This episode begins just after the 3:30 p.m. opening of the bar at the Ormond Hotel and ends at about 4:30 p.m., with the exit of Bloom and the reappearance of the blind stripling, the piano tuner, announced by the tapping sounds of his cane, who has come to retrieve the tuning fork which he had earlier left behind. Parallels with the Odyssey are very broad in this chapter. In Homer's epic, Odysseus stuffs his men's ears with wax so that they will not be seduced by the songs of the mermaids, who induce sailors to smash their ships on the deadly coastal rocks. Odysseus, however, wanting to hear the noted songs himself, has his men tie him to the mast and orders them to ignore him, even if he commands them to release him. The sirens here are Lydia Douce and Mina Kennedy, two barmaids, and an unappetizing prostitute that Bloom (as Ulysses) evades at the end of the episode. The most interesting parallel in this chapter with the episode in Homer's epic, however, is not the sirens themselves; it is the intoxicating power of music, whether it be sung by old men who wish to drown the memories of their failures in sentimental melodies that exalt Irish national failures or whether it is music that is heard by a middle-aged man (Bloom), who traces in the lyrics his own failures as a father and as a husband, and who will, during the course of this chapter, lose his wife to another man.
In "The Sirens," Joyce applies the intricate techniques of musical composition to literature — that is, at the beginning of the episode, he sets up a number of themes or motifs, approximately 57 of them, that are interwoven and expanded throughout this chapter. "Bronze by gold," for example, refers to the bronze-haired Miss Douce and the golden-haired Miss Kennedy. "Chips" in the third line of the chapter alludes to Simon Dedalus's habit of "picking chips off one of his rocky thumbnails," noted a few pages later. "Jingle jingle jaunted jingling" is an aural prefiguration of Boylan's mare-drawn trip to 7 Eccles Street to meet Molly. The "Deepsounding. Do, Ben, do" foreshadows Ben Dollard's rendition of "The Croppy Boy" near the chapter's end, and Molly once said that the hefty Ben had a fine "barreltone" voice; in addition, the "Wait while you wait. Hee Hee" looks forward to Bloom's thoughts about Pat the waiter: "Pat is a waiter who waits while you wait. Hee hee hee hee" (as a parallel, Bloom, unable to stop the cuckolding by Boylan, is also one who will passively wait until Boylan and Molly have finished having sex).
The two main sources of musical allusions in this chapter, both reflecting Bloom's dire situation, are, first, the opera Martha, by the German composer von Flotow, and, second, the street ballad, mentioned previously, "The Croppy Boy," written during the second half of the 19th century to celebrate the Irish rebellion against the British in 1798. Martha concerns the deep love of Lionel for the heroine of the opera, who, unknown to him, is really the titled Lady Harriet Durham, maid of honor to Queen Anne of England. Lionel loses his mind because of the grief which he suffers when he must part from "Martha" (Lady Harriet), but his sanity is restored at the end of the opera, and he marries his beloved "Martha." Martha, operatically, is always associated with its most melodic song; it contains the Irish folk song "'Tis the Last Rose of Summer." In Ulysses, Martha, of course, suggests Martha Clifford, for Miss Clifford is also a woman in disguise; Lionel, in another parallel, suggests Leopold Bloom, who "loses" Molly at just past 4:00 p.m., but he, in contrast, may not live happily ever again with her. Ironically, when Bloom hears Simon Dedalus singing, he realizes that his true love is Molly, not Martha, and the pathos is increased by Molly's incipient forsaking of him.
Of even greater importance in Ulysses as a means of defining Bloom's plight (and Stephen's) is the song "The Croppy Boy," a song which relates how a farm boy was executed by the British. The young Irish lad, on his way to fight the English, stops to have his confession heard by "Father Green." He walks through a lonely hall to find him, and after telling the "priest" that his father and "loving brothers all" have fallen in combat, he says: "I alone am left of my name and race." Then, as one of the childish sins which he confesses, he says that he "passed the churchyard one day in haste,/ And forgot to pray for . . . [his] mother's rest." The priest, it turns out, is a "yeoman captain" in disguise; as a result, the lad is forthwith hanged. (Note the disguise parallel and that, earlier, Joyce emphasized Stephen's agony because of his refusing to pray at the bedside of his dying mother.)
