"Scylla and Charybdis"

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By Lisa Sun


In “Telemachus,” the first episode of James Joyce's 'Ulysses', Haines inquires of Stephen as they leave the Martello Tower, “What is your idea of Hamlet?” to which Buck Mulligan interjects, “No, no… Wait till I have a few pints in me first.” Mulligan later summarizes Stephen’s argument, stating, “It’s quite simple. He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.” Haines remains curious and confused, and amongst all this conversation, Stephen “listlessly” replies, “It has waited so long… it can wait longer.” (Ulysses, 15).

Episode 9, Scylla and Charybdis, is the revelation of Stephen’s delayed “idea of Hamlet.” The episode takes place at 2:00 pm on June 16, 1904 at the National Library of Ireland. The organ of this chapter is “the brain, the technique is “dialectic” and the art is “literature.” Stephen begins in the director’s office of the Library, accompanied by A.E. (poet George Russell), John Eglinton (essayist William K. Magee) and Lyster, the “quaker librarian.” They are in the midst of discussing Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meister, and his “judgments” on Hamlet. Already, Stephen has engaged himself in debate, arguing his own Aristotelian dogma against A.E. and Eglinton’s Platonic views on Hamlet. In the course of the next hour, the four characters will be joined by Buck Mulligan, and library assistant director Mr. Best (Richard Irvine Best) to all of whom Stephen will present and defend his Aristotelian “idea of Hamlet.”


Episode 9 of Ulysses is inspired by Odysseus’ encounter with the six-headed monster, Scylla and the “whirling maelstrom” (Odyssey, 212) Charybdis in Book XII of the Odyssey. After Odysseus has buried the body of Elpenor at the house of Circe, Circe approach him and warns of his future travels, “One of two courses you may take”:

“the den of Scylla, where she yaps
abominably, a newborn whelp’s cry,
though she is huge and monstrous…
… upon her serpent necks
are born six heads like nightmares of ferocity,
with triple serried rows of fangs and deep
gullets of black death…
And no ship’s company can claim
to have passed her without loss and grief; she takes,
from every ship, one man for every gullet.”

(Odyssey, 212; 104-118)

“The opposite point seems more a tongue of land
you’d touch with a good bowshot, at the narrow.
A great wild fig, a shaggy mass of leaves,
grows on it, and Charybdis lurks below
to swallow down the dark sea tide. Three times
from dawn to dusk she spews it up
and sucks it down again three times, a whirling
maelstrom; if you come upon her then
the god who makes the earth tremble could not save you.”

(Odyssey, 212; 119-127)

In her warning, Circe suggests that Odysseus “hug the cliff of Scylla” as to lose only six men, as opposed to risking his entire crew by way of Charybdis.

The Gilbert and Linati schemata defines the technique of the chapter as “rhetoric.” Accordingly, “the twin dangers [of Scylla and Charybdis] are not physical but oratorical” (Blamires, 76) in the episode – Scylla, the six-headed monster, embodies the dogmatic, Aristotelian view, while the “maelstrom” Charybdis embodies the whirl-pool-like Platonic view. The oratorical nature of these beasts is derived from Homer, as both Scylla and Charybdis are creatures who power is granted by way of their mouth. Moreover, Homer describes Scylla as a monster who “yaps/… a newborn whelp’s cry/ though she is huge and monstrous.” This image of Scylla functions as a parallel to Stephen, the Scylla figure of the episode, whose inherent strength and latent force can only manifest itself oratorically as a childlike “yap.” The organ of this chapter is “the brain,” and the art is “literature.” Thus, the physical battle of Homer’s Scylla and Charybdis is transformed into an oratorical battle between the mystical, whirling Platonic dialectic (of Russell and the other scholars) on ideal forms – that “Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences” (Ulysses, 152) – and Stephen’s biting Aristotelian rhetoric on logic and dogma – that Hamlet “by algebra… is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.” (Ulysses, 15).


