Happy Bloomsday! Today is June 16, which is the day James Joyce’s Ulysses is celebrated around the world. In the last couple of years, I have taken to reading Ulysses and done my level best to wrap up the reading on June 16. This year I decided to blog about each episode along the way, which, as I have learned, dramatically slows the process. However, I’m also finding that I’m getting more out of the reading this time around, so I’m happy with the process. With that said, it is time for another installment.
“In the act of going, he stayed.” In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus is ensnared by Calypso on an island during his travels. The nature of the ensnarement isn’t all bad. Although Calypso is ego-centric and selfishly wants to keep Odysseus as her own, she is a beautiful goddess-nymph and she generally treats Odysseus well. Their relationship is carnal. But after some time – Homer’s timeline has it at 7 years – Odysseus misses his wife Penelope and wants to make his way home. It takes an appeal to the gods and Hermès finally frees him at the behest of Zeus himself.
Now in the fourth episode of Ulysses, we finally meet our hero, Leopold Bloom. Much like the earlier parts of the book, we’re treated to a continuum of thoughts and actions, although we are limited to reading the thoughts of Bloom and Stephen. We meet Bloom’s wife, Molly, and we learn that they have a daughter, Milly. We also learn that they had a son named Rudy who died in infancy.
Relatively speaking, there is a ton of action in this episode. We have rewound to start the day at 8 AM – this time with Bloom. He goes to the butcher to pick up a pork kidney and observes the Dublin of 1904 around him. He comes home and cooks breakfast, which is a bit of a gender role reversal for this timeframe. Bloom picks up the mail dropped from the mail slot, which includes a letter for him from Milly, a card for Molly from Milly, and a letter for Molly from the antagonist, Blazes Boylan. The Blooms have a conversation about reincarnation and several polite exchanges. Leopold then eats his own breakfast and heads to the outhouse to finish off his morning ritual. There are also several interactions with the family cat throughout.
There are themes aplenty in the Calypso episode. Like Calypso, the episode has sexual references throughout. Also like the goddess, who would have been a champion for women’s equal rights, we get the strong indication that Molly will soon stray from the marriage with Boylan and that Leopold is aware. Bloom gives a lot of thought about staying and going.
Sexual overtones: Bloom notices his wife’s feminine form and features as he interacts with her. Bloom also takes notice of the “vigorous hips” on the next-door girl in front of him at the butcher’s shop and wishes the butcher would hurry so he could walk behind her towards home. It’s “Pleasant to see first thing in the morning.” His thoughts drift off to this woman having an affair with a constable. When he misses out on walking behind the lady, his thoughts drift to his wife, Molly and pleasant evenings of the past. Back home, he thinks of being near Molly’s “ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.” The reference to the word “yes” here also will have overt sexual tones once we get to the final episode and get the chance to spend some time with Molly’s thoughts.” Additionally in this episode, Bloom recognizes that his daughter Milly, who has turned 15 yesterday is coming of age. As he considers his wife’s interest in Blazes Boylan and his daughter’s interest in Bannon, he concedes that it is impossible to prevent in either case.
Staying and Going: For me, the most important sentence of the whole episode is, “In the act of going, he stayed.” This is Calypso in a nutshell – both in Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses. This sentence comes after he notices the opened letter from Boylan tucked under Molly’s pillow. He has seen the flirtation between the two. He knows they’ll be working together and he knows his wife is interested in him. However, there are faraway thoughts throughout the episode as well. Bloom thinks of Molly’s father in the Middle East and in Gibraltar. He considers investing in the tracts of land offered in Turkey to be a farmer. Bloom considers the plight of the Jewish people (Bloom is a Jew), and also considers traveling for several weeks to Mullingar, which is where the daughter Milly is staying. But at the same time, Bloom is wavering back and forth about also staying. Notably, when he goes to the outhouse he thinks about the back garden and how the soil is bad. He has a distinct thought to “Reclaim the whole place.” I believe this is poignant. Joyce is showing us rather than telling us that our hero is conflicted about what to do. Should he stay or go? Or both? Like Odysseus, maybe he will go and then come back to “reclaim his rightful place.”
Other prominent themes in the episode include business, jews, and death. The prominent public event in the story involves going to the funeral of Patrick Dignam, who died suddenly in recent days. The episode ends with the words “Poor Dignam!” as Blooms thoughts shift on a dime to close.
When contrasted with the other 8 AM and simultaneous episode, Telemachus, in which Stephen Daedalus is the focal point, we see several stark differences. Bloom is older and more practical about his thoughts, while Stephen is more ego-centric or fanciful. Stephen is off contemplating the stars while Bloom is calculating return on investment. Bloom is considering “staying and going” in the face of his wife’s imminent stray from the marital bedroom while Stephen is holding a grudge over his friend’s comment that his mother was “beastly dead.” These contrasts demonstrate the mastery that Joyce had over the human psyche. By showing us a difference in maturity in human thoughts while interweaving so many other themes, Ulysses is perhaps the richest case of demonstrated human understanding in the literary world.
Photo credit: Odysseus und Kalypso by Arnold Böcklin (1883), by The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=147930