Ulysses

by: James Joyce

Episode Eleven: “Sirens”

Tom Kernan requests “The Croppy Boy” (a nationalist song about a young member of the 1798 rebellion tricked and hanged by a British man disguised as his confession priest). Bloom prepares to leave—Goulding is disappointed. All are quiet for the song. Bloom watches Miss Douce and wonders if she notices him looking at her. Bloom hears the line about the Croppy Boy being the last of his race and thinks about his own stunted family line.

Bloom continues watching Miss Douce, who is running her hand around the phallic beer-pull. Bloom finally rouses himself. He bids Goulding goodbye, checks his belongings, and dodges out to the hallway before cheers erupt at the end of the song.

Bloom walks toward the post office, feeling gassy from the cider. He regrets making a five o’clock appointment to meet Cunningham about the Dignams’ insurance. Bloom thinks skeptically that the Croppy Boy should have noticed that the priest was a British soldier in disguise.

Back at the Ormond, someone mentions to Dedalus that Bloom was there and just left—they discuss Bloom and Molly’s vocal talent. The blind piano tuner finally arrives to retrieve his tuning fork.

Bloom spots Bridie Kelly, a local prostitute with whom he once had an encounter. He avoids her by looking in a shop window at a picture of Irish patriot Robert Emmet and his famous last words. Bloom reads the speech to himself, while farting under the cover of a noisily approaching tram.

Analysis

In the Odyssey, Odysseus orders his men to tie him to the mast of his ship and to plug their own ears so that they will not succumb to the beautiful song of the sirens and be diverted to their deaths. Odysseus chooses to be bound and to keep his ears unplugged because he cannot bear the idea of not hearing the sirens’ music. Episode Eleven of Ulysses accordingly focuses on music. The episode takes place around four o’clock and onward in the afternoon, at the Ormond bar-restaurant where Simon Dedalus, Ben Dollard, and Bob Cowley entertain the small afternoon dinner crowd with opera love songs and a nationalist ballad. The narrative style reinforces the focus on music. The opening section of disjunctive phrases work as a sort of musical overture or warm-up. The interspersed “jingle” of Boylan’s car, combined with the recurring “tap” sound of the blind piano tuner’s cane, provide a sort of underlying rhythm section to the episode proper.

The sirens themselves are in part represented by the beautiful, flirtatious barmaids. Bloom is enticed by their charms, especially toward the end of the episode, when he stays longer than intended, watching Miss Douce. The sirens are also represented, though, by Simon Dedalus, Ben Dollard, and Bob Cowley in the saloon. Their renditions of longing love songs hold the entire bar and dining area in thrall. Bloom’s mind is captivated by the emotional songs, and whenever there is a break in their performance, Bloom longs again for the music to distract him from thoughts of Molly and Boylan. Yet Dedalus, Dollard, and Cowley are each past their prime and represent the descent into death. Unmarried or widowed, they represent Bloom’s worst fears about himself as the last of his family line. Just as Ulysses and his men escape, so does Bloom ultimately resist the pull of the music at the end of the episode by rejecting its increasingly sentimental verses and leaving before the self-congratulatory ending of “The Croppy Boy.”

The technique of the third-person narrative changes with Episode Eleven to become self-conscious and playful. As we began to see in Episode Ten, the narrative seems to be arranging bits of “objective” reporting to create specific meaning, as when Bloom walking is juxtaposed with the old “fogey” that the barmaids laugh over in the opening scene of the episode, to maliciously suggest Bloom’s unattractiveness. The narrative now calls attention to itself as one big text, with its purposeful repetition of earlier narrative phrases. The narrative makes the borders of disparate episodes, characters, and monologue-narrative bleed together.

Parts of Stephen’s interior monologue inexplicably re-emerge here in Episode Eleven; names become a source of humor as the two men who order tankards of beer are labeled “tankards,” and the overflowing feelings introduced by Dedalus’s song are rendered by a series of composite names such as “Siopold.” The narrative itself is becoming increasingly part of the plot, rather than the transparent medium that communicates the plot. This prepares us for upcoming episodes in which the tone of the narrative will dictate what exactly can be said and what cannot—forcing us to analyze this interference and evaluate how the narrative style effects our understanding of the plot.

The “Sirens” episode is generally seen to represent a turning point in Bloom’s attitude toward Boylan and Molly’s impending affair. Bloom coincidentally sees Boylan for the third time today. Instead of hiding, as he has done on the previous two occasions, Bloom resolves to follow Boylan and even to enter the Ormond hotel and watch his movements. Though the two men do not actually have a confrontation in Episode Eleven, the emphasis on the off-stage drama of Molly and Boylan’s rendezvous, combined with the love-and-war themed songs, lends a climactic feel to the episode.