"The Oxen of the Sun"
From Modernism Lab Essays
By Daniel Jordan
“I think this episode might also have been called Hades for the reading of it is like being taken the rounds of hell.” –Harriet Shaw Weaver1
The Oxen of the Sun is commonly known as the most difficult episode of James Joyce's Ulysses, and the challenges it presents appear most immediately in the multiplicity of styles between which Joyce shifts in the episode. The large quantity of these parodies reflects the theme of fertility that pervades the entire narrative. The episode is organized into three sections that represent the three trimesters of birth; it is further divided into nine subsections that in turn symbolize the nine months of pregnancy.
The action takes place in a maternity hospital in which a group of medical students that includes Stephen holds a loud party directly adjacent to the maternity ward. Throughout the narrative, Bloom’s and Odysseus’s similar brands of reverence are compared with correspondences from the Odyssey. Bloom’s sympathies alternate between mothers and sons as he thinks of the pain of labor that Mrs. Purefoy undergoes during the party, his deceased son Rudy, and his fatherly affection for Stephen. Besides these personal issues with the characters, we are also compelled to think about issues in fertility, such as contraception as a crime against fertility and the decision about whether mother or son lives in a difficult birth.
To add to the episode’s difficulty, many of these serious emotions and issues are deployed in the form of crass sexual jokes in the style of the period that Joyce is imitating. As Professor Lewis said in class, one of the main functions of the parodies is to allow Joyce to use the differences in authors’ overall styles to specifically discuss sex. Oxen of the Sun allows Joyce to continue his examination of the family and the roles within it more intimately than before by using sex as a lens through which he may more closely scrutinize the feelings and issues relating to the family, both in public and in private.
Having escaped Scylla and Charybdis, Odysseus and his crew sail on to the sacred island of Helios, home of his hallowed cattle, arriving at nightfall. At the same time that Odysseus hears “the lowing of the cattle winding home / and sheep bleeting” (12.344-5), he remembers the prohibitions of Tiresias and Circe against landing there. The crew, however, led by Eurylochus, insists on stopping and Eurylochus criticizes Odysseus: “‘Are you flesh and blood, Odysseus, to endure / more than a man can? Do you never tire? / God, look at you, iron is what you’re made of’” (12.358-60). Odysseus’s alienation from his crew contributes to the breaking of their oath to not slaughter the cattle when Odysseus goes away from them to pray and falls asleep. Even though his crew get to feast on the cattle for six days, Zeus strikes their ship with a lightening bolt on the seventh after they cast off. Odysseus, the only one among them to heed the warnings against partaking of the cattle, is the sole survivor.
The Oxen of the Sun episode in Ulysses makes a similar play on fertility and impiety with its setting, the Holles Street Maternity Hospital. A group of riotous medical students are having a party in a room adjacent to the maternity ward; their noisy revelry in a sense violates the sanctity of the ward by disturbing the patients. Leopold Bloom joins this group, which includes Stephen, Lynch, Madden, Mulligan, Dixon, Crotthers, Costello, Bannon, and Lenehan. Like Odysseus, Bloom is the only respectful one among them. His reverential attitude mirrors Odysseus’s piety, and both of them become alienated from the group they are with because of this common attitude. Several times, he extends his sympathy to Mrs. Mina Purefoy for her having to endure the group’s rowdiness. Her name literally means pure faith and is emblematic of Odysseus’s and Bloom’s reverential attitudes. In another parallel, Bloom’s sobriety at the end of the encounter echoes Odysseus’s survival of Zeus’s lightening bolt.
The opening paragraphs are the most difficult part of the episode to decipher initially because their word order is determined by the original Latin. This super-literal translation of passages from Tacitus and Sallust exalts birth, using the Celts as an example of a people who values childbirth and the institutions that support it, such as maternity hospitals.
The episode prominently features controversies related to fertility; for example, the decision about whether mother or child lives in a difficult birth appears often. Bloom’s ambivalent attitudes about controversies like this provide a skeleton for all of the episode’s events. Joyce’s deploys his gentle pathos in Bloom’s sympathy for the nurse’s childlessness and the pain of childbirth that Mrs. Purefoy endures until the end of the episode: “[Bloom] then spoke to the nursingwoman and he asked her how it fared with the woman that lay there in childbed….he felt with wonder women’s woe in the travail that they have of motherhood and he wondered to look on her face that was a fair face for any man to see but yet was she left after long years a handmaid” (14.111-3, 119-21). In these two cases, he directs his feelings toward the mother in a continuation of Bloom’s tendency to exhibit womanly traits.
