Episode Fourteen: “Oxen of the Sun”
The narrative technique of Episode Fourteen is meant to represent the gestation of the English language. The prose styles of many different time periods, along with the styles of their most famous authors, are replicated and at times parodied in chronological order.
Latinate prose, and then alliterative Anglo-Saxon, situate us at the Holles Street maternity hospital, run by Sir Andrew Horne. Bloom arrives at the hospital gates, having come to check on Mrs. Purefoy. Nurse Callan, an acquaintance of Bloom’s, opens the gate and leads him inside. Their conversation about Mrs. Purefoy, who has been in labor for three days, is described in moralizing medieval prose. The emergence of Dixon, a medical student, from a noisy room down the hall is described in medieval-romance style. Dixon, who once treated Bloom for a bee sting, invites Bloom inside, where Lenehan, Crotthers, Stephen, Punch Costello, and medical students Lynch and Madden are boisterously gathered around a spread of sardines and beer. Dixon pours Bloom a beer, which Bloom quietly deposits in his neighbor’s cup. A nun comes to the door and asks for quiet.
The men discuss medical cases in which the doctor must choose between saving the mother or the baby—Stephen discusses the religious aspect of this question while others joke about contraception and sex. Bloom is somber, thinking of Mrs. Purefoy and of Molly’s labor with Rudy. Bloom considers Stephen, imagining that he is wasting time with these men.
Stephen’s pouring of more beer and consideration of the quibbles of Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus are described in Elizabethan prose. Punch Costello interrupts with a bawdy song about a pregnant woman. Nurse Quigley comes to the door and shushes them. The men’s teasing Stephen about the piety of his youth is described in early seventeenth-century prose. A thunderclap erupts. Bloom notices that Stephen is truly frightened at this evidence of God’s anger, and he attempts to calm Stephen by explaining the science of thunder.
Buck Mulligan’s meeting with Alec Bannon on the street nearby is described in seventeenth-century diary style. Alec tells Buck about a girl he is dating in Mullingar (Milly Bloom). The two men walk together to the hospital on Holles street.
The good-for-nothing characters of Lenehan and Costello are described in the prose style of Daniel Defoe. The subject of Deasy’s letter and cattle health is broached. A long, allegorical joke ensues about papal bulls, Henry VIII, and England’s relationship to Ireland. Buck’s arrival is described in Addison’s and Steele’s essay style. Buck jokes about his new occupation as a “fertiliser” for all female comers. A side conversation between Crotthers and Bannon about Milly, and Bannon’s intent to purchase contraception in Dublin, is described in Lawrence Sterne’s style. The men euphemistically discuss different contraceptive methods.
The eighteenth-century style of Oliver Goldsmith follows. Nurse Callan summons Dixon: Mrs. Purefoy has borne a son. The men licentiously discuss Nurse Callan. Eighteenth-century political prose style is used to describe Bloom’s relief at the news of Mrs. Purefoy’s baby, and his disgust with the young men’s manner. The satirical style of Junius queries Bloom’s hypocritically self-righteous attitude toward the medical students.
Edward Gibbon’s style is used to describe the men’s conversation about various topics related to birth: Caesarean sections, fathers who die before their wives give birth, cases of fratricide (including the Childs murder case, mentioned in Episode Six), artificial insemination, menopause, impregnation by rape, birthmarks, Siamese twins. Gothic prose is employed to describe Buck telling a ghost story.
Charles Lamb’s sentimental style is utilized to describe Bloom reminiscing about himself as a young man, then feeling paternal toward the young men. The hazy, hallucinatory style of Thomas DeQuincey manifests the pessimistic turn Bloom’s thoughts suddenly take. Walter Savage Landor’s prose style is incorporated to describe how Lenehan and Lynch manage to offend Stephen by broaching the topics of his fruitless poetic career and his dead mother. Conversation switches to the Gold Cup race, then to Lynch’s girlfriend Kitty; we learn that Lynch and Kitty were the couple caught by Father Conmee this afternoon (in Episode Ten).
Nineteenth-century historical and naturalist styles follow. The conversation turns to the mysterious causes of infant mortality. Charles Dickens’s sentimental style is used to describe Mrs. Purefoy, joyous mother.
