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MonkeyNotes-Ulysses by James Joyce
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The Homeric counterpart to this chapter is musical. Circe warns Odysseus about the peril of the Sirens, who lure sailors to their deaths. If he wants to hear their beautiful song, he must stick wax in the ears of his crew and get them to tie him to the mast. He does this and is able to hear the dangerous ladies in safety. The sirens are the two barmaids. Their isle is the bar, a place of danger. There many Dubliners, though not Bloom, ruin their health. The two singer, Dedalus senior and Dollard, are both alcoholics. Poor Paddy Dignamís death was indirectly caused by drink. There are many other instances of alcoholic excess in the book, including Stephenís. Bloom, prudent as usual, drinks very little. A glass of cider with his dinner in the hotel was all. This, combined with the glass of burgundy he enjoyed three hours earlier, was enough to give him flatulence. Bloom likes music. But he is not seduced by it, as most of the Irish in this chapter seem to be. He remains cool and unravished even by Dedalusís final and triumphant high note. Drink also may increase venery. But Bloom, writing a letter to his unseen friend Martha Clifford, is indifferent to the charms of the barmaids.

The Biblical counterpart is the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon, or Canticles). This is the only book in the Bible that is called a song. It is the only one, which is a scarcely disguised pagan erotic poem. In Christian tradition it is allegorized into the marriage of Christ and the Church. This must have delighted Joyce and encouraged him to invent even stranger allegories.

Ulysses is structured on musical principles throughout. It contains many references to opera and song but the "Sirens" is by far the most musical of the chapters. It begins with a set of fifty-eight fragments, the first of which is "Bronze by Gold Heard the Hoofirons, Steely-ringing." It means literally that Miss Lydia Douce, with bronze hair, and Miss Mina Kennedy, with gold hair, the barmaids at the Ormond Hotel, hear the viceregal procession go past. This introduction is best described as a catalogue of motifs, like those printed at the beginning of an opera. The beginning of "Sirens" is there to remind us that the whole of Ulysses is based on the verbal equivalent of the leitmotif. It is a phrase associated with a character or an idea and reappearing in various transformations throughout the work. The fragments as printed here also make up a mysterious prose poem. It cannot be understood at first reading. But it gradually yields its meaning, as the context of each phrase in the chapter becomes clear.


The focus of attention shifts away from the characters and their physical environment to what might be called the spiritual environment. The authorís purpose in this chapter, if it can be briefly stated, seems to be to illustrate the power of music. The reader will always bear in mind the destructive force of the Sirens in Homer and their fatal attraction, and will see the songs in the bar as a modern version of the Siren songs. In the lengthy account of Ben Dollardís song, The Croppy Boy, we can see the men trapped by the beauty of the piece into reverie and suspension of vital functions. Bloom listens. Ritchie Goulding listens. And by the door deaf Pat listens. Bloomís own thoughts are led by the song into melancholic recollections until he too is almost entranced. Then, seeing Miss Douce virtually bemused, he realizes that he must escape, "Get out before the end."

Throughout the chapter, musical rather than literary techniques are used. The recurrent Themes, particularly the tapping of the blind boyís stick, join together the paragraphs like leitmotifs. The blind boy had tuned the barís piano, and is returning for his forgotten tuning fork. As he gets closer ("Tap, Tap. Tap"), Blazes Boylan gets further away. Here the orchestral method of diminuendo is used. The sentences, scattered through the second half of the chapter, describe his progress to Bloomís house.

Molly Bloomís place in the chapter is clear, though she does not appear. She is referred to only a few times. She is the singer whose voice Boylan follows and Bloom remembers with love. She is the touch-stone against which the other Sirens are tested. Constantly phrases in the chapter bring her to the mind of the reader, just as the experiences of Bloom bring her to his mind. Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy laugh at the thought of marriage to Bloom. Inevitably we think of his wife. The bar girls trill snatches of a song, and Miss Kennedy drinks tea while reading a book. Miss Kennedyís gold hair and "drowsy silence" parallel Mollyís, while Lenehanís amused pre-occupations with the barmaids reminds the reader of his anecdote about Molly in Chapter X. Such references to Molly are a preparation for her increasingly important role in the last part of the novel.

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