Literature Study GuidesUlyssesPart 2 Episode 15 Summary

Ulysses | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Ulysses | Part 2, Episode 15 : The Odyssey (Circe) | Summary



It is midnight in "Nighttown," Joyce's name in Ulysses for a district of Dublin where prostitutes work. The episode is formatted like a play, and the characters and action have a surreal, dreamlike quality. The young women Bloom saw on the beach are there—Cissy, Edy, and Gerty—but they are prostitutes now. Stephen takes Lynch to see a whore named Georgina Johnson. Various people, living and dead, scold Bloom: his wife, his father, and his mother, to name just a few. Bloom wonders why he's following Stephen but admits Stephen is "the best of that lot." Bloom runs afoul of the police and again Bloom faces accusers. Philip Beaufoy accuses Bloom of plagiarism, and several women accuse him of sexual misconduct. Some of the women propose whipping or otherwise corporally punishing him. A "nameless one" taunts him with images of Boylan and Molly "bareback riding ... arse over tip."

Bloom still has his potato with him. His mother believed a potato was a panacea, something that could cure or protect against all diseases. Bloom gives a speech against capitalistic exploitation of "our prostituted labour." The speech is very well received and soon Bloom appears as a king, wearing a cloak trimmed with ermine and seated on a white horse. Bloom announces "a new era is about to dawn." Among other improvements there will be "three acres and a cow for all." Even the citizen tearfully blesses Bloom.

Dissenters begin accusing Bloom once more, and the mob calls for him to be lynched. Doctors are summoned to testify about Bloom. Dr. Dixon says Bloom is "a finished example of the new womanly man." Bloom gives birth to eight sons, octuplets, then is set on fire as punishment for his crimes. He survives, "shrunken" and "carbonised."

Stephen confuses the Roman goddess Ceres with Circe, the sorceress from The Odyssey. He tries to philosophize as on the beach but falters. Lynch's cap notices and remembers all Stephen's errors. Bloom's grandfather Lipoti Virag lectures him on sexual matters. Virag becomes accusatory and jeering. Simon Dedalus appears, dressed as a cardinal attended by "simian acolytes" (monkey altar boys).

The brothel's madam, Bella Cohen, humiliates Bloom, who says, "Enormously I desire your domination." Bella reveals she has hooves and turns into a man named Bello. Bello dresses Bloom as a woman and reminds him a "man of brawn" (Boylan) is with Molly. A Nymph, who appears in a painting in the Blooms' bedroom, makes accusations about Bloom's unusual sexual tastes. Meanwhile, a woman named Zoe reads Stephen's palm, and he babbles about sex and philosophy. Boylan lords it over Bloom, who cringes and calls him "sir." He tells Bloom to watch through the keyhole. The fox who buried his grandmother is hunted while a riderless dark horse wins a race.

Stephen's mother appears in ghoulish form. He denies killing her and he asks her to tell him "the word known to all men." She tells him to repent so Stephen wields his ashplant (walking stick) like a magic sword to banish her. The ashplant damages a chandelier in the brothel, and Stephen runs out of the brothel. Bloom settles with Bella and runs after Stephen, who angered two British soldiers by sarcastically telling them, "You are my guests. The uninvited." Bloom comes to Stephen's aid. The soldiers release Stephen to the custody of Corny Kelleher and Bloom. In the car Stephen dozes and Bloom sees his dead infant son, Rudy, dressed like a little boy, reading and smiling. Rudy does not see Bloom.


In The Odyssey Odysseus and his men land on the island of the sorceress Circe. Circe gives his crew food that contains a drug which turns them into pigs. Odysseus is warned by the god Hermes, who gives him a magic herb to use as an antidote, and so he avoids being transformed. He demands Circe lift the charm, and she does. Odysseus and Circe become lovers, and he and his men remain on the island for a year.

Joyce chose a dramatic, stream-of-consciousness style for this series of bizarre, surreal, late-night events. Why? The episode has often been understood to operate according to a kind of dream logic, which Freud began to develop in The Interpretation of Dreams, whereby anxieties, desires, fantasies, fears, and all manner of psychic material that can't be dealt with in waking life are processed and achieve a kind of "as-if" resolution or satisfaction, such as Stephen slaying the ghost of his mother or Bloom's transformation and subjection. It is interesting to contrast this with Joyce's use of stream of consciousness elsewhere. Earlier in the novel, that technique seems to be "realistic," to give us a certain kind of "truth" about Stephen or Bloom, but "Circe" turns that on its head. As opposed to interior monologue, there is now a dramatic performance of interiority: interior monologue turned inside out.

Like Circe's island, Nighttown is a place of magic and transformation. Caps, illustrations, trees, and moths can talk. A woman turns into a man, and Bloom becomes a "womanly man" who gives birth. Thus Bloom achieves the ambition described in "Oxen of the Sun," becoming a generative, birth-giving man. And like an island of rooting, rutting pigs, Nighttown is a place where Dubliners' secret desires come out. A particularly submissive side of Bloom's personality and sexuality is exposed. To his delight and in contrast to her characterization in the "Penelope" episode, Molly appears as haughty and cruel. Bloom's attraction to Molly's adultery is also laid out in stark terms. When Bello taunts Bloom about Boylan, he adds Molly is likely already pregnant with Boylan's child: "That makes you wild, don't it? Touches the spot?" Like a victim of Circe's enchantment, Bloom confesses, "I have been a perfect pig."

Bloom's better nature is also dramatized in the episode, but he brandishes it as a defense against his accusers. When a watchman says Bloom has been "caught in the act," Bloom stammers, "I am doing good to others." Bloom's celebration as a king is also a prelude to his being torn down and humiliated. However, Bloom's optimism and his enthusiasm for invention are recognizable in his royal acts. He announces there will be motorized hearses and "electric dishscrubbers," and he benevolently proclaims, "Free money, free rent, free love and a free lay church in a free lay state." (Lay here means "secular," in contrast to churchly.)

Stephen's gift of eloquence sometimes deserts him in Nighttown. He fails to make his point to Lynch's cap, and many of his thoughts from the "Proteus" episode return in tatters. But he is still capable of lucid moments, as when he returns to the principles he declared in his youth. In Joyce's earlier novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen declares to his friend Cranly he will be an artist and not submit to other forces: "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church." In Nighttown Stephen "taps his brow" and says, "But in here it is I must kill the priest and the king." His dead mother has been harder to "kill," especially because Stephen is accused of killing her in the first place. But in bewitched Nighttown he succeeds in banishing her. In response to his ghoulish mother's tearful reproach, Stephen raises his ashplant and cries out, "Nothung!" This is the name of a magic sword in Wagner's opera Der Ring des Nibelungen, which the god Wotan placed in an ash tree. (Hence Stephen's "ashplant.") Stephen's act of defiance succeeds. The ghost of the mother does not reappear in the "Circe" episode.

After all the comical and bizarre events of the "Circe" episode, the appearance of Bloom's son, Rudy, changes the mood radically. Rudy appears as a schoolboy, as if he had lived beyond infancy. But he retains the most heartbreaking quality of the dead: he cannot hear or see the living. It is possible the earlier masochistic scene with Bella was cathartic for Bloom. Momentarily freed of his sexual obsession, he finds a more profound level of suffering in himself.

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