After the rough machismo of the men down the pub, we find ourselves in much gentler territory now, down by the sea. In this starkly contrasting episode, we are treated to an overtly feminine narrative, which for the most part reads like some syrupy extract from a young ladies’ magazine or pamphlet. There is a decent dose of naughtiness, however, so those of the more prim and proper persuasion should look away now…
The sun is setting on Sandymount Bay while someone prays in a nearby church. Three girls are sat on the rocks enjoying the evening air, a place they often frequent to chat to one another. There is Cissy Caffrey with her four-year-old twin brothers Tommy and Jacky, both dressed in sailor suits. Joining her is Edy Boardman, who has with her a toddler in a pushchair. The twins are playing in the sand with buckets and spades while the girls fuss over the baby. We learn that Cissy is a loveable and wholesome girl who is very good with children. The twins argue over the building of a sandcastle and Jacky throws Tommy onto it, which upsets him. Cissy comforts Tommy and gives Jacky a telling off.
A little way off sits Gerty MacDowell, lost in thought. She is described in the most flattering manner, as if she were a heroine in a romance novel. Gerty takes her beauty very seriously, using the latest fashions, lotions and tips from magazines to maintain her appearance. No doubt she could have been a great society beauty, had she been born a gentlewoman. There is the sense that Gerty herself is the narrator here, albeit describing herself and events that follow in the third person.
Gerty has a suitor called Reggy Wylie, who cycles past her window most evenings. Edy told her that Reggy is losing interest in her, but Gerty believes this is not true and his recent lack of attention is down to his father keeping him in at nights to study, so that he might go to Trinity College. Gerty’s heart aches for him and she daydreams loftily of his exquisite nose and good-shaped head. She has dressed herself nicely in the hope she might bump into him – once again, inspired by the latest fashion magazines. She also hopes to make other girls jealous of her outfit, particularly her hat, of which we hear much. Gerty is especially proud of her small feet and her fancy underwear.
This boy Reggy has consumed all of Gerty’s thoughts and she obsesses over getting married to him. So overcome with emotion is she, that she thinks that she would like to have a little cry. In fact, she has practiced crying in the mirror so knows how to do it attractively. She vividly imagines her wedding day, although she knows in her heart that it is not to be, as Reggy is too young to understand love (it’s all very Barbara Cartland, this). Gerty remembers a party when they were children when he kissed her on the nose then went off to find something to eat and considers this to be the height of bad manners. She wonders if Reggy is not manly enough for her and would an older man be better?
Continuing her little daydream, Gerty longs to be married (if not to Reggy, then anyone, it seems) and muses on what a great wife she would be, doing all the cooking and housekeeping and such. She then mentions ‘…grandpa Giltrap’s lovely dog Garryowen that almost talked…’ so she must be related to the Citizen! The Narrator mentioned something about teaching a dog to recite verse, so maybe he was on to something after all. But anyway. Our rather self-obsessed heroine dreams on about her future husband, tall with a neat moustache, and her three week honeymoon and settling down to married life.
The twins play with a ball and Cissy entertains the baby. Cissy implies she wants to smack Tommy on the bottom and Gerty is embarrassed at such unladylike language, as a man standing nearby might have heard. (The nearby man happens to be Bloom, so she needn’t worry). Overall, though, Gerty concludes that Cissy is a lot of fun and a good friend.
A men’s temperance retreat service begins in the church close by and the congregation call to the Virgin Mary to keep them off the booze. Gerty wishes her father had taken to the temperance movement as his heavy drinking marred her childhood. She thinks about her father as she listens to the men singing in the church. He had been a friend of Paddy Dignam’s and she remembers their families coming together for her mother’s birthday. Gerty is a good daughter who takes great care of her mother, but they argue over her use of snuff. There follows a glowing passage about what a fabulous daughter Gerty is.
The boys are playing nicely until Jacky kicks the ball as hard as he can and it goes down towards the rocks, where Bloom is standing. Tommy starts to cry and Bloom picks up the ball and throws it back to Cissy. His aim isn’t so good though (or is it?) and the ball ends up underneath Gerty’s skirt. Gerty tries to kick the ball over to Cissy but she misses and Cissy and Edy laugh at her. Undeterred, Gerty hitches up her skirt and executes a successful kick. She notices Bloom watching her and enjoys the attention. She thinks Bloom has the saddest face she has ever seen. Meanwhile, through the open window of the church, incense and the strains of the temperance service waft out into the air.
