Blimey, where do we even start with this one?! I think the absinthe from Episode Fourteen must have taken effect as this section is completely bonkers. Not only that, it is rather epic in length and contains dozens – if not actual hundreds – of characters. Most of them are people (some of them real), but many of them are inanimate objects and even abstract concepts such as ‘the sins of the past’. It is set out in the form of a play, with characters and stage directions clearly marked, so it is at least easy to ascertain who is saying what. However, the majority of the action takes the form of hallucinations and dream-states of Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, so still manages to make very little sense at all. I’d get yourself a large glass of something substantial before tackling this…
We begin at the Mabbot Street entrance to ‘nighttown’ – a rough old place filled with drunks, prostitutes and, weirdly, children. Some of said children torment an idiot while squaddies, crones and tramps swear and shout and whatnot. Cissy Caffrey sings about the leg of a duck. Men laugh. Stephen Dedalus (talking in Latin) and Lynch pass through the crowds. An elderly prostitute propositions them and spits when they refuse her advances. Edy Boardman gossips with a friend. Lynch kicks a dog that growls at Stephen then they both discuss a jug of bread.
Bloom appears under the railway bridge, putting into his pocket some bread and chocolate. He is out of breath. Bloom enters a pork butchers and emerges with a lukewarm pig’s crubeen and a sheep’s trotter. He catches his breath then crosses the road to avoid a drunk sailor, nearly getting run over in the process. He continues on, meeting all sorts of people. Fearful of thieves, Bloom checks his pockets – ‘watch, fobpocket, bookpocket, pursepocket, sweets of sin, potato soap.’ Then, Bloom’s father Rudolph appears and admonishes him for being in this unseemly part of town as Bloom hides his meat behind his back. He is now a child again – his hysterical mother appears bearing a shrivelled potato. Molly then appears in Turkish costume, with a camel. She scolds Bloom and the camel plucks a mango from a tree to give to Molly. Then the bloody lemon soap starts talking to him –
We’re a capital couple are Bloom and I;
He brightens the earth, I polish the sky.
Molly turns away and Bloom goes to follow her but is grabbed by the elderly prostitute, who offers him the services of fifteen-year-old Bridie Kelly. Gerty MacDowell limps in but the old whore sees her off. Mrs Breen appears and she and Bloom reminisce and flirt a bit as Mr Breen passes by wearing a Hely’s sandwich board and Alf Bergman shouts ‘U.P.:Up’ at him. Bloom and Mrs Breen walk along, followed by a dog. As they are remembering a day out at the races, she ‘fades from his side’. Bloom continues to walk, still followed by the dog. A woman does a wee in an archway and workmen chatter. Cheap whores call out to Bloom. A navvy and a squaddie are looking for a brothel, while Bloom is struggling to find Stephen and Lynch, as apparently drunks move very fast.
Bloom believes it is fate that he bumped into Stephen at the hospital. He sees a phallic symbol drawn on a wall and feeds his meat to the dog. Two night watchmen approach and ask Bloom what he is up to – he replies that he is doing good for others. Bob Doran (or an apparition of him) appears and falls off a bar stool. Then Signor Maffei turns up and talks nonsense. As the watchmen check Bloom’s credentials, he mumbles something or other about being in the navy. Martha pops up and asks Bloom to clear her name, calling him a heartless flirt.
As he proceeds to defend his own character, Bloom now seems to be on trial in a courtroom. Myles Crawford is there with some onions and Philip Beaufoy is in the witness box, saying that Bloom is not a gentleman but a plagiarist and a fake. The next witness to take the stand is Mary Driscoll, who testifies that Bloom tried it on with her when she was his housemaid. George Fottrell – the clerk of the court – calls for order and states ‘The accused will now make a bogus statement.’ Bloom pleads not guilty and insists that he intends to mend his ways and reform himself. Then something about a butcher and bowel trouble in Beaver Street.
