Episode 15

A brief guide to “Circe”

Prepared by Danis Rose

2021 edition Ulysses pages 476-673
2017 edition Ulysses pages 380-560
1922 edition Ulysses pages [408]-565

Thursday 16 June, 1904: 11 p.m. to 12.00 midnight, Bella Cohen's, Tyrone street.


TITLE and SENSE: Circe. The Man-Hating Orc.
SCENE: The Brothel
HOUR: 12 midnight
ORGAN: Locomotor apparatus
ART: Magic
TECHNIC: Hallucination

Stephen and lecherous Lynch, with Leopold Bloom in dogged pursuit, pursued by dogs, visit a (for the former, oft-habituated) house of ill-repute in Dublin's then infamous “Night Town”: the premises of Joyce's Circe, Mrs Bella Cohen.

Despite the lurid setting, no overtly sexual scenes ensue. What occupies centre stage is rather a kind of drunken reel enacted to the strains of a pianola. It ends in the minor breakage of a lampshade, a hasty exchange of money owed, and a clumsy exit.

Circe has a peculiarly Irish connection. Joyce (or so he stated) decided in early June 1920 to return to Dublin for three months to write the episode and the close of the book.q1 Presumably he wished to write about an emotional pigsty while living in one. Besides, Bérard, the source of much of Joyce's knowledge of the Homeric background, mentions that Feronia, the goddess of fauves and the Italian counterpart to Circe, dwelt in a “pontine marsh” — as neat a description of Ireland as any. As it happened, Joyce never made it back to Dublin, but went to Paris.

Stephen approaches Mrs Cohen's brothel at 82 Lower Tyrone Streetq2 on foot, walking thence from Amiens Street station by way of Talbot Street and Mabbot Street.q3 Bloom lags behind. En route, he critically inspects his image in the convex mirror of Gillen's the hairdressers at 64, Talbot Street, steps into Antonio Rabaiotti's fish-and-chip establishment at No. 65 but decides against picking up a bag to eat. He next enters W. Olhausen's the pork-butcher's at No. 72 to purchase a pig's crubeen and a sheep's trotter.q4 At the intersection with Mabbot Street, he halts outside Thomas Cormack's pub, at No. 74, before dashing hazardously across the road and narrowly avoids being run over.

On leaving the brothel, Stephen, inebriated, and Bloom, solicitous of his well-being, make their way to the corner of Beaver Street, where, by the tenements, Stephen has a violent altercation with a duo of uncouth low-brow British soldiers, privates Carr and (“stick one into Jerry”) Compton, just back from taking a piss, in the company of a “shilling whore,” Cissy Caffrey.q5 Some members of the police-watch are drawn to the fracas but the police-informant, car- and hearse-driver Corny Kelleher, intervenes. Bloom, solicitous of the impropriety of the locale and of his presence there, steps in to assume responsibility for the mumbling, supine poet.

The episode's composition was unusually protracted and grew greatly in length and specificity as Joyce composed it. He described the style or technique of Circe as “vision animated to bursting point” and, elsewhere, as “hallucination”. He had hoped that its jerkiness and instability mirrored the condition of locomotor ataxia, one of the physical effects of infection with syphilis. Much more so than in Oxen (which really doesn't), Circe echoes all of the preceding episodes and is, in a sense, a distillate of the universe of Ulysses. Many of the novel's protagonists put in a cameo appearance somewhere or other, mostly as elements in the various, highly comic and imaginative hallucinations. While the episode abounds in these, two “real” ghosts appear: those of Stephen's mother, only recently deceased, and Bloom's long-dead infant son.

Joyce wants us to take Mrs Cohen's “disorderly house” as one of the better-class ones, despite its open door, which, I am assured by my better-informed, is the hallmark of a right down-market whorehouse.

