Episode 14

A brief guide to “Oxen of the Sun”

Prepared by Danis Rose

2021 edition Ulysses pages 426-475
2017 edition Ulysses pages 341-379
1922 edition Ulysses pages [366]-407

Thursday 16 June, 1904: 10.00 to 11.00 p.m., National Maternity Hospital, Holles street.

[Oxen] cost me 1,000 hours of work I calculatep1


TITLE and SENSE: Oxen of the Sun. The Eternal Flocks.
SCENE: The Hospital
HOUR: 10 p.m.
ART: Medecine
SYMBOL: Mothers
TECHNIC: Embryonic development

Bloom comes to the maternity hospital in Holles Street (opened in 1894 under the mastership of Dr Andrew Horne) to enquire after the well-being of an acquaintance, Mrs Mina Purefoy, who is three days overdue. He has left Sandymount Strand and returned to the city on the Sandymount (Haddington Road) tram, which in 1904 stopped quite close to the main entrance of the hospital. He had earlier (in Nausicaa) decided to call at the hospital: “Mrs Beaufoy, Purefoy. Must call to the hospital. Wonder is Nurse Callan there still. She used to look over some nights when Molly was in the Coffee Palace. That young Doctor O'Hare I noticed her brushing his coat. And Mrs Breen and Mrs Dignam once like that too, marriageable.”,p2

As he arrives at the door, opened to him by Nurse Callan, lightning flashes. (Later in the episode, a thunderclap frightens Stephen.) On entering, he is invited by a student, Dixon, to join him and his friends inside for a drink. The group includes Stephen Dedalus, Francis “Punch” Costello, the Scottish medical student J. Crotthers, and some others.

Buck Mulligan joins the group at a certain point in the company of Alec Bannon (who, it transpires, is lecherously courting Milly Bloom in Mullingar, having come thither from a soirée at George Moore's establishment at 4 Upper Ely Place. Haines also calls, albeit momentarily, to remind Mulligan of their agreement to rendezvous at Westland Row railway station at 11.10 p.m. Haines poking his head through a curtain “coincides” (in Joyce's scheme of things) with the emergence of the head of the foetus.

During the episode, Mrs Purefoy gives birth to a boy, the skill and patience of the physician having brought about a happy accouchement. As the episode ends, the young men debouch from the hospital and head off for (more) drink in Burke's, a nearby pub. (In 1904 Burke's was located at the corner of Holles Street and Denzille Street.)

After two rounds at Burke's, paid for by Stephen – the first comprising a glass of absinthe (for Stephen), two whiskeys, two pints of Guinness, five pints of Bass's No. I Ale, and a ginger cordial (for Bloom); the second, all absinthes and, for Bloom, a glass of wine – Stephen and the dung-devouring Lynch, a kind of social parasite, head off for Westland Row railway station to board a train to Amiens Street station on their way to the kips.

Bloom, unhappy at the prospect of returning home just yet, decides to follow Stephen in order to keep a paternal, if not maternal, eye on him. From Burke's, the party would have walked down Holles Street, Denzille Lane, Fenian Street, and Westland Row. At the intersection of Fenian Street and Merrion Street lower, Stephen and Lynch (and Bloom, in pursuit) pass Merrion Hall with its (then as now) high-key exhortations to seek salvation in King Jesus.

This episode is notoriously difficult to read owing to its complex and erratic, often periphrastic style, designed to track the evolution of the English language from its origins to its ultimate expression as current (1904) slang. It was also designed (within what is practical) to track the embryonic genesis of the foetus from inception to birth, with the placenta (in this metaphor) represented by the rich, semi-amorphous, all-nourishing slang. Joyce also involved the characters as part of the foetal development. Bloom at the hospital door doubles as an engorged penis awaiting invagination (he “infares under her thatch”) with its ejaculation depicted as the doffing of his hat. Nurse Callan dreads the lightning because “electric discharge kills sperm” (Ox [sheet] 10.54). This attempt to use the text to convey sexual imagery, however far-fetched it is, runs on through the episode and down to the noisy moment-of-birth push of the drunken students into the Dublin street to breathe the fresh air “impregnated with raindew moisture”.

