Episode Seventeen: “Ithaca”
. . . each contemplating the other in both mirrors of the reciprocal flesh of theirhisnothis fellowfaces.
Episode Seventeen is narrated in the third person through a set of 309 questions and their detailed and methodical answers, in the style of a catechism or Socratic dialogue.
Bloom and Stephen walk home chatting about music and politics. Arriving home, Bloom is frustrated to find that he forgot his key. He jumps over the fence, enters through the kitchen, and re-emerges at the front gate to let Stephen in. In the kitchen, Bloom puts the kettle on. Stephen declines Bloom’s offer to wash, as Stephen is a hydrophobe. The contents of Bloom’s kitchen are reviewed, including those that betray Boylan’s presence earlier in the day—a gift basket and betting tickets. The latter remind Bloom of the Gold Cup, and the misunderstanding between himself and Bantam Lyons (in Episode Five) dawns on him.
Bloom serves cocoa for them both, and they drink in silence. Bloom, watching Stephen think, considers his own youthful forays into poetry. The narrative reveals that Bloom and Stephen have met twice before—once when Stephen was five, and another time when he was ten. On the latter occasion, Stephen invited Bloom to dinner at the Dedalus’s, and Bloom politely declined. Their personal histories are compared, as well as their temperaments—Stephen’s is artistic, while Bloom’s tends toward applied science through his interest in invention and advertising.
The two men trade anecdotes, and Bloom considers the possibility of publishing a collection of Stephen’s stories. They recite and write Irish and Hebrew for each other. Stephen senses the past in Bloom, and Bloom senses the future in Stephen. Stephen goes on to chant the anti-Semitic medieval story of “Little Harry Hughes,” in which a Christian boy is beheaded by a Jew’s daughter. Stephen’s exposition of the story suggests that he could see both himself and Bloom as the Christian child of the story. But Bloom has mixed feelings and immediately thinks of his own “Jew’s daughter,” Millicent. Bloom remembers moments from Milly’s childhood and, thinking of a potential union between Stephen and Milly (or Molly), invites Stephen to stay the night. Stephen gratefully declines. Bloom returns Stephen’s money to him, rounded up one pence, and suggests a variety of future interactions. Stephen seems noncommittal, and Bloom becomes pessimistic. Stephen seems to share Bloom’s sense of dejection.
Bloom shows Stephen out, and they urinate together in the yard while looking at the night sky, where a shooting star suddenly appears. Bloom lets Stephen out, and the two shake hands as the church bells ring. Bloom listens to Stephen’s footsteps and feels alone.
Bloom goes back in. Entering the front room, he bumps his head on furniture that has been moved. He sits down and begins to disrobe. The contents of the room and Bloom’s budget for the day (omitting the money paid to Bella Cohen) are catalogued. Bloom’s ambition to own a simple bungalow in the suburbs is described. Bloom deposits Martha’s letter in his locked cabinet drawer and thinks pleasantly about his favorable interactions today with Mrs. Breen, Nurse Callan, and Gerty MacDowell. The contents of the second drawer include several family documents, including Bloom’s father’s suicide note. Bloom feels remorseful, mostly because he has not upheld his father’s beliefs and practices, such as keeping kosher. Bloom is grateful for his father’s monetary legacy, which saved him from poverty—here Bloom daydreams of his unrealized vagrant self, traveling all over the globe, navigating by the stars.
Bloom’s revery ends, and he moves toward his bedroom, thinking of what he did and did not accomplish today. Entering the bedroom, Bloom notices more evidence of Boylan. Bloom’s mind skims over his assumed catalogue of Molly’s twenty-five past suitors, of which Boylan is only the latest. Bloom reflects on Boylan, feeling first jealous, then resigned.
Bloom kisses Molly’s behind, which is near his face, as he is sleeping with his head at the foot of the bed. Molly wakes up, and Bloom tells her about his day with several omissions and lies. He tells Molly about Stephen, whom he describes as a professor and author. Molly is silently aware that it has been over ten years since she and Bloom have had sexual intercourse. Bloom is silently aware of the tenseness of their relations since the onset of Milly’s puberty. As the episode comes to a close, Molly is described as “Gea-Tellus,” Earth Mother, while Bloom is both an infant in the womb and the sailor returned and resting from his travels. A typographical dot ends the episode and indicates Bloom’s resting place.
