Ulysses

by: James Joyce

Symbols

Main ideas Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Plumtree’s Potted Meat

In Episode Five, Bloom reads an ad in his newspaper: “What is home without / Plumtree’s Potted Meat? / Incomplete. / With it an abode of bliss.” Bloom’s conscious reaction is his belief that the ad is poorly placed—directly below the obituaries, suggesting an infelicitous relation between dead bodies and “potted meat.” On a subconscious level, however, the figure of Plumtree’s Potted Meat comes to stand for Bloom’s anxieties about Boylan’s usurpation of his wife and home. The image of meat inside a pot crudely suggests the sexual relation between Boylan and Molly. The wording of the ad further suggests, less concretely, Bloom’s masculine anxieties—he worries that he is not the head of an “abode of bliss” but rather a servant in a home “incomplete.” The connection between Plumtree’s meat and Bloom’s anxieties about Molly’s unhappiness and infidelity is driven home when Bloom finds crumbs of the potted meat that Boylan and Molly shared earlier in his own bed.

The Gold Cup Horserace

The afternoon’s Gold Cup Horserace and the bets placed on it provide much of the public drama in Ulysses, though it happens offstage. In Episode Five, Bantam Lyons mistakenly thinks that Bloom has tipped him off to the horse “Throwaway,” the dark horse with a long-shot chance. “Throwaway” does end up winning the race, notably ousting “Sceptre,” the horse with the phallic name, on which Lenehan and Boylan have bet. This underdog victory represents Bloom’s eventual unshowy triumph over Boylan, to win the “Gold Cup” of Molly’s heart.

Stephen’s Latin Quarter Hat

Stephen deliberately conceives of his Latin Quarter hat as a symbol. The Latin Quarter is a student district in Paris, and Stephen hopes to suggest his exiled, anti-establishment status while back in Ireland. He also refers to the hat as his “Hamlet hat,” tipping us off to the intentional brooding and artistic connotations of the head gear. Yet Stephen cannot always control his own hat as a symbol, especially in the eyes of others. Through the eyes of others, it comes to signify Stephen’s mock priest-liness and provinciality.

Bloom’s Potato Talisman

In Episode Fifteen, Bloom’s potato functions like Odysseus’s use of “moly” in Circe’s den—it serves to protect him from enchantment, enchantments to which Bloom succumbs when he briefly gives it over to Zoe Higgins. The potato, old and shriveled now, is an heirloom from Bloom’s mother, Ellen. As an organic product that is both fruit and root but is now shriveled, it gestures toward Bloom’s anxieties about fertility and his family line. Most important, however, is the potato’s connection to Ireland—Bloom’s potato talisman stands for his frequently overlooked maternal Irish heritage.