by Jacob Albert, Olivia Coates, and Matthew Gerken
In the fifteenth episode of Ulysses, “Circe,” James Joyce experiments with a dramatic technique he called hallucination. The play-like form and structure of the episode leave no room for anything interior or internal. Yet the performance allows for the utter unwinding of reality and common sense. Household objects speak, dead relatives turn to animals, Bloom dies and even turns into a woman. Though it is certain, from a narrative perspective, that Bloom and Stephen are in Bella’s whorehouse, it is quite unclear, at times, what is real, and what is fantasy. When Bella begins to break Bloom down, psychologically, physically, debasing him as he turns into a groveling, dominated woman, Bloom’s secret fantasies, which have remained bottled up for the entire novel, spill over into actuality. Unleashed sexuality turns everyone in the episode into literal animals. Animalistic sex, deep-seated cravings for humiliation and domination, reveal Bloom’s deepest inner life, despite the fact that the episode’s form refuses and refutes all inner discourse.
Trials and Fantasies
Dublin offers a wealth of characters, from recognizable celebrities and type characters (such as “the idiot,” 15.14) to personified objects and ghosts. The chaos of the space and the increasing intoxication of our heroes (Bloom and Stephen) disorients the reader. Joyce begins his whirlwind tour of Dublin streets at night with a tableau of the late-night populace. Stephen enters the scene first, accompanied by Lynch. Their first encounter with The Bawd reveals their mission: “Sst! Come here till I tell you. Maidenhead inside. Sst!” (15.82-83). They have entered an unsavory district in order to indulge in the pleasures of the night. They pass over the offered virgin and out of the reader’s frame. They evaporate in an extensive stage direction which also heralds the entrance of Bloom. Joyce imbues Bloom with heroic bearing, “Bloom appears…From Gillen’s hairdresser’s window a composite portrait shows him gallant Nelson’s image. A concave mirror at the side presents to him lovelorn longlost lugubru Booloohoom.” (15.142-6). The final words of the quote link his plight to that of Odysseus, long and alone at sea. Bloom’s fuddled nature returns in his dialogue- “Fish and taters. N. g. Ah!”- and his drunkenness is revealed as he is nearly run over by a passing trolley (15.154). The Motorman is quoted as saying to Bloom, “Hey, shitbreeches, are you doing the hat trick?” Joyce offers this version of the dialogue, but the reader pauses to ask if that was indeed what the motorman said (15.195). It is not the more logical phrase, “what are you doing on the track?” Bloom mishears the motorman, and Joyce establishes this in the text, cueing the reader in to the problems of reality to be encountered in this episode.
The first part of Circe mainly features Bloom, and the chaos on the page can be read as tinted by the lens of his character. Bloom continues his wandering through the winding streets and soon encounters the form of his deceased mother and father. In this passage, Joyce shows the first costume change. Bloom is suddenly clad “in youth’s smart blue Oxford suit with white vestslips, narrowshouldered, in brown Alpine hat…” (15.269-70). These changes in attire and corresponding immature speech dramatize the early memories Bloom conjures. Mrs. Marion Bloom soon after enters the scene. She is ushered in by the bar of soap and memories of the chemist. Bloom, still preoccupied by her affair earlier that day, asks her, “Are you sure about that Voglio? I mean the pronunciationi…” (15.355). The Bawd that offered the maidenhead to Stephen interrupts his vision with a similar advertisement. Bloom walks on and drifts to recollections of past female conquests. He conjures up Gerty, who chastises Bloom for enjoying her and immediately thereafter abandoning her despite her interior monologue of love and care. A female friend of Molly’s, Mrs. Breen, is the next character to enter. She knew Leopold at an earlier age and recalls his youthful gallantry. The potential for intimate relations is presented, but avoided. Her final line, “(eagerly) Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes” anticipates Molly’s final monologue (15.576).
