by Simone McCarthy

Homeric Parallels

Episode 13 of James Joyce’s Ulysses parallels Book VI of The Odyssey in which Odysseus finally reaches land after having drifted at sea for twenty days, following his leave from Calypso’s Island of Ogygia. At the end of Book V, finally in sight of land, Odysseus loses his hand-made raft to the treacherous surf and is nearly crushed to death on rocks near the shore. After enduring two days of battling the sea, Odysseus finds a river inlet and with the help of Athena, the river’s god, and the magical veil of the sea nymph Ino, he is able to reach land. Exhausted and weak he makes a bed for himself underneath two olive bushes and falls asleep there. As Book VI begins, we learn that the land where he sleeps is Phaeacia, ruled by Alcinoos and his wife Arete who have five sons and one daughter, the beautiful Nausicaa. Athena takes the shape of a friend to Nausicaa and wakes the princess from her sleep to urge her to go to the river that morning to launder the court’s robes. The disguised goddess uses the imminent approach of marriage as motivation saying:

How so remiss, and yet thy mother’s daughter?
leaving thy clothes uncared for, Nausikaa,
when soon thou must have store of marriage linen,
and put thy minstrelsy in wedding dress!
Beauty, in these, will make the folk admire,
And bring thy father and gentle mother joy.
Let us go washing in the shine of morning!
Beside thee I will drub, so wedding chests
will brim by evening. Maidenhood must end! (Fitzgerald, VI.30-38)

This speech introduces the theme of marriage, which runs throughout this book. In the morning, when Nausicaa asks Alcinoos’ permission to take her trip to the river, she says nothing of the motivating thought of marriage, yet the king perceives her true motive in her blush. Once at the river, Nausicaa and her maidens wash and bathe and play until a ball sent amiss wakes Odysseus in his bed under the bushes. When Odysseus appears to the girls they all run from his briny, bruised image except for Nausicaa. As she stands before him, Odysseus debates whether to “embrace this beauty’s knee in supplication” or “stand apart, and, using honeyed speech, inquire the way to town” (VI. 153-155). He chooses the latter and after a well-spoken supplication and praise of her beauty, Nausicaa accepts his plea for aid. Odysseus bathes and, with Athena’s help, he emerges looking god-like, again causing Nausicaa to think of marriage and how she “wish[es] [her] husband could be as fine as he” (VI.259). Odysseus also satisfies his intense hunger “ravenously” eating the food they give him (VI.264). The book ends with Nausicaa instructing Odysseus on how to approach her parents, and then driving off in the cart while her maids walk around her, leaving Odysseus in a garden outside the city. Notably, in terms of Episode 13 in Ulysses, Odysseus enters the city at the beginning of Book VII covered by Athena in a “sea fog around him as he went… that no jeering sailor should halt the man or challenge him for luck” (VII.18-19).

In Joyce’s transposition of Book VI into his own Nausicaa episode, he carries over several of the motifs that stand out in The Odyssey: marriage, propriety of dress as part of the courting ritual, girlish imagination, and male satisfaction. The tension between real and ideal that dominates Episode 13 is also at play in Book VI. Nausicaa thinks about her ideal husband when Odysseus emerges from the river, but she does not know that even his appearance is an illusion: his physique is being enhanced by Athena. In Ulysses, Nausicaa is represented as Gerty MacDowell, a single girl in her early twenties. The handmaidens are Gerty’s chatty girlfriends, Edy Boardman and Cissy Caffery. The Star of the Sea Church, in the background of the episode, is a parallel to Nausicaa’s homeland Phaeacia, which is protected by Poseidon, god of the sea (Gifford, 384). There are several Odysseus-Bloom parallels in this episode— both men hold themselves back from physical contact with Nausicaa-Gerty, and each satisfies their ravenous hungers in this encounter: for Odysseus this is for food, while Bloom’s appetite is sexual.

Unlike in previous episodes where the correspondences between The Odyssey and Ulysses are abstract or minimal, the Gerty-Nausicaa parallel is detailed and continues throughout Joyce’s episode. Both Gerty and Nausicaa are concerned with marriage, imagine the ideal husband, and both reveal too much with their blushes. Nausicaa rides in a carriage while her maidens walk around her; Gerty too must hold herself differently because she is lame. Both girls also think of the importance of cleanliness and proper attire in relation to marriage, and the detail of laundry creates a specifically strong corollary between them. Nausicaa’s actions in Book VI are centered around her rising at daybreak to prepare her linens in the hopes of marriage. Gerty is also very strongly associated with laundering:

 As for undies they were Gerty’s chief care… She had four dinky sets with awful pretty stichery…., and she aired them herself and blued them when they came home from the wash and ironed them and she had a brickbat to keep the iron on because she wouldn’t trust those washerwomen as far as she’d see them scorching the things. (13.171-179)

The depth of detail in which Joyce indulges to explain Gerty’s fastidious laundry regimen, creates a more elaborated Homeric parallel than is typical for the Joycean episodes.


