Literature Study GuidesUlyssesPart 3 Episode 17 Summary

Ulysses | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Ulysses | Part 3, Episode 17 : The Nostos (Ithaca) | Summary



This episode in written in the form of catechism, a summary of religious doctrine meant to instruct new members and often takes the form of questions and answers. It is 2 a.m. the following day, June 17, 1904. As Bloom and Stephen walk from the cabman's shelter to Bloom's house they talk of various subjects, including "emergency dustbuckets, the Roman catholic church, ecclesiastical celibacy, [and] the Irish nation." They both prefer "cisatlantic" to "transatlantic" life, meaning they prefer to stay in Europe and not cross the Atlantic to America. They disagree on some topics; Bloom favors "dietary and civic selfhelp" and disagrees with Stephen's views about "the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man in literature."

Arriving home, Bloom finds he has forgotten his key to the gate so he climbs over the garden wall, falls down, and enters his house through the basement door. He lets Stephen in and makes cocoa for himself and Stephen. There are long answers about the source of the water in the kettle and about water's properties. Stephen reveals he is a "hydrophobe," afraid of water and reluctant to wash. Bloom finds Boylan's torn-up Gold Cup betting slips in the pocket of Molly's apron, but this knowledge doesn't seem to change his mood, which is described as satisfied, without expectations or disappointments. Bloom's attempts at poetry are described, and he wonders what to do with wives and how to keep them occupied. He thinks about Molly's shortcomings in intelligence or education. Stephen and Bloom compare Hebrew and Gaelic languages. Stephen sings an anti-Semitic song, which saddens Bloom as he then recalls his daughter's childhood.

Bloom invites Stephen to spend the night in a room next to his and Molly's which Stephen declines. Stephen and Bloom make plans for Stephen to teach Italian, take voices lessons from Molly, and have philosophical dialogues with Bloom. Bloom recalls a circus performance in which a clown pretended Bloom was his father. Stephen leaves and Bloom lights his way out with a candle. They pause in the garden, look at the night sky, and urinate side by side. Stephen leaves and the church bells toll. Bloom thinks of owning land—a utopian estate called Flowerville—and of urban-improvement schemes. The narration recalls Rudolph Bloom's will and suicide note. Bloom goes up to his and Molly's bedroom, gets in bed, lies head to foot with Molly, and kisses her buttocks. She asks him about his day. He tells her, leaving out such incidents as the letter from Martha, the fight with the citizen, the sight of Gerty on the beach, and the visit to the brothel. Bloom goes to sleep, dreaming of an egg.


The "Ithaca" episode parallels Book 17 of The Odyssey. Odysseus and Telemachus part as they make their way to Odysseus's palace. Suitors clamor for Penelope's attentions but are unable to win her heart. Telemachus and Odysseus, still in disguise, kill all her suitors. Afterward, Odysseus fumigates his house. The parallels are many and somewhat minor to the overarching themes. Very different, however, is that Odysseus is the hero vanquishing his wife's suitors, while Bloom, returning home, does nothing at the sight of Blazes Boylan's body imprint still visible on the bedsheets of his wife's bed.

In "Ithaca" Joyce's questions and answers display an incisive, detailed knowledge of Stephen and Bloom, a remarkable command of their lives on psychological, symbolic, and empirical levels. But it is also true that all we learn in the episode depends, in some necessary way, on the nature of the questions being asked. Questions, especially those in a catechism, presuppose certain answers and certain forms of answers. A catechism, moreover, is meant to be instructional, rather than investigative. The final question and answer reminds readers this is all just writing—Stephen and Bloom are fictional. The final question, "Where?" is simple but profound. Where is the "roc's auk's egg" the drowsy Bloom is dreaming of? The wordless answer, an oversized final punctuation mark, signify that the dream and the egg and "the heaventree of stars" exist nowhere but on the page.

There is religious symbolism in "Ithaca." Bloom's preparation of cocoa for Stephen is like the Christian rite of communion, and the way Bloom leads Stephen out of the house, by candlelight and with Stephen's head bare, is like the procession at the end of Catholic Mass. When "jocose" (joking) Bloom and "serious" Stephen drink the consecrated liquid, they are joined, as shown by the combined word "jocoserious." The religious doctrine of transubstantiation, combined with Stephen's theories about Shakespeare as Hamlet's father and son, illuminate their relationship.

The narrator of "Ithaca" is very different than the narrator of "Cyclops." The "Cyclops" narrator, with his scorn for both Bloom and the citizen, has an oppressive, obvious presence—he's even a customer in the pub. In contrast, the narrator of "Ithaca" is distant from Bloom and Stephen, and from Dublin. Bloom could probably not recall the exact dates of his "nocturnal perambulations," or nighttime talks, going back to 1884, but this narrator can. The narrator stands far above the fictional world with a vast command of details even Bloom or Stephen are unlikely to know about themselves, a variation on what "Circe" suggests about the limits of self-knowledge and interior monologue.

Much of "Ithaca" does not even consist of narration, in the sense of describing scenes. Instead, here are lists and lengthy scientific considerations and detailed insights into Stephen's and Bloom's minds. Stream of consciousness occasionally returns as with the startlingly poetic "The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit." But most of the language here is sometimes opaque, impersonal, even lifeless. We may be amazed to learn that Bloom and Molly haven't had complete carnal intercourse in over 10 years (10 years, five months, and 18 days, to be precise), but is that information somehow more significant to Bloom or to the reader than, say, Bloom's anxiety in "Sirens" as Molly's affair draws near? On the other hand, the impersonality or abstraction of the episode also suggests the transcendence of particularity, contingency, finitude: Bloom and Stephen are described bodies in motion, subject to physical laws on Earth just as the stars and comets are in the "heaventree" above.

Lastly, Bloom's feelings about Molly's adultery are given even more depth. Previous episodes have shown Bloom as hurt but also complicit. In "Ithaca" Bloom emerges as even-tempered regarding Molly. He climbs into bed and finds Boylan's imprint there but is philosophical about it. Boylan is only another in what Bloom imagines is a long list of suitors. Even though Bloom considers inventive and silly responses, such as killing Boylan in a duel or exposing their adultery by means of a mechanical bed, he ultimately leans toward "less envy than equanimity." He takes a philosophical perspective, considering the affair from the point of view of "the apathy of the stars."

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