A mawkish, clichéd, third-person narrative describes the summer evening on Sandymount Strand, near Mary, Star of the Sea church. Bloom stands across the beach from three girlfriends—Cissy Caffrey, Edy Boardman, and Gerty MacDowell—and their charges: Cissy’s twin toddler brothers and Edy’s baby brother. Cissy and Edy tend to the babies and occasionally tease Gerty, who is sitting some distance away. The narrative sympathetically describes Gerty as beautiful, and outlines the commercial products she uses to maintain her looks. Gerty’s crush—the boy who bicycles past her house—has been aloof lately. Gerty daydreams of marriage and domestic life with a silent, strong man. Meanwhile, Edy and Cissy deal loudly with the children’s disputes. Gerty is mortified by her friends’ unladylike obscenity, especially in front of the gentleman (Bloom). Nearby, at the Star of the Sea church, a men’s temperance retreat begins with a supplication to the Virgin.
The toddlers kick their ball too far. Bloom picks it up and throws it back—the ball rolls to a stop under Gerty’s skirt. Gerty tries to kick the ball to Cissy but misses. Gerty senses Bloom’s eyes on her and notices his sad face. She fantasizes that he is a foreigner in mourning who needs her comfort. Gerty displays her ankles and her hair for Bloom, knowing she is arousing him.
Gerty wonders aloud how late it is, hoping Cissy and Edy will take the children home. Cissy approaches Bloom and asks for the time. Bloom’s watch has stopped. Gerty watches Bloom put his hands back in his pockets and senses the onset of her menstrual cycle. She yearns to know Bloom’s story—is he married? A widower? Duty-bound to a madwoman?
Cissy and the others are preparing to leave when the fireworks from the Mirus bazaar begin. They run down the strand to watch, but Gerty remains. Gerty leans back, holding her knee in her hands, knowingly revealing her legs, while she watches a “long Roman candle” firework shoot high in the sky. At the climax of the episode and Gerty’s emotions (and Bloom’s own orgasmic climax, we soon realize) the Roman candle bursts in the air, to cries of “O! O!” on the ground.
As Gerty rises and begins to walk to the others, Bloom realizes that she is lame in one foot. He feels shock and pity, then relief that he did not know this when she was arousing him. Bloom ponders the sexual appeal of abnormalities, then women’s sexual urges as heightened by their menstrual cycles. Remembering Gerty’s two friends, he considers the competitiveness of female friendships, like Molly’s with Josie Breen. Bloom remembers that his watch was stopped at 4:30, and he wonders if that is when Molly and Boylan had sex.
Bloom rearranges his semen-stained shirt and ponders strategies for seducing women. Bloom wonders if Gerty noticed him masturbating—he guesses that she did, as women are very aware. He briefly wonders if Gerty is Martha Clifford. Bloom thinks about how soon girls become mothers, then of Mrs. Purefoy at the nearby maternity hospital. Bloom ponders the “magnetism” that could account for his watch stopping when Boylan and Molly were together, perhaps the same magnetism that draws men and women together.
Bloom smells Gerty’s perfume in the air—a cheap smell, not like Molly’s complex scent, opoponax. Bloom smells inside his waistcoat, wondering what a man’s smell would be. The scent of the lemon soap reminds him that he forgot to pick up Molly’s lotion.
A “nobleman” passes Bloom. Bloom wonders about the man and considers writing a story called “The Mystery Man on the Beach.” This thought reminds him of the macintosh man at Dignam’s funeral. Looking at Howth lighthouse, Bloom considers the science of light and colors, then the day he and Molly spent there. Now, Boylan is with her. Bloom feels drained. He notices that Mass seems to be over. The postman makes his nine o’clock round with a lamp. A newsboy cries the results of the Gold Cup race.
Bloom decides to avoid going home just yet. He reconsiders the incident in Barney Kiernan’s— perhaps the citizen meant no harm. Bloom thinks about his evening visit to Mrs. Dignam. Bloom tries to remember his dream last night. Molly was dressed in Turkish breeches and red slippers.
Bloom picks up a stray piece of paper, then a stick. Wondering if Gerty will return tomorrow, he begins to write her a message in the sand—“I AM A”—but stops as there is not sufficient room. He erases the letters and throws the stick, which lands straight up in the sand. He decides to have a short nap, and his thoughts become muddled by sleep. Bloom dozes off as a cuckoo clock chimes in the priest’s house nearby.
