This chapter begins at about 10:00 a.m. Bloom has walked approximately a mile from 7 Eccles Street to get to the Westland Row Postal Annex, where he will pick up his letter from Martha Clifford. A careful study of a Dublin street map reveals that Bloom has actually gone out of his way to get to the post office and that, in this chapter, his meanderings form a complete circle. Bloom's circuitous wanderings point both to his guilt over the clandestine correspondence with Martha and to his unwillingness to secure a communication from her that might commit him to take a definite step in their so-far platonic relationship. The wandering also fits in with the dreamy, confused, drugged atmosphere of this chapter, which describes, as it were, various types of "lotus eating."
In Homer's epic, Odysseus and his men come to the land of the lotus-eaters, a hospitable tribe who have a fault: they are generous to excess, offering Odysseus's men a food that makes them forget their quest to return home; some of the crew, of course, eat the flowers and must be physically compelled by Odysseus to leave the country of their soporific hosts. Joyce, as a parallel, saw Ireland as a veritable land of lotus-eaters, its people dwelling in lethargic bondage to the Catholic Church and to their own unrecognized (or unadmitted) sexual yearnings, and he fills this episode with various types of drowsy, sleep-inducing means of escape from reality.
Thus we encounter the slightly dazed Bloom; before he picks up the letter from Martha, he stops before the windows of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company and reads the "legends" (a pun on the Greek myths) of the tea containers, thinking languorously of the Ceylon blends. He tries to calculate how it is possible that a man can float in the Dead Sea, but his scientific mind deserts him as his reasoning trails off in a series of nonsequiturs. Also, when he turns to thoughts of his father's suicide, it occurs to him that he is an "escapist": he did not go into the room to look at his father's face, and he is glad that he did not do so. Later, Bloom goes to F.
W. Sweny's, the chemist's, in order to pick up some face lotion for Molly; he notices that the shop is filled with lotus land-like items, such as chloroform, and this symbolism is enhanced by Bloom's having forgotten the recipe (prescription) — just as he will forget to return to Sweny's later in the day. In addition, the bar of lemon soap that Bloom takes with him from the chemist's and that will pursue him in "Circe" becomes a symbolic lotus flower, as Bloom sniffs its fragrance. Finally, Bloom ends the chapter by contemplating taking a Turkish bath; he visualizes his penis as a "languid floating flower," or lotus.
Thus much of the activity (or nonactivity) in "The Lotus-Eaters" records Bloom's desire to escape, to evade the responsibilities of both a wife and a mistress. Bloom doesn't really want an answer from Martha, and, as the postmistress turns to search the postal pigeonhole, he half-wishes that there would be no letter for him: "No answer probably. Went too far last time." He rejects Martha's offer to meet one Sunday after the Rosary and convinces himself that a "love duet" with Martha would be as unpleasant as an argument with Molly; immediately afterwards, he thinks of another lotus image, the narcotic effect of a cigar.
Bloom's wish to escape is a very human trait, and at one point he reveals his deep desire to overcome his loneliness in his city, Dublin, where he feels deeply alienated from his fellow citizens because of his Judaism; he feels that Holy Communion may be a "lollipop" for the faithful, but he reasons that it does permit them to relieve their sense of isolation, to "feel all like one family party. . . . Not so lonely."
Several more allusions to religion in this episode are used to define types of escapism, and they are crucial to an understanding of "The Lotus-Eaters." For example, consider Bloom's thoughts about Martha and Mary and Christ at Bethany. Martha complained because, while she was bustling about the house, Mary simply sat at Christ's feet and listened to His words. Christ reproved not Mary, but Martha, saying that Mary had chosen the better part. The two sisters were the siblings of Lazarus, whom Christ raised from the dead.
The implications of this biblical story for Ulysses are manifold: "Martha" is Martha Clifford; "Mary," is Marion (or Molly) Bloom; also foreshadowed here is the fact that Bloom will eventually choose the lethargic Molly (who sleeps with her head at Bloom's feet) instead of choosing the busy typist, Martha. Also, the background story of the good fortune of the resurrected Lazarus contrasts well with the plight of the Dubliners, for whom there seems to be little hope of rebirth or change. Most important, though, is the deliberate setting of the visit by Jesus to the two sisters. This lack of sexual content probably attracted Bloom to the biblical event, and the complex religious symbolism should dissuade any reader from understanding only simple parallels between Christ and Bloom. In "The Lotus-Eaters," Joyce sees Bloom and Christ as being not two martyrs but as being two sexually unfulfilled human beings. Bloom, though, is the sterile one. As he contemplates his bath through Christ's words of consecration over the bread, "This is my body," we realize that, in contrast with Christ, Bloom, at least in "The Lotus-Eaters," is not portrayed as the most "giving" person in the world; Christ, of course, established the Eucharist so that his body could be "given" to all people.
