded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro- and microcosm, upon the void. … Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?

What the hell are you driving at?

I know. Shut up. Blast you! I have reasons.

This is all of interest to me due to my leanings toward Central Character # 2, Leopold Bloom, who is mostly absent in this section but who fulfills the role of father to Stephen, as we learn he has lost his own son many years earlier. Bloom is therefore haunted by the ghost of his own son, as Stephen is haunted by the ghost of his own father, both coming together in a tidy analogous theory here focused on William Shakespeare, the man.

2. In presenting his theory, this is the first and perhaps only formal time within Ulysses where we see Stephen striving toward his goal of becoming an intellectual.  We have to give him props for this, but at the same time, his theory is refuted at every turn by the collection of assembled scholars. Holes are poked through his theory left and right until Stephen himself admits he does not believe his own theory. He is further trampled upon as one Buck Mulligan enters into the scene to heap additional humiliation upon him, and at the same time remarks disparagingly upon Leopold Bloom (future substitute father), a stranger to Buck and Stephen at this stage, who he saw ogling (observing) the bottom of a statue out in the corridor.  In this way, the repeating themes of Stephen and Bloom sharing in the “outsider” status is brought forth once more (for the 98th time and we’re only half-way through the book!) and the connection between them is reinforced outside of the view of the pure reader.

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A bit more about that Tower


Any readers out there may recall my indifference at the prospect of the Joyce Museum reopening in the Martello Tower in Dun Laoghaire, (in American: Dun Leary) near Sandy Cove. However, this did not prevent me from visiting during last spring’s visit to Ireland. A hangover from the wedding I’d just finished attending a few hours earlier and getting to bed at 5 a.m. did prevent me from getting to the tower before it closed for the day.  I guess I’ll have to wait until my next visit across the ocean to peer lovingly at Joyce’s death mask.

In the meantime, a good part of me is glad the Museum was closed by the time I got there. I’d likely have been disappointed to walk in and not see Stephen and Buck Mulligan bickering, Haines condescending, or at the very least, a re-created bachelor pad.

Instead, I got to hang out with these people…


And enjoy the highly uncharacteristic sunny, balmy weather, as well as pick up an apple cider (with whiskey) at the nearby farmers market. All in all, a perfect afternoon.

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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 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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Bloomsday Preview

In plenty of time for June 16th, the celebration of all things Ulysses-related, the BBC Radio 4 has announced a full-days broadcast of the book — in 7 parts! 


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Episode 2, Nestor – In which Stephen goes to work.

In this episode, Stephen goes to work.  I was surprised to find he had an occupation, as he previously seemed the type that would be scornful of work, and stooping to accept a paycheck. He is in fact a substitute teacher, and by all appearances, a popular one.  The boys take to him and in particular, after-class one of the more unhappy (read: 1904 nerd) students stays behind for some tutoring, Stephen is reminded of his recently departed mother, and we learn that Stephen has compassion.  This also came as a surprise to me, as up until now Stephen has appeared fairly bored with the examples of humanity before him, and turning his nose up at anything too mundane. Earning money itself becomes a bit of a dirty prospect.

Point in case: Mr. Deasy.

The boys then go out to play and Stephen tracks down his boss — Mr. Deasy, a Protestant, to collect his pay. The boss-man from the North is a chatterbox and he ropes Stephen into both a lengthy conversation on “history” and “economics”,  as well as the task of delivering Deasy’s treatise, a letter to the editor on the important issue of Foot and Mouth disease, to the local paper.

I interpret the exchange as Deasy attempting to give advice or otherwise mentor Stephen, or at the very least, draw him into a debate.  Stephen wants none of it.  Deasy’s theories, particularly the ones of anti-Semitic/anti-woman persuasion, are mildly rejected by Stephen, but largely he’s not muddying his garment in debating anything with Deasy.

This episode contains the book’s most famous line, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” , which I must admit I was pleased to read, as it was something familiar. I found Stephen’s  God is “a shout in the street” more thought provoking, however it was a bit of a throwaway comment for Stephen, as much trying to distract Deasy from his train of thought, or attempting to shock a bit.

The comment led me to think about the nature of this idea that God makes itself present with event, typically violent, and otherwise, is unavailable.  This shout is the only manifestation of God in a novel written at the close of WWI, in a time when the novel was meant to be representative of reality.  Ponderous stuff.

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