The Ultimate Novel

William Empson completes his discussion of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

  • Ulysses by Hugh Kenner
    Allen and Unwin, 182 pp, £10.00, March 1982, ISBN 0 00 480003 6
  • A Starchamber Quiry: A James Joyce Centennial Volume 1882-1982 edited by E.L. Epstein
    Methuen, 164 pp, £9.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 416 31560 7

So far, I may have given more expression of preference than solid argument. I need now to list the main details throughout the book which prepare the reader for Stephen to accept the Bloom Offer. There is at once a rather quaint obstacle. Most readers of Ulysses do not believe in omens, but Joyce eagerly did; in this he is genuinely like Homer. Four of the characters receive omens, and Joyce would regard these as an assurance that some great event would occur. Stephen on the previous night had a disturbing dream which he increasingly recalls; and the absurd Haines, who was also sleeping in the Martello tower, had a nightmare. He thought himself attacked by a black panther, which he tried to shoot, and Malachi fired some shots to reassure him. Probably Haines had fired real shots too: both young men were accustomed to the use of sporting guns, which Stephen was not. The incident really occurred, and Joyce walked out of the tower for ever, in a drizzle, before dawn. In the novel there is no immediate break, because the author needs to keep the other two characters available. Haines makes occasional reappearances during the day, chiefly as a figure of farce, but usually with a recall of his black panther. Stephen twice very dimly thinks of Bloom as the black panther (Ulysses, 215, 592).

Stephen first recalls his own dream while walking along the beach, at leisure to reflect after being paid off from his teaching job. He has nowhere to go, and nowhere to sleep that night, except possibly the brothel (‘Are you staying the night’ 543); but he will keep his promise, and try to get the schoolmaster’s letter about foot-and-mouth disease printed in the Dublin papers. He recalls contemptuously his past literary ambitions, and surely this implies an impulse to become a singer instead. The reader is not told why he throws up his job, which has not been presented as hard or disagreeable for him: we only know that he tells lies about it to the medical students, pretending he got the money for their drinks by selling his poems. It seems another hint that he is inclined to become a concert singer. He is rather annoyed to find himself making a poem, another of his drawing-room ballads, with doom and the sea in it, but he thinks, ‘Here, put a pin in that chap,’ and tears off the end of the schoolmaster’s letter to write the lines down. After all, he might get paid for it. When he thinks, ‘Better get this job over quick,’ he means finishing the poem, but he becomes interested instead in how to transcribe the sound of the waves. However, the poem goes on working in him, and the one verse is better when he recalls it in the Press chapter. The dog which has come with the cockle-pickers, scrabbling in the sand, as if to vulture the dead, now reminds him of Haines’s panther (47):

After he woke me up last night same dream or was it? Wait. Open hallway. Street of harlots. Remember. Haroun al Raschid. I am almosting it. That man led me, spoke. I was not afraid. The melon he had he held against my face. Smiled; creamfruit smell. That was the rule, said. In. Come. Red carpet spread. You will see who.

Later in the day, after his talk in the library, at about three o’clock, he is walking away with Malachi, and they pass Bloom. Malachi speaks to him, and then warns Stephen that Bloom lusts after him; Stephen reflects that this is the Oxford Manner, which means that he is contemptuous of Malachi’s opinion. Immediately before, he has been noticing the birds in the portico of the library:

Aengus of the birds. They go, they come. Last night I flew. Easily flew. Men wondered. Street of harlots after. A creamfruit melon he held to me. In. You will see.

Then Malachi inserts his bit of poison, and so Stephen watches Bloom.

A dark back went before them. Step of a pard,
down, out of the gateway, under portcullis barbs.

Bloom has been moving unobtrusively, so as to get his business done without interrupting the conversation, and he is habitually conscious of his tact. I cannot feel that this end to the chapter goes with such a bang as the author intended: but it is the point where the reader should first realise that Bloom is Stephen’s doom, or his saviour. Stephen does not realise it till quite late, not till after he has agreed to come home with Bloom. To feel himself generally doomed, while throwing away his only source of money, with nowhere to sleep that night, is of course only rational.

Molly laid out the cards in bed that morning, after Bloom had brought her breakfast, and learned that she would soon meet a poet, a young man, neither dark nor fair. She is not specially devoted to Boylan, we learn from her chapter, and would readily take Stephen instead, though probably not till after the concert tour with Boylan; anyhow, Stephen will not have to fight Boylan, which he would certainly refuse to do. So what Bloom reports when he gets back to her bed is what she had been expecting from the cards; her firm assurance about it should convince the reader.

Bloom is not a man to brood over his dreams, and we hear nothing about them till he is reflecting gently on the beach after being stirred by Gerty MacDowell. His dream was merely a promise of oriental luxury, of being invited into a harem; and his memory of it is confused by a conviction that he only wants his own wife:

That’s what they enjoy. Taking a man from another woman. Different from me. Glad to get away from other chap’s wife. Eating off cold plate. Chap in the Burton today spitting back his gumchewed gristle. French letter still in my pocketbook. Cause of half the trouble. But might happen sometime, I don’t think. Come in. All is prepared. I dreamt. What? Worst is beginning ...

