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.’

    STEPHEN

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

    BLOOM

(Approaching Stephen) Look ...

    STEPHEN

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

    BLOOM

I say, look ...

    STEPHEN

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.

But he is still very tense about it, and his pride makes him bite any hand that feeds him. Bloom and Stephen have been intoning to one another ‘fragments of verse from the ancient Hebrew and ancient Irish languages’ – packed with error, as Kenner explains. Each of them tacitly recognises that the other’s nation is offering stubborn resistance to ancient wrong. Bloom sees in Stephen ‘the predestination of a future’ and hears ‘the traditional accent of the ecstasy of catastrophe’. He encourages Stephen to sing a ‘legend on an allied theme’, and the catastrophe comes, with the effect of a practical joke. It is fair to remember that Stephen is in revolt against Irish nationalism, and there was a good deal of talk in the Dublin of that time against Jews, without actual persecution: he may have felt that the disagreeable side of nationalism should also be recalled. The ballad is about a Jewish girl who attracts and then murders a Christian boy. ‘I haven’t let this young man off very lightly, have I?’ Joyce said to Budgen, and Stephen is at his worst here, but he recovers. Bloom remains silent for three pages, chiefly remembering things about his own daughter, no doubt with an air of humane calm. It is his usual resistance to such talk, and he does not foresee that it will disarm Stephen. Stephen knows he has gone too far; he has no serious opinions against Jews, merely, in a schoolboyish way, thinking them funny, and Bloom really is rather mysteriously funny, perhaps from being kept at arms’ length by Dublin; even the newsboys caper behind him, imitating his walk. He is only half a Jew by birth, none by religion, and very little by family training, so one might think the matter could be treated as a joke. But Stephen realises that will not do here. He stammers out a lengthy explanation of the ballad, remote from it but fitting his own situation; he is afraid he has a doom on him; and the odd style of the chapter allows us to receive this jumble in a brief paragraph of great beauty, perhaps the most haunting that Joyce ever achieved:

    Condense Stephen’s commentary.

    One of all, the least of all, is the victim predestined. Once by inadvertence, twice by design, he challenges his destiny. It comes when he is abandoned and challenges him reluctant and, as an apparition of hope and youth, holds him unresisting. It leads him to a strange habitation, to a secret infidel apartment, and there, implacable, immolates him, consenting.

I find it remarkable that critics never quote this bit.

Kenner finds the occasion to need a wild degree of special pleading. He explains that the style of the chapter does not let us know the actual tone of the conversation, but that poor Stephen must have been embarrassed. Therefore (Kenner’s Ulysses, 139): ‘we can understand why Stephen sings the ballad about the imperilled Christian boy in the Jewish habitation, and departs within minutes of singing it.’ These ‘minutes’ occupy 12 severely compressed pages, and report a successful negotiation, after which Stephen promises repeatedly to return. After the commentary on the ballad, and a long silence, Bloom abruptly asks Stephen to stay the night. Stephen refuses, in a polite and friendly manner, but Bloom in his turn now becomes anxious. He returns the money he was guarding for Stephen. The text goes on:

    What counterproposals were alternately advanced, accepted, modified, declined, restated in other terms, reaccepted, ratified, reconfirmed?

    To inaugurate a prearranged course of Italian instruction, place the residence of the instructed. To inaugurate a course of vocal instruction, place the residence of the instructress. To inaugurate a series of static, semistatic and peripatetic intellectual dialogues, places the residence of both speakers (if both speakers were resident at the same place), the Ship hotel and tavern ...

And so on through an absurd list of public places. The next question-and-answer tells us that Bloom is afraid Stephen will never return.