In Episode Thirteen of Ulysses, Gerty MacDowell corresponds to Princess Nausicaa, who, in The Odyssey, discovers Odysseus asleep on the beach and tends to him. Gerty, associated with blue and white, also seems to correspond to the Virgin Mary. Sounds from the nearby temperance retreat are interspersed with Gerty’s narrative, creating an ironic parallel between Gerty and Mary: as Gerty dreams of ministering to a husband and opens herself to Bloom’s supplicating sexual attention, so do the men in the church appeal to the statue of the Virgin Mary for comfort and aid. Episode Thirteen is the first episode of Ulysses that centers on a female consciousness, and it inaugurates the final sections of the book, which are more female-centered in their characters and settings.
The first half of Episode Thirteen centers on Gerty’s appearance and consciousness, and we only hear Bloom’s interior monologue in the second half of the episode. Gerty’s half consists of several barely distinct narrative points of view and styles. The narrative is sympathetic with Gerty, and Gerty’s consciousness slides in and out of the narrative—her interior monologue is sometimes rendered directly. The narrative’s style borrows from (and parodies) the prose of both moralizing, sentimental literature and consumer-oriented women’s magazines. The style is accordingly full of emotional clichés, effusive diction, and imprecise descriptions. Additionally, the style of the narrative is such that unpleasant realities and indelicate details are filtered out. Thus, Gerty’s lame foot is only slightly alluded to, as is masturbation.
The feminine pleasantries and the focus on sentimental love in Episode Thirteen seem to be something of a response to Episode Twelve’s masculine violence and prejudice. This hypothesis fits with the workings of Ulysses, by which previous perspectives are tempered by later styles and character viewpoints. Thus, Bloom’s foreignness—a detriment in Episode Twelve—becomes an attractive asset for him in Episode Thirteen. Yet Episodes Twelve and Thirteen ultimately turn out to have straightforward affinities. Excess lacking substance seems common to both, from the hyperbolic lists of Episode Twelve to the lush expositions of Episode Thirteen. And both episodes seem to offer examples of categorical or stereotypical thinking. The citizen’s logic worked on the seemingly straightforward basis of race and religion. Gerty’s thoughts offer conventional ideas, while the narrative of Episode Thirteen invites us to evaluate Gerty as an entirely typical Irish girl.
Women in Episode Thirteen are defined, in part, by their perceptiveness about who is looking at them and when. Women become sexual beings through their ability to present themselves to be looked at, and Bloom’s erotic moments are voyeuristic. Stephen, in “Proteus,” experimented with closing his eyes and concentrating on his other senses. The second half of Episode Thirteen reflects a shift of emphasis from the eyes to the nose. Bloom’s thoughts hover around smells and smelling. The distinction between the emphasis on senses in the two beach episodes seems to lie in the import of Stephen’s and Bloom’s musings—Stephen seeks to understand how our senses order our relationship to the physical world, while Bloom’s thoughts dwell on sight and smelling as ordering relationships between people.
Like the other women whom Bloom has seen and fantasized about so far in Ulysses, Gerty eventually reminds Bloom of Molly, suggesting that Bloom’s desire for Molly is often refracted through another woman. It is in this episode that Bloom notices for the first time that his watch has stopped, apparently sometime between four and five o’clock—perhaps at the exact time of Boylan and Molly’s tryst. Yet our sympathy for Bloom’s sadness at this thought is tempered by the circumstances of the discovery—Bloom himself is conducting a tryst at this later hour, albeit an unconsummated one.
This book needs a No Fear for it! But if there were a No Fear made, it should be made in a different way from the others; some lines just need to be put into context. For example, I can't tell if one character is thinking or talking.
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I think Ulysses, and all Joyce (except Finnegan's Wake) should have a No Fear and a summary video. These classics are often overlooked by kids my age, and they should be read!
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I'm about half way through Ulysses and I'm beginning to realize that his scenarios and conversations will never become any clearer than they are now. I rarely quit a thing once I've started, but it's very frustrating. To those of you who have read it in full....do you understand who's talking, where they are, who's good/bad.....nothing is clear to me. I just keep reading words......I'm not sure why.