Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 1, 2010

Ulysses, by James Joyce (Disordered thoughts of an amateur #15)

Chapter 15: Circe

My goodness, Mr Bloom is in a red-light district, so is Stephen Dedalus, and James Joyce seems very familiar with the milieu! But maybe just from a friendly observer’s POV, eh?

In the 1960s, I had a friend who lived in St Kilda, which was not then the tourist mecca and home of upmarket apartments that it is today.  Back then it was a place of cheap rents and squalor: rooming houses and scruffy flats at low rental, which were mean and badly built or converted from very large 19th century mansions, on cramped blocks of land subdivided from the landed estates of the colonial gentry.  Brothels were illegal then but the red-light district was on Fitzroy St anyway, a place regularly denounced in the press and often the subject of fruitless law-and-order campaigns.  There were also ‘girls’ at work on notorious Grey Street.  Despite this raffish ambience, there were also tall blocks of very desirable apartments on the sea front from St Kilda’s period as a seaside resort in the 1920s.  It was in one of these spacious apartments with a glorious sea view that Sue’s family lived – benefitting from what was already then a great rarity in the rental market – a long term lease with a rent that had been fixed in perpetuity back in the 1940s. Mr and Mrs Arnold had a modest income but what had become a peppercorn rental meant that they had plenty of money to spend even after paying the school fees, so they had a very congenial lifestyle indeed.

Despite my parents’ reservations about the dubious reputation of the Arnolds’ suburb I was a frequent visitor – for Sue’s parents thought I was good and ‘improving’ company for their only child.   After the homework and piano practice were done, Sue and I lounged about on the roof-top garden listening to classical music, but when we were bored we went for walks.  As teenagers of course we knew nothing about the brothels and street-walkers; we had to wait till we were sixteen before being told any ‘facts-of-life’ much less the disreputable ones.  We were warned of course not to go anywhere near Fitzroy and Grey Streets, and not to speak to any strange men, and of course we ignored all this good advice and went where we pleased.

Perhaps it was our prim little hats and gloves, without which the convent warned us no young lady should be seen in public, which protected us.  In our naiveté we thought the tarts we saw were actresses from Irma La Douce for my mother had the sound-track on LP with a fetching wench in fish-net stockings on the cover.  It is laughable now, when world-weary 10 year-olds dress up like young madams and raunch culture leaves nothing to the imagination, but in the early 1960s there must have been a sort of code-of-honour amongst the men and women who left us alone in our innocence.  Or maybe we were just very, very lucky. Drug abuse was not the problem then that it is now, which may have helped…

Oh, Lisa, get on with it, I hear you say – what has all this got to do with Circe and Ulysses?  Well, only to point out that there was a time in Melbourne when brothels were illegal and yet part of the landscape – and not neatly zoned away into industrial areas like they are now.  A time when innocents could stumble through it in much the same way as Bloom ends up in the red-light district of Dublin.  It was on the streets and in-your-face, (that is, if you knew what you were looking at) as you went to the butcher, the baker or the candlestick maker.

But what is it that has triggered Bloom’s wild hallucinations as he makes his way along Mabbot (Tyrone) Street in Nighttown, the red-light district of Dublin? I don’t remember him imbibing any drugs at the party for Mrs Purefoy – didn’t he even tip out his glass of grog that someone gave him because he doesn’t like drinking?  This is just one of the mysteries of Circe: anyone who tries to make sense of this chapter without a little background reading is in for a rude shock because reality is not on Mr Joyce’s list of priorities here.

This is what you need to know if you are to have any hope of working out what’s going on in this very long chapter (150 pages in my Penguin classics edition).

The Homeric parallels:

In Book 10 Odysseus lands on Circe’s island, and the crew splits up (as Bloom is likewise separated from Stephen and Lynch who reached the red-light district first after leaving the drunken party at the hospital.)  One group of the crew finds the hall of the witch Circe and they’re turned into hogs. One of these men escapes and warns Odysseus.

He sets off for Circe’s to sort things out but meets Hermes, who gives him a protective herb called ‘moly’. (Moly/Molly, gettit?) This herb/drug protects Odysseus from Circe’s evil intentions to ‘unman’ him (which is why there are gender-bending scenes in Joyce’s version). However it doesn’t protect him from Circe’s trance because after she releases the men, they all stay there for a year quite happily until finally the men demand that their leader get his act together, shake off his trance and get going.  (A whole year!  And don’t forget that meanwhile poor Penelope is sitting waiting at home, fending off lascivious suitors for a very long time – 18 years, hence the 18 books of Homer’s epic and 18 chapter’s of JJ’s reworking of it.)

So there are hallucinations aplenty in Circe, but the literary form chosen by Joyce is the play-script, and it is this which helps the hapless reader to work out what’s happening.  By paying close attention to the stage directions and the script you can see when the characters we have come to know so well have morphed into something somewhere else.

