This episode corresponds with the section in Homer’s Odyssey concerning Odysseus’ encounter with Circe. According to Greek mythology, Circe is the goddess of magic and sorcery and is renowned for her knowledge of potions and herbs.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is described as living in a mansion that stands in the middle of a clearing in a dense wood. Around the house prowled strangely docile lions and wolves, the drugged victims of her magic; they were not dangerous, and fawned on all newcomers. Circe worked at a huge loom. She invited Odysseus’ crew to a feast of familiar food, a pottage of cheese and meal, sweetened with honey and laced with wine, but also laced with one of her magical potions, and drunk from an enchanted cup. Thus so she turned them all into swine with a wand after they gorged themselves on it. Only Eurylochus, suspecting treachery from the outset, escaped to warn Odysseus and the others who had stayed behind at the ships. Odysseus set out to rescue his men, but was intercepted by the messenger god, Hermes, who had been sent by Athena. Hermes told Odysseus to use the holy herb moly to protect himself from Circe’s potion and, having resisted it, to draw his sword and act as if he were to attack Circe. From there, Circe would ask him to bed, but Hermes advised caution, for even there the goddess would be treacherous. She would take his manhood unless he had her swear by the names of the gods that she would not.
In Joyce’s novel, this episode takes place in the red light district, most of which is in a brothel. The entire episode, which is the longest in the book at around 180 pages, is written in the form of a play script. The majority of the “action” that takes place is in the form of hallucinations and mental visions induced by intoxication. This draws on the symbolism of Circe as a sexual temptress and one who can ensnare men using drugs and potions. I see the use of the play form as symbolic of the action playing out on the stage of the individuals’ minds and psyches.
In Homer’s epic, Circe turns Odysseus’ men into swine. Likewise, Joyce uses pig metaphors throughout the episode to reinforce the image of the men who are soliciting the prostitutes being nothing but swine.
Most of Bloom’s hallucinations are tied to feelings of guilt regarding his sexuality. At one point he imagines himself on trial where all his dark secrets are exposed. It is like he is being accused and confronted by his conscience which is no longer comfortable with the things he has done and imagined.
(Loudly.) Whereas Leopold Bloom of no fixed abode is a well-known dynamitard, forger, bigamist, bawd and cuckold and a public nuisance to the citizens of Dublin and whereas at this commission of assizes the most honorable…
In one of the hallucinations, Bloom has a cross-dressing fantasy. He imagines himself being forced to assume a female role and become a prostitute. This ties in with Hermes’ warning to Odysseus that Circe would take his manhood.
(Points to his whores.) As they are now, so will you be, wigged, singed, perfumesprayed, ricepowdered, with smoothshaven armpits. Tape measurements will be taken next your skin. You will be laced with cruel force into vicelike corsets of soft dove coutille, with whalebone busk, to the diamond trimmed pelvis, the absolute outside edge, while your figure, plumper than when at large, will be restrained in nettight frocks, pretty two ounce petticoats and fringes and things stamped, of course, with my houseflag, creations of lovely lingerie for Alice and nice scent for Alice. Alice will feel the pullpull. Martha and Mary will be a little chilly at first in such delicate thighcasing but the frilly flimsiness of lace round your bare knees will remind you…
(pp. 535 – 536)
In another of Bloom’s hallucinations, he encounters the Goddess in the form of The Nymph. She accuses him of exploiting her, using her sacred image in advertising as a means to sell things. I found this to be a powerful critique on how women continue to be exploited by the media.
Mortal! You found me in evil company, highkickers, coster picnic makers, pugilists, popular generals, immoral panto boys in flesh tights and nifty shimmy dancers, La Aurora and Karini, musical act, the hit of the century. I was hidden in cheap pink paper that smelt of rock oil. I was surrounded by the stale smut of clubmen, stories to the callow youth, ads for transparencies, truedup dice and bustpads, proprietary articles and why wear a truss with testimonial from ruptured gentleman. Useful hints to the married.
(Lifts a turtle head towards her lap.) We have met before. On another star.
(Sadly.) Rubber goods. Neverrip. Brand as supplied to the aristocracy. Corsets for men. I cure fits or money refunded. Unsolicited testimonials for Professor Waldmann’s wonderful chest exuber. My bust developed four inches in three weeks, reports Mrs Gus Rublin with photo.
You mean Photo Bits?
I do. You bore me away, framed me in oak and tinsel, set me above your marriage couch. Unseen, one summer eve, you kissed me in four places. And with loving pencil you shaded my eyes, my bosom and my shame.
(pp. 545 – 546)
This is such a long episode and there is so much that can be analyzed and explored, way too much for a single blog post. As such, I will look at one last quote that struck me as interesting. Stephen (who was with Bloom in the brothel) gets into an argument with a soldier. He criticizes the soldier’s willingness to die for his country. It is a display of anti-nationalism. Considering that Joyce wrote this at a time when nationalism was on the rise in Europe, I found it a poignant critique on the socio-political climate of the time.
(Nervous, friendly, pulls himself up.) I understand your point of view, though I have no king myself for the moment. This is the age of patent medicine. A discussion is difficult down here. But this is the point. You die for your country, suppose. (He places his arm on Private Carr’s sleeve.) Not that I wish it for you. But I say: Let my country die for me. Up to the present it has done so. I don’t want to die. Damn death. Long live life!
My next post on Ulysses will cover Episode 16 which ends on page 665 in my copy with the phrase “… and looked after their lowbacked car.”
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