This is the oddest chapter yet. The last one had murders, sex (perhaps) and drama – A bit like an Irish Game Of Thrones, but set in a pub. And a courtroom. And everyone is incomprehensible and insane. Anyway. This one seems to centre around two things: a letter and a hen. Let’s start with the letter.
It isn’t clear who the letter is to, or who wrote it. APL – wife of HCE – is the likely candidate but it is a fact that is doubted by some characters. The letter isn’t signed and for some reason ended up on a midden heap, surrounded by orange peel belonging to a child named Kevin. More on that later. As you would expect, the letter is about a great many things and the chapter opens with a two and a half page list of possible titles for this epic work of literature – Juckey And Dhoult Bemine Thy Winnowing Sheet; Weighty Ten Beds And A Wan Ceteroom; Cotchme Eye and A Nibble At Eve Will That Bowal Relieve being a small selection. There is some superb irony from Joyce throughout as the letter seems to be a reflection of this very book. When the letter is discussed, it ridicules the lack of punctuation and quotation marks and discusses at length how one should not take documents too literally but to look for other meanings. The actual content is only barely touched upon, where as most of the narrative focuses on the characters’ interpretation of the letter. Sound familiar?
The theme of the crime-not-crime continues and the general feeling seems to be that HCE is innocent of any crime, but maybe there was some rumpy-pumpy in the park after all. There are several suggestions as to what might have happened; whilst the pace is light and sing-song, there are some darker concepts touched upon regarding the responsibilities of the ladies in this matter, which are quite distasteful. The juxtaposition is striking and deliberate. However, I like the version of the tale that states that the young lady was angry because HCE ran off immediately after the deed, as he didn’t realise how fat and ugly she was without her clothes on. (It’s happened to the best of us, right ladies?)
Aside from that, it drifts around various subjects including HCE’s ancestors, the dangers of listening to gossip, prostitutes and these little gems:
Bruce has a Scotch spider and Elberfeld has calculating horses. (Who doesn’t want those?!)
Brien had a bear paw for dinner.
Annoyingly, some characters have appeared who are depicted by symbols. There is an upside F, a ‘3’ laying face down and a triangle. That’s all I know about that, for now.
And then, of course, there is the endless babbling about how the letter was discovered. Which is where the hen comes in.
An inordinate amount of focus is placed upon this hen, who is called Biddy. She is described in glowing terms and heralded as a kind of earth mother, almost goddess-like. Much reverence is given to eggs, and the laying of eggs. Kate Strong (Tip!) the widow seems particularly fascinated with Biddy and interrupts discussions several times to talk about her. There is a feeling of disgust that young Kevin left his orange peel on Biddy’s midden heap. Maybe Kevin had the letter and he dropped it there at the same time.
The last couple of pages are particularly unlikely all I can pull out is that someone suggests growing a moustache and a chap named Shem the penman comes in right at the end. Could he be the writer of the letter?
Funny little chapter, this. It is jaunty and amusing yet also quite dark, in places. Joyce is fond of repetition and there are a few themes to which he constantly returns, giving the impression that these are the bits he wants you to pay attention to. The attentions placed on the hen and especially the egg are reminiscent of the references to the creation stories earlier in the book, perhaps signifying origins, beginnings and the circle of life.
Themes of uncertainty and contradiction reoccur; whether it be the incident in the park, the identity of the letter’s author or the difference between life and death – we are presented with a fact which is soon contradicted by another equally earnest fact later on. And I can’t shake the feeling that the Duke of Wellington is significant, somehow.
‘Now, patience; and remember patience is the great thing, and above all things else we must avoid anything like being or becoming out of patience.’
Especially if we are reading Finnegans Wake.
‘… flat-chested fortyish, faintly flatulent and given to ratiocination…’
This is a description of someone. I think ‘faintly flatulent’ is an under-used descriptive term, quite frankly.
‘She is ladylike in everything she does and plays the gentleman’s part every time.’
A nice little line that actually makes some sense.