This episode of Ulysses is based more loosely upon Homer's epic than are the other episodes in the novel. In Homer's Odyssey, Circe turned Odysseus's men into swine; Odysseus, however, never succumbed to Circe's spells. In Joyce's Ulysses, Circe (the symbolic female of this chapter) is Bella Cohen, and she keeps a brothel at 82 Tyrone Street Lower, in the midst of the Dublin redlight district, the district that Joyce (but not the Dubliners of 1904) calls Nighttown in Ulysses. Unlike Homer's hero, Bloom is not spared the debasement of Odysseus's men (and, of course, in the original, Odysseus did not undergo a transformation). Bloom is debased, and, significantly, this chapter initiates the subsequent cathartic effect of that debasement.
Joyce, of course, did not need Homer's epic to supply the hallucinogenic character of the events in "Circe." There are ample precedents in literature — "objective correlatives," as T. S. Eliot called them, for "objectifying" inner states of fictional characters. In Coleridge's Ancient Mariner's tale, the protagonist's spiritual desiccation is reflected in the dryness of the atmosphere at sea; likewise, the witches in Macbeth probably emanate from Macbeth's and Banquo's desires for power; the Faustian "Walpurgisnacht" literally records the darker, frenzied side of human passion; and Venus in Furs, written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in 1870, certainly raised psychosexual behavior to a new and startling literary art form. Clearly, though, both Homer in his Odyssey and Joyce in "Circe" are concerned with a universal psychological theme: the fear that expression of sexuality might well turn the participants into "animals."
In addition to examining Bloom's (and to a lesser degree, Stephen's) expressionistic visions, however, it is important to define the literal narrative of the episode; thus, for the sake of convenience, if one divides this chapter into separate parts, the first part of "Circe" concludes with Stephen's sighting of Bloom in the music room of Mrs. Cohen's establishment. At this point, Stephen turns to Bloom and says, "A time, times and half a time." This same expression is used in the Bible to account for the length of time before the Day of Judgment is to arrive. For Stephen, this "Day" occurs in "Circe" when he meets his dead mother in a vision.
The Circe Episode begins at the Mabbot Street entrance to Nighttown, and Joyce at once establishes the ethereal tone of the chapter: The pygmy woman and the gnome mentioned on the first page are undoubtedly children, but they are distorted because they are seen through the mists of Joyce's spell of enchantment. Stephen and Lynch pass close to two men, Privates Compton and Carr, and the obnoxious Carr calls Stephen a parson because of his black clothing; this foreshadows the trouble that Stephen will have with this British soldier at the close of the episode, when Carr knocks Stephen down. A whore, also mistaking Stephen, believes that the two men are Trinity College medical students: "All prick and no pence." Stephen — although it can only be surmised — is probably in Nighttown to seek out Georgina Johnson, a prostitute whom he paid once with George Russell's loan of a pound (this reference occurs in "Scylla and Charybdis").
Bloom arrives panting from his attempt to catch up with Stephen and Lynch, and he is almost run down by two cyclists and then is almost hit by a sandstrewer; this latter encounter, at least, cures his (Christ-like) pain in his side. Although he thinks that following Stephen is probably futile, Bloom pursues his quest since he feels that Stephen is the "best of the lot." Also, he is afraid that Stephen will lose his money, and, after all, the chase is really, according to one of Bloom's stray and unconscious thoughts, "Kismet" (fate or destiny).
In the phantasmagoric, dream-like sequences of "Circe," Bloom manages to arrive in front of Mrs. Cohen's establishment (although he thinks that he has arrived at "Mrs. Macks"). There, the whore Zoe Higgins (whose last name is the same as Bloom's mother's maiden name) tells him that the young man whom he is looking for is inside; she then asks (note Joyce's use of irony here) if Bloom is the young man's father; significantly, Bloom "denies" his "son." Zoe ("life" in Greek) is verbose, and Bloom's response to another of her crude questions — "How's the nuts?" — lends credence to one critic's assertion that we probably know more about Bloom than about any other protagonist in literature. "Off side" is Bloom's answer, referring to his testicles. "Curiously," he says, "they are on the right. Heavier I suppose. One in a million my tailor, Mesias [note that Bloom looked for a mesial groove in the nude museum statue in "Scylla and Charybdis"] says." Zoe then takes Bloom's shriveled potato, his true moly, and Joyce focuses sharply here on Zoe's lips, "smeared with salve of swinefat"; clearly, Joyce is placing us in Homer's own pen of Circe.
Bloom's lewd censuring of Zoe's smoking and Zoe's injunction that Bloom should make an impromptu oration on the subject elicit a fantasy that lasts over 20 pages. Zoe finally has enough: "Talk away till you're black in the face," she says, after which Bloom accompanies her into the music room of the whorchouse. He is a rather pathetic man here — truly tripping as he enters the establishment. But enter he does, to join Lynch and Stephen, and the "antlered rack" is a reminder of his being cuckolded by Boylan.
The second part of "Circe" climaxes in the most important moment of the entire novel: Stephen smashes his ashplant against the whorehouse chandelier in defiance of his mother's attempts to foist upon him an increased sense of guilt in order to lead him back to the Church. As he smashes the symbolic "light," he screams "Nothung!" "Nothung," significantly and again symbolically, is the sword of Siegfried, the hero of Wagner's magnificent operatic rendering of myth — The Ring of the Niebelung. Clearly, Joyce was more deeply influenced by Wagner than most critics have guessed. In his play, Exiles, for example, Joyce uses as the name of his protagonist "Richard"; he calls him "Richard Rowan," and "Richard" was Wagner's first name, and the "rowan" is, in fact, an ash tree, the substance from which Stephen's walking stick is made, and it is also the tree in which Siegfried's heroic sword was buried for many years before it was finally wrenched free. The language that Joyce uses in describing the (literally) minor damage to the chandelier indicates that Joyce wants us to focus not on it, but on Stephen's rebellion against his mother's apparition; this is the high point of the novel (at least as far as Stephen is concerned): "Time's livid final flame leaps and, in the following darkness, ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry."