Episode 13 occurs around 8:00 PM on the Sandymount Strand beach, the same place where Stephen had sat that morning and meditated on modalities in Episode 3. The surrounding backdrop contains Howth Hill, where Molly and Bloom shared their afternoon with the seedcake (remembered by Bloom in Episode 8). Closer to the beach is the Mary, Star of the Sea church. That evening, the Star of the Sea is in the midst of a temperance retreat, at the end of which a benediction of the Eucharist, but not a full reception of the communion will occur. The noise emanating from the church is an interlocutor with the other characters in the episode, and the sounds of the service draw a connection between Gerty and the Virgin Mary and between Bloom and the men at the service. The other characters present are Gerty’s girlfriends Edy Boardman and Cissy Caffery, Edy’s eleven-month-old sibling baby Boardman, Jacky and Tommy Caffery four year-old twin brothers to Cissy, Gerty herself, and Bloom, a mostly silent observer, standing back from the group near the sea wall.

The events in the episode are not complex and for the most part they are easily distinguishable. Edy and Cissy care for the children, cooing at the baby and breaking up fights between the rambunctious twins. Bloom and Gerty, who implicitly portrays herself as the loveliest of the three girls, enter into a silent flirtation from afar:

 Bloom was eying her as a snake eyes its prey. Her woman’s instinct told her that she had raised the devil in him and at the thought a burning scarlet swept from throat to brow till the lovely colour of her face became a glorious rose. (13.517-519)

This flirtation is noted jealously by Edy who rebukes Gerty by continually teasing her about a boy that may no longer be sweet on her. Gerty doesn’t care though, because her full attention is on Bloom, who in her mind has become her “dreamhusband” (13.431). Bloom enters directly into the scene several times, first to return a ball sent awry by the twins (as Odysseus did for the handmaidens of Book VI), and later when Cissy asks him the time. Here he finds that his watch has stopped, and Cissy tells the others his “waterworks were out of order” (13.551). Most of the beginning of the episode is taken up by Gerty’s thoughts of love, marriage, her appearance, and Bloom. When the group begins to leave the beach, fireworks from a bazaar begin, and Gerty lingers behind to give Bloom the satisfaction she feels he is in need of. Leaning back so as to watch the fireworks, Gerty reveals her entire leg; her skirt is pulled up past her garter line, allowing Bloom to reach a fruitless, masturbatory sexual climax at the same time that a Roman candle firework erupts in the sky:

And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind blank and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads they shed and ah!… O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft! (13.736-740)

This climactic moment confirms the tacit and secret relationship that the two just participated in. Gerty is called to meet up with the group, and she waves a scented white handkerchief in reply. With one last look at Bloom in which “their souls met in a last lingering glance and the eyes reached her heart,” she goes to catch up with the group (13.762). It is not until this moment that Bloom or the reader realizes that Gerty is lame. Bloom is relieved she did not reveal this imperfection before his climax, yet he still appreciates the scent left behind on the air from her handkerchief. The episode continues with Bloom alone musing about the cruelties of women, his sympathies towards them, menstruation, Martha, Molly, and Milly, bodily smells, and the curious fact this his pocket watch may have stopped at the exact moment of Molly and Boylan’s sexual act. His thoughts run on until he falls asleep on the rocks, exhausted from his sexual excitement.


The technique of the episode, as noted by Gifford, is tumescence and detumescence— which in layman’s terms means swollen and then a release from swollenness, usually relating to sexual arousal and its recovery. This technique of tumescence is realized by the wordy and pompous prose that dominates the greater part of the episode through a third-person narrative voice. The language is meant to reflect a ladies’ magazine and ladies’ magazine novelettes in its overt sentimentality, exaggeration, and triteness (Blamires, 134). The over-descriptive phrasing and sentences jam-packed with superfluous words and pithy phrases do give a swollen nature to the language. This swollenness underlines the rising action of Bloom’s arousal by Gerty, his masturbation, and his final climax. Not long after his ejaculation, the tone and language of the episode change and move into narrative detumescence. Sentences are brief, choppy, and truncated. The narration moves closer to Bloom’s thoughts, slipping at times into his first person, and the language represents his fatigue after his sexual satisfaction.

