A Perspective on Ulysses

We are incredibly proud of our students and the calibre of the work that they produce. The following essay was written by Sivan Piatigorsky-Roth in her grade 12 English class. It is a phenomenal example of the depth and sophistication of the literary study we undertake at Abelard.

The nature of James Joyce’s Ulysses makes it simultaneously impossible to understand without investigation, and impossible to reach conclusions on. It is a book about our obsession with finding meaning, and it is a book as well about what that investigation and inquiry means in and of itself. The thirteenth chapter in the mammoth novel, “Nausicaa” details the time between 8:00 and 9:00 on the day of June 16, 1904. The main character, Leopold Bloom, sits on Sandymound Strand, observing three young girls and fantasizing about one in particular, Gerty MacDowell, thinking about her life and her consciousness. As Gerty arouses Leopold, who subtly pleasures himself, a Benediction service takes place at a nearby church, reaching its climax (everyone cried O! O! in raptures – pg. 350) along with Bloom as a Roman candle firework explodes overhead. Realizing Gerty has a lame foot, Bloom spends the rest of the chapter pondering sexual attraction and thinking primarily about his wife. The book as a whole is about dualities, and this chapter in particular focuses on them, yet Joyce is careful to collapse and merge the parallel ideas in “Nausicaa” and show that in fact, the twofold depictions in Ulysses are truthfully one and the same.

This chapter is the first in the book to focus on a woman. It is unclear if the female thoughts in the chapter belong to Gerty herself (which is what we are led to believe until the final lines of the chapter) or if they are a product of Bloom’s fantasies. Gerty is depicted as a feminine duality. She is a seductress and an innocent child in one. She is a girl “loveable in the extreme” (pg. 332), with a face “almost spiritual in its ivorylike purity”. She has clear blue eyes, pretty dress and dreams of a strong husband. She thinks in advertising clichés, fairytales, and the sentimental talk of women’s magazines. Yet Gerty, for all her virgin naivety, plays the part of the siren as well as the maiden. She spends her time prettying herself, hunting for the right colors (pg, 335) and smiling at her reflection in the mirror (pg. 335). She wears charming underwear (pg. 335-336) and she shows her ankles flirtatiously to Bloom, knowing well that her purity arouses him, and taking delight in the results of her tease.

This imagined duality is likely a result of Bloom’s own preconceptions. As an advertising agent, Bloom is likely to be well versed in the clichés of advertisement, as well as their audience (young women, largely). The thoughts in Gerty’s head reflect what he imagines a young woman’s thoughts to be consumed by, and are strikingly different to the interior monologue we get later from his wife in chapter eighteen, a genuine female consciousness. Gerty’s language takes directly from women’s magazines of the day and only alludes to unpleasant ideas such as her foot or masturbation rather than directly addressing them as Molly does in chapter 18, actually thinking for herself. The final lines suggest that Gerty sees Bloom sitting on the rocks and thinks he’s “cuckoo”. Bloom throughout the novel is always many things at once. He is a born Jew who converted in marriage and is not circumcised (the foreskin is not back. Better detach.- pg. 356), and here his fantasies take the form of a feminine consciousness along with the masculine. It could be that the recurring theme of metempsychosis has reappeared, and Gerty’s femininity has settled into Bloom for a few pages, supported perhaps by the repetition of sight, eyes, and painting as motifs while Gerty thinks, shifting towards scent when she leaves, a sense that has previously been associated with Bloom’s consciousness. It could be as well that Bloom is simply aroused by such elaborate fantasies, as he spends a great deal of time thinking on sexual attraction and its nature.

Another duality presents itself in the form of desire. The desire for a connection, both spiritual and physical, runs throughout the book, but in particular throughout this chapter. The coinciding mass and masturbation are two parallel ways of alleviating the parallel desires in both the mind and the body. While Bloom is a man rooted in the physical, who spends his time bathing, defecating, masturbating, and eating, his search for intimacy manifests itself in the spiritual as well, as he meditates on his relationship with his wife, his son’s death, and his book-long search for a son figure, culminating in his meeting with Stephen.

The religious desire and devotion, however, is rarely seen as equal to the physical desire, but is rather thought to be of a higher morality than the more depraved bodily urges, and Bloom is not oblivious to this, thinking himself a “brute”, and then letting his mind turn towards, interestingly, religion (pg. 361). Bloom is not a Christian. He doesn’t go to church and holds atheistic views. Why, then, do his thoughts turn towards Judaism? He is bombarded with anti-Semitism, and certainly is a Jew in the ethnic sense of the word, but as a converted atheist, the religious aspect of Judaism is fairly far removed. After an act seen as depraved or shameful, however, it is no accident that his mind returns to the purity of devotion and desire rather than the ‘lesser’ or more base manifestations that desire and devotion can take. Although he is not well versed in Jewish practices and customs, confusing tephilim, prayer wraps worn by Jewish men, and mezzuzahs, small prayers hung on the dorrframe (p. 361), Bloom still thinks of religious worship after his sexual worship of Gerty.