On the other hand, Bloom several times directs his feelings toward the child, specifically in his fatherly affection for Stephen. His thoughts of Rudy dressed up in a lamb’s-wool vest for his burial, recalling the fertility theme with a reference to Helios’s island, sometimes produce this affection. A later image of Stephen in a “linsey-woolsey” (14.1371) implicitly compares Stephen to Rudy in the same way. When the lightening bolt is heard during the party, Stephen is clearly frightened, and Bloom tries to calm him with a scientific explanation for it: “Master Bloom…spoke to [Stephen] calming words to slumber his great fear, advertising how it was no other things except but a hubbub noise that he heard…” (14.424-7). Bloom’s equal sympathy and affection for mother and child shows his orientation toward the family.
Outside of the image of Bloom as family man, we also see the medical students treat Bloom as an alien. After Mrs. Purefoy’s child has just been born, the students speculate on the identity of the father, wondering if the elderly Mr. Purefoy was up to the job. Bloom criticizes them for their off-color statement, not believing that they can be responsible medical practitioners when they engage in rowdy, crass conversation. Then, as Harry Blamires points out, “…Bloom’s right to criticize Irish medical students, even silently, is questioned…He is an alien, graciously admitted to civil rights.”2 His alienation recalls Odysseus’s similar alienation as a man made of iron when he refuses to land on Helios’s island.
The episode’s relationships to the preceding text of the novel are many. The man in the macintosh, the Gold Cup race, and the drowned man Haines all reappear, and the episode’s nine sections share elements of each of the corresponding earlier episodes.
The fertility theme established in Book XII of the Odyssey is found in the style of the episode itself. The nine sections in Oxen of the Sun, which follow the development of English prose from a Latin incantation until the text disintegrates into what Joyce called “a frightful jumble of pidgin English…Cockney, Irish, Bowery slang and broken doggerel,”3 represent the nine months of gestation in the womb. Don Gifford identifies thirty-three different authors and styles that Joyce parodies in the episode and admits many more can be found in the text. The fertility of the history of English prose is such that so many different styles can be emulated.
The multiplicity of styles in Oxen of the Sun shows at once the triviality and the power of form. In the midst of quick stylistic shifts—an imitation lasts as little as twelve lines—the plot remains consistent, and form is show to be inessential to the plot. At the same time, the style shifts dramatically alter our overall impression of the scene. With each shift, we can begin to isolate the salient features of each author or style parodied and find that, although plot is not contained in style, our changed perspective on it can enhance our understanding of it. Like a Cubist painting, Joyce’s use of multiple narrative voices in the same plot allows us to see it from every perspective at once.
For example, the episode contains several catalogues of the characters present at the party, and we gain a new understanding of the group with every style shift. The catalogue given in the style of Sir Thomas Malory’s (d. 1741) Morte d’Arthur describes the group in terms of their occupations:
“There was a sort of scholars along either side the board, that is to wit, Dixon yclept junior of saint Mary Merciable’s with other his fellows Lynch and Madden, scholars of medicine, and the franklin that hight Lenehan and one from Alba Longa, one Crotthers, and young Stephen that had mien of a freere that was at head of the board…and beside the meek sir Leopold.” (14.188-95)
The focus on their job descriptions diverts attention away from the riotous atmosphere without changing the action in the plot. The description of Lynch and Madden as “scholars of medicine” is ironic because these are the same men who are disturbing women in childbirth. Consistency with the plot, however, is maintained in other ways, such as Bloom’s continued noble, respectful characterization that is created here with the title “sir Leopold.”
A second catalogue is in the style of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1675): “So were they all in their blind fancy, Mr Cavil and Mr Sometimes Godly, Mr Ape Swillale, Mr False Franklin, Mr Dainty Dixon, Young Boasthard and Mr Cautious Calmer” (14.467-70). Mimicking Bunyan’s practice of allegorizing his characters’ moral flaws, Joyce allows us a similar view into his characters’ weaknesses while also parodying Bunyan’s strict moral values with his supposed criticism of Dixon’s daintiness and Bloom’s cautious calming, behaviors that cannot be considered moral flaws. This second catalogue gives us new insight into the characters while doing the same for Bunyan. Both catalogues demonstrate how, in a sense, the plot and characters are born again every time the style changes. The parodies thus continue the fertility theme.
1. A letter from Harriet Shaw Weaver quoted in James Joyce, Richard Ellmann. p. 476.
2. Blamires, Harry. The New Bloomsday Book, p. 153.
3. Joyce, James. The Letters of James Joyce, Vol I, ed. Stuart Gilbert. 138-39, 13 March 1920.