Many factors, carefully delineated by Joyce in "Circe," account for Stephen's hallucinations and for his act of rebellion. His blurred vision, for example, is caused by his earlier breaking of his eyeglasses, and his hand lacks power because it was injured during his fight with Mulligan. Stephen has waltzed feverishly with the whores on a stomach which is empty of food, but which is full of alcohol. These are the physical claims on him; the metaphysical and spiritual claims are embodied in his mother — and she makes many claims on him: Stephen holds the first-born status in his family; there are memories of his mother's reassuring him when he was lonely and away from his friends; there is her insistence that he kneel down and pray for her suffering soul, despite his non serviam delivered to God; and, finally, there is Stephen's recollection of his singing to his mother as she lay dying. Stephen is also reminded of Mulligan's recurring statement that it was he, Stephen, who killed his mother (who is now "beastly dead") because he refused to pray at her bedside.
Part Two of "Circe," then, includes Stephen's "dark night of the soul," as it were, but it is no less a trial for Bloom, for it is a night in which all of his own secret obsessions are laid bare.
Bloom's masochistic binge begins with the entrance of the swinish Bella Cohen. It ends (temporarily) with the "Bip!" of his back trouser button, a noise which recalls him to reality. At this point, he turns on Bella (who has now resumed her real name in Joyce's text; during the masochistic session, she was referred to in the Latin, masculine equivalent, Bello), and Bloom begins to point out her physical flaws. This temporary return to the conscious world permits Bloom to safeguard Stephen's money, for Bella Cohen would certainly have cheated him. Unfortunately, Stephen does not appreciate what Bloom is doing for him, even when Bloom says, "This is yours." Bloom's victory and his "saving"of Stephen are short-lived, however, for with the appearance of Boylan' s avatar, Bloom begins imagining that he is watching Blazes Boylan make unbridled (or bridled, possibly) love to Molly.
This major masochistic streak in Bloom's psyche has drawn much attention from Joycean critics; some find it humorous, some lurid, and some feel that it reveals universal traits which are buried in all of us. Certainly, Bloom's psyche is composed of many and varied elements: foot fetishes, transvestism, coprophilia (an abnormal attraction to fecal matter), and guilt over the picture of the naked nymph that hangs over the Blooms' bed — to name just four bizarre elements. But Joyce obviously felt a need to include these diverse, exotic components of Bloom's subconscious mind if he were to portray a complete, individuated character. There had to be a "Circe" chapter in this novel to release them, to let them all emerge, for Bloom's second drink would not have accounted for all of the revelations, contrary to his opinion. Also, the sexual nightmare that Joyce portrays provides a catharsis for Bloom, permitting him to capably help Stephen during the ending chapters of Ulysses. Finally, Joyce in "Circe" is close to certain theories of Freud in his belief that dreams are purgations.
The third and final part of "Circe" begins with Stephen's dashing out of the bordello and with Bloom (temporarily purged of guilt) revealing a side of himself that we have seen before only once — at the end of "The Cyclops," when he talked back, defiantly, to the Citizen. Here, however, he does not run; instead, he stays and cares for Stephen, braving the soldiers and the police. He is truly angry with Bella for wanting ten shillings for the broken lamp, and he threatens her with revealing the fact that she is supporting her son at Oxford with money gained through prostitution; finally, he forces her to accept a shilling as payment for the damaged fixture. Also, it is Bloom who stays by Stephen when Lynch (a Judas figure) deserts the lad and when Corny Kelleher implies that Sandycove is too far to go to bring Stephen home.
Stephen's trouble with Carr is occasioned by his symbolic comment, "But in here it is I must kill the priest and the king." Carr thinks that Stephen is threatening to assassinate Edward VII; he will not listen to Bloom's entreaties that Stephen has been drinking absinthe. Actually, Stephen is repeating the adage that Ireland is a captive of the double tyrants of the Roman Catholic Church and Britain. More symbolism is also apparent in Carr's attack on Stephen just after Bloom has said that Stephen is "incapable": the blow represents, symbolically, English oppression of a nearly defenseless Ireland.
Despite the somber tone of part three of this chapter, however, the section is filled with many humorous overtones and subtle ironies — even apart from the delightfully farcical apparitions that follow upon Stephen's priest and king statement. Kelleher, for instance, brought to Nighttown someone who had lost on the Gold Cup race, and this person might possibly be Boylan. This would be an incredible irony, especially when seen against Molly's recollections of Blazes' sexual proclivities in "Penelope." And poor Bloom, despite all of his Good Samaritan doings, is misjudged (again): Kelleher thinks that Bloom has been visiting the prostitutes for his own uses: "Not for old stagers like myself and yourself."
"Circe" ends with a terrifying vision — the most terrifying vision of all the visions in this chapter, and Bloom, despite all that has happened to him in this episode, must suffer even more grief. His dead son Rudy appears to him as he would have been — had he lived, and although Bloom's image is an idealized one, it is terribly unnerving. It is, however, touchingly real and moving. We realize anew that Bloom is a marvelous composite of all the elements that make up mankind. His capacity for wonder and beauty is dramatically revealed here in the harrowing apparition of little Rudy, the Lamb of the World.