Whatever the meaning of the word ‘counterproposal’, it is clear that Stephen promised to return, earnestly and reply, while realising that the promise was important to Bloom: this follows from the sequence ‘advanced ... reconfirmed’. But he may have felt himself badgered into it, and therefore free to break his promise, if all the counterproposals came from Bloom: this would be very out of character for Stephen, but many readers have evidently presumed it. And the absurd style is a sort of parody of legal or pedantic language, in which many authors would feel free to use the words wrongly: but Joyce would try to get them right. In the NED, this word is listed only under ‘COUNTER-3’, with many other such nouns, as ‘...against, in opposition to, as a rejoinder or reply to ...’ Thus it would not apply if Bloom begged Stephen to return, and he refused, and then Bloom said: ‘Well, meet me in a pub, anyway.’ Stephen must have made the first counterproposal, and probably the first two, as the word is in the plural; and these are all he could sensibly have made. But how could he have known that Bloom suspected Molly of pronouncing wrongly the Italian of her songs? I submit that there is a slight change of convention, beginning late in the previous chapter, which is usually accepted unnoticed because it feels natural. Bloom is now talking very open-heartedly to Stephen, and anything reported as a thought by Bloom is actually said to Stephen, except when we are told that he checks himself – better not explain why he didn’t go to the mother’s funeral (680). The new rule is already well established at the end of the Cabmen chapter, when Bloom after extravagant praise for Stephen’s voice lets drop that it had better be properly trained: this bit of tact is plainly meant to be spoken, and the passage is a struggle to win Stephen over.

Joyce in later life was rather prone to say that he had been too poor to have his voice trained (maybe he thought he sang better without), so Stephen would not mind letting Molly as a professional give him a few tips. He may remember the idea of lessons for himself, but the idea of lessons for Molly he must pick up at once. Several times during the day Bloom has expressed his doubts about Molly’s Italian (he will have observed a few people in her audience make faces) but he has not betrayed this to Stephen. He does now, immediately after asking Stephen to stay the night, because it may help him to accept.

    What various advantages would or might have resulted from a prolongation of such extemporisation?

    For the guest: security of domicile and seclusion of study. For the host: rejuvenation of intelligence, vicarious satisfaction. For the hostess: disintegration of obsession, acquisition of correct Italian pronunciation.

The teasing style does not tell us, but it does not deny, that Bloom spoke to Stephen, making these points somehow. Surely we need not suppose that he sat in agonised silence, awaiting the refusal? He is confident that his offer is a good one, and these words would be a tactfully moderate way of saying it, if translated into spoken language. Breaking the silence afterwards to ask a pointless question (had Stephen known Mrs Sinico?) shows that he was not totally overawed. So far, then, the conversation can be reconstructed. Stephen picks up at once the point about Molly, and says that, though he has to go away just now, he will come back and exchange education with her on these specific points. They are decently limited, and he must at least be curious to meet Molly. It was foolish of poor Bloom (making counterproposals against these new proposals of Stephen, which excluded Bloom) to beg for further intellectual conversations, and one can hear the voice of Stephen offering to fit them in while he walked from one pub to another. But that will settle itself. What Stephen would not consider trivial is his promise to return to the house, ‘reaccepted, ratified, reconfirmed’.

This makes a coherent story, consistent with the text as a whole, but the author seems to have tried to make us feel doubtful about Stephen’s return. Bloom thinks that Stephen is nearly off his head, so he is patient with him, but cannot think him reliable. There is an answer: Stephen did have a craving to destroy the chance which is being offered him, but afterwards he feels that Bloom has passed a test by taking the insult so calmly. He mumbles excuses and feels on more intimate terms; he is now even less likely to tell polite lies. There is a worse obstacle in the question-and-answer beginning ‘Why might these several’ on page 679; the previous one, already considered, was moderate and sensible, presenting the advantages for all three if Stephen moves in; there is every reason to suppose he said it to Stephen. The one after describes a merely social query, evidently meant to relax the tension while Stephen decides. But in the middle one Bloom apparently offers Stephen his daughter as well as his wife, which could only impress Stephen as threatening an appalling amount of bother. Bloom cannot have said it. And yet the mention of ‘a Jew’s daughter’ does suggest that he said something, referring in an oblique way to the ballad, and telling Stephen that he actually has a daughter; the further suggestions were really there, but only in Bloom’s own busy mind. This is the only point at which Bloom sounds positively appalling, as Kenner assumes him to be all along; and though it can be explained, I do not think it can be justified. Probably it was a late addition, made when Joyce was being harassed by the law and needed obscurity.

Joyce has made Stephen strongly in favour of telling truth and keeping promises (consider the telegram to Malachi) – rather more so than Joyce himself, perhaps; also, just before he leaves the house, he makes a solemn affirmation to relieve the dejection of Bloom, whose fear that Stephen will break his promise is suddenly expressed as fear for the whole future of mankind.

     Did Stephen participate in his dejection?

     He reaffirmed his significance as ... a conscious rational reagent between a micro– and a macrocosm ...

