Ulysses Blog by Ambassador Mulhall, Episode 15 "Circe"
Blog12 January 2021
“The Circe episode is generally regarded as the clou to Ulysses, at any rate as the most original and striking of all the eighteen episodes.” – Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (Bloomington, Indiana, 1960), p. 244.
Having just exited from what is arguably the most difficult episode of Ulysses, ‘Oxen of the Sun’ (up there with Episode 3, ‘Proteus’ in terms of the challenges it poses in my opinion), in this ‘Circe’ episode, Joyce plunges us into a full-length surrealistic play complete with copious stage directions and a mammoth cast of characters drawn from among the living and the dead. It does, like all of Joyce’s work, have some fine descriptive writing.
“Snakes of river fog creep slowly. From drains, clefts, cesspools, middens arise on all sides stagnant fumes. A glow leaps in the south beyond the seaward reaches of the river.”
Why does Joyce go to such lengths to surprise and challenge us? Why not stick with the mix of narrative and stream of consciousness that characterizes the first ten or so episodes of the novel, or even continue with the exuberant style of the ‘Cyclops’ episode? The answer is literary ambition. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce showed that he could write a more or less conventional novel that pushes the boundaries yes, but is nonetheless a thoroughly accessible read. His collection of short stories, Dubliners, showed a similar flair for innovation but it is set securely within the broad tradition of prose fiction. Joyce could have continued in that vein and been a successful novelist, but he wanted to be a ground-breaker and so he wrote Ulysses. And as he worked his way through the novel, he continued to want to innovate.
Ezra Pound enthused about ‘Circe’. “Magnificent”, he wrote, “a new Inferno in full sail”.1 Joyce himself was proud of what he achieved in ‘Circe’ and told a friend that “I think it is the best thing I have ever written.”2 I am not sure I can agree with Joyce’s appraisal. For his best writing, I would choose the final pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the closing scene of his short story, ‘The Dead’ and the last episode of Ulysses which takes place inside the labyrinthine mind of Molly Bloom (and which Joyce wrote after he had written ‘Circe’).
I neglected to make it clear earlier that the 18 episodes of Ulysses are divided into three sections. The first three episodes concentrate on the character of Stephen Dedalus. The next 12 episodes follow Leopold Bloom’s wanderings around Dublin while the last three episodes chronicle Bloom’s return home to Penelope (aka Molly Bloom) and her review of their relationship (among many other things). ‘Circe’ is in some ways a summary of what has gone before it, with many characters from earlier episodes reappearing here, often in a surrealistic guise. Ideas and phrases that appear in earlier episodes crop up again in ‘Circe’. From this new angle of vision, we get fresh insights into the lives of Bloom, Stephen and Molly.
In Homer, Odysseus and his crew come to the island of Aeaea, “the realm of Circe, a most beautiful and most dangerous witch”3 who turns men into beasts. Here, the role of Circe is taken by Dublin brothel-owner, Bella Cohen, described as “a massive whoremistress” with “falcon eyes.”
In ‘Circe’, Bloom follows Stephen and his fellow carouser, Vincent Lynch, to Dublin’s Nighttown where he has a series of both real and hallucinatory experiences, although it is sometimes difficult to spot the difference between them.
Dublin’s Nighttown (which was shut down in the 1920s) was located in the north inner city around Montgomery Street. When I was Ambassador in Malaysia in 2003, I came across a story in the New Straits Times about one of the brothels that flourished in that area around the turn of the century (it was such an unlikely place for a story of this kind to appear that I clipped it and came across recently in one of my copies of Ulysses). It was run by Madam Oblong and was said to have been frequented by King Edward VII (who features in the ‘Cyclops’ episode of the novel – “There’s a bloody sight more pox than pax about that boyo”.)
According to the New Straits Times piece, that Dublin brothel was so famous that it “merited a mention in Encyclopaedia Britannica! Joyce knew the area well. According to Mary and Padraic Colum, who were both acquainted with Joyce during his student days, he enjoyed a huge reputation because of his immense knowledge of literature and his imperious manner, but it was also known by his contemporaries that he “went in for evil frequentations of all kinds.”4 This is polite code for Joyce reputedly having a dissolute lifestyle and being a periodic visitor to Nighttown.
On his way to Nighttown, Bloom gets separated from Stephen and Lynch, and is almost run over while crossing a street. This causes an ever-cautious Bloom to remember to insure himself against street accidents. He comes across two British soldiers, Privates Compton and Carr, the use of the latter’s name being a little act of revenge on Joyce’s part. Henry Carr was an employee of the British Consulate in Zurich during the First World War against whom Joyce took legal action because of a dispute about the production of a play in which both were involved. Britain’s wartime representative in Switzerland, Sir Horace Rumbold, who was unsympathetic to Joyce, is name-checked here and in the ‘Cyclops’ episode as an executioner!
Bloom encounters Jacky and Tommy Caffrey, the two toddlers who were being looked after by Cissy Caffrey on the beach at Sandymount in the ‘Nausicaa’ episode. This doesn’t make any sense for how could two children be roaming around Dublin’s red-light district after midnight? This is our first indication that this is no normal play, but some kind of wild fantasy.