These sensual recollections lead up to the first event of the episode, when Bloom is placed on trial for being a Don Juan among Dubliners. Among his accusers are his epistolary acquaintance, Martha, an ex-serving girl by the name of Mary Driscoll, and the respected socialite Mrs. Yelverton Barry. Bloom assumes various costumes and personas while attempting to elude his captors, yet his eagerness to escape disappears when the women threaten punishment: “The Honorable Mrs. Mervyn Talboys: I’ll flay him alive. Bloom: (his eyes closing, quails expectantly) Here? (he squirms) Again! (he pants cringing) I love the danger.” (15.1080-86). Although there were earlier suggestions of his sadomasochistic tendencies, this is the first clear physical manifestation of the urge. The arrival of the ghost of Paddy Dignam, initially verifying Bloom’s alibi, interrupts the proceedings of the trial, and Dignam soon escapes back to the underworld through a coalhole. A real character from the Dublin streets accosts Bloom and pauses his fantastic musings, “Are you looking for someone? He’s inside with his friend.” (15.1283). The interrogator was Zoe, a prostitute, who wonders if Bloom is looking for an individual easily surmised to be Stephen. Over thirty pages have passed since Stephen and Lynch went forth into the blackness, but Bloom’s footsteps have followed close to theirs, and although the meeting of the two heroes does not yet occur, the reader is aware of their close proximity.
After flirtations with Zoe, Bloom enters upon another series of fantastic visions, this time crowning him a monarch, the savior of Ireland, and even depicting him as the next Parnell- “God Save Leopold the First!” (15.1475). His official status seems fluid, yet one surmises that the newly established order embodies all that Bloom desires in Ireland: a liberated people and an acceptance of his Jewish cultural identity. The passage is absurd and comical; nevertheless, it manages to illuminate some of Bloom’s societal frustrations.
At this point, Bloom’s hallucinatory lecture, which has escalated from campaign speech, to coronation, to legal judgment, to academic lecture, has degenerated into the sheerest, purest, most ecstatic of public speeches, establishing new authority, new standards, new creation, and gifts for all: “all parks open to the public day and night. Electric dishscrubbers. Tuberculosis, lunacy, war and mendicancy must now cease… Free money, free rent, free love” (15.1688-93). The trial has turned into an enthusiastic lecture, a lecture of prophecy and promises, but is not without its share of dissenters — the conservatives: Father Farley (who admonishes), Mrs Riordan (who tears up her will), and Mother Grogan (who throws her boot at Bloom). Bloom turns into an entertainer to evade the criticism, to fend off hate with humor: he is “good old Bloom,” with “rollicking humor” (15.1722, 1727). Though Bloom is somewhat awkward and quite reserved in his real social life, here he is “the funniest man on earth,” winking at his audience, working the crowd (15.1737). During the culmination of Bloom’s “trial fantasy,” his thousands of women worshippers kill themselves, “hanging themselves in stylish garters” out of despair mixed with desire (15.1750).
But the celebratory festival turns to a trial once more, and Bloom is declared a hypocrite, a heretic, a debaucherous “disgrace to Christian men.” (15.1754). The talk turns to Bloom’s sexual abnormalities, both the cause of the antagonism toward him, and the very basis of his defense: “He is prematurely bald from selfabuse, perversely idealistic in consequence, a reformed rake, has metal teeth… more sinned against than sinning” (15.1780-83). Bloom is reprimanded, yet excused, because of his sexual degeneracy. The majority of the fantasies acted out throughout “Circe” revolve around Bloom’s most suppressed and hidden sexual fantasies. Here he has taken the fantasies to their logical extreme and has become a woman. Acting out a hidden, suppressed desire, Bloom gives birth to eight children on the spot. And so, Bloom, the womanly man, the pregnant woman, receives outpourings and libations of tremendous sympathy, which so painfully elude him in his isolated, waking life. Bloom gives birth, at once a mother, a Messiah, a cod. Bloom the mother-messiah is crucified, the false-messiah, a false man and false woman.