Empty rant, one might feel: but he would not intend to be facetious while asserting his dignity, and Bloom is said to ‘apprehend the affirmation substantially’, though his anxiety soon returns. Probably Stephen still believes that he is doomed, as well as vowed, to return.

After destiny we must consider choice. What does the novel present as the most deep-lying desire in each of the three characters? With Bloom the answer is simple: he wants a son begotten by himself upon his wife, and fears that he may already have lost the opportunity. He likes having a daughter, but she does not really count; or the renewed desire for a son may be a result of the daughter becoming grown-up. The clearest examples comes among his thoughts after hearing ‘The Croppy Boy’ sung in the Lunch chapter (280):

    I, too, last my race. Milly young student. Well, my fault perhaps. No son. Rudy. Too late now. Or if not? If not? If still?

    He bore no hate.

    Hate. Love. Those are names. Rudy. Soon I am old.

There is no need for a joke here because the singing excuses the sentiment, but in another case he might be thought to turn sardonic. He is listening to old Dedalus, in the cab taking them to the funeral (87):

Noisy self-willed man. Full of his son. He is right. Something to hand on. If little Rudy had lived. See him grow up. Hear his voice in the house. Walking beside Molly in an Eton suit. My son. Me in his eyes. Strange feeling it would be. From me. Just a chance. Must have been that morning in Richmond terrace she was at the window, watching the two dogs at it ... Give us a touch, Poldy. God, I’m dying for it. How life begins.

No doubt Joyce feared this would be considered mawkish unless the two dogs were brought in at the end, and Bloom may be supposed to feel the same. The reflection that a passing impulse of lust may have this momentous consequence is an obvious one, but why ‘Just a chance’? Maybe they were using a contraceptive when in bed, but on this spontaneous occasion it was not handy. They were already being too cautious: that is the point of the two dogs in Bloom’s mind, though to a reader they may seem mere debunking. The death of Rudy gave him a horror of the whole business of childbirth (or gave it to his wife – it is never clear whether she was partly responsible), so that even while using a contraceptive he could no longer perform the normal act with her. This phobia is what he hopes to overcome before they are both too old, but by now there is only a chance.

Bloom also has a kink: he is a voyeur. Maybe every man is, or every jealous man, but it is insisted upon here for a reason, part of the plot. Besides, not every man would be satisfied by a good look at Gerty MacDowell’s knickers. ‘Goodbye, dear. Thanks. Made me feel so young,’ he reflects after she has limped away (375). Perhaps as an extension of this, he enjoys seeing another man enjoy a woman who attracts him; even the thought of the hated Boylan at work with Molly has a guilty fascination for him, and in the nightmare (552) he says:

Thank you, sir. I will, sir. May I bring two men chums to witness the deed and take a snapshot? (He holds an ointment jar.) Vaseline, sir?

He is afraid that being a pacifist makes him unmanly, and this is the bite in the self-accusation, but he is also ashamed at feeling the direct pleasure. He takes no interest in the men chums, who remain wholly unpictured; even when he imagines himself as wholly female, he is being tortured by a mannish female brute. The author seems keen to insist that he is not homosexual. Early in the book, Bloom is made to feel a suspicion about M’Coy, who has irritated him by friendly gossip just when he wanted to see the ankles of a lady stepping into a carriage (75):

You and me, don’t you know? In the same boat. Softsoaping. Give you the needle that would. Can’t he hear the difference? Think he’s that way inclined a bit. Against my grain somehow.