Stephen begins this oratorical battle by challenging Eglinton’s assertion that “Hamlet is a ghoststory” (Ulysses, 154). He asks, “What is a ghost?” and rhetorically responds, “One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners” (Ulysses, 154). Stephen continues to imagine a past performance of Hamlet, in which Shakespeare himself plays the part of Ghost Hamlet, which Stephen understands to be a historical fact. Stephen recounts, “To a son he speaks, the son of his soul, the prince, young Hamlet and to the son of his body, Hamnet Shakespeare, who has died in Stratford that his namesake may live forever” (Ulysses, 155). Stephen then ponders that Shakespeare may himself have been a “ghost by absence,” having lost his first and only son. He concludes, “you are the dispossessed son: I am the murdered father: your mother is the guilty queen, Ann Shakespeare, born Hathaway?” (Ulysses, 155). Here, Stephen first begins to surmise the different relationships he will later further explore – the paternal relationship, the maternal relationship, and the erotic relationship of husband and wife.

Slowly, Stephen begins to uncover the different concepts that will eventually inform his understanding of these relationships. When Russell/A.E. rebukes Stephen’s interpretation of Hamlet, Stephen reminds himself that he owes Russell a pound, which he had spent on a whore, Georgina Johnson. He then deduces that the “I” who owed Russell a pound is no longer the “I” standing in the National Library, since the material molecules of a body change over time. He then recalls the different “I” who “sinned and prayed and fasted” (Ulysses, 156), but also acknowledges the eternal “I” that is maintained through the faculty of memory. Stephen then transforms these different “I’s” into the riddle – A.E. (Russell) I.O.U (a pound). This represents Stephen’s first introduction of this idea of the transmutation of identities. The brief reference to Hamlet, “Buzz. Buzz” (Ulysses, 156)/ (Hamlet, 2.2.537) serves as a precursor to Stephen’s later application of these idea to his understanding of Hamlet.

Stephen later moves on to explain that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet directly following his own father’s death (Ulysses, 170). In this way, when Shakespeare plays Ghost Hamlet in the performance at the Globe, he plays both father and son. Shakespeare is the father of Hamnet, who is dispossessed due to death, and Shakespeare is also the son who has been dispossessed after his own father’s death. Shakespeare is, therefore, an example of the transmutation of identity: he is simultaneously father, son, and ghost.

Stephen generalizes this relationship earlier in the conversation, when he states, “so through the ghost of the unquiet father the image of the unloving son looks forth. In the intense instant of imagination… that which I was is that which I am and that which in possibility I may come to be” (Ulyssses, 160). Here, Stephen suggests that the father must fulfill himself through the son, an unfathomable task for the father of a dead son. Moreover, Stephen reflects that the Christian Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost epitomizes the phenomenon of the transmutation of identities: “He Who Himself begot middler the Holy Ghost and Himself sent Himself” (Ulysses, 162). Within the Holy Trinity, the Father is the Son is the Holy Ghost – a transmutation of identities that parallels the identity of Shakespeare as Father, Son and Ghost.

Near the end of the episode, Buck Mulligan interjects into the conversation, exclaiming, “Wait. I am big with child. I have an unborn child in my brain… A play.. Let me parturiate!” (Ulysses, 171). Mulligan’s play, ironically, becomes one about masturbation – fruitless dissemination of the father’s seed. Moreover, Mulligan’s reference to masturbation can also be understood figuratively, thus suggesting that Stephen’s literary study is an act of “mental masturbation,” which merely compensates for his sexual frustration. From this point forward, and to Stephen’s dismay, the conversation breaks down to the point of absurdity, as a result of Mulligan’s mocking jokes about masturbation.

