“The Sirens”

by Elizabeth Legris

Homeric Parallels

The eleventh episode of James Joyce‘s Ulysses, “The Sirens,” finds its Homerian equivalent in the twelfth book of the Odyssey, as Odysseus is leaving Kirkê’s island. Kirkê takes it upon herself to inform Odysseus of the many sea perils that he will encounter on his way home, specifically warning him of the Sirens, whose “beauty [has the power] to bewitch men … [who] will sing his mind away / on their sweet meadow lolling” (Fitzgerald XII.49, 53-4). Odysseus then recounts Kirkê’s message to his crew,

weaving a haunting song over the sea
we are to shun, she said, and their green shore
all sweet with clover; yet she urged that I
alone should listen to their song. (Fitzgerald XII.190-194).

Odysseus instructs his men to tie him to the mast, telling them to ignore whatever he may say while under the sway of the Sirens’ song. He stuffs their ears with beeswax to prevent their listening, and then is lashed down tightly to the mast. The song of the sirens notes their irresistible charm (“Sweet couples airs we sing. / No lonely seafarer / holds clear of entering / our green mirror” [Fitzgerald XII.224-8]) and their false promises of prophetic vision, both for themselves (“No life on earth can be / Hid from our dreaming” [Fitzgerald XII.244-5]) and their listeners (“Greybeard and rower-boy / Goeth more learnèd” [Fitzgerald XII.236]). What is perhaps most interesting is Odysseus’ reshaping of the instructions given to him by Kirkê when he informs his crew — Kirkê gives him instructions for resisting the Seirênes’ song “if you wish to listen” (Fitzgerald XII.62), which he transforms into a imperative that he alone must follow. Odysseus sees no issue in reshaping Kirkê’s narrative to suit his needs. She bemoans he who “hears that sound! / He will not see his lady nor his children / in joy, crowding about him, home from sea (Fitzgerald XII.50-52). Clearly, the Sirens are those who prevent homecoming, who distract men from their journeys homeward.

Though the Sirens in Homer’s text are androgynous figures, they are decidedly alluring figures, whose “lovely voices in ardor” draw men to their bewitching “beauty” (XII.246, XII.49). When interpolated into Joyce’s text, Sirens are represented by tempting women, such as the barmaids, Miss Kennedy and Miss Douce, and the prostitute in the street at the end of the episode. Bloom is given myriad opportunities to halt his journey homeward and stay with any of these women, but he, like Odysseus strapped to the mast, is bound for home. Molly, as an opera singer herself whose songs are constantly referenced in this episode, seems to be the only woman whose allure draws Bloom towards her in this episode, with the constant jingling of Boylan’s keys drawing his mind ever back to Molly and their home. Given Bloom’s slow winding of an elastic band in his pocket, he seems to be, figuratively and actually, lashed to the mast in much the same style as Odysseus was and therefore bound for home:

“Bloom unwound slowly the elastic band of his packet. Love’s old sweet sonnez la gold. Bloom wound a skein round four forkfingers, stretched it, relaxed, an wound it round his troubled double, fourfold, in octave, gyved them fast.” (11.681-4)

As a minor, but not unimportant, note, the constant references to the Siren’s island and possessions as “green” and “all sweet with clover,” which recur throughout Kirkê’s description and the Siren’s songs, seem to identify with Ireland, the emerald isle. While treatments of Irish politics are less present in this episode than in some others, the Irish proclivity towards song cannot be underestimated — song is a communal activity in Ireland and a means of a cultural narrative.