What happens (I think):

Bloom, making his way through swirls of fog as he follows Stephen and Lynch into the red-light district (it’s now midnight) is beset by guilty hallucinations which draw on previous scenes in the novel and also reveal events in his past. Still, it came as a sad surprise to find not only Cissy Caffrey and Edy Boardman here in the slums, and quite a shock to find Gerty MacDowell flaunting her defloration and attributing it to Bloom (p572).  Stephen and Lynch also see Tommy and Jacky shimmying up a lamp post (oh, what future lies ahead for them?) as they pass by on their way to Georgina Johnson’s where la belle dame sans merci (a merciless beauty) will – if my Latin is up to it – see to it that Stephen loses his innocence (p565). Triggered perhaps by the sight of an aged Jew, from whom he hides his purchase of pork at Olhousen’s the butcher (p568-9) Bloom is confronted by the spectre of his father and mother (Rudolph and Ellen Bloom) who are not best pleased about the company he’s been keeping and the mud on his smart new clothes (p569). (The symbolism of this, I think, is that Bloom presents the respectable side of himself to the world but his father can see the grubby side.)

But it’s Molly/Marion dressed as a Moorish tart who aims a blow at him and he is overcome by the need to make excuses for his presence in the district and to tell her about his day.  This is a very human moment for Bloom, but she taunts him about the change he ought to be able to see in her (since she’s been having it off with Blazes Boylan).  ‘O Poldy, Poldy, you are a poor old stick-in-the-mud’ she says, ‘Go and see life.  See the wide world.’ (p571). A cleansing soap rises in the sky as he searches his pockets for the soap he bought in the morning to placate her but she strolls off singing the duet from Don Giovanni, Duet: “Là ci darem la mano‘There we will entwine our hands’.  This is the duet between Don Giovanni & Zerlina where the great seducer assumes he will soon have his way with the peasant girl but she resists his charms and stays faithful to her fiancé.

(I’m a bit surprised Molly doesn’t humLe donne e mobile (the one about the inconstancy of women), but maybe this is Molly’s way of letting Poldy know that she’s just having a fling?)

Anyway, have a look at Hei Kying & Bryn Terfel, if Blazes Boylan is half as gorgeous as Bryn Terfel I’m not surprised that Molly succumbed.

Ok, back to Bloom and his adventures.  Next up (p572-8) he ‘meets’ with Molly’s best friends Mrs Breen, dressed first as a man and then in a slinky evening gown, is an embarrassing reminder of their previous indiscretions under the mistletoe (p575).  What a mistake she seems to have made, choosing Mr Breen of the U.P. Lawsuit and carpet slippers instead of the (a-hem) virile Mr Bloom!  Alf Bergen seems to think so (p575) but we don’t find out exactly what they got up to because Mrs Breen fades away with an eager ‘yes yes yes yes yes yes yes’ that foreshadows Molly’s in the last chapter (p578).

Whores taunt him as he moves on and Bloom curses himself for getting involved in a wildgoose chase. (p579) but he’s pleased to have met Stephen and thinks it was fate. He’s cross with himself for wasting money on food (p580).  We learn that Molly has been depriving Bloom one way or another, because the pig’s trotter seems not to be the only thing ‘smaller from want of use’ (p581) and he gives it to Garryowen, the dog that’s been following him, and is promptly arrested for committing a nuisance, ‘unlawfully watching and besetting’ (p582). There follows a trial reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial – only Ulysses was published first, in 1922 whereas The Trial wasn’t published till 1925. I can’t tell from Wikipedia whether that was in English anyway   Still, there’s nothing strange about two writers in separate countries finding the legal system absurd, is there?

It’s not easy to follow what’s going on because Bloom keeps changing identity and there are witnesses from his past and (I’m guessing) from his fantasies.)  They find the card in his hat that identifies him as Henry Flower, his alias for the dalliance with Martha-who-he’s-never-met (in The Lotus Eaters) but the watchmen seem to know he’s Bloom anyway.  I was especially amused by the nonsense talked by Molloy in his role as Bloom’s defence barrister; for, having sat in on a few pleas in court myself, this one doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to me LOL.  There is a chorus line of Dublin ladies waving improper letters from Bloom, and the jury consists of the men from the funeral (including dead Paddy Dignam) and the pub.  He meets a young whore, Zoe Higgins, who somehow knows who Bloom is looking for, and knows where Stephen is…

This is followed by a sort of ancient Roman Triumph and a procession of dignitaries from the town council, with Bloom as a Roman Emperor on a white horse and bearing St Edward’s staff, the orb and sceptre. (p603). Then again maybe it’s a religious procession because Bloom is given a ruby ring (is that what an archbishop has?) and a diamond. (Maybe the pope has one of those?) He strikes down many a tall poppy, terrible jokes interrupt proceedings . and hordes of young women commit suicide.  Bloom is transformed into a ‘new womanly man’ (p614) which doesn’t mean he’s a SNAG, it means he becomes a mother and has ‘eight male yellow and white children’. (p614).  In a follow-up to Bantam Lyons’ fortuitous misinterpretation of a ‘throwaway’ line by Bloom in Chapter 5, he interrupts to ask him for another tip: the horse ‘Throwaway’ had been a winner.