Historically, Dublin's far-famed brothels were divided into three general categories: first, second, and third class. The first-class houses catered for high-society types: aristocrats and the like, bishops (naturally), merchants with wads of money, and other such nefarious wretches. The middle-class joints were habituated by honest clerks, shop-assistants, warehousemen, businessmen and others of that stratum; while the third-class houses entertained the bottom-feeders of society: mechanics, apprentices, soldiers, and sailors. The first-class flash-houses were posh, well maintained and decorated, as would befit the clientele; the girls were all good-looking, closely supervised and lived in. The hall-doors were generally kept closed to keep out the riffraff. In the middle-class places the scene was somewhat seedier with little or no floor covering. The third-class kips, meanwhile, at the lowest end of the scale, made no pretense at sophistication: the good-time girls solicited passers-by with coarse whistles and calls from the steps with such savoir-faire, grace and allure as they could manage in the circumstances.

A cracking night out, naturally, then as now, was not to be had for nothing. In the flash-houses mere entry cost a minimum of ten shillings a skull; while a half-decent girl for the night couldn't be had for less than five pounds! Drink was criminally overpriced at five shillings for a threepenny glass of whiskey and three bob for a measly bottle of stout that could be had in a corner pub in the city for twopence.

The house income was typically divided equally between the madam, the manageress, and the working girls.

Bella Cohen, Joyce's man-hating Orc, was not fictitious and her maiden name was Bella. She ran her shop out of 82 Tyrone Street, lower, not (as cited in Circe) at No. 81.q6 No 81, in 1904, was rented by a Miss Callan. At one time in the late 1890s it housed a Midnight Mission set up by some Protestant clergymen with the fervent desire of reforming whores. Joyce's portrayal of the “massive whore-mistress” may borrow something from another well-known madam, Mrs Peggy Arnott. She ran the show at No. 83 and by repute was a fine figure of a woman herself. She lived in a large respectable house in Dublin and sent her daughter to a finishing-school in England. And all out of the takings from No. 83.

Annie Mack, for her part, at one stage operated no fewer than eight houses in the street, the principal one being No. 85. (Joyce relocates her to No. 82.) Nos. 86 and 87 were also brothels, and run by Mrs Meehan. All of the various madams were battle-hardened, bristled, middle-aged women retired from active bed service. Mrs Mack eventually moved on from procuring and tried her hand as a money-lender and costumier. She was immortalized in a fine poem:

There goes Mrs Mack,
She keeps a house of impudence.
She keeps an old back parlour
For us poxy medical students.

Joyce's whores do not seem to be modelled on any real-life prototypes. Zoë Higgins is English. Kitty Ricketts is a pale, bony, henna-red-headed thing, but better dressed than Zoë. In her navy costume and doe-skin gloves she is as smart as paint, if something of a weakling. Florry Tablet is the ugly sister of the family: a feeble, goose-fat whore with a ghastly mass of gold hair (courtesy of oxygenated water) and a particularly unappealing sore eye.q7

The song continues:

Italy's maids are fair to see
And France's maids are wilting.
But less expensive 'tis to me,
Becky's for a shilling.

Alas, neither of Mrs Mack's or Bella Cohen's much-frequented brothels survives. A nearby convent, at Nos. 68-80, where local prostitutes could find work at its laundry (St Mary's Penitent Retreat), in contrast, is still there. Two streets mentioned by Joyce — Purdon Street (between and parallel to Tyrone and Montgomery Streets) and the wonderfully named Faithful Place (a laneway opposite Mrs Cohen's) — have also disappeared into the bubbles in the air along with the prostitutes.


Bloom = Odysseus
Stephen = Telemachus
Bella Cohen = Circe
Potato = Moly
Brothel = Aeaea

The parallelism with the Homeric model is very direct. Bloom (Odysseus), progressing alone, visits and spends some time with some companions in a brothel (Circe's palace) run by the whore-mistress and man-hating ogress Bella Cohen (the sorceress Circe).