Appropriate to the music of the Sirens, Episode 11 of Ulysses is classified in Joyce’s schemas as corresponding to the ear and music. The technique is fuga per canone, “fugue according to the rule.” While this term itself is more Joyce’s invention than a traditional musical composition term, a fugue generally features the arrangement of a simple melody in a series of different transformations, with counter-voices echoing and complementing it. That being said, while trying to project Gifford’s three components of a fugue onto the episode seems a fruitless endeavor, the technique does make sense of the initial two pages of the episode. Both Gifford and Blamires describe the opening sequence of approximately sixty fragments as an announcement of the episode’s interest in music, a sort of orchestra tuning before the imperative “Begin!” that starts the narration in earnest. But as each fragment save the last line appears subsequently in the episode itself, this section represents a dehydrated version of the episode, not unlike the fugal melody that dominates a counterpoint arrangement. As the reader reads through the episode, the nonsensical fragments reappear in contexts that imbue them with new meaning; the effect is to force the reader to flip back to these initial pages, attempting to discover whether or not they are in the right order, whether or not there is a system that can be set up for interpretation. In essence, this self-referencing, the building up of Bloom’s personal connotations on the level of the word, is an excellent introduction to Joyce’s overall technique in Ulysses, which is self-referential without having the enclosed, neat structure of the “Sirens” episode. More generally, the fugal construction of the episode is made apparent in the episode’s predominant focus on the sound of Bloom’s experience, using such techniques as frequent onomotopeia (the “tap tap tap”ing of the approaching blind tuner, the jingling of Boylan’s keys), the juxtaposition of homonymic phrases, reduction of words to syllables, the recurrence of rearranged words, and identifiable fragments that the reader comes to look for, having realized the “pattern.” The episode frequently alludes to songs from the period, drawing from popular operas, ballads, and folksongs.

While it may be difficult to read the exact fugal structure onto this episode, an excellent way to think of the literary technique therein is in terms of “point and counterpoint,” the basis of a musical fugue. On a linguistic level, Joyce uses inversion to juxtapose contrary characters or concepts, such as his treatment of Bloom and Boylan in the following passage:

“Blazes Boylan’s smart tan shoes creaked on the barfloor where he strode. Yes, gold from anear by bronze from afar. Lenehan heard and knew and hailed him:
—See the conquering hero comes.
Between the car and the window, warily walking, went Bloom, unconquered hero. See me he might.” (Joyce 11.337-342)

The use of “conquered” in two grammatical forms — Boylan’s active, positive gerund “conquering” and Bloom’s passive, adjectival “unconquered” — sets the two men up as rivals even on the level of the word. The use of the same word in a different form so soon after Lenehan’s hail cannot help but draw the reader to the difference between its two uses in this short passage; as a result, the men are set up as different sides of the same coin. Bloom is unconquered, but passive; additionally, his worries of Molly’s inconstancy seems to suggest that he is the yet unconquered hero, waiting for Boylan to earn the epithet Lenehan gives him here.

In terms of motion and countermotion, this is mirrored on a macro level in the juxtaposition of the journeys of Bloom and and the blind beggar. Bloom is constantly drawn home by the sound of the jingling of Boylan’s keys and the bed — even though, as we will find out episodes later, Molly decides to make no use of the latter, making it Bloom’s imaginary construction — just as the tap-tap-tapping of the beggar’s journey draws him, by the end of the episode, to the bar where everyone is singing. This pairing of Bloom with the beggar, another social outcast, seems to intensify Bloom’s remove from the social scene set before him.

Joyce commented on the writing of this episode, saying, “I finished the Sirens chapter during the last few days. A big job. I wrote this chapter with the technical resources of music. It is a fuge with all the musical notations: piano, forte, rallentando, and so on. A quintet occurs in it, too, as in Die Miestersinger, my favorite Wagnerian opera…Since exploring the resources and artifices of music and employing them in this chapter, I haven’t cared for music any more. I, the great friend of music, can no longer listen to it. I see through all the tricks and can’t enjoy it any more” (Ellmann 459). I would like to disagree with Jessica’s opinion on the nature of this quotation; Joyce isn’t renouncing music, he’s suggesting that in creating a piece of music of his own — thereby seeing through all the tricks and the “artifices” of music — he has lost the ability to “enjoy” it, to “listen” to it. Noticeably, he is still a great friend of music; he still appreciates it, but now cannot suffer the listening of a song without an analytical ear. He does seem to use negative language as regards musical technique, concentrating primarily on the artificiality of the genre. Since his “enjoying” of music was dependent upon not seeing through its tricks and technique, his old understanding was dependent upon a piece’s mystery and pathos rather than its construction; it seems natural, then, that the mastery of its form in the Sirens episode would result in an emotional disconnection from music.