The hallucination ends for a brief pause and we return for a moment to the narrative’s reality. Zoe, the prostitute, tells Bloom to “talk away till you’re black in the face.” (15.1958). Bloom appears as an Irish peasant, leading a pig, begging to be allowed to return home. The pig-imagery from The Odyssey’s Circe chapter continues with Zoe telling Bloom she is from “Hog’s Norton, where the pigs plays the organs” (15.1983). Zoe seduces Bloom, who is turned, pig-like, into a drugged brute, who follows the stinking prostitute with a “lifted head, sniffing” (15.2039-40). Stephen Dedalus shortly returns to the scene, discoursing drunkenly on music, blathering about an old hymn to Demeter and Ceres. Playing the Pianola, Stephen returns to his favorite theme of Shakespeare’s perennial metempsychosis; here, Shakespeare is “a commercial traveller, having itself traversed in reality itself becomes that self” (15.2118-19). The Anti-Christ, the prophet Elijah, and a whole slew of Christs (Florry Christ, Stephen Christ, Zoe Christ), make appearances. Scenes from Stephen’s day become the fodder for the great travelling hallucination of the Circe episode, until Virag Lipoti, Bloom’s grandfather, returns the scene to the control of Bloom’s subconscious with an appearance, through the chimney flue. He comments dryly and scientifically on the anatomical appearances of the three whores. His dry commentary on the prostitutes’ physiognomy is infected with a pig-breeder’s language, reinforcing the Circean theme, and pushing further, as well, the animalistic thinking and behavior that fills the entire episode. Henry, a Bloomian alter ego, replaces Bloom, forming a Bloomian trinity, along with Virag (Bloom’s grandfather) and Bloom himself. Stephen returns, a self-professed Prodigal Son, and spouts theory after theory. Sex secrets take the form of religious revelations; Virag’s hypotheses on the nature of female genitalia become anti-Christian theories; the all degenerates into a frenzy of profanity and conspiracy, Virag at this point having turned into a diabolical, hacking monkey, and then into a pusyellow flybill.
Shortly after, Bella Cohen, the whore-mistress, enters, and she is the basis for the most important and revelatory of the whorehouse hallucinations. Of all the characters in the episode, Bella offers the closest parallels to the enchantress Circe herself. Bloom readies himself for the domination that takes over the next few pages: “Enormously I desiderate your domination,” he tells Bella (15.2777). Bella soon becomes Bello, and violates a feminized Bloom. In The Odyssey, Circe, who lives on an island guarded by lions and wild animals, has the power to turn men into beasts. She has a wide apothecary at her disposal, drawing on drugs, magic, seduction. Bella in her brothel is Circe in her castle. Bloom, who has followed Stephen from the maternity-ward to the whorehouse, is accompanying the drunken medical students principally to keep an eye on the abjectly drunk Stephen, as Odysseus sneaks into Circe’s castle, for the sake of his men. The hallucinations of the episode reinforce the parallel between the drugged state dominating the Odyssey’s chapter, and the hallucinatory nature of Joyce’s episode.
Bloom in Bella-Circe’s phantasmagorical brothel is acted on by his own psychological forces — his guilt, his sexual impotence — and takes on various forms, becoming an animal, a woman, etc. Bloom’s guilt and shame, the basis for Bloom’s trial at the beginning of the episode, here provide the foundations of his sexual fulfillment and ultimate destruction. Bella brings out Bloom’s most hidden and perverse desires, which become articulated more fully as Bloom descends deeper into degradation and submissiveness. Bloom bends down to tie Bella’s bootlace, but the boot has become a hoof, and Bloom himself, a sniveling dog, a cowering “mamsir.” Bella becomes Bello, a hideous, huge, hairy sex-tyrant. Bloom’s history of cross-dressing is alluded to, as his entire personal history of sexual aberrations. Masochism (Bloom’s) and sadism (Bello’s) are here on full display. Bloom is auctioned off as a sex slave, while Bello taunts Bloom with accounts of Molly’s cuckholdery. Bloom is forced to sign his will, forced to die, and his death, lamented by passing Jews. Bloom awakens from death in the presence of a Nymph — the Nymph from the portrait overhanging his nuptial bed. The Nymph accuses Bloom of nocturnal indecencies, and Bloom apologizes. The vision of the Nymph is replaced by memories of a long ago high school excursion to the waterfalls of Poulaphouca, and memories of Bloom’s secretive masturbation deep in the forest. The Nymph returns, but Bloom banishes her, having recuperated at last his virility and masculinity through the act of mockery. It is Bloom’s turn to mock, just as Bello mocked, and Bloom scoffs at the fleeing Nymph (her “multiple muscosities” 15.3473) and the enchantress Bello/Bella/Circe, having at last broken her spell: he insults her, “a mutton dressed as lamb, long in the tooth and superfluous hair…her double chin…her vapid eyes.” (15.3483-86).
