Literature Study GuidesUlyssesPart 2 Episode 14 Summary

Ulysses | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Ulysses | Part 2, Episode 14 : The Odyssey (Oxen of the Sun) | Summary



It is 10 p.m. at the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street. The episode begins with a prayer for fertility. In the first of many narrative styles used in the episode, the wording imitates an ancient Roman fertility rite. The section continues in the style of a translation of the Latin chronicler Sallust. A tortured passage of Latin syntax praises birth as nature's blessing: "omnipollent nature's incorrupted benefaction." Then, in alliterative Anglo-Saxon, the narration speaks of the joys of life in the womb: "Before born babe bliss had."

Bloom—"Of Israel's folk was that man"—arrives at the hospital run by Andrew Horne ("Of that house A. Horne is lord"). He stands quietly in the hall as the narration compares him to Odysseus late in his voyage: "over land and seafloor nine years had long outwandered." The nurse notices Bloom is dressed in black for mourning, but Bloom reassures her the deceased was no one close to him. He asks about a Doctor O'Hare, but the nurse tells him he died.

The style shifts to that of a medieval morality play called Everyman. Bloom asks about Mrs. Purefoy. The nurse says it has been three days, but she hopes the birth will occur soon. Bloom thinks about the fact that the nurse, a nun, is a virgin. He calculates she has had nine years of menstrual periods without conceiving.

The style changes again to that of Sir John Mandeville, a 14th-century English writer. A door opens to a kind of hospital cafeteria or employees' canteen. A medical student ("learningknight") named Dixon invites Bloom to come in for a drink. Bloom hears the cry of a woman in pain. Also present are Lynch and Madden, who are medical students, a man named Punch Costello, Lenehan, and Stephen. Bloom feels a fatherly affection for Stephen, who is the son of his "friend" Simon. The men talk about why the Bible says women are condemned to "bring forth [give birth] in pain." Stephen quotes the medieval scholars Averroes and Moses Maimonides as saying the soul enters the fetus in the second month.

Bloom thinks about the fact that he has no son. Stephen talks about something he calls "the postcreation," quoting William Blake: "Know all men ... time's ruins build eternity's mansions." In women the word becomes flesh, Stephen says, but that flesh dies. Then the spirit gives birth to the eternal word. Punch Costello starts singing. The nurse comes in and shushes them. A crack of thunder disturbs Stephen, and Bloom tries unsuccessfully to calm him.

The style changes to 17th-century diary writing reminiscent of Samuel Pepys. The narration recalls Dignam's funeral, then describes Mulligan running into Alec Bannon (in town, not at the hospital). Bannon has met a young woman he calls a "skittish heifer, beef to the heel," recalling Milly Bloom's words in her letter to Bloom in the "Calypso" episode.

The style becomes that of Daniel Defoe, an English novelist of the early 18th century. Lenehan talks about Mr. Deasy's letter, which appeared in the paper that evening. The talk turns to hoof-and-mouth disease in cows. The narration switches to the style of the 18th-century journal the Tatler. Mulligan and Bannon show up; Mulligan has made up a business card announcing himself as "Fertiliser and Incubator." He proposes setting up a "national fertilising farm." Looking at the plump Mulligan, Dixon asks if he is pregnant. Bannon talks to Crotthers, "the Scotch student," about a girl who gave him a locket.

The narration changes to the style of 18th-century philosophers Edmund Burke and David Hume. Bloom is offended by Costello's lewd talk. Costello is compared to an ape in the writing style of English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–82). The nurse comes in and announces Mrs. Purefoy has given birth to "an heir" (a boy). Everyone starts talking at once; Bloom urges moderation. The medical men talk about postpartum diets, menopause, and sudden births ("Sturzgeburt"). Malachi tells a horror story in which Haines pops out of a hidden chamber and confesses to murder. Then Mulligan mocks Stephen's discussion about Hamlet: "The black panther was himself the ghost of his own father."

In the style of 18th-century essayist Charles Lamb, Bloom is described as young again. He sees himself in a mirror as a boy. He recalls his father the salesman. But then the image vanishes. He thinks again of Rudy, his dead infant son: "No son of thy loins is by thee. There is none now to be for Leopold what Leopold was for Rudolph."

Lenehan reminds Stephen of his days at Clongowes. The style shifts to that of Walter Savage Landor, a 19th-century English poet. Lynch says they are all eager to see what poetic work Stephen will "bring forth." Lenehan makes a paradoxical remark about Stephen not leaving his mother an orphan, and Stephen is hurt by the mention of her death. Madden talks about the Gold Cup race, in which he bet on Sceptre but "the dark horse Throwaway" won in the final stretch.