A VOICE Bloom, are you the Messiah ben Joseph or ben David?
BLOOM (Darkly.) You have said it.
BROTHER BUZZ Then perform a miracle.
BANTAM LYONS Prophesy who will win the Saint Leger.

(Bear with me, dear reader, I am not making this up. Readers of the first edition could not possibly have imagined the special effects that can be done these days, but now in the 21st century I had no difficulty visualising the way the characters in this trial morph into strange characters, change their sex or become an animal – it seems quite normal after a while, which is probably a sign that I’ve been reading too much Joyce. )

There’s a biblical parody on p615, and a very funny litany on p618, which starts with

Kidney of Bloom, pray for us.
Flower of the Bath, pray for us.

And ends with

Potato Preservative against Plague and Pestilence, pray for us.

However, just as soon as Bloom gets used to lording it over everybody, the mood changes, and he is denounced and pilloried.

Briefly he returns to (a sort of reality) and is in the music room with Stephen who is pontificating about musical intervals, but it doesn’t last.  His student friends morph into the beatitudes (p626), and there is a parade of whores for Bloom’s delectation.  Next thing you know Stephen has become Cardinal Dedalus (p638) (and don’t forget, he’s an unbeliever!) and Bella Cohen ‘a massive whoremistress’ appears (p641) – she is a dominatrix who turns into a man (Bello) and Bloom turns into a subordinate female doing embroidery! (p643) Are we back in the land of the living when Stephen (still drunk) tries to pay his bill and Bloom intervenes to make sure he’s not being cheated?  Zoe’s back, and so are Stephen’s drunken friends. There’s Blazes, there’s Shakespeare, there’s Mrs Dignam, there’s a horse race and the pianola plays all by itself– it’s a madhouse, and I confess to getting a bit fed up with it by now.  Too long, JJ, and too weird!

Stephen becomes enraged when his mother appears as a wraith praying for his soul, and smashes the chandelier. (p683), Bella (or is it Bello? the Italics are very hard on the eyes) calls for the police and he flees, with Bloom in hot pursuit.  The list of characters involved in the hue and cry takes up more than half the page and even includes that mystery man on the beach and the postmistress.  Some British soldiers intervene, and Stephen doesn’t help by lecturing them about their grammar (p686) and insulting the king (p524) – and finally he is knocked out by Private Carr (p697).  Bloom catches up and calms things down with the help of Corny Kelleher.  (I’ve forgotten who he was, and who can blame me after all this confusion, eh?).  Bloom is left watching the unconscious Stephen and has a vision of his dead son Rudy who – aged eleven – is wearing the ruby ring and diamonds that Stephen had on in his role as Cardinal Dedalus, i.e. Bloom is fantasising about a father-son relationship with Stephen taking the place of his dead son.

So what, if any of this is real?  We are wandering through Bloom’s subconscious fears and dreams, repressions and fantasies.  We learn stuff about his past life but is any of it true? You guess is as good as mine!

Links to my disordered thoughts for other chapters are below.  NB Page references to anything before Chapter 11 are to my 1979 Penguin, and after that are to my Penguin 2000 reprint.


  1. Hi Lisa, I’ve just realised that I’ll be in Dublin for Bloomsday this year. Pity that I have no real interest in Joyce (or knowledge of him it must be said). Just checked out the Joyce centre website. I’ll have to make sure that I do a walking tour in your honour, for slogging through all this on our behalf. Will have to read your posts closer to the time. Louise


  2. Oh Louise, tell me this isn’t so! Do try Dubliners before you go…and when you get back make sure you fill me in on all the must-see sights, because we’re going to Dublin for the first time later in the year.


  3. I could probably try that I guess (don’t know anything about Dubliners either), I just checked on wiki, it’s short stories and the version in my library is 219 pages- I really am a terrible heathen you know. But I’ll have a look at it. I’d feel dreadful if I completely wasted the whole experience.


  4. *chuckle* well, at least you could fake it if you were asked if you’d read any JJ!


  5. Lisa, I’m so late getting here but thank heavens for having you on board Team Ulysses and for this ‘proper job’ on Circe, I’ll link to it on Tuesday…see you up the mountain, not far to go now.


  6. Hi Lynne, thanks!
    Yes, only two chapters to go, and I’m going to miss it when we’re finished. Reading it with Team Ulysses has been the best ever:)
    PS Love your avatar:)


  7. […] myself when I immediately recognised two scraps from James Joyce’s Ulysses! (It’s from Circe, when Bantam Lyons expects Bloom to prophesy the winner of the St Leger.  (Lyons had interpreted […]


  8. I think this has got to be one of the weirdest if not the weirdest chapter in the book. I know when I read the book two years ago it made my brain spin!


    • Absolutely. But you know, just re-reading this post of mine now, I am just a little bit tempted to read the whole book again!


      • I know how you feel. Right when I finished the book I thought, oh! I have to read this again right now! But as excited as I was by it, I was also exhausted and the immediate reread didn’t happen. I know I will read it again sometime though. I think I want to read Dubliners first though.


        • Same here. I’ve read it a few times now, but each time with 4-5 years in between.


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