Ulysses by James Joyce: Chapter 14

In this chapter, Bloom goes to visit Mina Purefoy who is in a hospital awaiting the birth of her children after a long and difficult pregnancy (which was mentioned in an earlier chapter). There he finds Stephen Dedalus drinking with a group of young men, some of them medicals who work in the hospital, as they await news about the birth. Their drunkenness causes all these young men to start holding a raucous discussion about the nature of birth, pregnancy, and intercourse.

This chapter is patterned on the episode of the Odyssey when Odysseus sails his men to the island of Helios (the sun deity) and they slaughter the deity’s oxen. As a punishment for this act no one except Odysseus survives the trip home. Like the ancient epic, all these men cannot change destiny once the pregnancy has happened and must wait around for an event out of their control, but with a modern twist in that they have very little to no participation in causing the event unlike in the ancient epic where the actions of Odysseus’ men lead directly to their fated punishment. The foolishness of Odysseus’ men killing the oxen after being warned what would happen is paralleled by the foolish thoughtless talk about women, birth, and pregnancy in which the men have little control and little participation in making happen, yet they still try to control it through their discourse. The young men mention cattle a few times as a derogatory metaphor for women. At least I think that’s what they were talking about as this was a rather difficult chapter.

Nevertheless, this might’ve been one of my favorite chapters in the book. Besides being structured around the Odyssey episode and the discussion of these men, it also is structured around the symbolic birth of the English language, with Joyce starting with Latin and moving all the way to the writing styles of the major writers of his own age. By doing this he is symbolically reenacting the birth of English historically as a parallel to the birth of a baby; this revisits an earlier idea of Stephen’s from the chapter in the National Library where he discusses his belief that men make up for their inability to give birth by creating works of literary art. The works of art are their “children.”

Joyce not only has a great deal of fun imitating and sometimes blatantly parodying the styles found throughout English literary history, but this act tells us a lot about his deeper goals. Like in the National Library chapter in which Joyce hints he might be the equal to Shakespeare, or the closest writer in the modern age, he is now reiterating this point by incorporating all the other styles of great writers of the past into his own literary project. It’s a statement that he sees himself as a worthy successor to all these writers and that his work is a culmination of their past work. Likewise, while the content of these different styles is the ridiculous discussion about birth and pregnancy the men are holding, despite never experiencing pregnancy, the narrative constantly shifts into different literary styles, suggesting the content is empty and a bunch of hot air, whereas the styles themselves are what has value and what makes these otherwise ridiculous discussions interesting. By doing this Joyce is distinguishing between the ephemeral discussion of a bunch of drunk men (all hot air that will be forgotten tomorrow) with literary discourse (even if the content is forgotten and becomes unimportant, the styles themselves will live on in history).

It also fits into the theme of the past haunting the present and the inability of people to escape the “nightmare” of history. Joyce seems to hint that we shouldn’t try to escape history, it’s impossible, but rather incorporate it into a new reality, an artistic reality. Our only hope to move away from history is to give “birth,” artistic or otherwise, and create something new from the old. It’s not so much a full-fledged escape, which is impossible as we ourselves are the products of history, but a slight nudge forward, and this is exactly what we see happening in the Joyce’s sequence of literary parodies. 

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