Plot Overview

After a break, the narration opens in the bar of the Concert Room of the Ormond Hotel at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Gifford notes that this setting was then a “favorite haunt of Dublin’s amateur musicians” (Gifford 290), and thus no doubt familiar to Joyce. As the viceregal cavalcade of the end of episode 10 passes by, bronze-haired Miss Douce and gold-haired Miss Kennedy watch on; they identify a man in tall silk, the honorable Gerald Wald, as being “killed looking back,” a description linked to Odysseus’ straining against his bonds and, tangentially, the plight of Orpheus, the first musician of myth. Bloom is walking down Wellington Quay, his copy of The Sweets of Sin still under his arm. The barmaids receive a delivery of tea from the “loud boots” who enquires whether the sight is the beau of Miss Douce, who berates him for his insolence. They talk about Miss Douce’s recent sunburn and her recent attempt to get a cure from “that old Fogey in Boyd’s,” but disintegrate into giggles over the old fogey’s maladroit behavior and the idea of ever marrying such a man. Their “giggling peal” of “young goldbronze voices” (Joyce 11.158) constitutes the first music of the episode, underlined by its climax, “peal after peal” (Joyce 11.175). These two barmaids, constantly characterized by their gleaming hair and sensual attraction, constitute the central figures in the episode for the Sirens.

Bloom, on his way to the bar, is consumed by thoughts of his failed ad attempt with Nannetti (11.186) and Molly’s meeting with Boylan at four, a number whose recurrence throughout the episode comes to represent Bloom’s overwhelming concern for his wife’s infidelity (11.188). While an absent figure, Molly’s operatic activities, especially in operas that involve adulterous love triangles, are stressed several times, turning her, problematically, into a Siren herself.

Simon walks into the bar and makes light conversation with Miss Douce. While filling his order, Miss Douce sings a line from the opera Floradora, a piece that associates her with the South Sea. After a brief cut to Bloom, who is remembering his letter from Martha, Lenehan enters the bar, asking if Boylan has come. He has not. Lenehan casts a glance and several flirtatious comments towards gold-haired Miss Kennedy, but she ignores him for her reading. He turns instead to Simon and gives him “greetings from the famous son of a famous father” (11.255), quickly revealed as “Stephen, the youthful bard” (11.257). Lenehan regales him of Stephen’s up-and-coming status, “the élite of Erin hung upon his lips” (11.267). Simon responds apathetically, saying only, “that must have been highly diverting… I see.” His “faraway mourning mountain eyes” suggest his mind is elsewhere, and seems completely uninterested in the mention of his son (11.273). Without engaging Lenehan, Simon turns to the piano, which, he notes, has been moved. Miss Douce informs him that it has just been tuned today, praising the blind tuner’s playing. Simon moves to the piano, now called a coffin, pressing and examining it as he had his wife during and after her life. The blind man has forgotten his tuning fork, whose “throbbing” tone is likened to a “dying call” (11.315-6).