‘That way’ without telling the way has now a very specific meaning, whether or not it already had in 1904 (Joyce of course wrote the passage a good deal later). M’Coy has been boasting about his wife, also a singer, and Bloom forms a new suspicion, in a separate paragraph: ‘Wonder is he pimping after me?’ They both seem gratuitous; probably the author foisted them in merely as a clearance for Bloom. No doubt some homosexual feeling is needed for any happy triangle, but the difference here might be decisive for Stephen: Bloom only needs to lurk, watching Stephen with Molly, not touching him. Joyce himself felt disgusted by homosexuality, though he was not proud of that feeling; and he wanted to invent an Offer that Stephen might be supposed to accept. There is one positive accusation that Bloom ogles Stephen: it comes from the alert but imperceptive Malachi (215), and we are given another indication of what Bloom feels there. For a second time he sees Stephen being led out to drink with prominent characters. On the first occasion, the end of the newspaper office chapter, Bloom acts like a humble mouse, but he feels confident that they are rapidly drinking themselves to death. It is not unreasonable, as one of them says to J.J. O’Molloy in Bloom’s presence that the editor has ‘incipient jigs’; and when Bloom reflects about J.J. O’Molloy ‘that hectic flush spells death for a man’ he probably ascribes it to drink, not TB. As they troop out to the pub he thinks, ‘Wonder is that young Dedalus the moving spirit,’ an absurd idea, but he is anxious about Stephen (124, 126, 145). Joyce himself would presumably laugh at Bloom here. His brother and his wife felt that they had only just managed to keep him from too much drink, but to James himself Kenner’s belief that Stephen cannot become a novelist because he has taken to drink would seem merely typical of Bloom. However, it is consistent that when Bloom sees Stephen being led away from the library by Malachi he fears they are going to drink, and regards Stephen with grave pity (it is only two hours since he left the press office). The novel needs to establish that Bloom is inclined to help Stephen.

The mental condition of Stephen is presented very clearly, and he seems unlikely to accept a triangle. But he had an extra quirk which is seldom recognised. He needs a woman who will provide stiffening and backing for him, as well as absorbing his sexual desires, and he presumes that she will have to be an older woman. This is why he might accept Molly, who is probably 35 but perhaps 33 (736). He is not really interested in the domestic life of Shakespeare except that Shakespeare, at 18, married a woman eight or nine years older, already pregnant. Stephen is 22. Early in the book, when he is yearning for love on a beach (49), he expects the woman to take the initiative (‘I am quiet here alone’). No doubt the girls at Mrs Cohen’s take it, and he is not versed in any other procedure, but in the Library chapter he definitely envies Shakespeare (189):

She put the comether on him, sweet and twenty six. The greyeyed goddess who bends over the boy Adonis, as prologue to the swelling act, is a boldfaced Stratford lass who tumbles in a cornfield a lover younger than herself.

    And my turn? When?

    Come!

This positively labours to assure us that he would not mind accepting a famous beauty in her thirties. Indeed, one might suspect that Stephen has already guessed what is coming when Bloom turns up yet again at the hospital party, that evening: there seems no other reason why he should remark that Beaumont and Fletcher had but the one doxy between them, and ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his wife for his friend.’ To Bloom, sitting beside him, this must sound like an encouragement (387). But as Joyce believed in omens he could be very free with dramatic irony; it is better to make him astonished, and much sobered up, when the various fantasies of the day all crystallise into a simple proposal. This comes after his fit of the horrors at Mrs Cohen’s, which has made plain that he needs some other motherly figure to exorcise the haunting of his real mother.

The main argument of Kenner, to reject this ending for the book, is that Stephen just cannot endure Bloom; he insinuates it by little cries of pain and other signals of knowingness. But part of the charm of Bloom and Stephen when talking together, and we get quite a lot of it in their two final chapters, is that each of them talks his own brand of nonsense without bothering about the other’s. Bloom has been adroit enough to tell Stephen that his friends are plotting against him or at least taking advantage of him, especially Malachi, and this is very soothing for Stephen. Joyce really did imagine that Gogarty had wronged him; there was a formal meeting long afterwards, attaining peace though hardly pardon, but so far as one can make out the young Gogarty had been very helpful to Joyce, and had done nothing worse than laugh him out of some of his follies. As for saying, ‘Let’s corrupt Joyce, shall we?’ (and teach him to drink), I have heard that said among young friends with a merely educative intention. Stephen, like the young Joyce, cannot bear to be laughed at, and finds the admiring Bloom a great comfort because he is sure not to do it, whereas he himself is free to laugh pretty coarsely at Bloom. It will do Stephen no good to be among people who reverence his learning: Bloom assures him that his BA degree is ‘a huge ad in its way’ (647). But it will not cause him any suffering.