The narration brings the focus back to the birth, recalling that "meanwhile" the "physician had brought about a happy accouchement," that is, a birth. In Dickensian style Mrs. Purefoy is described as exhausted and happy. She wishes her husband Doady (Theodore) was there. The narration changes yet again to the style of Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), and Stephen calls out they should all go to Burke's pub. The surgeon announces the placenta has been delivered. Bloom tells the nurse to send "a kind word" to Mrs. Purefoy. As they go to the pub the men celebrate the "doughty deed" of Mr. Purefoy. Someone says, "all Malthusiasts go hang." They mean, "to hell with the followers of Robert Malthus," an English cleric who warned of overpopulation. The men go on decrying birth control as "copulation without population."

The style of the narration turns to slang of various kinds. The men get very drunk, and Stephen suggests another round by slurring, "More bluggy drunkables?" Bloom perhaps remains sober. Then someone orders "Ginger cordial." The bartender repeatedly calls "time," meaning the pub is closing. Someone notices "yon guy in the mackintosh," the man from the funeral. Outside as they leave someone vomits. Stephen invites Lynch to go with him to the "Bawdyhouse" (brothel). Stephen thinks someone will notice he's in mourning, and he remembers Mr. Deasy's anti-Semitic remark: "They sinned against the light." Someone notices a "gospeller." It's the evangelist "Alexander J. Christ Dowie," who announces, "Elijah is coming! Washed in the blood of the lamb."


There are a few correspondences with Homer's Odyssey in this episode. Odysseus wakes up on the island of Helios, and he and his crew are warned against killing the oxen. After he falls back to sleep, the men disobey and slaughter the animals. Odysseus awakens and flees alone in the midst of a tremendous storm unleashed by Zeus. Similarly, Bloom has just awoken from sleep on the beach and comes upon men who are belittling women and their difficulties giving birth. Just as Odysseus defends the sanctity of cattle, Bloom defends women's travails and, like Oyssesus, finds himself quite alone at the end of the episode. Meanwhile Stephen hears the loud boom of thunder and thinks the gods are punishing him for his profanity and irreverence to the church.

While he was drafting the episode in 1920, Joyce called "Oxen of the Sun" "the most difficult episode in an odyssey, I think, both to interpret and to execute." Although this episode seems to be the most opaque, it might actually be among the most transparent. It is relatively easy for readers to see what Joyce is up to: the numerous writing styles, consecutively arranged by time period, amount to a history of English prose culminating in a crescendo of slangy, drunken babble. Joyce is situating his writing in the larger field of the English language, just as the "Wandering Rocks" episode situates the main characters in the larger context of Dublin. One part of that linguistic context is the history of how writers of English have styled their prose throughout history; the other part is how contemporary speakers of English stylize their speech. In both directions orderly prose and inventive speech, a limit of incomprehensibility, can be reached. Joyce shows that every novel operates within that larger context—between history and contemporaneity, between sense and nonsense. In "Oxen of the Sun" the author chooses to lay that context bare.

Viewed from a different angle, is Joyce implying that the previous history of English writing has led to this epic novel, Ulysses, in which over 40 writing styles are included? That might be too strong a point. Rather, the underlying point is that style and content are inextricably linked. What happens in a story, and how it happens, influence how the writer chooses to tell it. Different styles of writing by their very nature focus on aspects and elements of a narrative to the exclusion of others, something Joyce does with playfulness and genius throughout this episode, and indeed, throughout the novel. As one example of this, note Joyce's use of prosody or alliteration to describe a baby's birth: "Before born babe bliss had. Within womb won he worship." He echoes both the style of Middle-English writers and poets of the Middle Ages and a baby's babble.

There is much more to this "most difficult" episode than stylistic playfulness. The episode starts with praise for birth, "omnipollent nature's incorrupted benefaction." It ends with outcries against birth control: down with "Malthusiasts" and no "copulation without population." The episode celebrates birth, but in slightly anxious ways. Birth must be defended against contraception, and men keep trying to imitate or claim motherhood. Mulligan's business card proclaims him "Fertiliser and Incubator." But he can't "incubate" a fetus in his body, and any "fertiliser" or father can only claim fatherhood, not prove it. "The wise father knows his own child," Bloom thinks. The father only has the word of a woman. Stephen's solution to the dissatisfactions of fatherhood is authorship, a kind of imitation birth. Bloom and Purefoy may not be sure of their fatherhood, but Stephen hopes to "bring forth" a literary work. Stephen may be providing insights on Joyce's own thinking on fatherhood and authorship, books and birth. In "Oxen of the Sun" Joyce has raised up all his literary forefathers, gathering them in an episode that proves him the author.

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