J J O’Molloy takes the stand as Bloom’s defence counsel and, in echos of a conversation from Episode Eight, declares he is unwell and has recently arisen from his sickbed. O’Molloy refutes the claims against Bloom, claiming he could never hurt a young woman and also explains his transgressions as Bloom being a foreigner. Bloom states that he can provide excellent character witnesses. Mrs Barry and Mrs Bellingham testify that Bloom has also made inappropriate overtures towards them and a crowd of ‘sluts and ragamuffins’ shout and jeer. Various other ladies wave improper letters, all supposedly from Bloom. Mrs Talboys suggests a flogging and Bloom becomes quite excited by this prospect. As Bloom is accused of being a cuckold, a cuckoo clock sounds and some bedsprings join in – ‘Jigjag. Jigajiga. Jigjag.’
The jury are revealed as Martin Cunningham, Jack Power, Simon Dedalus, Tom Kernan, Ned Lambert, John Henry Menton, Myles Crawford, Lenehan, Paddy Leonard, Nosey Flynn, McCoy and the Nameless One. The crier announces that Bloom is an anarchist, forger, bigamist, bawd, cuckold and a public nuisance. He is declared guilty and sentenced to hang! Bells toll and Bloom desperately talks nonsense. Then, in an even more unlikely turn of events, a beagle with the face of Paddy Dignam shows up and speaks in favour of Bloom. He then does a wee by a lamp, which rather undermines his presentation. Several other people spout bollocks for a bit.
Zoe the prostitute appears and it seems we have returned to reality. Zoe tells Bloom that he can find his friends at Mrs Cohen’s place. She puts her hand in his pocket and pulls out a shrivelled potato, which Bloom claims is a talisman and an heirloom. Zoe then steals his potato, before trying to seduce Bloom while he nervously makes small talk. As Bloom launches into a speech about the evils of tobacco, a fantasy where Bloom is the Lord Mayor of Dublin plays out. Contrary to the previous courtroom incident, Bloom is hailed and venerated by various official-type chaps. Some sort of procession occurs, with all cheering and adoring Bloom. He is possibly being made a King and is sworn in as he places his right hand on his testicles. He receives the freedom of the city and shows off his green socks and his patriotism. He renames the city Bloomusalem and thirty two workmen build Bloomusalem in the shape of a huge pork kidney. The man in the brown mackintosh pops up from a trapdoor and calls Bloom a fake, then is shot. Bloom’s bodyguards distribute all manner of things – from food and drink to theatre tickets and copies of the world’s worst twelve books – to the appreciative people. Bloom pokes a baby and dances about.
Those previously in the jury ask Bloom questions about finance, taxes and general randomness and there is something about the House of Keys. Bloom then outlines his plans for reform, which include but are not limited to equality for all religions, the end of war and insanity, a weekly carnival and free money and free love. Sounds good to me, but he gets a mixed response. Bloom sings about his tooraloom and re-tells Lenehan’s joke about the opera and the train tracks, which annoys Lenehan. For some reason, many attractive women commit suicide and the feeling towards Bloom takes a sour turn.
To make matters worse, Buck Mulligan declares Bloom to be sexually abnormal and insane. Other characters in the guise of doctors come forward to agree with Buck and also comment upon other abnormalities – all except Dr Dixon, who is rather kind about him. Dixon then announces that Bloom is pregnant! Bloom proceeds to give birth to ‘eight male yellow and white children’ who are named Nasodoro, Goldfinger, Chrysostomos, Maindoree, Silversmile, Silberselber, Vifargent and Panargyros. All are immediately appointed to high-ranking public positions. As if giving birth to eight babies wasn’t enough, Bloom then performs several miracles to prove that he is the Messiah. Various people and, er, things – including a crab and a holly bush – denounce Bloom and throw stones at him. A choir of six hundred voices sing about soap and potatoes and stuff.
We then find ourselves back on the street with Zoe, where Bloom rants melodramatically and Zoe takes Bloom to a brothel, leading him by the scent of her armpits. They go in to the music room, where they find Lynch and Stephen associating with two whores, Kitty and Florry. Stephen converses with Lynch’s cap, which of course replies. Clearly also feeling the effects of the absinthe, Stephen then witnesses moneylender Rueben J in the form of the anti-Christ and a French-speaking hobgoblin. Florry declares the end of the world, while the gramophone begins to sing and proclaims the second coming of Elijah. The End Of The World (now an actual character) speaks with a Scottish accent, which seems to summon Elijah, who launches into some apocalyptic bollocks at Florry, Stephen, Zoe, Bloom, Kitty and Lynch. Elijah sounds suspiciously like one of those American preacher-types, but if The End Of The World can be Scottish, then I suppose this is reasonable. What am I saying – in this Episode, pretty much anything can be reasonable.