At the end of the episode, Bloom passes out of the National Library between Stephen (Scylla) and Buck (Charybdis-figure), just as Stephen thinks to himself “Part. The moment is now” (Ulysses, 178), urging himself to part with Buck and go forth in his own direction. And after Bloom passes, Stephen recalls a dream from the night before, “Last night I few… A creamfruit melon he held to me. In. You will see” (Ulysses, 179), thereby foreshadowing the events to transpire later than evening, when Bloom, the wandering Jew, associated with the melon, would bring Stephen home (having parted with Buck) with him in a gesture of friendship.


In Scylla and Charybdis, Scylla, the six-headed monster is associated with Stephen and Aristotelian dogmatic rhetoric, while Charybdis is likened to the whirling Platonic dialectic of the artists of Joyce’s time. These associations are constructed by way of the following logic. Scylla, the monster, is associated with the rock on which she rests. The rock, accordingly, is associated metaphorically with the church. Furthermore, Aristotle was often recognized as the speaker for the church and its dogmas. Thus, the Scylla-rock-church-Aristotle association seems fitting. Charybdis, on the other hand, is associated with disorienting motion of the whirlpool. Joyce associates this same sense of disorientation with the Platonic interest in ideal forms (derived from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave). Platonists believed in the existence of a mystical, spiritual universe beyond the world of appearance – the “true” world – and, thus, were always striving to see beyond the appearances. To do so, Plato considered conversation – i.e. dialectic – the most efficient means of reaching the truth. Thus, the Charybdis-whirlpool-dialectic association also seems fitting, and reflects a clear judgment on the part of Joyce. By associating Stephen with Scylla and Aristotle, and his contemporary artists with Charybdis and Plato, Joyce seems to assert the superiority of dogmatic rhetoric as opposed to mystical truths. The entire episode, then, is a dialogue and battle between these two different forms of speech.

The “battle” between Aristotelian rhetoric and Platonic dialectic is reflected in the narrative form of the episode. Near the end of the episode, the narrative transforms briefly into the form of a script (Ulysses, 171-2) – the most pure form of dialogue/dialectic. At this point, Stephen also begins to insert qualifiers before the names of other characters, an ironic example of which occurs when Joyce writes, “Sonmulligan told himself,” “Wait. I am big with child. I have an unborn child in my brain… A play.. Let me parturiate!” (Ulysses, 171). Later, Mulligan’s play, “Everyman His Own Wife or A Honeymoon in the Hand (a national immorality in three orgasms)” (Ulysses, 178) is also presented in the form of a script, echoing that of Stephen just a few pages earlier. Moreover, other qualifiers/ name modifications include “a best and a secondbest, Mr Secondbest Best said” (Ulysses, 167) and “The quaker librarian, quaking, tiptoed in, quake, his mask, quake, with haste, quake, quack” (Ulysses, 171). The mounting absurdity of the narrative form parallels the mounting absurdity of the conversation, terminating with Mulligan’s masturbation play. In a way, this advance towards pure dialogue represents the disintegration of the narrative form. However, it can also be regarded as the full realization of the episode’s technique: the Platonic “dialectic” by which Plato believed all truth was attainable. Except, in this case, the conversation has descended to the point of absurdity rather than rising to the height of Platonic truth. Thus, the narrative form is yet another means by which Joyce associates Stephen – the “true” artist with which Joyce identifies – with the logical Aristotelian dogma, in opposition with the mystical Platonism associated with the other artists of Joyce’s time.

Stephen’s theory of Hamlet asserts that Shakespeare is, at the same time, Father (of Hamnet), Son (of his recently deceased father), and Ghost (Shakespeare plays the Ghost at the Globe theater). In this way, Shakespeare engages in a transmutation of identities similar to that of the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This transmutation also finds parallels in Stephen. Stephen is the ghost who was absent from Dublin and has now returned; he is also the dispossessed son of a father he disdains, and the father who attempts to fulfill himself through his son – his art.