Molly is the doubtful member of the triangle. At present, she is much gratified by her lover and the prospect of a tour with him; and, though she even yet remembers Rudy with sorrow, she does not express any craving, such as Bloom has, for a son – she is aware of the wrongs of women, forced by men into pain, danger and trouble. Yet it is while thinking about Mrs Purefoy, the type case of such wrong, that her mind swings back to the idea of having another child herself (727):

if someone gave them a touch of it themselves theyd know what I went through with Milly nobody would believe cutting her teeth too and Mina Purefoy’s husband ... the last time I was there a squad of them falling over one another and bawling you couldnt hear your ears supposed to be healthy not satisfied till they have us swollen out like elephants or I dont know what supposing I risked having another not off him though still if he was married Im sure hed have a fine strong child but I dont know Poldy has more spunk in him yes thatd be awfully jolly ...

She jeers at herself because this thought is too generous, and it does not recur, but it lies near the surface. The scrupulous fairness to Boylan shows that he has displeased her. His virility may become bullying; his organ is too large for her sense of propriety; and it turns out that in a careless moment he treated her as a plaything or chattel:

no thats no way for him has he no manners nor no refinement nor no thing in his nature slapping us behind like that on my bottom because I didnt call him Hugh ...

She feels sure the poet will be more respectful, and as for Bloom, ‘as hes making the breakfast for 1 he can make it for 2’ – or she would make it for the poet herself. Earlier, she thinks with pleasure of such a triangle, realising that Bloom would like it too (725):

I wish some man or other would take me sometime when hes there and kiss me in his arms theres nothing like a kiss long and hot down to your soul ...

In fact, she is presented with decent care as ready to play her part in the Bloom Offer.

One has next to consider how the primal scene will be operated, bearing in mind that Stephen is probably more squeamish than he pretends. The author allows a useful pointer when Bloom leads Stephen from the cabmen’s shelter, taking his arm (644): ‘Yes, Stephen said uncertainly, because he thought he felt a strange kind of flesh of a different man approach him, sinewless and wobbly and all that.’ Stephen is drunk and exhausted, but his reaction is clear-cut: he is not physically attracted by Bloom, the readers are assured, but also he does not feel a physical loathing, which would make the plan impossible. As it happens, no contact will be needed: that is the point of making Bloom a voyeur. Still, Bloom has to be gazing while Stephen and Molly perform the act, and when Stephen has reached crisis the thoughtful husband will need to see that the condom is still in place and unbroken. Stephen will then retire to the spare bedroom, no doubt making one of his jokes, and Molly is pretty sure to be still unsatisfied: thus the married couple are in an ideal condition to overcome their obstacle. It does not much matter whether Joyce was medically correct concerning this treatment for the phobia: the point is that he labours throughout the book to offer it as a plausible one. Admittedly, many questions are left unanswered by stopping the book at this point: what happened about the tour, and suchlike. But Joyce had a metaphysical or even theological answer: a man may describe himself when young, but only up to the point where the young man turns into somebody different. Nor is it a point only: the increasing fog, after the madness of Nighttown, marks an increasing difficulty for Joyce in knowing what Stephen would say. He has always had great scrupulosity as a truthful reporter, and here the language becomes contorted by the need to isolate what he can be sure of. And of course the reason for his difficulty is that the Bloom Offer was never actually made: it would have been, or something very like it, but a miracle happened instead. He saw Nora passing in the street – otherwise he would have lost his real self. I have never seen any other explanation for the shape of the book.

Why then does the book make a secret of it? Because the procedure which it regards as an innocent act of charity is heavily penalised by the law. A sexual act performed by two people in the presence of a third one, whatever their sexes, counts as ‘gross indecency’. Prosecutions are seldom mounted, as any eyewitness confesses to the offence automatically: but there would be no such problem in one of the trials for indecency of Joyce’s book. A proof that it recommended such an act would be decisive. The book was banned for many years in both England and America because of quite minor indecencies, but this, for the law, was a major one: and the lawyers never discovered it, or not before legal permission had been granted – 1933 in America, and a year or two later in England. The biography quotes a letter from Joyce saying he had to rewrite a good deal of ‘Ithaca’, the chapter at home with Bloom, ‘on account of its scheme’: this is an apology for being so slow. Several chapters of the novel had appeared separately by that time in magazines, with much fuss about decency in response, and Joyce, though happy at being lionised in Paris, realised that his book was running into great trouble. My friends have sometimes told me that, if Joyce had intended Bloom to present a definite offer, he would have made it plain. If it had been made plain in the book, as at first in the draft it probably was, customs men would still be searching luggage for Ulysses at the ports of England and America.

