Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 1, 2010

Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce (Disordered thoughts of an amateur #17)

 Chapter 17 (Ithaca)

This is the second-last chapter and I’m almost reluctant to read on because I’m going to miss Ulysses when I’m finished.  I had barely begun reading before I was chuckling over the absurdity of the Catholic catechism that Joyce parodies with deadpan humour.

What action did Bloom make on their arrival at their destination?
At the housesteps of the 4th of the equidifferent uneven numbers, number 7 Eccles street, he inserted his hand mechanically into the back pocket of his trousers to obtain his latchkey.
Was it there?
It was in the corresponding pocket of the trousers which he had worn on the day but one preceding.
Why was he doubly irritated?
Because he had forgotten and because he remembered that he had reminded himself twice not to forget.
What were then the alternatives before the, premeditatedly (respectively) and inadvertently, keyless couple?
To enter or not to enter. To knock or not to knock.

The parallels with Homer’s Ulysses are somewhat illusory in this chapter. Ithaca is home – and Odysseus sneaks into his house dressed as a beggar to catch Penelope’s suitors at it.  They give him a hard time, including Antinous who chucks a stool at him.  But when none of these impudent suitors can succeed in stringing Odysseus’s massive bow he (still in disguise) puts them in their place by doing it easily.  They barely have time to absorb the implications of this before Zeus lets go a thunderbolt and the slaughter begins. Having despatched the lot of them Odysseus (still in his beggar’s outfit) then heads off to the bedroom to make his peace with Penelope (who has slept peacefully through the mayhem).

But if you’re expecting a showdown with Blazes Boylan, you’re in for a disappointment, because he’s long gone.  As with many a victim of infidelity. Bloom is more about reclaiming his marital territory than about revenge.  And he’s got his ersatz son to deal with as well: Stephen has nowhere to go, he’s still none too steady on his feet and Bloom is entertaining fantasies about becoming a paternal guide and mentor.  So (having forgotten his key) he climbs over the railings down into the area and through the kitchen window, and he lets Stephen (Telemachus) in through the front door. It’s a cup of cocoa that’s in order, and our hero puts the kettle on…

The first sign that the father/son thing is not going to happen is that Stephen refuses to wash.  Bloom is a ‘waterlover’ and he uses that soap that’s been in his pocket all day (p783) but Stephen hasn’t had a bath since October.  (Yes, October, and now it’s June.  High summer, remember?  Can you imagine the pong??)  But, undeterred, Bloom interprets this as a sign that young Stephen has his mind on the higher things of life.

But the insistent voice of the catechism is there to reveal the Truth.  It’s not overt, but Stephen by his very nature mocks Bloom.  Bloom’s gestures of hospitality (setting aside his moustache cup and giving Stephen some of Molly’s cream in his cocoa) bring bemused silence.  As Stephen broods over the cocoa, Bloom assumes that he’s thinking about Shakespeare and drifts off into memories of his own juvenile poetry. Alas for our everyman hero, there are considerably more than the ‘four separating forces between his temporary guest and him…name, age, race and creed’ (p792).  It’s not just that Bloom thinks that he has a scientific temperament (because he reflects on the commercial success of an assortment of inventions) while Stephen’s is artistic (a premise not adequately substantiated by Stephen singing an anti-Semitic ditty.)  It’s education and IQ (and habits of hygiene).

Nevertheless, Bloom offers his home to Stephen in exchange for lessons in Italian though his real agenda is that he wants intellectually stimulating company for Molly and himself.  It transpires that Molly and Bloom are not compatible in more ways than one: she has ‘deficient mental development’ (p803) evidenced by her doodles, her bad handwriting, her weakness at arithmetic and reading unfamiliar words and her lack of interest in politics.   Like many a spouse before him, he has tried a variety of strategies to remedy deficiencies in the beloved:

How had he attempted to remedy this state of comparative ignorance?
Variously. By leaving in a conspicuous place a certain book open at a certain page: by assuming in her, when alluding explanatorily, latent knowledge: by open ridicule in her presence of some absent other’s ignorant lapse.
With what success had he attempted direct instruction?
She followed not all, a part of the whole, gave attention with interest, comprehended with surprise, with care repeated, with greater difficulty remembered, forgot with ease, with misgiving reremembered, rerepeated with error.

Can we imagine Bloom, with his pedestrian reflections on everyday life,  getting on with the uber-intellectual Stephen, the guy whose cerebral dissertation on Shakespeare drove us crazy in Scylla and Charybdis??  Stephen, unsurprisingly, doesn’t need to have met Molly to know he isn’t interested.  He puts his hat on, Bloom lights the way to the garden with a candle, and they perform the classic male pseudo-bonding ritual on the vegetation.  (Which is, surprisingly, un-named.  I was expecting an encyclopedia entry about the dahlias).  Zeus despatches a shooting star, (a big first impression which fades into nothingness),  the church bells peal the death knell of Bloom’s wish for a son, and Stephen’s on his way.

Bloom sets off upstairs, only to bang his head on the sideboard.  Someone has moved the furniture around – and since Molly could hardly have lugged a sofa, two chairs and a sideboard around the room by herself, she must have had help from a suitor – what perfidy!   Bloom cuckolded anew lights a candle and surveys the room, the familiar objets d’art of home, including the wedding presents on the mantelpiece.  Who can blame him for having sour thoughts?