Bloom, meanwhile, is buying his stationery for his letter to Martha. The kindly salesgirl becomes a suspicious figure in light of his thoughts on his wife’s imminent infidelity, thinking, “think you’re the only pebble on the beach? Does that to all. For men” (11.310-311). Boylan, hailed “the conquering hero” by Lenehan (11.340) enters the bar, Bloom, the approaching “unconquered hero” (11.342), sees his car outside. Not wanting to be seen, he strikes up a conversation with Goulding on the street, allowing him to watch Boylan from outside the bar. Inside, the two barmaids both smile at Boylan, but Miss Douce prevails. Lenehan talks her into what he calls “sonnez la cloche,” snapping her garter, but when she moves down the mirrored bar, Boylan makes to leave, leaving both barmaids disappointed. Boylan’s keys “jingle,” a sound that recurs constantly throughout the episode as Bloom’s mind turns to Boylan’s visit (11.256). Inside the bar, Dedalus, Fr. Crowley and Ben Dollard discuss a concert whose star, having forgot his suit, is saved only by the Blooms’ side business of second-hand clothing, ominously advertised by the phrase “Mrs. Marion Bloom has left off clothes of all descriptions” (11.496-7).

Bloom and Goulding enter and sit down to eat. Dollard begins to sing as Boylan heads off to his meeting with Molly. After a few dolorous lines, Cowley takes the piano and begins an Italian song. The bar patrons convince Simon to sing the aria from Martha to Cowley’s accompaniment, a song that describes the doomed love of Lionel for the beautiful Martha. As Simon sings, Bloom’s mind wanders from the amorous advantages of tenors to Molly’s first surrender to him after one of her performances. When the song finally climaxes, Bloom’s mind is consumed with “Siopold” (11.752), an amalgamation of Simon, Lionel and Leopold. As Goulding sings “‘Twas Rank and Fame,” Bloom considers the numerical basis for music and then sets out to compose his reply to Martha, surreptitiously hiding his work from the other patrons at the bar and disguising his handwriting with Greek letters.

As the singing at the bar continues, Bloom’s mind hypothesizes Boylan’s journey to his home, synonymous with sex with Molly. “One rapped on a door, one tapped with a knock,” Bloom muses, eventually coming to “proud knocker with a cock” (11.886-888). Bloom’s thoughts of Molly completely overtake the bar scene except for the intermittent musical cues. He thinks then on Milly, the failed musician, and then Rudy. Bloom remarks his being “the last of my race,” mourning his oncoming age and now loss of opportunity for a son. “He bore no hate,” Bloom thinks, apparently at Molly, thinking “Hate. Love. Those are names. Rudy” (11.1069). With hate and love reduced to mere names, Bloom substitutes in a new name: “Ireland comes now” (11.1072). Bloom leaves the bar during Lidwell’s performance of “The Croppy Boy,” urged to “get out before the end” (11.1122). Despite the moving lyrics of the song, he manages to escape and is happy to have done so. As he leaves, his journey counters that of the approaching blind tuner and the tap-tap-tapping of his cane. Bloom wanders the streets, lamenting the “gassy thing, that cider” (11.1180) and pondering musical professions until the towncrier calls “four o’clock’s all’s well!” (11.1243). “All is lost now,” Bloom thinks, a phrase associated to Molly and Boylan’s encounter.

Before the episode ends, Bloom runs into “the whore of the lane” (11.1250-1), with whom he has previously had an encounter. But her mention of Molly and her cheap appearance puts him off and he resists the temptation of this last siren. Back at the bar, the music and drinking continues, the blind man finally approaches the bar, his sightlessness juxtaposed against Simon’s empty stare at the mention of Stephen. The episode ends with Bloom finally passing gas while reading the last words of Robert Emmet inscribed on his portrait, “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then let my epitaph be written. I have done” (11.1284-1291). Fragmented by the sound of Bloom’s churning bowels, the quotation is reduced to utter absurdity.


This episode parses several of the major themes of Ulysses, such as sexual temptation and Bloom’s isolated social status, through the lens of music. The first instance of music is in the voices of the barmaids, associated with Bloom’s book The Sweets of Sin, which is placed alongside their conversation in the text:

“By went his eyes. The sweets of sin. Sweet are the sweets. Of sin. In a giggling peal young goldbronze voices blended, Douce with Kennedy your other eye. They threw young heads back, …high piercing notes. Ah, panting, sighing, sighing, ah, foredone, their mirth died down.” (Joyce 11.156-162)