The macrocosm of Bloom's wish to escape from responsibility is epitomized in the microcosm of his inability to enjoy fulfilling sex; and "The Lotus-Eaters" is enhanced by references to all types of jaded sex and to sexual emptiness. Bloom thinks of the United Irishman's charge that the British army in Dublin was infected with syphilis, the association coming after Bloom has just thought of Major Tweedy (Molly's father), that memory, in turn, having been occasioned by Bloom's guilt over Martha's letter. Again, Bloom considers the fanciful notion that Hamlet may have been a woman and that his possible transvestism might have caused Ophelia's death; the reader of Ulysses realizes that this time it is Bloom, not Stephen, whose analogue is Hamlet. Also, Bloom is tempted to feel sorry for gelded horses, but he then reasons that they might be happy that way. And eunuchs (having been castrated to be choir boys for the Catholic Church) lead placid lives, even though they do tend to run to fat later in life. Rather parenthetically, Bloom is happy that the two buttons on his waistcoat that were inadvertently left open were not "farther south." Finally, Bloom's contemplated visit to the baths is the culmination of the images suggesting sexual sterility in the chapter. His grand desire is to masturbate (a dead-end type of proposition), and he pictures himself lying in the water with a limp phallus, the very opposite of manly self-sufficiency and masculinity. Languid and limp, Bloom need not make important decisions about sex.
Even when Bloom does contemplate "normal" sex, the result is unfulfilling. Just before picking up his letter, he thinks of the Woods' maid, whom he was not able to follow out of Dlugacz's. And his view of the silk-stockinged woman in front of the Grosvenor Hotel is blocked by an inopportunely passing tram, as Bloom is reminded of the episode of the preceding Monday when he was denied the sight of a girl adjusting her garter; her companion shielded her from Bloom's view.
Many of Bloom's sexual and other personal problems are illuminated in his preoccupation with the letter from Martha; and in describing Bloom's grossly exaggerated precautions to avoid detection and his desperate eagerness to shake off M'Coy so that he can enjoy the secret missive, Joyce vividly reveals his sense of comic genius.
Martha, for her part, seems to be almost as odd of a duck as Bloom. Her style in the letter is repetitious, trite, and trivial: she feels affronted that the prudent and parsimonious Bloom included stamps with his last letter; she wants a long letter from him; and she writes in the language of a Gerty MacDowell — or one of today's Modern Romance heroines. Martha is obviously a poor typist as well, leaving off the end of one sentence and committing a grammatical error in subject and verb agreement (one that Bloom remembers in "Hades"): "my patience are exhausted." And in her veiled sexual references, Martha seems to be somewhat of a sadist, as well as a very frustrated Dublin vestal. She twice threatens to punish Bloom, who here seems more like Ruby, the abused circus girl, than like her sadistic trainer; and Martha teases him by her not-so-subtle suggestion that, since his home life must be unpleasant, she would like to do "something for" him.
Martha's letter fits into the general scheme of Ulysses in other ways. She includes with it a yellow flower, suggestive of Bloom's ancestral Hungarian name, Virag (flower). Her allusion to her headache implies a menstrual period, "her roses," and thus relates her to Milly and Molly. Her demand that Bloom answer by return mail (with by return italicized) ultimately suggests the return of Ulysses-Bloom to his home, and her excuse for calling Bloom "naughty" — that is, the fact that she does not like "that other world" — is properly Joycean in its ambiguity: either Martha does not wish to curse Bloom, or she doesn't wish to risk being sent to that "other world" of Hell or Purgatory for indelicacy; "world" is a misspelling of "word" (as Bloom thinks), perhaps a reference to some profanity that Bloom included in his last letter to her. Finally, the sentence "Then I will tell you all" beautifully casts Bloom as T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, yet it is unfortunate that no direct influence can be actually proven; for Bloom, like Prufrock, is definitely a man who never forces the moment to its crisis.
In addition to depicting Bloom's sexual misadventures, "The Lotus-Eaters" introduces a number of motifs that will be developed throughout Ulysses. One of these is the ad that appears in Bloom's paper, the Freeman's Journal, avowing that home is nothing unless it contains a container of Plumtree's Potted Meat. All the words in the short jingle are ironic. To "pot the meat" is slang for sexual intercourse; home is really nothing, even with the product — at least for Bloom, for after Molly and Boylan eat Plumtree's Potted Meat in bed after making love, Bloom later finds some crumbs; and this particular ad looks forward to the Parable of the Plums, which Stephen will recite in "Aeolus" and also in "Ithaca."
Equally important is the "Throwaway" motif, which is introduced when the unsavory Bantam Lyons thinks that Bloom is giving him a tip on the Ascot Gold Cup Race. Later, in "Cyclops," Bloom gets into trouble when the patrons of Barney Kiernan's pub, thinking that Bloom must have won money on the race, wonder why he does not stand them a drink. Actually, Bloom said to Lyons merely that he was going to throw away his copy of the Freeman's Journal and that Lyons might as well have it.
The name of the winning horse, Throwaway, has symbolic importance since this 20-1 dark horse wins the Gold Cup, besting Sceptre, Boylan's horse. Joyce is suggesting that, although Bloom may at present be "thrown away" by Molly, he may eventually overcome the phallic "sceptre." When Boylan hears that his selection has lost the race — after 8:00 p.m. — he flies into a rage and tears up his tickets in the Blooms' bedroom.
A more humorous motif is started with M'Coy's request that Bloom mark down his name at Dignam's funeral. M'Coy never does show up; yet his name and Stephen Dedalus's name (Stephen does not attend the funeral either) appear in the newspaper, while Bloom's name, though listed among the mourners, is mutilated into "L. Boom." With his request, M'Coy becomes one of the "sinister Dubliners" with whom Bloom has to contend. Fortunately, Bloom was aware of M'Coy's well-known ruse of borrowing valises in order to pawn them, and Bloom is able to escape with his luggage untouched and waiting to be filled for Molly's upcoming concert trip.