Probably the last phrase means ‘only breaking the ice is really embarrassing,’ but even so it is a grudging memory; he refuses to be deluded by the omen. Yet in his shopping before breakfast his mind expands at every hint of oriental luxury, and when he arrives at the Hospital chapter a Pepys-like narrator assures us, among his thumb-nail sketches of those present, that Bloom (391) ‘had a strange fancy of his dame Mrs Moll with red slippers on in a pair of Turkey trunks which is thought by those in ken to be for a change ...’ They do seem to be nearing a crisis.

Joyce (I think) planned a dramatic moment for the omens in Nighttown but then felt it would not do, and left only a trace. First, before Bloom finds Stephen in Mrs Cohen’s, he has a vision of his wife, ‘in Turkish costume’, as expected. His delight and eagerness to tell her things are heart-felt, but she snubs him. Later on, he imagines her enjoying Boylan, and is thrown into a kind of fit, visible to the others for once; they laugh at him. This seems to cheer up Stephen, who begins mocking the varieties of sex, and the madame says, ‘None of that here,’ but his friend Lynch explains he is back from Paris, and the girls ask for some parleyvoo. He imitates a Paris pimp, and even the madame is delighted. He becomes exalted, and remembers bits of his dream: ‘Mark me. I dreamt of a watermelon.’


It was here. Street of harlots ... Where’s the red carpet spread?


(Approaching Stephen) Look ...


No, I flew. My foes beneath me. And ever shall be. World without end. (He cries.) Pater! Free!


I say, look ...


Break my spirit, will he? O merde alors!

He has a vision of his father, a hunting scene follows, and then a race meeting, where ‘a dark horse, riderless, bolts like a phantom past the winning-post, his mane moonfoaming, his eyeballs stars.’ It is hard to know what the others see or hear, but Zoe hears singing in the street outside, and cries ‘Stop!’ and demands twopence for the pianola. They all dance; it seems their only cheerful moment; then Stephen dances alone, an ecstatic affair which he calls a dance of death (but the words describing his thoughts convey very little). He stops dead, and the corpse of his mother rises stark through the floor. After a brief terrible conversation, he smashes the chandelier and flees from the room.

It has been explained that what Bloom is prevented from saying, in this crucial sequence, is simply ‘Look out,’ perhaps meaning ‘don’t do anything dangerous.’ This is not impossible, because their minds are mysteriously in touch, but no one else could tell that Stephen’s mind was going to change so rapidly from euphoria to convulsive horror. Telling the girls about his good-luck dream is a bit tipsy perhaps, but not a bad symptom otherwise. There is a much more direct thing for Bloom to have in mind: ‘We have had the same dream, and it has more or less come true. An interesting coincidence.’ Probably no one at Mrs Cohen’s would have paid attention even if he had managed to say it. But the readers would notice it, if he had remembered anything earlier about red carpets or flying or a water-melon. Probably Joyce had given some such detail to start with but then became shy of it. Yeats had taken up dreams, as a proof of his brand of spiritualism; he was especially pleased at finding a dream which had drifted across country, occupying one person after another. (One must agree that such a dream could not be produced by the unconsciousness of each person separately.) So the superstitions about dreams were no longer universal and of the people: they had become part of a movement, and Joyce would not care to be identified with it.

However, he still makes Stephen believe that he is doomed, pretty clearly in the Hospital chapter, and specifically when Bloom has taken him home. Before the hospital party, for which he buys the drinks, but not, presumably, the food – so that a mild party must have been planned – he has been out of the reader’s sight for six or seven hours. He was mooning about the streets in the Wandering Rocks chapter, after his talk in the Library, at about 3.30, and he is with the party of medical students by about 10.00. Kenner thinks he has been boozing and standing drinks all the time, which proves he has gone rotten, and he does seem to have lost 13 shillings – but surely this includes the outlay for the student party itself. He notices, earlier in the day, that he needs to buy a handkerchief, and that standing drinks to the journalists has set him back a bit. After being penniless for so long, he probably needs other things – socks, for instance. (It seems wonderful now that his money can go so far.) He needs drink to make him shine in company, and would stoke up a bit before arriving at the hospital with his gifts: but for most of this gap of time, I suggest, he drifted about, glowering, and deciding that his apparently favourable dream had meant doom. Kenner well points out that he claims to be presiding at a Last Supper during the party (Ulysses, 384): he has only called himself the Eternal Son in answer to a challenge, but it is a fairly grim joke when his refusals have left him with nowhere to lay his head. Soon after comes the thunder, and he is terrified: but again Joyce may be consistent in his superstition – Stephen need not think that the true God is rebuking him, but merely expect a doom. When the Bloom Offer percolates into his exhausted mind, during the Cabman and Eccles Street chapters, he begins to think that the doom might have been worse: he will only lose his immortal fame, as he had already become rather inclined to do.

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