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.