This episode begins at about 10:00 p.m. and ends approximately an hour later. Its setting is the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, and one of the hospital's superintendents is Dr. Andrew J. Horne, whose name is subjected to much punning by Stephen Dedalus and his friends. The physical action of the chapter is simple enough. The semi-inebriated Stephen is drinking with some of his boisterous acquaintances, some of whom are medical students, and he is also drinking with some others, such as Lenehan, who are simply hangers-on. The young men are unconcerned over the plight of Mina Purefoy, who has just passed her third full day in labor. In fact, the birth of her son during this episode elicits only a jocular response from the rowdy young men. At the beginning of "The Oxen of the Sun," Bloom visits the hospital because he is concerned about Mrs. Purefoy; after her baby has been delivered, Bloom decides to stay and watch over Stephen. Bloom's worry is evoked by both his friendship with Simon Dedalus and his fear that Stephen is dissipating his talents through drinking and lecherous associates. Towards the end of the chapter, Stephen suggests that he and his drinking friends adjourn to a pub, Burke's. There, Stephen becomes thoroughly drunk from drinking too much absinthe, which he also buys for the others, thus further reducing the meager pay that he received earlier from Mr. Deasy in "Nestor." As the chapter closes, Lynch and Stephen head for the brothel district, with Bloom referred to here as the "johnny in the black duds," where he will continue his inexpert role of the impromptu, self-appointed caretaker of Stephen. In the midst of the episode, Mulligan enters with Bannon, and the two of them discuss Bannon's liaison with Milly Bloom in Mullingar. Mulligan departs, and Stephen and Lynch, as we discover in "Circe" (Chapter 15), join Mulligan and Haines at the Westland Row station (en route to the brothel district) at about a quarter past eleven. Stephen and Mulligan apparently scuffle, and Stephen hurts his hand. Stephen, however, proceeds along with Lynch to the prostitutes, and Haines and Mulligan presumably return to the Martello Tower. Bloom, after getting off at the wrong train stop, must, in "Circe," catch up to Stephen in Nighttown.
The parallel with Homer, here, is broad, but is very important in this episode. Odysseus's men, despite his warnings, slaughtered the cattle of the sun god, Helios, and thus brought death upon themselves, leaving Odysseus as the only survivor of the voyage from Troy. In Joyce, the "slaughter" is apparent on several levels. Literally, the Homeric parallel is with the Kerry cows; they are suffering from foot and mouth disease (the Deasy letter appeared in the paper this evening — because of Stephen's influence), and these cows might well be slaughtered in Liverpool. Of much greater concern than the slaughter of these cattle, however, is the whole matter of birth and death, life and its prevention. Joyce was somewhat conservative regarding matters of birth control, and he was dubious about anything that might prevent the issuance of new life.
As a result, Joyce saw in the "sterile" talk of Stephen and his friends that sterility itself was an analogy for human impotence in general — that is, the profitless nature of man's questioning the divinity, as well as the question about the decay of Ireland, etc. Mulligan, as was demonstrated in "Telemachus" and also in "Scylla and Charybdis," again becomes the "villain" of the piece; he is the major spokesman for narcissistic, profitless sex. Here, he enters and hands out cards announcing his new trade: Mr. Malachi Mulligan, Fertiliser and Incubator, Lambay Island. His "mythic" plans are really about sex, and though they are supposedly about fertility, the announcement of his idea is followed by a page of puns about contraceptives, with cloaks and umbrellas heading the list. Joyce's characterization of Mulligan is stern; nor does Bloom escape unscathed: For all of his charitable nurturing, Bloom has just spilled his seed in the preceding episode, and we are reminded that a "habit reprehensible at puberty is second nature and an opprobrium in middle life." Also, Bloom's first sexual encounter, with Bridie Kelly (St. Brigid, symbolically and ironically, is the Irish patroness of purity), was anything but fruitful, even when its sterility is considered in sentimental, 19thcentury terms: "She [Bridie] dare not bear the sunny golden babe of day." Joyce's positive attitude about birth and life is clearly evident in the design of "The Oxen of the Sun": the nine months of gestation are marked (loosely) by the so-called nine "periods" (or stages, phases of development) of the English language, through which the plot and themes of this chapter are presented. Scholars have with some justification criticized Joyce's elaborate architectonics in this chapter, but if we consider the serious purpose which underlies Joyce's parodies, the chapter becomes much easier to comprehend. The true protagonist in "The Oxen of the Sun" is the birth process itself; in this case, Joyce focuses, along with his literal subject matter, on a matter of major concern to him: the birth of the English language. He demonstrates here (and in Finnegans Wake) just how fruitful the insemination has proved to be.
