Lecture Twenty-one -- Return to Ithaca, I
(from "Joyce's Ulysses" by Professor James A.W. Hefferman of Dartmouth College)
This chapter reenacts what Ulysses does when he gets to his palace
in Ithaca, the island kingdom for which the chapter is named.
Because he knows the suitors would kill him on sight, he appears
disguised as a withered old beggar, suffers insults (such as a
footstool thrown at him), bides his time, and strings the great bow
that no one but Ulysses can string. With the help of Telemachus,
he then kills all the suitors and is reunited with his wife, Penelope.
In this chapter, which is written as a catechismal series of
questions and answers, Stephen and Bloom enter the Bloom house
“by a stratagem,” then sit down and talk until Stephen politely
declines Bloom’s invitation to spend the night. This first of two
lectures on chapter 17 treats Bloom’s interaction with Stephen up
to his departure; the second considers the final stage of his
journey, when he goes upstairs to join Molly in bed.
I. This chapter recalls-with considerable differences-Ulysses’s retum
to his palace in Ithaca.
A. Because the suitors would kill him on sight, Athene disguisesUlysses as a withered old beggar before he approaches his palace where he suffers indignities before vanquishing his enemies and rejoining Penelope.
1. Antinoos throws a footstool at him, striking the back of his right shoulder.2. Biding his time, the would-be beggar strings the great bow that no one but Ulysses can string.3. With the help of Telemachus, he kills all the suitors and is reunited with Penelope.B. Entering his house “by a stratagem,” just as Ulysses used the stratagem of disguise, Bloom lets Stephen in, talks with him, and eventually makes his way to the bed of Molly.
1. Because Bloom has forgotten his key, he enters the house by jumping down to the unlocked basement door, then letting Stephen in.2. After they drink cocoa and talk, Stephen politely declines Bloom’s invitation to spend the night. They step out into the garden and pee together, and Stephen leaves.3. Entering the front room of his house, Bloom hits his head on a side board that has been moved for Boylan’s visit--just asUlysses is struck by a footstool thrown by one of the suitors.4. Finding his way at last to the bed where Molly waits for him, he finds that Boylan has definitely occupied it that afternoon.
II. This lecture treats Bloom’s interaction with Stephen up to the point of
Stephen’s departure; the next lecture considers the final phase of
Bloom’s return to Molly.
III. In form, this is a chapter of scientifically detached inquisition, made of
nothing but questions and answers.
A. Rigorously didactic, it recalls the format of the Roman Catholic catechism or of nineteenth-century scientific textbooks.
B. It speaks with authority, exhaustively answering almost every question you might have about the characters in this book, especially Stephen and Bloom.
C. It offers a historical record of facts that neither a journalist nor a historian would think worthy of recording but that are none-the-less significant in this novel.
D. Peculiar as it may seem, this format enhances the universality of the novel and the central theme of the chapter: homecoming.
1. The simple act of turning a faucet prompts two enormous passages on the topic of water as a global phenomenon. We are reminded that in this novel, the implications of any one character or action can be made to spread out almost infinitely in space and time.2. Homecoming typically involves questions and answers.
a. When Ulysses passes the test that Penelope gives him, he answers the questions she implicitly asks him: What do you know about our bed?b. Likewise, Bloom’s return to Molly culminates in a “catechetical interrogation.” In response to her questions, he gives her an edited and somewhat fictionalized account of his day.
IV. In spite of the mechanical rigidity of the format, a sense of humanity
permeates the chapter and repeatedly breaks through the surface of its
A. In Bloom”s account of his day for Molly, his jumping down to the basement is playfully called an “aeronautical feat”--a phrase that conjures up visions of the mythical Dedalus, with Bloom now momentarily in flight.
B. When he discovers that he’s forgotten the key to his house, Bloom reveals once more his all too human frailty and prompts us to consider the human significance of keys.
1. Human forgetfulness sabotages Bloom’s mechanical habit of putting the key into his back pocket.2. Like Bloom, Stephen has no key because Mulligan has taken it. The keylessness of both reminds us that each of them has seen his place usurped.3. Bloom is also keyless in two other ways.C. In making cocoa for Stephen and drinking this “mass product” with him, Bloom achieves a rare moment of communion.
a. He hasn’t obtained a renewal of the ad for Keyes’s pub.b. He has no phallic key for Molly. He has locked himself out of her body for more than ten years.
1. Cocoa substitutes for the Eucharist.2. This silent ritual contrasts significantly with Mulligan’s noisy black mass in chapter 1.3. This is about as close as we get to the tearful embrace of Ulysses and Telemachus in the swineherd’s shelter.
V. Though Bloom would like to adopt Stephen and take charge of his life
Stephen declines even to spend the night.
A. Bloom has great plans for Stephen’s future.
1. He wants him to move in with the Blooms.2. He thinks Stephen can take singing lessons from Molly while she learns Italian from him.3. He might even end up marrying Milly, which would make him Bloom’s son-in-law.B. Stephen declines all of these prospects--especially marriage to Milly--because they would entail the sacrifice of his literary ambitions.
VI. While Bloom and Stephen discover some common interests and
amicably exchange thoughts about their respective cultures, Bloom
finally plays Moses with Stephen, liberating him from the bondage of
domesticity in Bloom’s own household.
A. In a modest way, Bloom shares Stephen’s interest in literature.
B. After Stephen narrates for him The Parable of the Plums, both men explore their respective creeds and races in terms of language
C. Once again, Stephen not only sees Bloom as Jewish but also links him to Christ, whose human nature came from Jewish ancestors.
D. Like Moses liberating his people from bondage, Bloom leads Stephen out of his own house, liberating him from all the charms of domesticity that would suffocate his literary ambition.
1. Bloom knows that he cannot possess Stephen.2. They do not bond as father and son, and we have no way of knowing whether they will ever meet again.
Kenner, pp. 134-45.
Litz, “Ithaca,” in Hart and Hayman, pp. 385-405
Questions to Consider
1. Why does Joyce furnish so much background information on his characters now--when we have nearly finished the book? Why didn’t he put it at the beginning of the novel, where we usually find what is called “exposition”?
2. How well does Bloom understand what Stephen wants?