Episode Seventeen, “Ithaca,” is often read as the final episode depicting Ulysses’ wanderings—the large dot at the end of the episode seems to function as a period to the long sentence that is the novel proper. Yet Episode Seventeen offers no easy or triumphant resolution. The cold, scientific objectivity of the reporting underscores the unfamiliar and untriumphant quality of Bloom’s Odyssean homecoming. The narrative style is replete with detail, yet not all the details seem particularly relevant. Thus, just as we reach the climactic episode of Bloom and Stephen’s union, the narrative style switches to an encyclopedic narrative—the opposite of a traditionally plotted story in which all information pertains and leads up to a climax and a meaning or moral. Joyce refuses to wrap up the emotional strands of the novel, or to offer a heavy-handed moral. Instead we are left with a consistently ambivalent final view of our two male protagonists.
The final union between Stephen and Bloom is infused with positive symbolic importance through the episode’s ritualistic diction and universal motifs of death and creation. Yet the form of the episode, with its itemized narrative style, also highlights Bloom’s and Stephen’s differences even more succinctly, and the union cannot be said to be a practical success. Though Stephen has begun to sober up and become more personable, the perceived gap between them is reinforced by Stephen’s blatantly anti-Semitic story, inexplicably offered after a heartwarming exchange of the Irish and Hebrew languages, in which the two men feel the similarity of their “races.” There is evidence that Stephen does not mean for the story to be an aggressive gesture—he seems to use it, as he has many things today, as a kind of parable, indeed, a parable in which both himself and Bloom can be figured as victims and receive redemption. Bloom’s and Stephen’s failures to consider each other’s modes of reception causes the disconnect. Here lies the lesson of Episode Seventeen, to the extent that there is one: any coming-together must also be marked by a recognition of otherness.
Stephen’s and Bloom’s most successfully close moments in Episode Seventeen reflect this lesson—for example, their sharing of the Irish and Hebrew languages is marked by otherness. Bloom and Stephen both co-opt languages that neither is fluent in to enact this meeting of cultures. And it is at this moment that both, looking at and listening to each other, recognize what is alien in the other—Stephen hears the past in Bloom, and Bloom sees the future in Stephen. This interplay of strangeness and familiarity is again replayed in the garden scene. Joyce exploits this interplay not just in the meeting and parting of Bloom and Stephen, but in the reading experience of Ithaca itself. In the obtusely scientific and literal narrative of the episode, things familiar to us, like a kettle boiling, are made strange. Like Bloom and Stephen, we readers must appreciate what is strange in order to recognize the familiar.
The second half of Episode Seventeen details Bloom’s return to his house and his preparation for bed. This corresponds to Odysseus’s return to his court, where he slays Penelope’s suitors then reveals himself to Penelope, who has slept through the slaughter. Yet upending this heroic dimension, as always, is the prosaic—in Episode Seventeen, Bloom is shown to be most pathetically bourgeois. The fantasy of Bloom as the dark wanderer is tempered by the extensive description of Bloom’s ultimate ambition to own a well-furnished suburban bungalow. These competing perspectives hold each other in check, and to the extent that Bloom emerges as a hero in the bourgeois context, it is because he is able to replicate the narrative’s technique of shifting perspective. Bloom can pragmatically see himself in the context of a single night’s sleep, a lifetime’s work, or a universe’s lifetime. Bloom bests Boylan through a similarly impressive display of shifting perspective—Bloom contextualizes Boylan not as a equal and immediate rival, but as one of many, not the first nor the last. Ulysses dwells on the idea that shifting perspective forces one to question one’s own moral judgment. To the extent that Bloom duplicates this practice within himself, he emerges as the hero of the book. As you may imagine, though, there is another perspective on this, and it is Molly’s perspective in Episode Eighteen that finally flushes out the biased visions of her that have held precedence thus far.
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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