Another question rises behind this. Why should he want to tell a story so remote from his experience that it had to be left unfinished? How could this be supposed to round off an account of his own early life? Nobody supposes that it really happened, and yet he would be scrupulous about making it relevant to himself, to his own case, even if Bloom became the more interesting character. There is an unexplained detail of the biography which is at least consistent with this argument. Soon after finding Nora, on 27 August 1904, he shared the concert platform with the two leading singers of Dublin; it was Horse Show week, and he got fairly good notices, and might seem on the verge of success. But he did not appear again, and two days later he wrote to Nora that he had been trying to join a troupe of travelling actors. During 1917, long after, a friend in Zurich offered to find him work at the opera house, and he said at once: ‘No, I don’t want to sing professionally. I tried it once and did not care for it.’ This was before he was given a pension by Mrs McCormick, so it was a lordly way to talk. He was prone to form unreasonable suspicions, and may have decided that singers can only prosper if they gratify the wives of their managers or promoters. Or perhaps he was made to feel that his voice was untrained to a humiliating degree. There is no need to suppose that the plot of the novel was put so directly into his hands. It did not require a great effort of invention.

The novel describes, or begins to describe, the louche world he would have fallen into, if Nora had not saved him. This gives her the praise she had earned without the indecency of putting her into a novel. In one way, it is a sad story, because it entails wasting the powers of Stephen, but in another, as he is doomed not to meet his Nora, it is the best thing that could happen to him. The author cannot be accused of writing propaganda for the happy triangle, since he presents it as a doom, though it is likely to succeed in its immediate aims. His chief need, as he plans the ultimate novel, is to be fully abreast of progress; what he presents is a current problem, and that is inherently a high-minded thing to do, a blow for freedom. ‘Lots of advanced people are doing it nowadays, didn’t you know?’ His intention was thus the opposite one to that ascribed to him in the earlier books by Kenner, which supposed him to bemoan the entire European development of thought since the Middle Ages.

Ellmann provides ample evidence that, around the time of finishing and launching Ulysses, when he was being lionised in Paris, he not only boasted that the book held a secret but found great difficulty in not telling it. Two letters to Miss Weaver in 1921 apologise for his slowness in finishing the book. In June he wrote: ‘The nature of the legend chosen would be enough to upset anyone’s mental balance.’ This does not tell much, but would hardly fit the cheery view of Kenner that the end doesn’t matter. In August he wrote that ‘Ithaca’ was having to be revised; he would not do that lightly. The troubles about earlier chapters, I submit, had made him realise that the last three chapters needed to hide their secret more deeply. But he evidently enjoyed hinting at it in Paris.

In November 1922 he reported getting an angry letter from Sylvia Beach, refusing to encourage further publicity about him. She had said: ‘the rumours that were current in Paris about Ulysses and its author were such that it was more advisable that nothing more about me or the other be printed in any paper here for some time to come.’ She would only talk in this way about something illegal. Joyce is being jolly when he writes in 1923 to a French translator of the final chapter, who has asked to be shown the secret scheme for the book, already shown to others. He is writing about formal matters, such as that each chapter of the book corresponds to a part of the body. ‘If I give it all up immediately, I’d lose my immortality. I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors arguing for centuries over what I meant ...’ He then sent the young man the whole document. Unless this is empty fun, it means that some further secret is withheld.

The strongest piece of evidence was very ably recovered by Ellmann from the sculptor Suter, who had received a confidence from Joyce’s old friend Budgen. (Budgen had worked for Suter, and would feel he had to tell someone.) While being lionised in Paris, Joyce had written to Budgen telling him a secret, afraid that Budgen might feel neglected perhaps, and then decided he must get it back. He induced Budgen to come and show him the letter again, made him drunk and took it off him, then ‘deposited him at a bus-stop’ from which he got home with difficulty (Joyce would not think much of this last atrocity, as he was himself good at getting home). Budgen was deeply hurt by the suspicion that he could not be trusted, and surely Joyce had only to ask for the letter back. But Joyce would be thinking about his immortal fame: what would best convince Budgen that he really must not tell this secret, let alone leave the letter among his papers? Budgen did not tell Suter what the secret was about, but these things happened late in 1922, when the secret of Ulysses was what Joyce could hardly contain.

