Ulysses, by James Joyce: Part 5

by Paul Mathers

I’ve just finished two important parts (chapters?) of the book.

The citizen is, while an extremely well written character, likely the most despicable character in the novel so far. In fact, I made a chart ranking my opinion of some of the major characters I’ve encountered so far, ranking them from  how despicable I find them to how likeable I find them:

ImageA couple of notes on this: Buck Mulligan is the character I find most likeable, but the sections about Stephen Dedalus are my favorite. Simon is unpleasant, but his tragedy does a lot to temper that. Bloom seems to land right in the middle, but certainly not in a neutral way. He seems to be a bit of both. However, the reasons the other characters dislike him are by no means the things about him that we dislike!

And this section is the perfect example. The citizen is a monstrous man and this section is a monstrous section. Almost everything out of the mouth of everyone in the pub, except for Bloom, is brutal, ethnocentric, and mean, but the citizen is the worst. He is nationalistic, he hates foreigners, he has a vile dog (I looked up James Joyce and dogs. Apparently Joyce had a severe fear of dogs, so this, for him, was a shorthand to evil). I couldn’t help but think “‘Twas ever thus.” The citizen reminds me of people I have known: older, xenophobic, with a sort of petulantly rigid and narrow form of patriotism. Like the mistreated dog, Freud might suggest that such people are actually built nearly entirely upon fear and cowardice.

The section with the citizen is peppered with interruptions by humorous vignettes. When the citizen talks about the foreigners clear-cutting the woodlands of Ireland we are treated to a wedding announcement of people with tree related names. I was struck, again, by this book’s influence on comedy. So many owe so much to Joyce. This gives a sense that, while the citizen and his court are entirely lugubrious, we don’t take them too seriously and they do, in fact, prove impotent. Near the beginning there is one while these brute meditate on the death of Dignam which takes us through the higher levels of enlightenment by way of a variety of other religions than Catholicism.

Bloom is trying to educate this bunch on the topics that arise, but learning is lost on this bunch. Bloom is constantly disrespected by his peers and, in spite of his shortcomings, you really want to stand up for him. But in this case, it culminates in rampant anti-semitism. The citizen, if I understand the heresy correctly, seems to suggest that he is a British Israelist. He certainly hates actual Jews and sojourners. Bloom finally “stabs him in the eye” at the end of the scene by reminding him that Christ was a Jew and by introducing the word that these men cannot abide: love. As we progress through the scene, I noticed an increasing “sight” motif. This puts us in mind of the cyclops, of Homer, and, indeed and probably unintentionally, of Joyce’s own later blindness. I’m tempted to try to shoehorn Milton in there somehow, but I should probably leave well enough alone.

For all of the citizen’s brutality, he seems to be “Mr. Ireland.” I wonder how this is meant to reflect on Joyce’s view of Ireland, but I suppose I might be inclined to go in a similar direction if called upon to describe Mr. America.

As an aside, the Hamlet references continue to gallop apace. I begin to feel as if Hamlet was to Joyce what Beethoven’s symphonies were to Brahms. I want to say to them “The things you are going to create will be just as magnificent in their own way.” Where the comparison breaks down, I don’t think Joyce is crippled by his awe over Hamlet.

We then shift to one of the first real immersion in female characters. Gerty is a dreamer, a romantic young woman. She shifts seamlessly between sweet innocence and holiness to hating children and desiring the love of a mysterious stranger, the caprice of youth. When she sees the man, looking so sad and intense, she imagines a heroine-complex narrative around him. Her companions are two women with children (rather spoiled children, I thought). There is a cute aside about one of the women’s madcap character exemplified in her once donning men’s clothing and walking down the street smoking a cigarette. Scandalous!

The stranger is, of course, Bloom and the intensity of detail committed to Gerty’s appearance, the fireworks, his hands in his pockets, and rising pitch seem to suggest a return to the motif of Onan. Placed next to the sound of the church service, this seems to suggest a blending of the sacred and profane. Indeed, both parties, Bloom and Gerty, leave with their internal fantasies intact (albiet Bloom slides immediately into guilt).

What follows is another 50ish pages of stream of consciouness, which I am still reading so we’ll pause here for now.

More soon.