The twins are playing happily again and Cissy and Edy amuse the baby. Gerty wishes they would take the baby home as it is annoying her. As she admires the sea, Gerty spies Bloom looking at her meaningfully. She thinks that he has wonderfully expressive eyes and admires his foreign looks. She compares him to matinee idol Martin Harvey, which would please him no end, I’m sure. She sees sorrow in his face. In an unexpected turn, Gerty forgets all about Reggy Wylie and begins to fantasise about Bloom, pleased she put on her transparent stockings. She is swept up in a girlish fantasy about Bloom being the man for her and she being the woman for him! The church service continues and Gerty thinks she would like to make a tea cosy for the priest.
Once again the bloody kids start squabbling and Cissy and Edy shout at them as they run off towards the sea. Gerty finds them very irritating and I can’t say I blame her. As Cissy runs after the boys, Gerty notes that her hair is a nice colour but isn’t long enough – it won’t grow on account of the unnatural ointments she puts in it. She mocks her skinny legs and, rather uncharitably, wishes she would trip up as she runs.
Aware that Bloom is watching her, Gerty swings her leg in time to the church music. She thinks to herself that her legs are much better than Cissy’s. Coquettishly, she adjusts her hat to show off her hair – the minx! Gerty realises that she is arousing Bloom and blushes with excitement. Edy notices Gerty’s manoeuvres, but Gerty suggests to her that it is getting rather late, in the hope she will take the children home. Cissy decides to ask Bloom for the time, but his watch has stopped. He believes it is gone eight as the sun is setting. Gerty finds Bloom’s voice attractive and she further teases him with her leg, while sensing the onset of her period. She is very approving of his passionate gaze upon her.
Cissy and Edy are getting the children ready to leave as they tease Gerty about Reggy ignoring her. This hurts Gerty, but she doesn’t show it, insisting she can have any man she wants. The baby throws up on its bib. The church service is coming to an end and a bat flies about, squeaking. Gerty believes she could maybe be a poet – she likes poetry – and thinks once again of seducing Bloom and being with him. She wonders if he is married or widowed? Perhaps his wife is in a madhouse? (I should point out at this juncture that the text has already implied that the three girls are in young adulthood, so this rising sexual tension between Bloom and Gerty – while certainly improper – is not of a sinister nature, if you get my drift).
Fireworks light up the sky and Cissy and Edy take the little ones down the strand to watch them, leaving Gerty alone and Bloom still watching her. This all sounds rather creepy (and perhaps it is) but the narration presents the situation as one of mutual fascination and desire, romantic even. Free from the watchful eyes of her friends, Gerty further exposes her leg to Bloom, who by now is pleasuring himself. Gerty is fully aware of this and is delighted by it, observing that women also indulge in such practices and that there should be female priests who understand about this sort of thing. A very modern and open-mined outlook for a young lady of her time, I’d say. As she leans back further and further, revealing her thighs and knickers, Gerty watches a Roman candle rising higher, higher into the sky, finally shooting out a rocket that explodes above to cries of O! O!from the onlookers beneath. As I’m sure you can guess, this is a rather unsubtle metaphor illustrating Bloom’s activities.
Looking over towards Bloom, Gerty sees him leaning against a rock and decides that he is a cad after all, but she won’t tell anyone about this beach encounter. She gets up to follow Cissy and Edy, glancing again at Bloom and hoping one day to see him again.
The narrative now switches to Bloom’s perspective and we see him watching Gerty walk away slowly. He realises that she is limping and is lame and is glad he didn’t know this when he was becoming aroused (rather ungallant of him!) He says that ‘A defect is ten times worse in a woman. But it makes them polite.’ Now we delve once more into Bloom’s thoughts as he wonders why all women don’t menstruate at the same time. He is pleased he didn’t relieve himself in the bath earlier as he had planned, as this encounter was better than the saucy letter from Martha. I’m sure we are all so very pleased he waited! Bloom believes that women are just as sexually desirous as men, especially during the time of menstruation. He has bought Molly some lilac garters. He thinks on the complexities and ruthlessness of female friendships, even from a young age – women are not loyal towards each other. Bloom notes that both men and women dress to attract the opposite sex. He then wonders what Gerty had seen in him, perhaps just that some young ladies like older men.
Bloom thinks it strange that his watch stopped at half past four, around the time when Molly and Boylan were likely entwined. As he rearranges his soiled shirt, he thinks about ways of chatting up women. It is hard to find women who are up for it, apparently. He thinks how women like to seduce married men, to take a man from another woman. He is the opposite – ‘Glad to get away from other chap’s wife. Eating off his cold plate.’ He concludes that wooing women can be tiresome and thinks on Molly’s past lovers and admirers. In fact, throughout all this, his thoughts are punctuated by references to Molly, so it is clear that she is never far from his mind, even after such an event.
Bloom thinks about the girls with the kiddies in tow and also of Gerty – she knew what she was doing, girls of her age are not so innocent and become well versed in the ways of the world from a young age. Bloom feels that the whole experience has done him the world of good! He thinks on how girls become wives and mothers so quickly and it keeps them out of trouble. This makes him think of Mrs Purefoy in the maternity hospital. He believes that Molly is better than most women and that you can always see a fellow’s weak point in his wife. Bloom tidies himself up a bit. He smells Gerty’s perfume – it is cheap and will soon smell sour, unlike Molly’s scent. The cat likes to sniff Molly’s side of the bed. Blooms loves the various odours of Molly and knows them well. On the subject of sniffing, he notes that dogs sniff each other’s bottoms as a greeting and that women use their scent to ward off men when they are menstruating. He wonders if ladies get a scent from men and if so, what does it smell like? He thinks that they like the smell of priests. He sniffs his lemon soap and it reminds him that he has forgotten to pick up Molly’s lotion. He also remembers that Hynes owes him three shillings.
A nobleman passes Bloom on the beach, out for a walk after his evening meal. Bloom decides to walk after him to make him feel uncomfortable, just as the newsboys did to him earlier. He thinks about writing a story about him – The Mystery Man on the Beach. This makes him think of the mackintosh man at Dignam’s funeral. Bloom looks at the lighthouse – light is reassuring. He sees a star in the sky – when you can see three stars it means it is nighttime. In the half-light, the clouds look like trees or a phantom ship. He worries that he might get piles from sitting on the rock. Bloom would like to have been the rock that Gerty was sat on. He thinks again of Molly.
Bloom is tired now and drained and he thinks of his youth, gone forever. He sees a bat and wonders if the bat thinks he is a tree. It probably lives in the belfry. The mass seems to be over and Bloom thinks that the repetition of prayers is very like the repetition of advertisements, alluding to religion being a capitalist endeavour. His mind flits around things such as birds, cats, insects, a bee that got in last week and the lives of sailors. Do fish ever get seasick? A good question. The nine o’clock postman is doing his rounds and a newsboy shouts about the results of the Gold Cup race. A boy runs out of the Dignam house and the bat flies about the place. Bloom casts his mind back to a boat trip he took with Molly and Milly, and also playing with Milly as a child and her growing up.
Although he is tired, Bloom decides not to go home just yet, in case Molly is still up. It has been a long day for him – Martha’s letter, the bath, funeral, newspaper, museum and the fractious visit to the pub. Bloom feels he got the better of them there, with his remarks about Jesus and God. He thinks also of Mrs Dignam and that widowers are a sadder sight than widows – it is right that the chaps die first. Bloom tries to remember a dream he had last night, involving Turkish slippers and breeches, before thinking on the things he has to do tomorrow.
Walking along the beach, Bloom picks up a piece of paper from the sand, thinking it might be money – but no such luck. He picks up a stick. Blooms thinks he might wait for Gerty to come back tomorrow and decides to write a message in the sand for her. He gets as far as I AM A then gives up, with the unlikely excuse that there isn’t enough room to continue the message. He scuffs over the letters with his boot and thinks what a hopeless thing is sand, where nothing grows and nothing lasts. He throws away his stick. He resigns himself to the fact that he will never see Gerty again, so bids her farewell and thanks her for making him feel young. Bloom decides to take a nap on the beech and as he drifts off, his thoughts of the day become jumbled into a dream and the cuckoo clock in the priest’s house sounds nine times.
No doubt the Narrator from Episode Twelve would think this a flighty and superficial literary outing, but I can assure you that our heroine Gerty MacDowell takes herself every bit as seriously as her humourless counterpart. For the most part, it is Gerty’s voice that recounts the events on the beach, and she does so in the mawkish style of the ladies’ magazines and periodicals of which she is so fond. It is flawlessly executed by Joyce, the voice of young womanhood beautifully and amusingly captured on the page.
Gerty is enveloped in that unaware self-possession of youth, thinking only of herself and her own thoughts, for the most part. She doesn’t come across as arrogant or conceited, simply immature and rather silly. Despite her voracious reading of fashion, beauty and love, she is still sheltered from the harsh realities of life. Although Gerty views herself as considerably more sophisticated than her two friends, it is they who show greater maturity by their responsibilities for their younger siblings, while she obsesses over impossible romantic fantasies and her outfit. Her youthful lack of self-awareness is evident in her pride at her use of the latest lotions and potions to enhance her beauty, while at the same time scorning Cissy for the same, remarking her hair is unnatural. Her rather vicious wish for Cissy to fall while she is running down the beach no doubt comes from her jealousy of having a lame foot herself. But there is no real malice in Gerty – she is just a young woman who is desperate to grow up.
Even at her tender years, Gerty is worried that time is passing her by and she is consumed by the idea of getting married and the unrealistic expectations of what married life actually is. The older and more experienced Bloom is able to see from his vantage point of advanced years, that women very quickly become wives and mothers, and it is far from the romantic idyll imagined by Gerty. Her passions for both Reggy and then Bloom are not really passions at all, more an overwhelming desire to be adored by someone. This isn’t an unusual thing, especially in youth when insecurity is ever present anyway, perhaps exacerbated in Gerty by her lame foot and her drunken father.
And so we must address the seduction of Bloom on the beach. Like a siren sitting on her rock, Gerty exerts her womanly wiles upon an eager Bloom and although no physical contact ever takes place and distance is maintained, they clearly share an erotic experience. Gerty is not so ignorant that she doesn’t know or understand exactly the effect she is having, but lacks the maturity to see beyond her own rose-tinted interpretation of the event. In those moments of arousal she feels powerful and desired, but as soon as she sees the spent Bloom reclined against a rock, she denounces him – quite rightly – as a cad, perhaps realising her fantasy of a passionate future with him is over. Leaving behind her daydreams, she gets up to rejoin her friends and reality.
While Gerty’s experience is all thoughts and emotion, Bloom’s involvement is mostly physical. We don’t pick up his narrative until Gerty leaves, but his thoughts are their usual winding, pragmatic enquiries into the things that pop into his head. Bloom does exhibit a remarkable understanding of women in many ways, particularly the difficulties of female friendships and the competitiveness that endures from childhood to adult life. His view that girls are so worldly from a young age is uncomfortable but very common, even in our modern times when it is no longer an acceptable view. Although everything about this episode suggests that Gerty is the provocateur and in control at every stage, the notion that Bloom is behaving like a dirty peeper is evident. He excuses himself with his justifications about women and their sexualities (which are not inaccurate, to be fair) but you cannot help but feel that this internal monologue only serves to cover up his own misgivings about his actions. His narrative is heavily punctuated by thoughts of Molly, even comparing Gerty unfavourably to her, but it doesn’t hide the fact that what he got up to on the beech would today earn him a place on the sex offenders register.
This is a contentious and uncomfortable episode by its nature and, considering the book was deemed obscene at the time of publication, would probably have been deemed inappropriate even by a less enlightened society. We have spent much of the novel so far feeling a bit sorry for Bloom and rooting for him as he faces his daily adversities, but this episode makes him an unsympathetic figure. But that is something Joyce does so very well, painting complex and realistic characters for us to observe. Even the very best people and our very closest loved ones are far from perfect and harbour unpalatable manners. And there is no escaping the fact that the thoughts and desires of men and women of all ages and walks of life are very real, whether we like them or not. The main thing niggling me right now, though, is that it is nine o’clock in the evening and Bloom is having a snooze on the beach, but we still have almost half the book left to go – there is potentially quite an eventful night coming up, I suspect.
‘… those cyclists showing off what they hadn’t got…’
Makes a change from them showing off what they have got, I suppose.
‘I can throw my cap at who I like because it’s a leap year.’
You go, girl!
‘Virgins go mad in the end I suppose.’
A cautionary tale.
‘Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.’
You can’t escape from who you really are.