Summary and Analysis
Chapter 17 - Ithaca
"Ithaca" takes place at Bloom's house at 7 Eccles St. at about 2:00 a.m. on June 17. Bloom and Stephen discuss a huge variety of topics; Bloom makes Stephen cocoa (Joyce implies that this is a "communion"), and, after Stephen leaves, Bloom assesses his day's activities and gingerly crawls into bed beside Molly in an upside-down position, kissing her rump. The sleepy Molly asks him what he has been doing all day (and night), and Bloom supplies a partial litany of the events, leaving out anything incriminating.
The contrast of Bloom's actions with those of Odysseus is crucial. Odysseus and Telemachus united at the end of the Odyssey in order to kill the suitors who had insisted on courting Penelope until she chose among them. Bloom, the passive 20thcentury anti-hero treats Molly's infidelity with the "suitor" Boylan with acceptance and generosity. Although he reserves the right to divorce Molly at a later date and although he considers using witnesses to catch her in some future act, these thoughts of his are only a small part of the emotional complexity with which he approaches his sad situation. Here, Bloom experiences envy, jealousy, abnegation, and equanimity, but Joyce makes it clear that Bloom's feelings consist mainly of "more abnegation than jealousy, less envy than equanimity." Bloom, as a modern humanist, sees Molly's affair as part of the natural pattern of the universe: what happened was due to woman's instincts and the impulsiveness of Boylan's youth. Besides, although Boylan thinks that he is unique, he is "the last term of a preceding series. . . ."This "series," however, is not to be taken literally; instead, Joyce means for us to understand it as part of a vast cosmic theme — that is, the list of lovers which Bloom supplies for us is a product of his fancy, an attempt by him to assuage the pain of his present feeling of separateness from Molly.
The style of "Ithaca," with its question-and-answer format and its "scientized" language, has caused critics some difficulty. Joyce, while admitting that the format of "Ithaca" is indeed difficult, called the chapter his own personal favorite. And the style does fulfill several functions. Its catechetical nature supplies a religious basis for the discussion between Bloom and Stephen. And, if the chapter can be said to have a true narrator, he is a vast Olympian figure who can place seemingly important but really ephemeral mortals and their actions into the perspective of a large cosmic consciousness. In fact, "Ithaca" is Joyce's preparation (his preliminary groundwork) for Finnegans Wake, with its shadowy, hulking archetypal personages. Finally, the "objectivity" of the episode permits Bloom to use the screen of logic as a kind of filter in order to bear the almost unendurable pain which he feels from Molly's assignation. He perceived Boylan's presence almost from the start of the chapter — as early as the incident of the betting tickets that Boylan tore up in anger after Sceptre lost the race. What is perhaps most regrettable about the assignation itself is that Molly and Blazes make no real attempt to disguise the adultery. Bloom, however, imagines the act; he, in a sense, uses fancy and imagination to disguise the painful blatancy of the adultery; now he is confronted with its direct evidence — that is, with the facts of its physical reality: for example, there are the chairs, rearranged so that the two lovers could sit beside each other to sing "Love's Old Sweet Song"; there are also the cigarette butts, as well as a male's impression in the Blooms' bed, and also there are the traces of Plumtree's Potted Meat (Boylan, metaphorically, "potted" Molly with his "meat").
The concept of marital infidelity bothered Joyce himself greatly throughout his relationship with his wife, Nora. Joyce's play, Exiles, hinges upon Richard Rowan's fear that Bertha has been unfaithful, and here, in Ulysses, in the "Scylla and Charybdis" chapter, Shakespeare is seen to have suffered throughout his life from the thought of a loved one who had betrayed him. "Ithaca" must have been extremely difficult for Joyce to write; for this reason, it is reasonable to conclude that he handled his wound of doubt by putting an aesthetic distance between Bloom-Joyce and the corrupted Molly. Significantly, in "Penelope," Joyce has Molly think of Bloom at the very end of her soliloquy and respond with a resounding "Yes."
