Episode 9

A brief guide to “Scylla & Charybdis”

Prepared by Danis Rose

2021 edition Ulysses pages 205-243
2017 edition Ulysses pages 165-196
1922 edition Ulysses pages [176]-209

Thursday 16 June, 1904: 2.00 to 2.45 p.m., The National Library, Kildare street.

He felt himself alone in the theatrek1
All sides of life should be represented.


TITLE and SENSE: Scylla and Charybdis. Two-Edged Dilemma.
SCENE: The Library
HOUR: 2 p.m.
ORGAN: Brain
ART: Literature
SYMBOL: Stratford, London
TECHNIC: Dialectic

This episode derives from the old A Portrait sequel that Joyce had written years earlier, before Ulysses was conceived of. It has little to do with Bloom, who in the transformed event is elsewhere in the building copying out the Keyes advertisement.

The exceptionally literate Stephen expounds grandiloquently with much nice detail his notions about William Shakespeare's dark play Hamlet with a group of Dublin intellectuals — the urbane Quaker librarian Thomas W. Lyster, the writer George Russell (“AE”), John Eglinton (in real life W. K. Magee), editor of the magazine Dana and a member of the library staff, and, lastly, the assistant librarian Richard I. Best. Best is avowedly an accomplished Celtic scholar.k2

Young Stephen, who has been drinking in two different pubs since we last encountered him in the newspaper office (“three drams of usquebaugh you drank”), and who is to go on in a similar liquid vein for the rest of the day, is seeking to persuade his listeners of the veracity of his (frankly ludicrous) hypothesis that Shakespeare's older wife Ann Hathaway was a seductress and an incestuous adulteress, and that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as a result of her infidelities.

At a certain point, the rotund court jester Buck Mulligan puts in an appearance (he is searching for Haines, who, like Elvis, has just left the building) and, after some more gay mockery and intellectual sparring, Stephen and he follow suit. Stephen has avoided the promised earlier meeting at the Ship, sending instead an unoriginal telegram (“the sentimentalist …” &c). Mulligan and Haines had, meanwhile, visited the Abbey Theatre before waiting in vain for him in the bar, their tongues hanging out with the proverbial drought.

Lyster spends most of the time fluttering moth-like to-and-fro about the building on library business. His domain, the domed library building, is viewed as a vaulted skull crammed with book-stored memories: the coffined thoughts of thousands. It also perhaps puts one in mind of Shakespeare's London Globe theatre that Stephen casually conjures up.

Bloom has arrived from the Museum where his investigations into the delicate private-part anatomy of the statues of the goddesses there (their anuses) had been observed by the keen-eyed Mulligan. As Mulligan and Stephen leave the portico, politely standing aside, a dark back passes them on its furtive way out by the gateway: it is he, the keyed-up and keyless Bloom.


The Rock = Aristotle, Dogma, Stratford
The Whirlpool = Plato, Mysticism, London
Ulysses = Socrates, Jesus, Shakespeare
National Library = Perils
Stephen = Telemachus

In Joyce's revisioning, we find the perils of Scylla and Charybdis (one proverbially scarcely less lethal than the other) re-posed as the dialectical opposition of two philosophic positions: the Platonic and the Aristotelian; that is to say, the pure idealist and the matter-realist.

It is Stephen and not Bloom (Telemachus and not Odysseus) who grapples here with these issues. Other dichotomies addressed are those of Stratford and London, youth and maturity, scholasticism and mysticism. Odysseus is represented, according to the schema, by a triad of Socrates, Jesus, and Shakespeare.

The wind-swept cliffs are cast as the rooms of the National Library in Kildare Street. Here Stephen expostulates on his strange theory of Hamlet to a small covey of intellectuals. Bloom pops in, through a side door, as it were, as he inoffensively pursues his advertising business. As he leaves the library, he humanises Odysseus' mariner's plight, passing out the library doors as he does, unscathed, between Stephen and Mulligan.

THE ODYSSEY, 12 (Scylla and Charybdis)

The Crew
Setting: Sea by cliffs

Two forces now threaten the Greek ship as the homeward-bound mariners navigate a strait. On one side lies a high and sheer cliff, capped by a blue fog that never clears, a smooth cliff with sides impossible for a man to scale. There, in the centre, in a dark cave facing west towards Erebus, dwells yelping Skylla, daughter of Phorcys:k3 a foul monster immersed to her waist, with twelve flailing legs and six spindle-like necks, each ending in a head with triple rows of sharp, fish-like and close-set teeth, while her loins are girdled by the baying heads of dogs. Stretching outward, she feeds on dolphins, seals and men. On the side opposite to her is a lower cliff where grows a great densely-foliaged fig-tree, and under this dome dwells gurgling Charybdis. She swallows the black water thrice daily and thrice spews it forth in an uncontrollable vortex.k4

And into this narrow strait of demons sail the Achaeans in their ship and the wild waves rip the oars from their hands. Odysseus, keeping calm, orders his steersman to hug the high cliff and bypass the gaping hole of loss of Charybdis on which they all gaze in terror and from which no ship can hope to escape. Even so, as they gaze at the whirlpool, Skylla stretches forth from behind them and plucks from their bench six of the crew, and no sight is more pitiable than her devouring these men. The sailors, driven by fear and loathing, with frantic effort steer the boat past the cliff and pass out of immediate danger.