Literature Study GuidesUlyssesPart 2 Episode 11 Summary

Ulysses | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Ulysses | Part 2, Episode 11 : The Odyssey (Sirens) | Summary



As the episode opens, it is almost 4 p.m. at the bar of the Ormond Hotel. Two barmaids, Lydia Douce and Mina Kennedy, watch the viceregal cavalcade go by, and Miss Douce thinks a member of the party looks at her. A busboy is insolent to the barmaids. They reprimand him and then laugh hysterically about the chemist (pharmacist), Mr. Boyd, who they find repulsive. The narrator mocks the idea of being married to Bloom. Simon Dedalus enters the bar and flirts with Miss Douce, who has been to the seaside on vacation. She pours him a whiskey, and then Lenehan enters.

Outside, Bloom passes by a shop called Moulang's. He thinks about Molly's date with Boylan: "At four, she said." He reaches the Essex Bridge and decides to buy paper to write to his secret correspondent, Martha.

Back in the bar, Lenehan tells Simon he brings greetings from his son Stephen. Lenehan tells Simon about going for drinks with Stephen, remembering their talk in the newspaper office. Miss Douce says the piano tuner came today, a young blind man, while Blazes Boylan enters the bar.

Bloom meets Richie Goulding in the street, and they decide to dine at the bar of the Ormond Hotel. The clock strikes four. Back at the bar, Lenehan flirts with Miss Douce, urging her to snap her garter on her thigh in imitation of the clock striking four. Miss Douce does so, Boylan announces he must go, and Lenehan leaves with him.

Ben Dollard plays a song on the piano, "Love and War." Father Cowley, who is also at the bar, recalls a time Ben had a concert and didn't have a proper evening suit to wear. He got one from Bloom and Molly, who were in the used clothing business at the time. Cowley, Ben, and Dedalus talk about Molly; she is from Gibraltar and her father was Major Tweedy. Dedalus makes a snarky comment about Molly and the used clothing business. "Mrs Marion has left off clothes of all descriptions," he says, meaning she has taken off her clothes for others many times.

Bloom recalls his conversation that morning with Molly while he and Richie eat. Ben starts to sing "Love and War," but Cowley says he is singing the wrong part. Simon and Cowley make lewd jokes about Ben's big "organ" (his voice). After some cajoling, Simon sings an aria from the opera Martha. Bloom thinks about Richie's hard life, his backaches, and how Richie is something of a blowhard, boasting and believing his own lies. He then wonders whether it's the words or music that arouse listeners of songs and decides "it's what's behind." He also thinks about the coincidence that Simon is singing Martha just as he thinks about writing to Martha.

Bloom decides to write to Martha there in the bar. He thinks about the fact music can be reduced to mathematical relationships: "Numbers it is. All music when you come to think." But just saying numbers wouldn't have the effect music does, he muses. He wonders why he, a married man, is writing to Martha. He decides if Molly can cheat, he can too: "Sauce for the gander." He writes a flirtatious letter, then decides the letter needs a sad postscript to draw Martha in and writes, "I am so lonely."

Miss Douce holds a seashell up to her ear to hear the ocean. Bloom watches, thinking about sounds and how there is music everywhere, or at least noise. He says he must leave, but he stays to hear Ben Dollard sing "The Croppy Boy," a song about the rebel Robert Emmet. Bloom thinks about playing a woman like a flute before he leaves. He notices the soap in his back pocket has gotten sticky with sweat and remembers he has to pick up lotion for Molly. He feels gassy and wonders if it's from the cider he just had or the burgundy from lunch.

The piano tuner, the "blind stripling," enters the bar to retrieve his tuning fork. Bloom thinks of Robert Emmet's last words before he was executed. A loud tram goes by and Bloom takes the opportunity to pass gas, just as he thinks of Emmet's final words.


Joyce follows the "Wandering Rocks" storytelling technique with a more conventional one in this episode. This is appropriate, for the "Sirens" episode experiments with sound and music, an art intimately bound up with time. As he did in the "Aeolus" episode, where he experiments with the visual and typographic limits of prose fiction, Joyce seems to be going to the limit. In this case he is trying to see how far words can be reduced to sounds before they lose all sense and meaning.