Joyce was able, through literature, to sublimate his psychic wound into a brilliant episode that securely places man's pedestrian maneuverings among the stars. Bloom's entrance into 7 Eccles St. sees him "move freely in space," as he jumps two feet and ten inches (a fact that he later thinks is acrobatic). Joyce's description of water (while Bloom is in the kitchen with Stephen) is not merely a tour de force, but it is an attempt by Joyce to again use one of his "catalogues" to compress, as it were, all the world into Ulysses. Bloom's and Stephen's common perception of the "incertitude of the void" is communicated by an intuitive (though transient) oneness that they share during a few moments in this chapter, and as Joyce says, the oneness is: "Not verbally. [but] Substantially." And the vision that occurs just before Stephen's departure, his Ascension into Heaven, is the "heaventree of stars"; it parallels Bloom's own Ascent at the end of "The Cyclops." After Stephen leaves, Bloom, now alone, feels the "cold of interstellar space. . . ." Here, his perception matches that of Gabriel Conroy in a story from Dubliners, "The Dead," when Gabriel learns that when his wife, Gretta, was very young, she was in love with a young man who died for her; in the short story, snow covers all of Ireland, and it becomes another symbol of universality. It may be that it is this terrible chill which Bloom feels, this prescience of death, that leads him to return to his wife's bed, to the Womb of the great Earth Mother Gea-Tellus, and to resume the position of a halfcomic, half-pathetic, but in some ways heroic, reverse Buddha.
Another dimension is added to the Ithaca Eisode's catechetical structure by the vast amount of religious imagery which Joyce uses in the episode, even though the references do not form a strict pattern. On one level, the religious symbolism takes the form of numbers; particularly, the 3's and 9's found in the chapter are ultimately suggestive of the Trinity; in addition, Bloom's first poem, written when he was eleven years old (the age which Rudy would be on December 29, had he lived), was composed in response to the Shamrock's offering of "three [emphasis added] prizes"; and here, one recalls St. Patrick's apocryphal demonstration of the feasibility of the Trinity by illustrating its three-in-one nature with a shamrock. Also, in Ulysses, Bloom and Stephen are loosely coalescing together for the third time in their lives. Also, Bloom was baptized three times, the third time in the same church and by the same priest as Stephen; and in this arithmetical chapter, the 3's (as noted) are often transmuted into 9's. Reinforcing this religious number symbolism is Joyce's use of many terms that can be read on a literal, as well as on a theological, level: crosslaid sticks, lucifer matches, host, mass, and so forth.
Sometimes in "Ithaca," however, the religious imagery is not simply flecked over the pages; instead, it is used to expand upon the larger issues of Ulysses. The ceremony, for example, with which Bloom leads Stephen into his home with a candle after taking off his hat, suggests both the beginning of Mass, in which the priest removes his biretta, and it also suggests the entrance of the catechumen (this time, Stephen) into the catacombs, where the novice convert will be asked several questions to determine the strength of his belief. Stephen's departure ends one "Mass" of Ulysses, and his ashplant becomes the crucifix carried from the church at the end of a religious ceremony; the bells in the church of Saint George ring to signal its conclusion. In the theological context of the chapter, the bee sting suffered by Bloom becomes the spear which pierced Christ's side, and his sore "footsoles" (a play on the word "soul") suggest the feet of Christ, which were pierced by nails.
It is fashionable today to view this religious symbolism in "Ithaca" as being suggestive of a Tri-union of Bloom, Stephen, and Molly, in which Bloom and Stephen share elements of God the Father and God the Son and in which Molly becomes the Mystical Bride — that is, the Bride of the Catholic Church. It is more probable, however, that Joyce is using religion as a metaphor to suggest the elevated possibilities that human nature can reach in certain moments. In contrast, at times, the intellectuality of Stephen and the crass materialism of Bloom fuse in a mystical, unspoken way. But Ulysses, one must always keep in mind, is basically a comic novel; it is not a theological treatise. At the zenith of their aspirations, Bloom and Stephen urinate alongside one another, with the urine becoming the modern, symbolic equivalent of sacramental wine. And, of course, the pedestrian Bloom will always dream of a bourgeois country estate and wonder how human excrement can be used industrially.