Joyce drafted the episode in ten sections, working on each at a time, reading such authors (generally in anthologies) as he believed suited the ‘period’ of the section, taking notes from these sources and, using these as basic building blocks, ‘constructing’ a narrative that pushed (if feebly) the story of Bloom and Stephen on. Clearly, insofar as he also wished to incorporate a parallel to the Homeric model, the whole thing got a little tangled: it simply was not possible for a single linear text to carry what Joyce strove to load onto it. What can one say? Joyce did his best. It is a matter of one's taste in literature whether the result is seen as a work of genius, or as a kind of monstrosity.

Joyce's own (“how's that for high!”) comments on Oxen are instructive:

Am working hard on Oxen of the Sun, the idea being the crime committed against fecundity by sterilizing the act of coition. Scene, lying-in hospital. Technique: a nine-parted episode without divisions introduced by a Sallustian-Tacitean prelude (the unfertilized ovum), then by way of earliest English alliterative and monosyllabic and Anglo-Saxon (‘Before born babe had bliss. Within the womb he won worship. / Bloom dull dreamy heard: in held hat stony staring’) then by way of Mandeville (‘there came forth a scholar of medicine that men clepen etc’) then Mallory's Morte d'Arthur (‘but that franklin Lenehan was prompt ever to pour them so that at the very least way mirth should not lack’), then the Elizabethan chronicle style (‘about that present time young Stephen filled all cups’), then a passage solemn as of Milton, Taylor, Hooker, followed by a choppy Latin-gossipy bit, style of Burton-Browne, then a passage Bunyanesque (‘the reason was that in the way he fell in with a certain whore whose name she said is Bird in the hand’) after a diary-style bit Pepys-Evelyn (‘Bloom sitting snug with a party of wags. Among then Dixon jun., Ja. Lynch, Doc. Madden and Stephen D. for a languor he had before and was now better, he having dreamed tonight a strange fancy and Mistress Purefoy there to be delivered, poor body, two days past her time and the midwives hard put to it, God send her quick issue’) and so on through Defoe-Swift and Steele-Addison-Sterne and Landon-Pater-Newman until it ends in a frightful jumble of Pidgin English, nigger English, Cockney, Irish, Bowery slang and broken doggerel. This progression is also linked back at each part subtly with some foregoing episode of the day and, besides this, with the natural stages of development in the embryo and the periods of faunal evolution in general. The double-thudding Anglo-Saxon motive recurs from time to time (‘Loth to move from Horne's house’) to give the sense of the hoofs of oxen. Bloom is the spermatozoon, the hospital the womb, the nurse the ovum, Stephen the embryo.

Frank Budgen, to whom he addressed these remarks, could only marvel at Joyce's “prodigious memory”. We can, by way of contrast, trace rather exactly Joyce's painstaking compilation of notes from anthologies and other source texts and (via the early drafts) his laborious stitching together of these to induce a mood or ambience to suggest the presence of such and such a writer.

As for the multiple processes Joyce hints at, they are very imperfectly and incompletely achieved. At points the correspondences are plain, as in the table where the revellers sit (representing a womb), with Stephen being placed at the bottom (the position of the entering sperm), or the tin of sardines (foetus in womb); others are difficult to identify, for example Joyce's transferred note “womb, 1st dense then spongy, ovum sticks”. The reader is invited to search.

The stated desire to link the different parts of Oxen with the earlier episodes does not seem to have been realized outside the transferral of some of his notes from place to place prior to composing the episode.


Lying-in (maternity) Hospital = Thrinacia
Nurse Callan = Lampetie
Nurse Quigley = Phaethusa .
Helios = Horne
Oxen = Fertility
Crime = Fraud
Bloom = Odysseus .

The broad strokes of Joyce's reframing of the saga of the slaughter of the sacred cattle are these.