What reflections occupied his mind during the process of reversion of the inverted volumes?
The necessity of order, a place for everything and everything in its place: the deficient appreciation of literature possessed by females: the incongruity of an apple incuneated in a tumbler and of an umbrella inclined in a closestool: the insecurity of hiding any secret document behind, beneath or between the pages of a book. (p834)

What can he do about this betrayal?  Not much.  He makes himself comfortable, puts his feet up, and daydreams about the trappings of wealth and power that he will have when his imagined projects all come to fruition.  (Those plantations, remember?)  Failing this, the great wealth might come by means of a big win on the steeplechase, a rare stamp on a letter, finding an antique ring, a donation from a Spanish prisoner or from winning a prize for solving an obscure mathematical problem.  Or possibly from grandiose infrastructure schemes, financed by someone else, of course, or ‘the independent discovery of a goldseam of inexhaustible ore. (p847)

In the meantime, he has his own marital indiscretion to dispose of, and he unlocks a drawer in the sideboard to hide Martha’s letter. He contemplates the detritus of his life: Christmas cards, raffle tickets, cherished letters from little Milly,  pencil stubs, press cuttings, coupons, ads, erotic postcards and so on.  He reflects on the pleasing response he has had from women during the day, and cheers up.

He looks in the second drawer, however, and ponders the official papers that document his life:  his birth certificate, insurance policy, bank account, his stocks and the contract for the plot of his eventual grave.  His parents’ papers make him melancholy again, and guilty because he’s failed to respect their beliefs.  He is briefly cheered by his assets but – it has to happen – he then reflects on Molly’s affair to bring himself to a nadir of misery: the aged impotent disenfranchised ratesupported moribund lunatic pauper. (p855)

Poor Bloom.  He considers leaving her, heading off to places far away like Ceylon or Greece or Spain or Tibet, his absence marked by adverts in the missing persons classified ads.  But it’s all too hard, he values the companionability of marriage and besides, Molly does the washing.

He goes up to bed.  He tidies Molly’s clothes strewn about the room, notes unfamiliar odours and shapes in the marital bed, and wryly considers Boylan’s mistaken belief that he’s Molly’s first affair.  There’s a long list of her lovers, you see, and Bloom’s no stranger to envy, jealousy, abnegation and equanimity. (p864).

Yes, equanimity.  The man has a sense of proportion, and Molly’s unfaithfulness is ‘not as calamitous as the catastrophic annihilation of the planet’  or any other of a long list of objectional and immoral acts of betrayal. (p865).   He gets into bed, kisses Molly’s rump, tells her about his day and drifts off to sleep. ..

So, next to Penelope, the most famous chapter in literature… 

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.

PS 5.4.2010 Half way through Penelope I discovered (via a comment at  DoveGreyReader) Columbia University’s annotated version of Ulysses.  The  annotations are adapted from Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated, but use the site at your peril. It’s one thing to take a quick look at Carlin and Evans to get the broad picture of what’s going on in a chapter and another entirely to read the book with an interfering knowall hovering over your shoulder explaining everything and spoiling it for you.  If you must, at least wait until after you’ve finished reading the chapter by yourself –  except possibly if you are really intrigued by something incomprehensible.  Whatever you do, don’t use it to read online because if you hover over the text with your mouse there is an explanation of what the text means, like a translation – which to my mind defeats entirely the purpose and enjoyment of reading Ulysses.  You might just as well read a summary!


  1. I am reading Ulysses with a group and loving every minute of it. Thank you for your musings.

    I am not sure why you want my web site since I am sending this as a personal missive, but if you still want it, let me know.



    • Hello KC, thanks for your kind comments:)
      Re your website URL: WordPress (and most other blogs too) automatically requests your email (required) and your website (optional), so it’s not something I’ve set up. But it is nice to visit a blog visitor’s blog and often this leads to all sorts of interesting conversations online. I have met many really nice online friends through mutual visits to blogs:)
      But if you’re not comfortable with that, it’s fine!


  2. This was the most difficult chapter for me when I read Ulysses mainly because there were about 5 words on every single page that I had to look up. But it nevertheless remains one of my favorite chapters of the book. It doesn’t get any better than this line from when they walk outside:

    “What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?

    The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”

    My appreciation for this chapter was elevated when I read William York Tindall’s commentary on it from his “Reader’s Guide to James Joyce.” It’s an otherwise unspectacular Joyce study but he really sheds light on Ithaca, his favorite chapter.

    Lisa, what the hell was Bloom thinking here:

    “What reflections occupied his mind during the process of reversion of the inverted volumes?
    …the deficient appreciation of literature possessed by females(??)”

    If only he could see this blog!


  3. *chuckle* Well, I hope that was Bloom’s opinion, and not Joyce’s!
    I’m half way through Penelope, but am delaying reading the rest till we get closer to Bloomsday:)
    I’m hoping to mooch a copy of that commentary but if I don’t get it that way I’ll be ordering it, I think – ready for the next time I read Ulysses!
    There will be a next time, though I’d like to try and tackle Finnegan’s Wake one day….


  4. […] while the stylistic shift into interrogative Q&A mode of the Catholic Catechism, as in the Ithaca chapter of Ulysses, signals the persisting power of conservative Irish […]


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