Although Bloom thinks that the Irish lad in the ballad must have been a bit thick not to have seen, even in a darkened setting, that he was talking to an English captain, he is moved by the fact that the boy is the last of his race: "I too, last my race. . . . No son. Rudy," Bloom says later in the chapter. Resembling the farm boy, Bloom leaves "unblessed" from the Ormond. In addition, "The Croppy Boy," with its fictitious Father Green, suggests in a physical, a political, and in a moral sense the "false father" theme of the novel. The croppy boy, as noted, is a surrogate of Stephen Dedalus, who also "forgot" — in a sense, however, Stephen cannot forget that he refused — to pray for a dead mother; Stephen will also be temporarily "adopted" by a father, Bloom, in this novel's last chapters. Finally, the singing of the ballad, which deals with betrayal, corresponds with Boylan's entrance into Bloom's home. The cuckolding of Bloom also suggests Peter's betrayal of Christ, as Boylan's cocksureness is literally and metaphorically recorded at the crucial moment of sexual conquest: "Cockcarracarra."
Bloom's movements, as they often do in Ulysses, suggest his loneliness, his isolation, and his tragic-comic situation — a situation whose sometimes pathetic depths are assuaged by Bloom's balance and common sense. Bloom passes by the Ormond Hotel carrying Sweets of Sin under his arm, and Lydia Douce, inside the hotel, cries: "O greasy eyes! Imagine being married to a man like that. . . . "(Since the word "greasy" is pronounced "grace-y" in Dublin, Bloom is, vocally, paralleled here as a Christ figure.) After buying stationery at Daly's to write to Martha Clifford (continuing a hollow relationship), Bloom, just after seeing a poster with a mermaid on it (another Homeric parallel), observes Boylan for the third time in the novel. But afraid to act and afraid not to act, Bloom follows Boylan into the Ormond, where he observes him without being seen.
Inside the hotel, Bloom's position is further isolated. He sits in the dining room and is thus cut off from the camaraderie (albeit superficial) and the singing at the bar. In order to hide himself further from Boylan, he chooses to eat dinner with another outcast, Richie Goulding, whom Stephen had contemplated visiting in "Proteus." "Uncle Richie" has been ruined by drink. Like Bloom, he too is subservient, and even though his brother-in-law, Simon, no longer speaks to him, Goulding admires Mr. Dedalus's voice. Goulding is so inconsequential (so thoroughly an "outcast" and a nobody) that Bloom is able to write his perfunctory letter to Martha while sitting with him, symbolically covering his uninspired jottings with the Freeman, yet trying to convince Richie that he is answering an ad. In the meantime, the snapped rubberband that Bloom has been playing with has its parallel with Bloom's broken relationship with Molly, and the blotted letter to Martha prefigures the end of that relationship. (Also, Bloom, who never sees matters in terms of either/or — that is, he never sees things in terms of black and white — doesn't sign the letter, and he disguises his writing by using Greek e's.) Toward the conclusion of this chapter, Joyce explicitly defines Bloom's isolation: "Under the sandwichbell lay on a bier of bread one last, one lonely, last sardine of summer. Bloom alone." One is reminded here that the fish is a frequent literary symbol of Christ.
Whatever sentimentality there might be in Joyce's portrait of Bloom, presented in "The Sirens," it is countered by the comic corrective of the protagonist's breaking wind at the end of the episode; this occurs as he reads the last, noble words of the martyred Irish patriot, Robert Emmet, found on Emmet's picture in the window of the shop of the antique dealer Lionel Marks: "When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth then and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done." ("Lionel," the name of the antique dealer, is an echo again of the opera Martha.) Bloom's (and Joyce's) "Pprrpffrrppff. Done" implies a respect for life over death, for the reality of emotions deeply felt over empty political rhetoric, whether it be found in "The Croppy Boy" or in Emmet's "windy" words before his death.