The Savior and the Son
As the fantastical elements are scaled back in later scenes, the bawdry sexual element remains as Stephen and Bloom continue to interact with the prostitutes. In returning Bloom’s potato, “a relic of poor mamma” (15.3513), Zoe reveals her bare thigh flirtatiously. The prostitutes, whose profession reveals their base, beastly nature, are again analogized to animals, including the pigs that occupy the Circe episode in the Odyssey. Bella’s “sowcunt barks…Fbhracht!” (15.3489-90) and later in the episode the Pianola announces that ‘My girl’s a Yorkshire girl,” (15.4115) drawing parallels with Yorkshire pigs, a dominant breed of hog.
Foreshadowing the appearance of the Bard, Stephen refers to sex with the Shakespearean phrase “the beast that has two backs” (15.3631-32). Stephen also interjects when Bloom is attempting to reclaim his potato from Zoe: “To have or not to have that is the question” (15.3522). Both the potato and the prostitute herself are the objects of the question, suggesting that by claiming one Bloom will come close to having the other. And in one hallucinatory moment Bloom is about to watch Boylan having his wife, and Lynch’s mention of holding “The mirror up to nature” (15.3820) causes Bloom and Stephen to gaze into a mirror and see Shakespeare staring back.
This subtle mock Bloom-Dedalus-Shakespeare Trinity is only a part of the increasing mockery of the religion in the episode. Bloom is himself a “Dead cod” (15.3496) to Bella, and Joyce has Father Conmee speak as “Don John Conmee,” implying that even the priest has a bit of Don Juan in him. We know that priests have been known to patronize the whorehouse, and Lynch quotes the liturgy of the mass with derision while mid-coitus with Kitty: “Dona nobis pacem [Grant us peace]” (15.3640). When Florry mentions a “Lambe from London” who married one of the prostitutes, Stephen jokingly notes that it must have been Lambe who “takest away the sins of the world” (15.3636-38). In the midst of a heated political discussion with the British privates towards the end of the episode, Stephen’s words apply as much to religion as they due to the Imperial domination of Ireland: “I have no king myself for the moment” (15.4470).
At one point the prostitutes and their patrons break out into dancing reminiscent of a high society ball, complete with shouted dance directions in French. The tune on the piano, however, is “My Girl’s a Yorkshire Girl,” constantly reminding the reader that underneath this uplifting fantasy of propriety and prestige is an animalistic profession, with the prostitutes squealing pig-like for their living. The brief respite provided by the dance does not last long- Simon Dedalus interrupts with a command to Stephen to remember his mother, and a dance of jubilation becomes a “Dance of death” (15.4139). A choir torments Stephen by singing the Liliata rutilantium, and Buck Mulligan and Stephen’s mother herself appear to drive home the finality of her death and draw the reader back to the beginning of the novel. The appearance of the dead mother recalls the visit to Hades that followed the Circe episode in the Odyssey, with Stephen’s mother in the role of the advice-giving Tiresias. Yet for Stephen the situation is Christianized, and so the mother’s advice reinserts religion somberly and forebodingly, reversing the mockery of the Church that occurred previously. “Repent! O, the fire of hell!” she screams, “Beware God’s hand!” (15.4212, 4219). The stage directions in the theatrical format reveal “A green crab with malignant red eyes sticks deep its grinning claws in Stephen’s heart” (15.4221-22).
This threat from the dead is mirrored in the living and real threat of the British privates, who confront Stephen over Cissy Caffrey late in the episode. Their argument over insults to the King of England is the political equivalent to the previous consideration of the authority of the Church. Corny Kelleher, the undertaker, arrives on the scene with the police, implying a possible death. But Stephen is saved by Bloom, who shoos away the police by explaining that Stephen has had too much absinthe, and insists on taking home Stephen himself rather than surrendering him to Kelleher. Bloom and Stephen have been growing steadily more connected through the episode. Zoe declares Stephen’s hand a “Woman’s hand” (15.3678) right after the conclusion of the scene in which Bloom becomes a woman, and Stephen realizes numerical similarities between their ages. Stephen is twenty-two, meaning that he was born in the year that Bloom sustained an injury that caused the scar on his hand (a clear reference to the nails in Christ’s hands). Bloom was sixteen that year, and “Sixteen years ago he [Bloom] was twentytwo too” (15.3719). In the end, then, Bloom is both Christ and the Father. He saves Stephen from death, helping to undress and clean the drunk as he would a child. In the last spoken word of the episode, such charity is rewarded with the appearance of the true son, analogized to a sacrificial lamb- “Rudy!” (15.4962).
All Yale Modernism Lab in-text citations of Ulysses have been formatted in the following style: