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Ulysses | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Ulysses | Symbols


Crossed Keys

Crossed keys in Ulysses is both a symbol for fatherhood and for security in one's own home or homeland. Bloom desires to regain his son, Rudy, through a paternal relationship with Stephen. He also wants to regain the love of his wife and control of his home. On June 16 both Stephen and Bloom leave home without their keys. Buck pesters Stephen to give him the key to Martello Tower, and Bloom forgets his latchkey. The emblem of the crossed keys represents their as yet unfulfilled union as father to son. Both their houses are occupied by usurpers—Haines has wheedled his way into Stephen's house, and Boylan will find his way into Bloom and Molly's bed.

In the "Aeolus" episode Bloom tries to sell a newspaper ad to Alexander Keyes, a tea and wine merchant. The design for the ad takes the form of crossed keys. According to Bloom, the ad's headline, "House of Keyes," refers to "the Manx parliament. Innuendo of home rule." The Isle of Man, an island in the Irish Sea, has its own parliament called the "House of Keys." Thus it had a degree of independence from Britain that Ireland did not in 1904. By the end of Ulysses Stephen is still keyless, but Bloom has partly reestablished "home rule." He returns to his bed and Boylan is gone. James Joyce again utilizes the parallax motif to illuminate and differentiate these two perspectives, fatherhood and home rule, engaging the symbol of crossed keys.


Bantam Lyons asks to borrow Bloom's newspaper so he can check the racing announcements. Bloom tells him to keep the paper because he was "only going to throw it away." Bantam misunderstands Bloom and thinks he's just received a tip to bet on the horse Throwaway in the Gold Cup race. Throwaway is running at long odds, 20 to 1. Throwaway is a "dark horse," meaning he's unknown and not favored to win. However, Throwaway does win the Gold Cup that day, beating the horse Blazes Boylan had bet on, Sceptre. Thus Throwaway is an unlikely contender who triumphs.

There is another contest going on that day—between Bloom and Boylan. It might seem unlikely for Bloom to score a win against the suave Boylan because, as Joe Hynes says of Bloom, "He's a bloody dark horse himself." Although Boylan does meet with Molly that day, the "Circe" episode shows Bloom enjoys his wife's adultery, even though it also pains him. Bloom triumphs in that he returns to Molly, and in that he continues pandering, trying to interest Stephen in her and create a rival for Boylan. Throwaway stands for Bloom's unlikely but real triumph over Boylan, however fleeting.

Bloom's Potato

There is a general association of the potato with Ireland, but Bloom's potato has a meaning particular to him. His potato stands for protection from harm. In the "Calypso" episode Bloom checks his pockets before leaving the house and says, "Potato I have." He keeps the potato with him all day, and at night he temporarily surrenders it to a prostitute. The potato is, Bloom says, a "talisman" and an "heirloom." In the "Circe" episode the potato's meaning to him is revealed. His mother thought potatoes were a "panacea," a cure for or protection against illness. In The Odyssey Odysseus was protected from Circe's magic by an antidote called moly; in Ulysses Bloom becomes vulnerable to magical transformation after he gives his potato away.

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