Ulysses

by: James Joyce

Episode Nine: “Scylla and Charybdis”

Episode Nine corresponds to Odysseus’s trial-by-sea in which he must sail between Scylla, the six-headed monster situated on a rock, and Charybdis, a deadly whirlpool. The concept of negotiating two extremes plays out several times within the episode, most notably in the Plato-Aristotle dichotomy that Stephen mentions. Like Odysseus, Stephen sails closer to Scylla, and thus Stephen’s thoughts and theories owe more to Aristotle’s grounded, material, logical sense of the world (symbolized by the rock) than to Plato’s sense of unembodied concepts or ideals (symbolized by the whirlpool).

This alignment explains why Stephen grounds Shakespeare’s work in the lived reality of Shakespeare’s life, whereas A.E. separates the man from the eternal ideas expressed in his work. Like Odysseus, Stephen cannot sail too close to Scylla’s rock, though, and the threat of extreme materialism is represented by Buck and his physically based humor. Stephen also has to negotiate between his desire for acceptance from literary men such as Eglinton and A.E. and his disdain for such men and their movement, the Irish Literary Revival. Stephen is scornful of A.E.’s mysticism and Eglinton’s superiority, but he is also bitterly sad at not being considered for A.E.’s compilation of young Irish poets or for the gathering at Moore’s house.

Part of the reason that Eglinton and the others seem resistant to Stephen’s Hamlet theory is that the theory is less a traditional piece of literary-critical investigation than an imaginative performance of one poet understanding another poet. We have seen Stephen, in the first three episodes of Ulysses, struggling with the circumstances of his own life and history and trying to understand how he can either incorporate them or overcome them to create art. Stephen’s theory of Hamlet shows that Shakespeare often wrote his life and times into his work (the culmination being Hamlet as an expression of his bitterness at his wife’s infidelity) and thus presents examples of how masterpieces can still be tied to the realities of lived experience.

Stephen’s meditations on paternity take on a particular urgency in Episode Nine. Stephen envisions ideal paternity as literary creation—he argues that Shakespeare is not merely father to his son Hamnet but to all humanity. Stephen’s further arguments about the tenuosity of the father-son relationship and the insignificance of fathers relates to his own experience of alienation from his father. Much of Stephen’s Hamlet theory seems to develop out of his own life, and we see Stephen thinking about parallel personal matters—his mother, his sexuality, and so on—while he argues about Shakespeare’s life and work.

The cameo appearances of Bloom in this episode remind us of the sonless Bloom’s suitability as a replacement father figure for Stephen. The schematics of the chapter reinforce this sense. Though Stephen himself seems to be the Odysseus figure for a time in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in the schematic of Shakespeare, Bloom seems to be the father figure (Shakespeare) and Stephen, the son (Hamlet). Bloom is aligned with Shakespeare through their similarly unfaithful wives and dead sons, Hamnet and Rudy, respectively. As Shakespeare writes the drama of his wife into his art, so did we see Bloom consider writing a story based on Molly at the end of Episode Four.