The language of "The Oxen of the Sun" does indeed present many difficulties for the reader — most notably in the opening pages. The first entry means simply: "Let us turn towards the sun [metaphorical] and go to Holles Street [the location of Horne's hospital]." The second entry is an invocation to the sun god (the Homeric parallel), here seen as Dr. Horne, asking that Mrs. Purefoy's baby be delivered. The third passage is the anticipated cry of a midwife as she announces the birth of a male child. The next three (lengthy) paragraphs are written in a pre-English, Latinized style, in which Joyce simply inserted praise for the Celtic nation because of its tradition of providing medical care and comfort for mothers, despite the general poverty of the country.
One should keep the simple action of this chapter at the back of the consciousness and should concentrate, instead, on Joyce's brilliant use of the various forms of English. The Old English tone of the language lends scope to Leopold Bloom's errand of mercy, situating him somewhere between the Wandering Jew and Beowulf: for example, consider how Joyce inserts this description of his protagonist: "Stark ruth [pity] of man his errand that him lone led till that house." Likewise, the somber thought of death in the midst of life is evoked through the old medieval morality play Everyman: "Look to that last end that is thy death . . . ." Later, language imitative of John Bunyan allows Joyce to define precisely the roles of Bloom ("Calmer") and Stephen ("Boasthard's"). In true Bunyan manner, the prophylactic becomes a character in its own right — that is, the "shield which was named Killchild." In the century following Bunyan's time, Charles Lamb's essays often revolved around memories of childhood; here, Joyce uses them as the model for Bloom's reminiscences about his own fruitless past. And still later, historically, Dickensian sentimentality, with its sugared picture of a contented mother and child, underlines the contrast between this superficial version of life and the agonizing pain that Mina Purefoy has just suffered. The 19th-century Gothic novel accounts for Mulligan's dramatic and chilling evocation of Haines and his black panther; and the modern slang of the closing pages of this chapter both captures the drunken antics of the principals and, on a cosmic level, predicts the breakdown of Western culture and its language.
For this reason, Ulysses is simultaneously a cosmic and a comic novel; especially in this chapter the fusion is evident, and often the comic spirit predominates. The very serious linguistic parodies are highly humorous. Bloom appears as a medieval knight during his visit to the hospital; we are told that on May 23, 1904, Bloom required help from Dr. Dixon to assist with a painful bee sting: "for he was sore wounded in his breast by a spear wherewith a horrible and dreadful dragon was smitten him . . . ."Bloom is also (knight-like) wearied from his travels; he is "sore of limb," having practiced (on the beach in "Nausicaa") "sometimes venery." Again, too, the obscene banter of the young men in this chapter is compared in stilted rhetorical terms to a Socratic discussion, and in the breakup of language at the chapter's close, American black slang is inserted in the pandemonium of voices — in this instance, extolling the virtues of Dignam: "Of all de darkies Massa Pat was verra best."
In "The Oxen of the Sun," though, in a few places Joyce breaks through the stage scrim filament of crafted language, and he provides stark, explicit information which is crucial to a full comprehension of Ulysses. For example, Stephen is truly terrified by the thunderstorm, and Bloom is unable to calm him. Stephen half-believes that the thunder is God's retort to his blasphemies (interestingly, Joyce himself was afraid of thunderstorms). Also, the cocksure Stephen of "Nestor" there defined God as a shout in the street; now, it seems as though retribution is at hand. In addition, thunder has always been associated with the Hammer of Thor, and Joyce does set this novel on "Thor's Day."
Finally, "The Oxen of the Sun" brings together Stephen and Bloom; this has been a meeting which Joyce has been working toward since the novel began and, even though their words do not lead to any clear communication here, the meeting does presage their discussions in subsequent chapters. Already, Joyce begins to fuse fragments of the two men's backgrounds. Bloom's memory of the 4- or 5-year-old Stephen, dressed in "linseywoolsey" at the get-together at Mat Dillon's (the occasion during which Bloom bested Menton at bowls) in May, 1887, is combined with sad thoughts of his own dead son, Rudy, and the "corselet of lamb's wool" that Molly knitted "for his burial." Bloom is indeed, clearly, on a search for a son, having "no manchild for an heir"; thus, he "looked upon him [Stephen] his friend's [Simon's] son . . . .