In The Odyssey Odysseus and his men were tempted by the Sirens, beautiful female creatures whose singing lured sailors to their deaths. The "Sirens" episode begins with a series of sentence fragments that act like a musical overture as words are assembled for their sound patterns. Some are combined for a rhythmic pattern: "hoofirons, steelyringing." Some fragments highlight similar sounds: "Blue Bloom." Others are onomatopoetic: "Clapclap. Clipclap. Clappyclap." All these fragments turn up later in the episode, an anticipation in miniature of the whole episode, from "Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, stelllyringing" to "Done. / Begin!"

Bloom, with his experimenter's turn of mind, considers whether music could be reduced to numbers: "Martha, seven times nine minus x thirtyfive thousand." He is correct that such a music would "fall quite flat." What it lacks is "the sounds." Similarly, throughout the episode, Joyce experiments with turning prose into music. He lights on rhythmic phrases that sound musical, such as "Jingle jingle jaunted jingling. Coin rang." Other times he is interested in strange or lewd sounds. To Bloom, the question is whether a sound like a creaking door is music or noise. Bloom recalls Molly liked the name of the writer of her latest book, Paul de Kock. Molly's nickname for Bloom is "Poldy," short for Leopold. By emphasizing the punning proximity of the two names, Joyce suggests Molly's sexual desire was once focused on Bloom: "Paul de Kock with a loud proud knocker with a cock carracarracarra cock. Cockcock."

Clearly with "Cockcock" Joyce also makes fun of the loftiness of this musical experiment. Bloom thinks to himself, "Ventriloquise. My lips closed. Think in my stom." In fact, the word ventriloquise comes from the Latin words for "stomach" and "talk"; ventriloquists were thought to talk from their stomachs. Bloom ventriloquizes his way to the end of the episode, closing his mouth and giving vent to the gasses in his stomach. Even more scandalously, Bloom's fart is timed with a memory of the "seven last words" of Robert Emmet, the Irish rebel. In 1803 Emmet was hanged, drawn, and quartered, as mentioned in the "Wandering Rocks" episode. His last words were "When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done." Bloom's expulsion of gas flippantly mocks the solemn patriotic memory: "Let my epitaph be. Kraaaaaa. Written. I have. / Pprrpffrrppffff. / Done."

This episode is not only lewd puns and fart jokes, however. Joyce takes another daring leap in narrative style—he merges the characters' voices with the narrator's. Mina and Lydia laugh themselves silly in the Ormond bar, imagining marrying the ugly old chemist: "—Married to the greasy nose! she [Mina] yelled." Then the narrator turns that mockery on Bloom, who is nowhere near the bar: "Married to Bloom, to greaseaseabloom." This second insult doesn't use the em dash (—) that Joyce uses to mark words as dialogue, nor is it followed by "she yelled." Readers expect the characters' voices and the narrator's voice to remain distinct. Joyce's innovation makes plain that all the voices in his novel are arranged and tuned by the same composer. Thus something apparently trivial, a joke about grease, emphasizes Ulysses is a written work, created by an artist. In "Aeolus" newspaper headlines emphasize this visually; "Sirens" emphasizes it with rhymes, sounds, and song.

Molly's date with Boylan hangs over the episode. Bloom recalls her words: "Not yet. At four." In the following pages this becomes a refrain repeating over and over in his mind. "At four. Near now ... At four she ... At four he ... At four." On the one hand it clearly pains Bloom. He hears Boylan leave the bar and thinks, "He's off. Light sob of breath Bloom sighed." On the other hand, Bloom's idea of "sauce for the gander" is open to multiple interpretations. The proverb goes, "What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander"—if one partner cheats so can the other. But Bloom's heart is not in his secret correspondence this afternoon. "Bore this," he thinks as he writes to Martha. But it's possible Bloom somehow enjoys Molly's infidelity, a different meaning of "sauce for the goose." As with his roundabout gift of Sweets of Sin, Bloom may see himself as the end point for all Molly's sexual experiments and dalliances.

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