At the start of the episode this parody of the delicate and over-wrought feminine magazine style is in full force. A stylized alliteration is one vehicle through which the parodic and tumescent element is achieved. The phrases “dainty dimple” (13.25), “cosy chat” (13.11), “lingered lovingly” (13.3), “proud promontory” (13.3-4) all exaggerate the magazine style ridiculously and verbosely. Overdone euphemisms also create a sense of parody in the language: the girls would “discuss matters feminine” (13.12); the baby is referred to as “the wee chap” (13.29); Gerty is a “specimen of winsome Irish girlhood” (13.81). This style of employing cutesy euphemisms has larger thematic implications apart from mimicking the ladies’ magazine literary style. Euphemisms play into the episode’s broader theme of the real versus the ideal, because their linguistic function is to cover the unpleasant or embarrassing with an idealized gloss. In addition, the concept of euphemism certainly ties into Joyce’s description of the fireworks explosion as a parallel for Bloom’s ejaculation in the middle of the episode. A ladies’ magazine of the time, it can be presumed, would be full of euphemisms as a mechanism to address more racy material without incurring scandal.

The magazine-style parody in this episode is not executed in the same way as the satirical interpolations in Episode 12 that mocked various literary genres. In “Cyclops,” there was a first person narrator and the parodies of literary styles would interrupt his first person narration. In this episode, a third-person, parodic voice narrates the entire time that Gerty is present. The first person is not introduced until Bloom’s voice takes over after Gerty’s departure, in the detumescent section. Despite the third-person narrative voice, it could be assumed that the narrative is guided by Gerty’s thoughts: the third person narrative voice may be describing Gerty’s inner thoughts and external perceptions in a voice that reflects Gerty’s own culture— that of the ladies’ magazine.

Yet because the narrative never enters into Gerty’s first person, and because the narrative voice changes to Bloom’s after Gerty leaves, there is some speculation as to whether the episode is guided by Gerty’s thoughts at all, or if it is Bloom projecting idealized femine thoughts on her. The fact that the narrative perspective shifts abruptly the moment after it is revealed that Gerty is lame is one indication that this could be the case:

Tight boots? No. She’s lame! O!
Mr. Bloom watched as she limped away. Poor girl! That’s why she was left on the shelf and the others did a sprint. Thought something was wrong by the cut of her jib… Glad I didn’t know when she was on the show… (13.770-774)

The third person parodic narration had continued right up until the revelation that Gerty is lame. At that point, Bloom’s voice immediately takes over. It could be that once the reality of her lameness revealed, the fantasy is over and that is why the language abruptly shifts away from the highly feminized magazine-parody. What is perhaps significant evidence for this reading is that the tumescent, parodic language does not end closer to Bloom’s actual climax, when one would presume the detumenscent technique would begin to take over. Instead, even after his masturbation, the stylized feminine language does not appear to dissipate: Gerty is described trying out “one of love’s little ruses” in waving her fragranced handkerchief (13.756). The particularly stylized sentence, Bloom’s “eyes that reached her heart, full of a strange shining, hung enraptured on her sweet, flowerlike face” is situated just before he realizes that she is lame (13.763-764). The word “flower” too is associated closely with Bloom throughout the novel. Thus it is clear that the narrative voice does not switch until Bloom realizes Gerty’s physical imperfection— a fact that could support the interpretation that Bloom is imposing his idea of the feminine mind on Gerty, perhaps as an erotic stimulation.

Yet logistically, there are allusions to Gerty’s lameness that precede Bloom’s knowledge of it, which suggest that the narration is closer to her thoughts or at least to a collaboration of hers and Bloom’s. This instance gives specific details about her accident that caused the lameness:

… but for that one shortcoming she knew she need fear no competition and that was an accident coming down Dalkey hill and she always tried to conceal it…. (13.650-651)

This exact reference to an event of which Bloom could have no knowledge seems to rule that the narration is solely his idealization of Gerty’s thoughts. In addition, there are failures and inconsistencies in the parodic language that seem to reveal Gerty’s own thoughts coming through the stylized language that she may be trying to imitate. One example of this is:

Gerty smothered an exclamation and gave a nervous cough and Edy asked what and she was just going to tell her to catch it while it was flying but she was ever ladylike in her deportment. (13.616-618)

Here the parodic, delicately feminine voice that describes Gerty as “smother[ing] an exclamation” is interrupted by the first instinct of Gerty to send a quip back at Edy that would have been un-“ladylike in her deportment.” The interjection of the colloquial “catch it while it was flying” seems to show some proof of Gerty’s consciousness within the third-person narrative, suggesting that it is more organically related to her.