Gerty herself is paralleled with the Virgin Mary who is being supplicated in the nearby church. Indeed, the symbol associated with this chapter is that of the virgin. Although the aforementioned duality certainly does exist, and Gerty assumes a seductive role as well as an innocent one, Bloom’s infatuation with Gerty’s youth and chastity is mirrored in the prayers to the young and chaste Mary. Gerty MacDowell is described as having a “waxen pallor of her face” that is “almost spiritual” (pg. 333), and the Virgin Mary’s banners are described on page 332 as being blue, a color associated repeatedly with Gerty. We can look again towards metempsychosis and wonder if Gerty contains some part of Mary’s soul, or we could look to the equally recurring question of consubstantiality and wonder if Gerty and the Virgin Mary are somehow two parts of a greater whole- a chaste product of a culture that values and even fetishizes youth and innocence.

Bloom’s presence at Sandymound Strands, and his day long stroll through Dublin have left his wife Molly at home all afternoon, where Leopold is certain she is having an inevitable affair with a man named ‘Blazes’ Boylan. Following his masturbatory episode, upon realizing that Gerty has a lame foot, Bloom ruminates on previous sexual encounters, prostitutes and what arouses them, and the various men who have been attracted to Molly, realizing that his watch, which has stopped at half past four, has probably stopped at the time that Molly and Boylan slept together. thinks on his wife and his daughter, who cannot be much younger than Gerty is. His thoughts, which are consumed by sex and magnetism, keep tracing back to Molly, maybe through guilt or maybe through genuine desire and love. June 16, 1904, the date that Ulysses is set, is (according to the Wikipedia article for Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s wife), the day of Joyce’s first date with his wife. It is clear from the date and from the final chapter of Ulysses, which envisions a sample of Molly Bloom’s consciousness, that Joyce is thinking (at least on some level) about Nora while he writes, literally putting himself in a woman’s mind for large sections of the book and  relatively candidly addressing female sexuality and consciousness.

The associated organ, color, and art (eye, blue, painting) all coincide in Gerty’s consciousness. Her clear blue eyes are emphasized. Bloom can feel them watching him (“Leopold Bloom (for it is he) stands silent, with bowed head before those young guileless eyes”) and Gerty likes to wear blue for luck and to flatter her eyes, putting emphasis on the straw hat with an eggblue chenille underbrim (pg. 335) and the blue underwear she wears. Gerty’s blue is for luck, and it is fitting that her eyes match. As luck would have it, Gerty is present on the beach just after eight o’clock on June 16, just as Nausicaa, by some divine involvement or simply by luck, appears to Odysseus as he needs her, and despite his frightening appearance and nakedness, helps him. The other associated color, grey, is the color most commonly associated with Athena, who protected Odysseus throughout his journey.

The visual nature of the associated art, painting, keeps with the emphasis on Gerty’s eyes. Bloom thinks “the very soul is in her eyes” (pg. 336) and when Gerty looks at the sea (blue like her eyes, or maybe grey like Athena’s), she thinks of the “paintings that man used to do on the pavement” (pg. 341). Bloom as well thinks of painters in Lombard street later, on page 357, although this time he is reminded of the turpentine smell coming from the paint rather than the visual aspect of the painting. To Gerty, the art of painting is visual, as is everything else. She uses her eyes as her main tool, fabricating her life around her image, using the art of painting even on her own face, painting (as Hamlet would say) herself another. To Bloom however, the art is olfactory, as is most of his sense perception. When Bloom thinks of painting, his mind returns to the scent of turpentine, before drifting to thoughts of Molly’s scents and the lemon soap in his coat. The associated art of painting also manifests in the phrase that is repeated, “Tableau”, a game where players pose in frozen images when the phrase “Tableau!” is shouted, making a scene. This frozen scene is reminiscent of a painting, where the figures or images are frozen in time.

The complex winding of Ulysses follows the complex winding of Odysseus himself as he travels from Troy home to Ithaca. It is not a novel that exists to be read, but one that exists to be studied, one with as many turns and whirlpools as Odysseus himself encounters on his journey home. The book exists in dualities. It traces Stephen and Leopold, their day and when it diverges and unifies. It follows the spiritual and the physical, the masculine and feminine, birth and death, father and son. This chapter in particular blends dual themes into one. Bloom is Bloom and yet he is also Gerty, Gerty is a child and yet she is a temptress, she is Gerty and yet she is the Virgin Mary, the visual nature of painting is not so far removed from the olfactory nature of it, and Molly and Gerty and Milly and even Bloom himself are not so different from each other after all. Beyond the dualities, however, it is unified. The theme of consubstantiality runs through the heart of the book, and the dualities are all part of the same whole- a mammoth mess of a book, a convergence of themes and allusions, and an essential cornerstone of Modernist literature.

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