The Homeric isle, Thrinaciap3 is re-imagined as the lying-in hospital of Holles Street in Dublin, under the (joint) rule of master Dr Alexander J. Horne (Helios), aided in particular by two nurses, nurse Callan and nurse Quigley (Lampetia and Phaethusa).p4

The sacred cattle are symbolised by fertility, and their slaughter by the frustration of fecundation whether by instrument or action (contraceptive, abortion, infanticide). The mariners are cast as the students, Stephen included. These promote “copulation without population” - sex for its own sake.

Driven by a stark ruth of man, Bloom arrives at the hospital to inquire after the well-being of an acquaintance, Mrs Mina Purefoy. He has been told earlier in the day that she is having a hard time of it in giving birth. (She delivers a child while he is still in the hospital.) While he is, in a sense, and remains, isolated and insulated, like Odysseus he is carried along by the camaraderie of his companions, and is in the end is sucked along in their wake.

More hidden are other correspondences. The lightning that ultimately causes the ruination of the Greek ship strikes also in Oxen. The Homeric thunder also sounds, and the ominous clouds gather in thick swollen masses above Dublin. Odysseus' temporary absence from his companions (to pray for divine guidance) is mirrored in Bloom's trance-like revery as he gazes upon the label on a bottle of Bass.

The self-seeking arguments of Eurylochus to commit the proscribed deed in defiance of Helios resurface here as the arguments of the students in favour of licentiousness and impiety, even as they sit in a sanctuary for expectant mothers.

Lastly, the whirlpool which Odysseus ultimately escapes gives rise to the whirlpool of language (slang) with which the episode concludes.

THE ODYSSEY, 12 (Oxen of the Sun)

Eurylochos (crewman)
Helios (the Sun God)
Lampetia (shepherdess)
Setting: Island of the Sun God, The Whirlpool

Leaving astern the cliffs and the narrow sea lanes, as they draw nigh to the island sanctuary of Helios Hyperionp5 the mariners hear the far lowing of the deathless broad-browed cattle sacred to the god. Odysseus, remembering the words of the sorceress and the seer, advises his companions not to moor but to sail on; yet, to a man, they argue weariness and moor the ship for one night, each swearing to respect the inviolability of the beasts.

The Achaeans do not ship out when dawn breaks, as the weather is adverse, but draw the boat into the shelter of a flooded cave. For one month the winds continue, and the sailors consume what remains of Kirke's store, and, hunger-driven, hunt miserably along the shoreline with bent hooks for unpalatable fish.

Odysseus goes inland to pray and sleep overcomes him. Eurylochos, left behind, speaks out against the immiseration of starvation and urges his fellows to risk the wrath of the sun god and steal and roast his cattle. This they do, the spiral-horned beasts being pastured nearby. On his return the following day, Odysseus smells the roasting meats and despairs that all is now lost, perhaps even himself. And for six more days the seafarers devour the meat, while the very hides of the sacred beasts crawl about on the ground and the meat bellows while cooking on the spit and all about are heard the lamentations of cattle, as if out of the air: ominous portents all. Impervious to signs, the Greeks drive more of the cattle on board, as much as the ship can hold, and set sail regardless.

Lampetia of the trailing robes, who with her sister Phaethusa tends the sacred animals, goes to her father Helios and tells him of the desecration.p6

Helios warns the gods that if vengeance on the desecrators is not allowed him, he will abandon the earth to eternal darkness and shine instead in the underworld. Fearful of such calamity, Zeus chases the thick billowing cloud and thunders and with great bolts of lightning splits apart the fleeing ship; and the puny mariners fall away and are lost like seagulls to the churning sea.

Odysseus alone stands fast on the deck and with a rope of ox-hide lashes together the keel and a rudder, straddles the long spars and casts off. The wind changes to blow south and he is driven backwards to the hag's rock and the pool of loss. As his flimsy craft is swallowed by Charybdis, he leaps from it and clings to the lone overhanging fig-tree, grasping it until the swallowed splintered timbers are spewed out by the whirlpool. Dropping from his perch, he catches these and drifts on the water. For nine days so he drifts, without food or water, last of the wretched men that sacked proud Ilion, until at last the plashing waves push him onto the shore of the wood-clad island of Kalypso, Ogygia, where he is destined to remain for seven years.p7