During this episode, Stephen thinks about his role as potential father to his art. He considers, “As we… weave and unweave our bodies… their molecules shuttled to and fro, so does the artist weave and unweave his image” (Ulysses, 159). He then goes on to contemplate that “intense instant of imagination” (Ulysses, 160), when his past, present, and future identities coalesce into an artistic creation. At this moment, Stephen, the creator, exists as son (past), father (present), and ghost (future). Throughout the episode, Stephen continues to ask himself questions such as “And my turn? When?” (Ulysses, 157) in reference to the moment when he will be able to fulfill himself.

Stephen’s desire to become an artist father-figure also becomes illuminated in the episode as Stephen recalls a scene from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when his schoolmates call him by his Greek name, Stephanoumenos, as he passes them on the beach. He goes on to think about the “Fabulous artificer” (Ulysses, 173) – his namesake, Daedalus, as well as about Icarus – “the hawklike man” (Ulysses, 173). In this way, Stephen identifies himself with both father (artist, creator) and son (he who flew away to Paris via “Newhaven-Dieppe”, and fell back to Dublin).

This image of the artist as father to his art also relates to Joyce, himself; on a meta-fictional level, the trinity applies to Joyce. Joyce, like Stephen, is a ghost in his own Ireland. Moreover, just as Shakespeare represents himself in Hamlet, Joyce represents himself in the voice of the son, Stephen and the voice of the father, Bloom. Bloom, like Stephen and Shakespeare, is a ghost [“One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners”] in his own home – long absent from the husband-wife sexual relationship with Molly. He is also the dispossessed son of a suicidal father (as mentioned in episode 6), as well as the father of a deceased and, thus, dispossessed son (Rudy).

By representing himself in multiple characters of the novel, Joyce introduces a new perspective on the idea of metempsychosis – the transmigration of souls. Literary critic, Richard Ellman, quotes Stephen in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man upon discussing Stephen’s Hamlet theory. He writes, “The simplest epical form is seen emerging out of lyrical literature when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event and this form progresses till the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others. The narrative is no longer purely personal. The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea….The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper esthetic life…” (Ellman, 296)[1]. As applied to Ulysses, the personality of the artist – Joyce – begins by “flowing round and round” the “persons” of the novel, until it finally “fills every person with such a vital force” that each character “assumes a proper esthetic life.” In this sense, Joyce considers a successful piece of “lyrical literature” one in which the personality of the artist fills every character and action. Thus, Joyce doesn not only represent himself in the characters of Stephen and Bloom; he “fills every person” with the personality of the artist.

Joyce pays particular attention in this episode to the aspiration of the artist. He associates himself, the artist with many figures: the son, who is also the father, who is also the creator, and also the ghost. In this way, Joyce understands the transmigrated artist figure as belonging to a trajectory – the son becomes the father, who has another son as the father becomes the ghost; hence, Joyce understands the artist as what T.S. Eliot called the “individual talent” existing within “the tradition.” However, in the episode, Joyce also recounts a conversation that Stephen overhears between his fellow scholars discussing other writers in the National Library, “I liked Colum’s Drover. Yes, I think he has that queer thing genius. Do you think he has genius really? Yeats admired his line… Did he?... That Moore is Martyn’s wild oats? Awfully clever isn’t it?... Our national epic has yet to be written, Dr Sigerson says. Moore is the man for it” (Ulysses, 158). Here, all the artists (the father figures) – Colum, Yeats, Moore, etc – are all depicted as within a struggle with each other to write the “national epic,” which implies a struggle within the tradition, as well – with past fathers (now ghosts) and future fathers (now sons). Joyce figures himself into the equation [via Aristotelian logic] by representing himself in the father, son, and ghost. Thus, he proclaims himself as the timeless artist – one who is simultaneously and eternally the father, son, and ghost; he represents the epitomal artist of the present, past, and future. In this way, Joyce’s Ulysses is the “national epic,” because it’s timeless artist trumps the trajectory-dependant Tradition of son-father-ghost in which it exists. It is the artistic creation, product of the “intense instant of imagination, when… that which I was is that which I am and that which in possibility I may come to be” (Ulysses, 16).

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