Lecture Seventeen -- Oxen of the Sun
(from "Joyce's Ulysses" by Professor James A.W. Hefferman of Dartmouth College)
This chapter is named for the Homeric episode in which Ulysses
and his men visit the island of Helios, the sun god, who keeps
sheep and oxen there. When Ulysses’s men slaughter the oxen in
the face of dire warnings not to do so, Helios curses them, and
they soon meet disaster at sea, with Ulysses alone surviving.
Taking the killing of the oxen as a crime against fecundity, Joyce
constructs a chapter about childbearing~specifically about
Bloom’s visit to the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, where
Mina Purefoy labors to beget her child. As he awaits news of the
birth, Bloom sits with a group of young men who are drinking and
talking about lechery and contraception-crimes against fecundity
By narrating this chapter in a succession of styles ranging from
Anglo-Saxon to late Victorian, Joyce maintains a running analogy
between the development of the English language and the
gestation of an infant
I. “Oxen of the Sun” is an extraordinarily demanding chapter that
reenacts Ulysses’s visit to the island of Helios by treating the killing of
the oxen as a crime against fecundity-with Stephen as the
“bullockbefriending bard” who defends the process of generation.
A. “Oxen of the Sun” challenges the reader more than any other
B. It is named for the episode in which Ulysses’s men slaughter the
oxen ofthe sun god Helios.1. Ulysses has been warned that going to the island of Helios
would be disastrous.
2. Pressed by his men to stop at Helios, he agrees on condition
that they slaughter no animals there.
3. While Ulysses sleeps, his men slaughter the oxen. As a resultC. Joyce construes the killing of the oxen in this episode as a “crime
a storm strikes their ship when they leave, and Ulysses alone
against fecundity”; in different Ways, Bloom and Stephen--the
“bullockbefriending bard”-each uphold the value of generating
human life against lechery and contraception and disrespect for
II. Bloom comes to the National Maternity Hospital to await the birth of
Mina Purefoy’s baby. While there, he sees Stephen carousing with
other young men and fears that will kill his creative energy, will spill
and waste the seed of his talent.
III. To reinforce the theme of childbearing in this chapter, Joyce constructs
a running analogy between the development of the English language
and the nine-month gestation of an infant.
A. Narrating the chapter in a succession of styles, Joyce moves from
Latinate English and Anglo-Saxon right up to the lucid elegance of
such writers as Newman and Pater in the late nineteenth century.
B. Joyce alludes at various points to the development of the fetus
C. Though it’s impossible to find every stage of pregnancy signified
by a shift in style, this “odyssey of style” shows us several things:1. Joyce aims to rival every other writer in the history of English
prose in this novel. He not only mimics their styles but also
makes them serve his own grand design.
2. Joyce once again multiplies the perspectives from which we
see Bloom. If Bloom recalls and revives the ancient Greek
hero Ulysses, he can also reincarnate such figures as the
wanderer of Anglo-Saxon poetry and the knight-errant of late
IV. In their own way, Stephen and Bloom each defend procreation against
all the licentious young men who seek only to drink and copulate
without begetting anything or anyone.
A. When a conversation about hoof-and~mouth disease prompts one
young man to say, “Death to the cows,” Bloom can’t bear the
thought, and Stephen tells them all about the cure for the disease
described in Deasy’s letter. Thus, he and Bloom are
B. As bullockbefrienders, Stephen and Bloom also befriend and
support procreation against the licentious young men.1. When a young man named Costello speaks disrespectfully of
both Nurse Callan and childbearing, he’s rebuked by the
doctor and criticized by Bloom, who’s delighted to hear that
Mina has at last been delivered and vexed that anyone else
should take this news coldly.
2. Stephen attacks contraception because he’s an apostle of
creation in all senses; for him, the begetting of life symbolizes
V. Just as a storm strikes Ulysses and his men after they slaughter the
oxen of the sun god, so a clap of thunder breaks into the young men’s
carousing-with a complex pair of meanings.
A. On one hand, the thunder signifies the rage of God against the
young men’s profligacy and disrespect for life.
B. On the other hand, the rain sent by the storm fertilizes a barren
land and prefigures the birth of Mina’s baby.
VI. ln spite of their respect for childbearing and their advocacy of
procreation, neither Stephen nor Bloom is effectively creative.
A. When Bloom complains of Costello’s disrespect for childbearing,
the narrator reminds us that Bloom is hardly a dutiful progenitor
himself.1. He has masturbated that very day-wasting his seed in the
2. He has not had sex with Molly for more than ten years.B. ln spite of his pretense to literary activity, Stephen has written
almost nothing-has “fathered” no literary offspring worthy of the
name.1. He falsely claims that he earned his monthly pay “for a song
which he Writ.”
2. Lynch suggests that Stephen has no right to wear a laurel of
vine leaves until he has fathered “greatly more than a capful
of light odes.”
VII. Near the end of the chapter, Joyce takes comic aim at the concept of
fatherhood as a model for literary creation and implicitly shows that
motherhood is a far more powerful model for it.
A. Pretending to salute Theodore Purefoy, Mina’s husband, as the
hero of this chapter, the narrator actually reveals how little
Theodore’s mere spasm of excitement has contributed to the
making of her child.
B. The whole organization of the chapter suggests that the long labors
of motherhood powerfully rival the spasm of fatherhood as a
model for literary creation.
VIII. At the end of the chapter, afier the long succession of styles, street
talk erupts like a screaming newborn baby, and Joyce’s novel bears
witness once again to the rebirth of living speech.
Kenner, Ulysses, pp. 107-117.
Lawrence, Odyssey of Style.
Osteen, “Cribs in the Countinghouse,” in Beja and Norris, pp. 237-49
Questions to Consider
1. Does the succession of styles simply impede our understanding of what
is happening in this chapter, or does it show us something new about
the characters, particularly Bloom?
2. In a chapter ostensibly devoted to childbearing, Why is there no
description of the delivery room or report on the delivery itself?