Cardinal Newman’s religious prose style is employed to describe how past sins can haunt a man. Walter Pater’s aestheticist style follows. Bloom ponders Stephen’s aggressive words about mothers and babies. Bloom remembers watching Stephen, as a child, exchange reproachful glances with his mother. John Ruskin’s style is used to describe Stephen’s spontaneous suggestion to proceed to Burke’s pub. Dixon joins them. Bloom lags behind, asking Nurse Callan to say a kind word to Mrs. Purefoy. Thomas Carlyle’s prose style hails the virility of Mr. Purefoy.
The narrative breaks into a chaotic rendering of various twentieth- century dialect and slang as the men hurry to Burke’s. Stephen buys the first round. The Gold Cup race is discussed, Stephen buys another round of absinthe, and Alec Bannon finally realizes that Bloom is Milly’s father and nervously slips away. The barman calls time, and someone gossips about the man in the macintosh in the corner. The barman kicks them out as the Fire Brigade passes on its way to a fire. Someone vomits. Stephen convinces Lynch to come with him to the brothel district. A nearby poster advertising a visiting minister (the same ad that Bloom received in Episode Eight) inspires a final switch to the style of American sales-pitch evangelism.
The style of Episode Fourteen, one of the most difficult in the novel, consists of imitations of chronological stages in the growth of the English language, beginning with Latinate and Middle English prose up to the chaos of twentieth-century slang. The progression of language is, in turn, meant to correspond to the nine-month gestation period leading to human birth. The imitations of the styles of different time periods and prominent writers seem parodic because the styles are somewhat exaggerated (some more so than others). The ultimate effect is to drive home the point that has been made more subtly in Episodes Twelve and Thirteen: narrative style contains built-in ideology that effects what is reported and how it is reported. Joyce shows this by allowing each different style to gravitate toward its normal subject matter. Thus, the moral-allegorical style of John Bunyan explores Stephen’s move away from the piety of his youth; Defoe’s passage is spent describing the no-gooders Lenehan and Costello; and the sentimental style of Charles Dickens narrates the commendably maternal thoughts of Mina Purefoy. The differing moral judgments expressed by various styles are also highlighted—Bloom’s compassion is venerated in the Middle English prose section, while the hypocrisy of Bloom’s disapproval (of the young men) is harshly revealed in the satirical prose style of Junius.
Episode Fourteen, “Oxen of the Sun,” corresponds to Odysseus’s visit to the island of Helios in the Odyssey. Odysseus warns his men not to touch the cattle that are sacred to Helios, but the men slaughter the cattle for food while Odysseus is asleep. Zeus avenges Helios—only Odysseus lives, and his voyage home to Ithaca is further delayed. Joyce highlights the correspondence in part through a host of cattle imagery and mainly through the theme of profaning the sacred. Joyce’s Episode Fourteen, which takes place in a maternity hospital during the birth of Mina Purefoy’s son, concentrates on fertility. The theme of the profaning of the sacred is thus represented by the blasphemous discussion of pregnancy and birth.
In the larger setting of the maternity hospital, as well as the smaller setting of the revelrous gathering of medical students and friends, the personal, private, and female aspects of pregnancy and birth are obscured, while the social, clinical, political, legal, and economic aspects are highlighted. Though their conversation centers on mothers and birthing, the young men ignore the off-stage travails of Mina Purefoy. Bloom alone respects the sacred quality of the birthing hour and remains on the sidelines of the merrymaking. The theme of crimes against sacred fertility is highlighted in the controversial topic of birth control.
In Episode Fourteen, for the first time, we see Stephen and Bloom together in a social situation. The two men are both sidelined from the rest of the group. Stephen’s musings on religious doctrine are as out of place as Bloom’s sincerity and scientific explanations. Both refuse to go home even at this late hour. Bloom is haunted by Molly’s actions of the day, while Stephen is haunted by Buck, who shows up halfway through this episode, as he did in Episode Nine, mocks Stephen’s philosophizing and captures the attention of the group for himself. Though Stephen and Bloom are equals in their ostracization, we are invited to see them as son and father. Bloom’s consciousness is more fully rendered than Stephen’s in this episode, and we see that he feels paternal and protective toward Stephen. While questions of birth and labor lead Stephen’s mind to sacred versions of creation, the same questions lead Bloom’s mind to personal memories of his own dead son. A substitute for Rudy comes not in the guise of Milly (who is figured in this episode as a future mother, not a present daughter), but in the guise of Stephen, about whose emotions Bloom becomes increasingly perceptive in this episode.
by mdd07c, September 16, 2012
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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