The first sort of music that Joyce gives us are the “high piercing notes” of the barmaids’ laughter. Immediately, the girls are associated with the Sirens’ allure, and the structure of their “song” here makes it clear that they are a pair associated with sex. While Bloom with his salacious novel has yet to make his entrance in the bar, the juxtaposing of “the sweets of sin” with such suggestive descriptions (“threw young heads back,” “panting, sighing, sighing, ah, foredone”) seems to align their song with sex, and the allure of possible outlets for sexual distraction on the pathway home. This theme is repeated several times throughout the episode, with each reincarnation of temptation becoming less and less attractive to Bloom, ending with the “frowsy whore” (Joyce 11.1252) at the end of the episode. But despite all this temptation, Bloom knows that he is “dear too near to home sweet home” (Joyce 11.1258-9) and is able to resist the sexual allure of the many sirens in this episode, though he will later fall prey to Gerty’s visual allure in Episode 13.

While to some extent his resistance is based upon his constant thoughts back to Molly in this episode, the real deterrent keeping Bloom from the Sirens is his impotence in this episode — he does seem, as Odysseus was to be lashed to the mast. Bloom is plagued by the inability to act in this episode; he is defined by acts that he cannot do, such as enter the bar when Boylan is inside, sing, or write a letter to Martha. On a linguistic level, he is unable to finish his words, such as in the text of his letter to Martha, “got your lett and flow. Hell did I put? Some pock or oth. It is utterly imposs. Underline imposs. To write today” (Joyce 11.861-2). In shortening these words down to their most essential syllables, Bloom seems unable to complete even the most basic of sentences; his writing is fragmented, and cannot be pieced back together.

Unfortunately, the reassembly of fragments seems to be just what Bloom desires, given the appearance of “Siopold!” at the climax of Lionel’s song (Joyce 11.752). The lines before seem to describe the transcendency of music; Bloom’s description becomes completely ecstatic, carried by the “high vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness……..” (Joyce 11.749-50). Following this description, Bloom is immediately consumed in the trifold figure of “Siopold,” an amalgamation of Simon, Lionel and Leopold into one. The power of music seems to be in lowering the boundaries between self and others, suggested by Bloom’s long string of ambiguous personal pronouns, “she out to. Come. To me, to him, to her, you too, me, us” (Joyce 11.755-6). Bloom’s ecstatic moment here, rather than the sexual release offered throughout the female figures in the episode, is the joy of becoming part of an “us,” of leaving behind his isolation and joining a community. But though music seems an excellent vehicle for this desire, it only serves to further delineate his isolated status, as he must watch all of this music from the other room. He sits with Goulding and eats, “married in silence” (Joyce 11.523), denied any of the emotional release that the other men get from the songs. Thus, Bloom is set up in opposition to the social and emotional benefits of music, made clear by one of the examples of counterpoint on his way out:

“—Bless me father, Dollard the croppy cried. Bless me and let me go.


Bloom looked, unblessed to go.” (Joyce 11.1074-6).

By sharing an opposing adjective pair (bless/unblessed), Bloom counters the croppy boy in much the same way he does Boylan. “The Croppy Boy,” a song about a young Irish rebel begging his priest for forgiveness, thus becomes another figure that Bloom fails to live up to. Unblessed and unconquered, Bloom remains decidedly apart from his Irish companions at the bar, uninvolved with their musical camaraderie, and unable to compete with Boylan’s sexual prowess. But perhaps, despite his musical impuissance, Bloom has revenge on his musical impotence at the end of the episode, when the final note, so to speak, of Joyce’s musical fugue is the passing of gas.


Blamires, Harry. The New Bloomsday Book (Routledge: London, 1996)

Ellman, Richard. James Joyce (Oxford University Press: New York, 1960)

Gifford, Don. Ulysses Annotated (University of California Press: Berkeley, Calif., 2008)

Homer. The Odyssey trans. Fitzgerald (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 1998)

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Gabler (Vintage: New York, 1984)

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.