Ulysses by James Joyce: Chapter 13

In this chapter, Leopold Bloom returns to the seashore that Stephen Dedalaus occupied earlier during his deep philosophical ruminations. He witnesses a beautiful lame woman named Gerty who is out with some friends and their children playing by the seaside. The virginal, somewhat religious Gerty flirts with Leopold from afar, imagining that they are beginning a deep relationship, while he watches her and plays with himself.

In general, Joyce’s stream-of-conscious style with multiple viewpoints lends itself to a major theme of the novel: the problem of subjectivity. Multiple people can experience the same event, hear the same words, learn the same things, and come to very different interpretation and conclusions about the same events. This chapter in particular highlights this theme well; the temporary “relationship” these two engage in has very different meanings and interpretations to the two people involved. The first half of the chapter we see from the perspective of Gerty, while the second half we see from Leopold’s point-of-view. This makes for an interesting contrast in that they both view this short-term relationship very differently. Likewise, we get to see how each character views each other. Gerty is full of contradictions being both virginal and religious, but flirtatious and a source of eroticism. Gerty sees the potential for a deeper relationship in this strange man gawking at her from a distance. For Bloom it just seems to be a moment of pleasure, not something permanent. He doesn’t think about Gerty herself so much as Gerty causes him to think about the nature of women. His thoughts never linger on Gerty for too long, but always return back to Molly.

Another observation Joyce is making is the contradictory nature of people. This is especially obvious in Gerty who idolizes the Virgin Mary, chastity, and purity, but then allows herself to be eroticized, even encourages it in her flirtations from afar.  However, Bloom, too, is showing a contradictory nature. In the previous chapters, we get some sense that Bloom isn’t interested in sex with Molly and this is part of the reason Molly is looking for other outlets, yet Bloom in this chapter and in previous ones is busy ogling various women he encounters throughout the day and clearly still has a sex drive. During other chapters, his actions suggest he is a considerate guy who genuinely thinks about the welfare of other people, while in this chapter his actions come off as downright creepy. Joyce seems to be pointing out that people aren’t one thing or another, but are a contradictory mix of impulses. It is worth noting as well that this is yet another way he is challenging traditional ideas of the novel, which usually tries to create consistent non-contradictory characters.

In this chapter, Bloom ponders the nature of women. Like Gerty, he believes they can’t help falling in love. It’s in their nature. Yet, he asks a deeper question, a more important question that speaks to the larger problem in the novel. He wonders, why did Molly marry him? What did she see in him? As a reader this is a question that has been bothering me as well. Molly is willing to engage in an affair with another man, but seems at times to really care about Bloom. What motivates her? Why did she marry him?

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