REPORT ON JAMES JOYCE'S ULYSSES
EPISODE 11--SIRENS (256-291)
This episode begins just before 4:00pm at the bar and restaurant of the Ormond Hotel. The first two pages of the episode contain brief extracts from the narrative that follows. Though these fragments appear at first to be meaningless, Stuart Gilbert points out that "they are like the overtures of some operas and operettas, in which fragments of the leading themes and refrains are introduced" (243). Another possibility is that they are simply the sounds of the orchestra warming up before the performance actually begins.
The first plot detail connects this episode with the previous as two barmaids observe and comment on the Viceregal's cavalcade that ends Episode 10. The barmaids also catch a glimpse of Bloom who is on his way to buy paper to answer Martha Clifford's letter. Simon Dedalus and then Lenehan both enter the hotel bar looking for drink and companionship. Having bought his paper, Bloom sees Blazes Boylan for the third time (he sees him while riding in the carriage in the Hades episode and then hides from him in the museum at the end of the Lestrygonians episode) and decides to follow him into the Ormond Hotel bar. The clock almost immediately strikes 4:00, and Boylan quickly pays for his drink and leaves to meet his 4:00 appointment with Molly.
Bloom stays in the hotel restaurant and eats with Richie Goulding--Simon Dedalus's brother-in-law who is yet another outsider--"dinners fit for princes" (269). While "in liver gravy Bloom mash[es] mashed potatoes" (270), listens to Simon Dedalus, Bob Cowley, and Ben Dollard sing about Ireland's war-torn past, and then writes a letter to Martha Clifford. Having stayed long enough to hear Ben Dollard sing "The Croppy Boy," Bloom leaves the restaurant, avoids a prostitute, and passes the blind piano tuner he helped in the Lestrygonians episode (see 180-181). The episode ends with a bang when Bloom, while examining a picture of Robert Emmet (another failed Irish hero), supplies his own musical note to the orchestra, a loud "pprrpffrrppfff" (291) or fart.
In Book 12 of The Odyssey, having been warned by Circe of the beautiful Sirens whose songs lure sailors to their deaths on their rocky shore, Odysseus places wax in the ears of his shipmates and then insists that they tie him to the mast so that he can hear their songs. Though he begs his crew to untie him from the mast, they refuse and he escapes from yet another potential quest-ending danger.
The most obvious sirens in Joyce's narrative are the two bar maids. In the first bit of action, one of the officials in the Viceregal's cavalcade stares at the bar maids and "he's killed looking back" (257), creating a parallel with Odysseus who "struggles against the bonds that secure him to the mast" (Gifford 294). When one of the bar maids informs Simon Dedalus she spent her recent vacation "lying out on the strand all day," he asserts that her action "was exceeding naughty . . . tempting poor simple males" (261). During another scene one of the bar maids tempts Blazes Boylan and Lenehan with the sound of her garter smacking her thigh (266), and later the other bar maid draws the attention of the entire bar by moving her hand up and down in a repetitious motion on "the smooth jutting beerpull" (286). Bloom also encounters Sirens in the form of the window advertisement he sees with "a swaying mermaid smoking mid nice waves . . . lovelorn. For some man" (263) and the "frowsy whore with black straw sailor hat askew" whom he passes on the street (290).
One other group of important Sirens are the male singers--Simon Dedalus, Bob Cowley, and Ben Dollard--who songs of "love and war" tempt Bloom to share their sentimental surrender to the "old times" (268) of Ireland's past. The rubber band Bloom plays with suggests the strong pull of their sterile drinking songs, but when the rubber band finally twangs and snaps (277), it is clear that he will not succumb to their sterile or paralyzed insistence that "all is lost now" (272). Bloom's final musical note--a loud fart he releases while looking at a picture of Robert Emmet--emphasizes his avoidane of these Sirens and their paralytic beer songs.
One final important connection with Homer's Sirens is Joyce's recognition of the overall power of music in general. Bloom associates music with sexual desire and concludes that "music hath jaws" which women use "to catch rattlesnakes" (284).
Part of the difficulty of this episode is that Joyce wrote it in the style of "a fugue with all musical notations" (Ellmann 459). Even Ezra Pound, a great experimenter himself and one of Joyce's strongest supporters, complained about the difficulty of Joyce's approach (Ellmann 459). However, Stuart Campbell's analysis of the three-part structure of a fugue makes Joyce's effort much more accessible: "the Subject is obviously the Sirens' song: the Answer, Mr. Bloom's entry and monologue; Boylan is the Counter-Subject" (253). The episode becomes then a musical confrontation between Bloom and his rival Blazes Boylan. The musical motif that defines Boylan is the variations on the "jingle jingle jaunted jingling" (256) which occur throughout the text.
One of the musical pieces mentioned throughout the episode is a German opera called Martha. In this opera Lionel experiences great grief and even madness over his unrequited love for Martha (see Gifford 129). The connection between Lionel and Bloom is clear even without Joyce's referring to the latter as "Lionelleopold" (288). Though Bloom feels great loneliness and humiliation as he bides his time while waiting for Molly and Blazes Boylan to complete their afternoon tryst, he still thinks that it may not be "too late" for him and Molly and admits that "he bore no hate" (285). Lionel also is eventually reconciled with Martha, regains his sanity, and lives happily ever after.
Other references in the episode also undercut the recurrent motif that "all is lost" (272) now that Molly has kept her afternoon meeting with Boylan. Though Lenehan hails Boylan as "the conquering hero" (264), Joyce describes Bloom as an "unconquered hero" (264). By following Boylan into the Ormond Hotel, Bloom demonstrates that he still has not given up the contest for Molly. Boylan's admission that he "plunged a bit" (265) on Sceptre in the Gold Cup race implies that he will eventually lose to Bloom. After all, though Bloom is currently a "thrown away" or discarded husband and Boylan clearly possesses a stud-like sceptre, the eventually winner of the race is Throwaway. At the beginning of the episode, Bloom is also referred to by one of the bar maids as having "greasy eyes" and a "greasy nose" (260). Because "grease" is pronounced as "grace" in Ireland (Gifford 296), the name "Greaseabloom" which is repeated throughout the episode (see 260 and 291) associates Bloom with God's grace and thus with Christ.
Jackson Cope argues that this is the episode "in which the possibility of renewed communion is recognized and, as the final word of the prelude promises, the movement toward that renewal is begun" (242). Cope concludes that all the diverse musical fragments of the episode "are drawn together in a cohesive pattern" that allows Bloom to move "toward a new harmony" (242). As Gilbert points out, the jingle of Blazes Boylan gradually dies out, and "a new motif makes itself heard in the closing pages of the episode--the blind tuner tapping his way back to the Ormond to recover the tuning-fork which he left on the piano" (249). This tuning-fork becomes a key symbol in the new feeling of harmony gradually associated with Bloom. And, of course, it was Bloom's act of kindness as a Good Samaritan helping the blind piano tuner across the street in the Lestrygonians episode that made it possible for him to arrive at the Ormond Hotel bar and tune the piano in preparation for the musical interlude supplied by Joyce in this episode.
Cope, Jackson I. "Sirens." James Joyce's Ulysses: Critical Essays. Ed. Clive Hart and David Hayman. Berkeley: U of California P. 217-242.
Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983.
Gifford, Don. Ulysses Annotated. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989.
Gilbert, Stuart. James Joyce's Ulysses. New York: Vintage, 1958.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage International, 1990.