It is perhaps because of examples like these that Blamires, who seems to endorse the interpretation that the narration stems from Gerty’s mind, writes that unlike the Cyclops episode, this parody “presents the two-eyed reader with a feast of blended satire and pathos” (Blamires, 134). This two-sided nature of the Nausicaa satire can perhaps be attributed to that fact that entirety of Gerty’s existence in the novel is written within this parodic tone: with such depth of insight into this young girl’s heart, no matter the stylistics, it would be difficult for the episode to be exclude pathos completely. A memory of her penance to Father Conroy is one example of a moment where the reader could be sympathetic to Gerty, despite the language:

… if she ever became a Dominican nun in their white habit perhaps he might come to the convent for the novena. He told her that the time when she told him about that in confession, crimsoning up to the roots of her hair for fear he would see, not to be troubled because that was only the voice of nature and we were all subject to nature’s laws… He was so kind and holy and often and often she thought and thought could she work a ruched teacosy with embroidered floral design for him as a present… (13.451-461)

The tone here is consistent with the rest of the wordy, overbearing language of the episode, and yet it does seem also to be a fitting vehicle for Gerty’s thoughts, just as it dually is a satire. Gerty actually wants to “work a ruched teacosy,” as a ladies’ magazine might suggest, because she is grateful to the priest. It seems legitimate that the ladies’ magazine world could be the means that Gerty uses for personal expression, because it is the culture that she is most familiar with. Essentially, her intent to make the “ruched teacosy” is sincere even if is written within satirical language. This passage also reveals Gerty’s concern with the religious rules about sexuality. Though her modesty prevents her from describing her confession further than saying she asked the priest about “that,” we can infer from his response, to “not be troubled because that was only the voice of nature” that her confession was about sexuality or menstruation. This instance provides a good example of how euphemistic language is more than just a stylistic device, but also a functioning mechanism of more realistic communication, such as in the confessional— a topic that Molly mocks in her monologue in Episode 18.


A conflation of religion and sexuality is an overriding theme in this episode. Gerty has a confused notion of how the two are connected: after her flirtation with Bloom she reassures herself “there’s absolution so long as you didn’t do the other thing before being married” (13.708-709). The overtones of this relationship between religion and sex are seen also in the juxtaposition of the church sounds with Bloom’s sexual arousal, and in the fact that the church service does not end in communion (an act associated with taking the flesh of Christ), just as Bloom’s ejaculation was not consummated in the flesh (Blamires, 138). Yet the associations between Gerty and the Virgin Mary are perhaps the most crucial of the religion-sexuality motifs in the episode. For one thing, Gerty, like the Virgin Mary is associated with the color blue (Blamires, 135). Gerty calls it “her own color” and that day was “wearing the blue for luck” (13.170-180). The Star of the Sea church has hanging “blue banners for the blessed Virgin’s sodality” (13.447-448). Joyce interweaves Gerty and Bloom’s flirtation with the church, whose service that night focuses on telling the parishioners that the Virgin Mary will always be there for them. This juxtaposition casts Gerty as Bloom’s savior from his sexual starvation. Indeed the first time that Gerty looks into Bloom’s eyes, they “seemed to her the saddest she had ever seen” (13.369-370) and she longs to “make him forget the memory of the past” (13.438-439). Juxtaposed directly with her observation of his sorrow is the image:

Through the open window of the church the fragrant incense was wafted and with it the fragrant names of her who was conceived without stain of original sin, spiritual vessel, pray for us, honorable vessel, pray for us… mystical rose. …Father Hughes had told them what the great saint Bernard said in his famous prayer of the Mary, the most pious Virgin’s intercessory power that it was not recorded in any age that those who implored her powerful protection were ever abandoned by her. (13.371-380)

The emphasis on fragrance here seems important in light of Gerty’s parting wave of her scented handkerchief, the fragrance from which reaches Bloom several minutes after she as left. Here the “fragrant names” of Mary are wafted out of the church, and she is called the “mystical rose”— the same flower to which Bloom attributes the scent of Gerty’s handkerchief (13.1009). The idea of Mary as a vessel also seems related to Bloom’s use of Gerty: vessel recalls the womb, and just as Gerty and Bloom do not have intercourse, though there is an ejaculation, Mary’s womb gave birth to Jesus without intercourse. Bloom is furthermore described, like the churchgoers inside, as “literally worshipping at her shrine” (13.565). The motif of Gerty as Bloom’s savior becomes more apparent after his orgasm:

