Ulysses

by: James Joyce

Episode Fourteen: “Oxen of the Sun”

Summary Episode Fourteen: “Oxen of the Sun”

Analysis

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.