Bloom meets his dead father who chides him for wasting his money and for abandoning his Jewish faith. His mother, Ellen, also makes a fleeting appearance as does Molly dressed in Turkish costume even though she is actually at home in Eccles Street. She refers to her husband as “a poor old stick in the mud” and urges him to “Go and see life. See the wide world.” Gerty McDowell pops up to accuse Bloom of being a “dirty married man.” Mrs Breen, whom we’ve met in the ‘Cyclops’ episode trying to rein in her manic husband, catches Bloom red-handed “in the haunts of sin”. He lamely maintains that he is there for the “rescue of fallen women.” It is revealed that Bloom once had “a soft corner” for Mrs Breen who replies that Bloom was “always a favourite with the ladies.”
His amorous pen pal, Martha Clifford (her real name is Peggy Griffin), enters the action, which is clearly happening in Bloom’s over-excited imagination, and calls him a “heartless flirt”. Bloom insists that he is “a respectable married man” without a stain on his character.
Meanwhile, Bloom finds himself on trial, accused by a succession of women of a range of sexual transgressions. Mary Driscoll, a servant girl, alleges that, while Molly was out shopping, he held her and she was “discoloured in four places as a result.” Mrs Yelverton Barry joins the fray, alleging that Bloom offered to send her a copy of The Girl with the Three Pairs of Stays by French popular novelist, Paul de Kock (1793-1871). It may be recalled from episode 4 that de Kock was one of Molly’s preferred authors.
Next up in this bizarre trial is Mrs Bellingham who testifies that Bloom had urged “to defile the marriage bed, to commit adultery at the earliest possible opportunity.” And last but not least, the Honourable Mrs Mervin Talboys (In amazon costume, hard hat , jackboots, cockspurred ..) asserts that Bloom sent her “an obscene photograph, such as are sold after dark on Paris boulevards” and urged her to give him “a most vicious horsewhipping.” She describes him as “a wellknown cuckold”. We are evidently in the realms of Bloom’s (and Joyce’s) sexual obsessions and fantasies. Bloom is described as “a fiendish libertine from his earliest years” and is diagnosed by Buck Mulligan as “bisexually abnormal” and showing symptoms of “chronic exhibitionism”.
The next fantasy is a political one in which Bloom as Lord Mayor of Dublin is described as “the world’s greatest reformer”. John Howard Parnell sees him as “successor to my famous brother”. Bloom the imaginary politician promises to usher in “the new Bloomusalem in the Nova Hibernia of the future”. Joyce’s father was a fervent supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell. Padraic Colum testified that Joyce himself “felt hero worship” for Parnell. He incorporated Parnell’s contested political legacy into his works of autobiographical fiction, including Ulysses.
Bloom eventually rejoins Stephen and Lynch in the brothel belonging to Bella Cohen, who proceeds to give Bloom and Stephen a hard time. Bella takes on a male identity, Bello, and proceeds to dominate Bloom who assumes female form. Bello threatens Bloom with all kinds of tortures - “you will be laced with cruel force into vicelike corsets.” “The Sins of the Past” (Bloom’s past) manifest themselves accusing Bloom of offering “his nuptial partner to all strongmembered males.” Bello brings up Molly’s infidelity with Boylan:- “there’s a man of brawn in possession there. … Wait for nine months, my lad!” Bloom has a hallucinatory encounter with Blazes Boylan who has cuckolded him in the course of the afternoon. Boylan tells Bloom that he has “a little private business with your wife. You understand?” Bloom asks Boylan if he can “witness the deed and take a snapshot?”
One of the strangest scenes in this strange episode comes when a nymph, whose image (referred to in Episode 4) Bloom had framed and put above his bed at Eccles Street, emerges to complain about what she has seen and heard (words that “are not in my dictionary) from her furtive vantage point.
When Bloom and Stephen look in a mirror they see an image of a beardless Shakespeare, whose appearance recalls the episode in the National Library where discussion centred around the father/son theme in Hamlet, a theme that is in the course of being played out between Bloom and Stephen..
Stephen becomes agitated when his dead mother appears. He smashes a chandelier and flees into the street leaving Bloom to pay for the damage. We know from the book’s opening episode that Stephen has a bad conscience about his mother’s death, having refused her dying wish that he pray with her. Mulligan jolts him by claiming that he was responsible for her death. Stephen replies “Cancer did it, not I. Destiny.”
The episode ends with Bloom saving Stephen from the ire of two British soldiers one of whom knocks Stephen unconscious. The last apparition is of Bloom’s deceased son, Rudy, who died when he was just 11 days old. Rudy says nothing while Bloom, who is bruised by the lack of a son in his life, “wondersrtruck, calls inaudibly. Rudy”.
What we see played out in this episode are Bloom’s (and Joyce’s) fantasies. We know from explicit letters exchanged between Joyce and Nora that they had an unusual sex life. This aspect of Ulysses will be brought to its conclusion in the book’s closing episode. It was brave of Joyce to include such material which he surely knew would land him in strife with censors and potential publishers. The father/son link between Bloom and Stephen, which has been seeded in Bella Cohen’s house of ill repute on Tyrone Street, is set to grow as Ulysses draws to a close.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador to the United States
1 Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (London 1966), p. 523.
2 Quoted in Ellmann, p. 511.
3Edith Hamilton, Mythology (New York 1940), p. 211
4Mary and Padraic Colum, Our Friend James Joyce (New York 1958), p. 14.