In Homer’s The Odyssey, Book XI is the story of Odysseus and his men leaving Circe’s island. But as a condition of their departure, Circe directs him and his men to Hades to talk to the dead. While in Hades, Odysseus speaks to many different dead characters who add several layers of depth to the epic. Among many others, he speaks to his deceased mother who updates him on the recent happenings in Ithaca. He also speaks to the prophet Tiresias, who offers foreshadowing of adventures to come.
In Ulysses, the Hades episode also breaks the story open. We are treated to a host of new characters who offer a broadening purview of the world outside the perspectives of our main characters, Bloom, Molly, and Stephen Dedalus. Instead of journeying to a mythical underworld for discussions with the dead, Hades in Ulysses sees our characters participate in the procession and funeral service for the recently deceased Patrick Dignam. Bloom rides in the procession inside a carriage with Jack Power, Martin Cunningham, and Simon Dedalus – Stephen’s father. Once at the church, most of the conversation stops and then we switch to the thoughts in Bloom’s head as he watches the Catholic process with detachment. After the service, the men walk with John O’Connell, the cemetery caretaker, to the burial service. Bloom briefly walks around the cemetery and ponders death. Finally, the men disperse.
There is a wealth of dialogue in this episode and, as with The Odyssey, the dialogue with the other characters reveals a great deal about the story. We learn that Bloom doesn’t quite fit into this society, as much as he has tried to assimilate. At every jab, Bloom takes the high road. He intimates that he feels responsible for his son Rudy’s poor start to life and untimely death. We also get confirmation that Bloom’s father committed suicide. We get a sighting of Blazes Boylan and come to realize that he is popular with the men in Bloom’s circles. We also get lots and lots of thoughts about death. Bloom considers people being buried standing up, but then thinks better of it because at some point, their heads might pop out of the ground. He reconsiders coffins and how they merely put off the inevitable digestion by insects. He considers the horror of being buried alive and possible solutions, including a phone line and an air hole in the coffin. Aside from the death theme that overrides much of the episode, here are the prominent themes:
- Anti-Semitism: As the procession passes Reuben J. Dodd – a moneylender – the men scoff and curse at him inside the comfort of the carriage. The men all feel put out by Reuben because they have all owed him money, although it is implied that Bloom has not. In an effort to change the topic, Bloom brings up the story of Dodd’s son falling into the Liffey, which Cunningham rudely takes over. When it is revealed that Reuben paid the rescuer a florin for his son, the elder Dedalus scoffs that it was “one and eightpence too much.” While there is no direct attack on Bloom, who is a Jew, in this episode, the attack on Dodd’s character is left hanging as a slight against the race.
- Bloom the outcast / inferior: There are several shots across the bow of our man Bloom, both from the crowd and from Bloom himself. He is the last to enter the carriage and the last man to kneel at the ceremony. He sits uncomfortably on the soap in the carriage that he bought at Sweny’s because he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. He offers up the paper to Simon Dedalus to read Dan Dawson’s speech as Cunningham suggests and Simon turns him down. When the men see Boylan, Bloom wonders what Molly and the others see in him. Jack Power pointedly asks Bloom if he’ll be traveling to Belfast with Boylan and Molly – to whom he refers to as Madame – implying that he knows something of the affair. Bloom remarks that a sudden death is the best death because there is no suffering and the men disagree. When Bloom thinks of Rudy, he quotes a saying that if a male child lives, its because of the mother, if he dies, its due to the father. John Henry Menton doesn’t remember Bloom but remembers Molly and wonders why she would marry him. At the end of the chapter, Menton snubs Bloom after he helpfully tells Menton that he has a ding in his hat.
- Bloom rises above the slights: In all of the cases mentioned above, Bloom carries himself with dignity. After Power’s “Madame” slight to Bloom, he wonders about the mistress Power keeps, but of course he keeps it to himself. When Power brings up suicide as the worst of all and Dedalus adds, “The greatest disgrace to have in the family,” as well as “They say a man who does it is a coward.” Bloom does not reply, but he observes that Dedalus “looked at me.” He then critiques Simon Dedalus and his drunkard wife who has died, but he leaves it all alone. Bloom is satisfied with the thought, “He looked away from me. He knows. Rattle his bones.” Finally, after pointing out the ding in Menton’s hat and being curtly thanked, Bloom thinks, “Never mind. Be sorry after perhaps when it dawns on him. Get the pull over him that way.” As with Menton, Bloom is paying it forward with all of these men. He does not get into a battle of egos but rather taking the slights in good graces even though he’s armed with the knowledge to fire back.
- Father and son: Early in the episode we get to compare Simon’s position on Stephen and the Gouldings to what Stephen said it would be in Proteus. Of course, Stephen had his father pegged. Simon is harsh on Stephen but Bloom gives him credit for looking out for him, like Bloom would have done for Rudy. Bloom also thinks about his father and his son, both of which are dead. He repeatedly says “poor papa” when thinking about his father. As mentioned above, Bloom is taking the blame for Rudy’s early death. We come to realize that Bloom’s lineage is over at the moment and he is very much on his own.
At the close of this episode, I am inclined to forgive Bloom his trespasses for carrying on with a flirtatious pen pal and to pull for the hero to rise above his troubles. With no father and no son, and certainly cast as an outsider in the group, the episode leaves us with a distinct impression of vulnerability for Bloom. We know his wife is headed for an affair with Boylan and that Boylan is a man about town. Death is on his mind and we know that his father – who Bloom says was in pain – committed suicide. There are so many thoughts and impressions in such a little space. Hail to the master, James Joyce!