It may seem that Budgen’s book about the making of Ulysses, all shining with plain honesty, is enough to refute the suggestion. One needs to consider the circumstances. Budgen was estranged from Joyce for three years after the atrocity; then Joyce heard he was in Paris and invited him to call. As he left, after a pleasant evening, Joyce said: ‘I hope you’ll always believe that I’m a good friend, Budgen.’ Just when Budgen started on his book is not clear, but Joyce supervised it throughout and was going over the galley proofs with Budgen in September 1933. One might think it just missed the bus, as the American judge cleared Ulysses in December, but its publication in 1934 may have helped the clearance in Britain soon after, and anyhow gave a soothing reassurance to help the sales of the new editions. Joyce said, when reading proofs of the English edition of Ulysses in 1936, ‘I have been fighting for this for twenty years,’ and one must expect some warlike activity as the crisis approached. The book is as mild as milk, anticipating some of the views of Kenner (so he ought not to be blamed for them). Of the final talk between Bloom and Stephen, he says (Budgen, 281): ‘What is revealed is the element of fatherhood in all social devotion ... When they take leave of another we feel certain that they will never meet again.’ There is a strong smell of tact here. If Bloom merely expresses fatherly feelings towards Stephen, why does that make certain that they will never meet again? Fathers are not always such pariahs, and it will actually be hard for this pair to avoid meeting, unless Stephen leaves Dublin. We can be sure of one thing that Budgen was sure about: he knew what his master wanted him to say.

It was from the lawyers that Joyce needed to keep the secret, until the book had been cleared: once that had been done, one might expect him to tell it, or at any rate bring out a definitive edition. But he was deeply absorbed in Finnegans Wake, and keen to say that that book was much the better one, and still much upset by the illness of his daughter, as well as hampered by increasing blindness. Also it seems possible that he had got tired of being shocking, and had come to prefer the bowdlerised interpretation. It is at least equally possible that he felt Ulysses had been rather a damp squib; as nobody had guessed what it was all about. He would not realise that, moving with his immense patience upon the feet of elephants, he had been overtaken by a social change. In 1904, the secret would have been pretty obvious. A man who is confronted by a need to produce a son, in later life, having neglected it before – what sort of man is that? He has inherited an entailed estate, possibly with a title, and has married on the strength of it. He would thus be one of the Protestant Ascendancy in the Ireland of that time, and Bloom would not be on calling terms: but he is particularly fascinated by the Ascendancy ladies, especially when they ride astride, flourishing whips. We hear of him as a spectator at polo matches and two kinds of horse-race, and presumably he would only go there to peep at these viragos. During his Nighttown visions, such ladies plan at considerable length to horsewhip Bloom. Sydney Smith had remarked, a good deal earlier, that nothing astonished the country clergy more than the difficulty found by squires in producing heirs, and with the march of time such comment would have become more widespread. Bloom would have heard a good deal of salacious pub gossip about the breeding of such people, and their horses, of course, were also highly-bred. To call God an ‘ostler’ does not now seem a telling insult, a natural parallel to ‘butcher’, but ostlers were understood to tie the hind legs of mares, who would otherwise lash out at the expensive stallions. Bloom had no taste for atrocity, but he is a practical and resourceful man, ready to pick up an idea from anyone.

Some while ago I published an article about Ulysses, and one of the reviewers said he did not understand how Stephen could possibly help Bloom to become a father. I can bear witness to the familiarity of this idea, around the time when the plot was invented. As it happens, I have not been exposed to the private talk of landowners since I was a little pitcher with long ears, but that takes us back to 1914 or a bit earlier. All I remember is one snatch of conversation. A: ‘D’you see old Smith-Brown has got what he wanted? The Times says “birth of a son”.’ B (speaking indulgently, as he was host): ‘Using a spare wheel, I suppose?’ C: ‘Oh yes, he was much in evidence.’ I thought: ‘What a wicked lord this must be, robbing his entire family just to spite his nephew.’ But then D, showing he was an intimate of the family, said: ‘Still, he managed it himself all right. It has the typical Smith-Brown squint’ (or whatever it was that they were accustomed to boast about). Only the innocent child, hoping to remain invisible, felt at all flabbergasted by this, though some, of course, might still feel dubious. It really does seem wildly absurd, a theme for a short story by Borges, to have had hundreds of Joyce experts flown to a world conference at Katmandu, where the domestic habits of the neighbours might have given them a few tips, but where they split hairs as usual, and came away still not knowing the story.