by Aleksandar Stevic

“Ithaca” is the penultimate chapter of Joyce‘s Ulysses, located between “Eumaeus” and Molly’s monologue in “Penelope”. According to Joyce’s letters, it is also the last chapter of the book to be completed, months after “Penelope” (Letters, 52). The chapter follows Stephen and Bloom on their way to Bloom’s house, the conversation they have inside, and ends with Bloom going to sleep. “Ithaca” is therefore sometimes seen as the actual end of the story in the novel (Gibson, 4), a “homecoming” that ends Bloom’s journey. While following Bloom’s and Stephen’s conversation, and subsequently Bloom’s thoughts, the chapter apparently attempts a systematic juxtaposition of Bloom and Stephen, returns to a number of crucial topics of the novel, and brings about a seemingly endless attempt to explore all possible relations between themes, objects and characters it encompasses (Lawrence, 569).

“Ithaca” is characterized by the interrogative form of questions and answers, a form that apparently indicates an attempt to convey factual accuracy. This tendency seems to be supported by the multiple recourses to cataloging in the text. Its method is usually seen as derived from catechism (Gibson, 23; Gilbert, 357), an assumption supported by Joyce’s own claim that “Ithaca” is written in the “form of mathematical catechism” (Ellmann, 501) This apparent normalization of the style is often seen as an abandonment of all stylistic experimentation in favor of focusing on “cold, hard facts” (Lawrence, 559). As Stuart Gilbert points out, the “trappings of style have been stripped till it is little more than a skeleton” (Gilbert, 357). In the words of Karen Lawrence, “it is ‘Ithaca’, the penultimate chapter, which represents the book’s most radical attack on the idea of literary style. In ‘Ithaca’ the narrative dons the anti-literary mask of science; its technical, denotative language, like the prose advocated by Thomas Sprat’s Royal Society, represents science’s ‘answer’ to metaphor and fine writing. In the impersonal catechism of “Ithaca” Joyce worked hard to dispense with most of the beauties of literary style.” (Lawrence, 559) However, the real extent to which the chapter can be read as a “massive concerted attempt to fill in gaps” (Gibson, 15) and as an attempt to meticulously establish certain basic facts about the events of the novel through the use of interrogative form, remains disputable. The logic of neutral factuality seems to be undermined by strong parodic impulses clearly visible in what has been labeled as “oversystematization” (Gibson, 23) and “overprecision” (Lawrence, 564).

The tendency towards establishing factual accuracy is strongly accentuated through the use of catalogues. In “Ithaca” the catalogue is the mean of representing material objects, memories or themes. The chapter opens with a full list of topics Bloom and Stephen discussed (17.12-17), which is followed by a list of all other occasions on which Bloom discussed the same topics (17.48-59). Also in the form of catalogue, we are given the contents of Bloom’s kitchen shelves (17.298-318), a list of his books (17.1361-1407), and contents of two drawers in Bloom’s bedroom (17.1775-1823, 1855-67). Finally, we are offered Bloom’s recapitulation of events that took place during the day (17.2044-58) and his complete budget of June 16, 1904 (17.1455-78).

On one side, catalogue, by its very nature of simply enumerating objects, appears to be a prime example of language in a strictly referential function. By definition, the catalogue attempts a “complete enumeration” (OED), an exhaustive list of a certain class of objects (e.g. “the catalogue of ships” in the Iliad). Therefore, it is tempting to conclude that “Ithaca” is the most clearly mimetic of all chapters in its attempt to account for the events of the day that were previously described in less accessible form. Andrew Gibson sums up this position: “‘Ithaca’ is the storehouse of fact in Ulysses, the repository of missing knowledge. ‘Ithaca’ is where the reader must go for the solution of all the remaining puzzles.” (Gibson, 16) On the other hand, precisely due to its ambition to grasp the totality of the world, catalogue appears particularly vulnerable to parodic undermining (a practice present already in Rabelais). It appears that in its attempt to catalogue everything, “Ithaca” undermines the very possibility of cataloging.

On a strictly stylistic level, a relatively clear sign of parodic exaggeration is the fact that language becomes excessively scientific, technical or official in the description of even the most basic or utterly trivial activities: Bloom’s “nightly walks” are therefore referred to as “nocturnal perambulations” (17.46). This pervasive incongruence between the stylistic features and the objects described is supplemented by the excessiveness of description, where the history of every event, topic or object is being traced (Lawrence, 565). The most notable example of this practice is the moment when Bloom goes to fill the kettle with water, and we are given the description of the entirety of Dublin’s water supply system (17.164-82), an account of Bloom’s thoughts on water (17.185-228) and finally a scientific description of the boiling process (17.257-74).  It seems that acts of cataloging and description in “Ithaca” are undermined by the very zealousness and lack of selection with which they have been performed (Lawrence, 563). As Lawrence suggests, the technique here shows that the “reality is infinitely expandable by being infinitely divisible” (565).

Both the stylistic features of the chapter and the attempt to achieve total comprehensiveness seem to ultimately question the limits of representation. This is not to say that “Ithaca” is necessarily anti-mimetic, or that its factual content is entirely discredited. After all, the chapter includes an apparently accurate budget of Bloom’s expenses during the day (17.1455-78), and significantly contributes to our understanding of relations among characters. Yet this ambition is not without problems, as it seems that even the Bloom’s meticulous budget contains an omission (Gifford, 590). It does appear that “Ithaca”‘s ambition to include and represent everything opens some far reaching questions. As Karen Lawrence puts it, “Just as we are hoping for the resolution of the plot, then, the narrative opens up to include almost everything imaginable. In addition to the exhaustive tracing of the causes and effects of events in the plot, the narrative increasingly speculates on potential causes and effects of hypothetical events.” (Lawrence, 567) In other words, it could be argued that representation is undermined by its very exhaustiveness.



Works Cited

Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce, new and revised ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Gibson, Andrew, “Introduction”, in: Joyce’s “Ithaca”, ed. Andrew Gibson, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996.

Gifford, Don, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Gilbert, Stuart, James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.

Joyce, James, Ulysses, London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Lawrence, Karen R.,  “Style and Narrative in the ‘Ithaca’ Chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses”, ELH, Vol. 47, No. 3. (Autumn, 1980), 559-574.

Letters of James Joyce, Vol. 3, ed. Richard Ellmann, New York: Viking Press, 1966.

All Yale Modernism Lab in-text citations of Ulysses have been formatted in the following style:

(Episode #.Page#). For example, the opening “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan,” which is on the first line of the first episode of Ulysses, would be cited as (1.1). All citations come from the Hans Walter Gabler edition of the text.