Kitty and Florry talk about sin, then there is an absolutely mad bit with all kinds of people popping up, talking about everything, probably. Someone smites a crayfish with a bicycle pump. Lynch gives Zoe a cigarette. Lipoti Virag appears from the chimney on pink stilts – he is Bloom’s grandfather. Virag passes comments about Kitty and Florry to Bloom, then proceeds to sort of lecture Bloom about various things, but mostly sex and women. Virag eventually runs off somewhere, ranting about pretty petticoats.
Florry asks Stephen to sing a song but he refuses. Siamese twins – Philip Drunk and Philip Sober – appear at the window. They are Oxford dons with lawnmowers and, unsurprisingly, they both talk utter nonsense. Lynch puts on Kitty’s hat and what feels like endless madness ensues. Bloom gives some chocolate to Zoe, who shares it among the group. Bella Cohen – ‘a massive whoremistress’ enters the room. Her fan (yes that’s right) talks to Bloom, noting that he is a married man. Bloom bemoans the pitfalls of ageing and he misses his lucky potato. Bella exposes her foot (‘The Hoof’) to Bloom and they converse. The Hoof sounds pretty aggressive, actually. Bella then becomes a man – Bello – and begins to dominate Bloom, who appears to have become a woman.
There’s a bit of BDSM going on. Zoe, Florry and the brothel cook pin down Bloom so Bello can sit on him / her and ride Bloom like a horse. Zoe and Florry ask for a turn but Bello isn’t done yet – she charmingly farts on Bloom’s face. Bello instructs Bloom to dress as a woman and mocks him for various past indiscretions, before making him into a slave and then berating him at length. All this is too much for our hero, and he promptly dies. A nymph then comes out of a tree to continue abusing Bloom (talk about kicking a man when he’s down!) Bloom tells the nymph that they have met before and she says that she is in a painting hung above his bed and she has witnessed all sorts of shenanigans. Bloom apologises for snoring and the untidy bedroom. Bloom remembers youthful days and a calf named Staggering Bob appears with a nanny goat and they claim to have seen Bloom frolicking on a hill with a young lady (possibly). Bloom’s trouser button snaps (and it talks, of course it does). Eventually Bloom has had enough of the nymph, gives her a piece of his mind and she flees.
Bella is a woman again and Bloom is very rude to her about her uncomely appearance. Looks like he has had enough of this nonsense and demands his potato back from Zoe. Bella asks for payment from the gentlemen and Stephen obliges. Florry complains that her foot has gone to sleep and quite frankly, I’m absolutely amazed that we are not treated to an extended narrative about the dream of the foot. Instead, Bloom checks the money placed on the table and realises that Stephen has, in his drunken state, overpaid the whores. He rights matters and gives Stephen his correct change. Stephen is in such a state he is dropping things all over the place, so hands his money to Bloom to look after. Stephen tries to light a cigarette. Zoe reads Stephen’s palm and then Bloom’s – from this she can see he is a henpecked husband. Black Liz, a hen, lays an egg. Some boots laugh while Zoe and Kitty whisper.
Blazes Boylan and Lenehan appear in a car, having a saucy conversation. This is likely another hallucination as Boylan hangs his hat on Bloom’s antlers upon entering. Boylan merrily tells Bloom that he has private business with Molly – who emerges naked from a bathtub. Ever the gentleman, Boylan invites Bloom and two friends to watch through the keyhole as he fornicates elaborately with Molly. He might be a cad, but to be fair to Boylan, he does seem fairly talented in this area. Shakespeare appears in a mirror and talks bollocks and general randomness follows.
Stephen waxes lyrical about Paris and all sorts of naughtiness. Some sort of macabre horse race ensues. The pianola starts to play and everyone apart from Bloom dances like mad people. Stephen dances especially enthusiastically and almost falls over, so stops. His dead mother rises from the floor, rotted and generally very corpse-y. Buck Mulligan calls to her from the top of a tower. Stephen asks his mother to assuage his fears that he killed her, but this is not forthcoming and she implores him to repent instead. Stephen is horrified as his decomposed mother warns him of God’s wrath and he smashes the chandelier with his walking stick. Bloom and Lynch try to get a hold of him, but Stephen runs off. Bloom argues with Bella about the cost of damages, eventually giving her a shilling before heading off after Stephen.