 A fair unsullied soul had called on him and, wretch that he was, how had he answered? An utter cad he had been… But there was an infinite store of mercy in those eyes, for him too a word of pardon even though he had erred and sinned and wandered. (13.746-749)

Gerty is figuratively transformed into the Virgin here, with her “infinite store of mercy” ready to “pardon” Bloom despite his sins. Her decision to remain and give him what was needed to work up his sexual excitement also seems reminiscent of the description of Mary in Saint Bernard’s prayer above: “those who implore her powerful protection were [never] abandoned by her.” Bloom thinks afterwards of how he is “thankful for small mercies” (13.789-790). Joyce has made the peep show that Gerty allowed Bloom into an act of salvation parallel to the Virgin Mother’s mercy.

Another motif that runs through the episode alongside the sexual and religious conflation is the tension between the real and the ideal that has been touched upon in various points throughout this introduction. The Linati schema lists “The Projected Mirage” as the Sense in this episode (Gifford, 384). This Sense is most likely mimicking both the physical enhancement Athena cast over Odysseus as he emerged from bathing and the mist she put around him to shield him until he reached the palace (Books VI, VII). Bloom, near the end of Episode 13 thinks he sees nightclouds that look “like a phantom ship” until he realizes “No. Wait. Trees are they? An optical illusion. Mirage” (13.1077-1080). The episode is indeed full of illusions, or perhaps delusions. Gerty’s lofty dreams spirit the reader into the realm of the ideal. When she sees Bloom the narration reads: “the very heart of the girlwoman went out to him, her dreamhusband, because she knew on the instant it was him” (13.430-431). Later, their imagined future together is idealized: “Her every effort would be to share his thoughts. Dearer than the whole world she would be to him and gild his days with happiness” (13.655-656). When Gerty leaves Bloom she thinks “they would meet again, there, and she would dream of it til then” (13.760-761), though the reader knows Bloom’s is decision not to return. Bloom, for his part, idolizes the physical form of Gerty throughout the episode. The tension between the ideal and the real comes to a peak when Gerty walks away and Bloom (and the reader) realize that “Gerty MacDowell was… lame! O!” (13.769-770). The ideal comes crashing down as Bloom thinks how he’s “glad he didn’t know it when she was on show” (13.774-775); he thinks: “See her as she is spoil all. Must have the stage setting, the rouge, costume, position, music.” (13.855-856). This real-ideal tension visited in this episode seems to play into the larger struggles that Bloom experiences with love throughout the novel. Each woman that he is in contact with romantically is missing a component. His relationship with Martha is not sensory at all, with Gerty the contact was only by sight, and his marriage with Molly is no longer consummated. While his ideal woman is Molly and they are still companions, the reality of their marriage is that she is sleeping with another man. Martha is not real to him in a physical sense and Gerty not in a permanent sense; they are merely mirages that can quickly be spoiled.

The denouement of the episode includes Bloom’s wandering thoughts mostly on topics already presented in the episode: fashion, scent, menstruation, sex, masturbation, and women. He toys with the idea of writing Gerty a note in the sand. He writes “I.AM.A.” before stopping, realizing “tide comes here” (13.1258-1265). It is left ambiguous what he is planning to write; perhaps “I am a naughty boy,” as Martha’s letter is fresh on his mind. Gifford and Blamires suggest “I am alpha”—as an allusion to the biblical Lord’s proclamation “ ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the lord’ (1:8)” (Gifford, 404). This interpretation would create another religious-sexual parallel: Bloom as God after his sexual act. Instead of finishing his message, Bloom throws his writing stick down, and it rests upright in the sand. This creates the joke that Bloom’s message now reads “I am a stick in the mud” (Blamires, 144). Bloom then falls asleep on the rocks and does not hear the repeated call of the cuckoo clock on the mantelpiece in the priest’s house. This cry, the ending words in the episode, unify once again Bloom, the priests, and Gerty, who are all in hearing range of it. The “Cuckoo” all at once suggests the passing of time (though Bloom’s own watch has stopped), alludes to a rhyme where a single girl asks the cuckoo when she will marry (Gifford, 404), and the word “Cuckoo” which sounds rather like “cuckold,” is perhaps also an unheard reminder of sleeping Bloom’s reality as an exile from his own bed.

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.