Outside a crowd has gathered and Bloom finds Stephen in the middle of a commotion in the street. Stephen is in some sort of altercation with Private Carr and bystanders appear to be encouraging a fight. Stephen announces that he must kill the priest and the king, which doesn’t go down well. Edward VII appears and sanctions a fight. Bloom tries telling Carr and his solider friends that Stephen is a good lad who has had too much absinthe, to little avail. Some people I suspect are not real – the Croppy Boy, the Citizen (he might be real), Rumbold and Old Gummy Granny – egg on Carr to punch Stephen. Private Carr believes Stephen has insulted the king and things continue to get out of hand, despite Bloom’s best efforts. People start shouting for the police. Lynch legs it with Kitty. After much threatening and cajoling, Carr punches Stephen in the face and he falls to the ground. The crowd are very excitable.
The police arrive and Bloom speaks to them. Then, he spots Corny Kelleher and asks him to come over. Kelleher has some influence here and convinces the rozzers to leave matters be and that he and Bloom will take care of Stephen. The police leave and Bloom gives Kelleher some unconvincing excuses for his presence in this less than illustrious area. Kelleher goes off cheerfully in his carriage and Bloom turns his attentions to Stephen, who is not too badly hurt. As Bloom dusts off Stephen, he has a vision of his son Rudy, dressed in an Elton suit and reading Hebrew.
Christ on a bike, what can one really say about all this?! Firstly, this is just a brief snapshot that doesn’t even begin to cover the complexity, anarchy and outright psychedelic aspect of this episode. For a start, it is 134 pages long and some of the ‘stage directions’ cover a page. Everything from the characters’ costumes to their mannerisms and surroundings are described in exquisite detail and although the dialogue is helped massively by the script-like layout, pretty much everyone (and there are an awful lot of them) is garbling nonsense most of the time. As with the rest of the book, there are endless references to just about everything, but we have the added interest here of the book referencing itself in all kinds of abstract ways. It is fiendishly clever and absolutely mind-boggling.
A decent scholar could probably spend years on this section alone, digging down into every brilliant bit of text, producing some quite startling literary work in the process. I don’t have the time nor the cognitive capacity for that, so my approach was to try not to make sense of anything, but just go with the flow and enjoy the ride. When even the fixtures and fittings are joining in with the dialogue, what else can you do? It’s like Disney on acid. And absinthe. And it really, really wants a fight. I’ll tell you what else it is, too – absolutely filthy. I haven’t gone into that aspect too much, not because of any prudish tendencies but because that could be a book in itself. Some of it feels pretty gratuitous to be honest, but that’s fine, we’re all grown-ups here. But a lot of it is insightful as to the psyches of the characters and makes them feel incredibly human, despite the outlandish setting.
As you can see, this is a multi-faceted and endlessly complex piece of work so it would be futile for me to attempt a comprehensive explanation. Overall, though, my feeling is this – just as Bloom ventures into the dark underbelly of the city, so we follow him into the darkest and unseen aspects of not only the characters, but of Joyce and, ultimately, ourselves. Here we are presented with the unfiltered hopes, fears, lusts and desires of all aspects of humanity. The hallucinogenic presentation of course makes it wonderfully surreal, but it retains a bleak rawness, nonetheless. I advised earlier to get a stiff drink before starting this episode and now I feel like I deserve another one for finishing it. If I’d had a few as I went along, who knows, it might have all been a bit clearer. This book could literally drive a person to drink!
‘I confess I’m a teapot with curiosity to find out whether some person’s something is a little teapot at present.’
Short and stout? This is actually one of the lines that makes the most sense.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, my educated greyhound.’
I think that covers just about everyone.
‘…the rustle of her slip in whose sinuous folds lurks the lion reek of all the male brutes who have possessed her.’
She might be a whore, but you would have thought she could have got the sponge out in between customers.
‘Hum. Thank your mother for the rabbits. I’m very fond of what I like.’
Most people are, I’d say.
‘I’m not a triple screw propeller.’
Thanks for clearing that up.