As Odysseus' companions are drugged for a period, an eerie hallucinogenic axis underlies the episode. It was written by Joyce to mimic the mental degeneration wrought by infection with syphilis. Bloom is protected from turning into a sexual beast (a pig) by his possession of an apotropaic (moly): a shrunken potato the size and shape of a large testicle, an heirloom given to him by his mother that he carries with him in his pocket as a good-luck charm. Even so, in the fantastic elaboration of his surreal apotheosis and vilification, he indulges in obscene transsexual rituals.

Less obvious are the themes of his near collision with a street car (the incident of the killing of the stag) and his purchasing of foodstuffs (Odysseus' division of the slain stag).

The inclusion of actual ghosts in the episode, those of Stephen's mother and Bloom's son Rudy, reflect the close relationship between the Circe and Hades adventures in Homer, episodes that are widely separated in Joyce. In Homer, Odysseus passes straight from Aeaea (sometimes Aiaia), the isle of hawks, to Hades. The grief-driven death of the hero's mother is pointedly present in both Homer and Joyce.

THE ODYSSEY, 10 (Circe)

Eurylochos (a Greek mariner)
Kirke (a goddess: daughter of the sun god Helios)
The Beasts
Elpenor (a Greek mariner)
Setting: Kirke's Palace

As narrated by Odysseus to his hosts.

The black ship sailed onward until it reached the shores of Aiaia, where dwells Kirke of the lovely tresses, the goddess with the human voice, sister to dark-minded Aeëtes, and daughter of Helios and Perse, daughter to the Ocean.q8

Calm were the waters of the harbour and calm the approach, and the sailors drew the long boat onto the sand and, exhausted from wandering, rested for the space of two days. On rising on the third day, Odysseus went to a high point, and saw smoke rising through the thick scrub and woodland from a wide clearing where lie Kirke's halls. On his return to the ship, a great stag, driven to the river by thirst, crossed his path. As it slaked its thirst in the fresh water, Odysseus struck it on the spine with his bronze spear, and the spear pierced the centre of its back and it fell dead upon the ground. Roping its feet with spliced willow and dragging it, too big for his back, Odysseus returned to his men with his trophy, and they set to and roasted it and, having gorged all day on the venison, slept again on the sand.

At dawn Odysseus rose and addressed his companions, admitting they were lost and the world full of cannibals and pirates, and he split his company into two groups, one led by Eurylochos and the other led by him. They drew lots and it fell to tearful Eurylochos to approach the polished halls of Kirke.

Reaching the house, where mountain lions and wolves walked in enchantment on their hind legs and pawed the ground like dogs, the Greeks heard Kirke singing within, and saw her weaving at a great loom. On hearing the intruders outside shout out, Kirke came to the entrance and invited them in and all did so except fearful Eurylochos, who lurked outside and spied. She gave each of her guests a brew of yellow honey and Pramnian wine, and cheese and barley, and, mixed into this, sorcerers' herbs. When they had swallowed this brew, she struck them with her wand and all were changed into swine, with bristles and hide and with the grunting, squealing voices of pigs, and she penned them there and then and fed them acorns, beech mast, and cornel fruit.

Eurylochos, who has witnessed all this, hurried back to Odysseus and, recomposing himself from his dread, related the strange fate of his companions. Odysseus decided to see for himself how matters stood and he made off. On the way, he met the messenger-god Hermes in the form of a young man. Hermes advised him to take a powerful antidote with him against Kirke's wicked potion. When she sees that he is unaffected by it, Odysseus must rush at her with his sword drawn, and she will then invite him to her bed and not harm him. But he must first make her swear to do him no more mischief. And, reaching down, Hermes pulled for him from the earth a plant with a black root and milk-white flowers, moly as it is called and difficult to extract.

Odysseus did as bid, and it was as Hermes foretold, and Kirke took him to her bed. Her four handmaidens busied themselves preparing the rooms and making a bath for Odysseus, and they washed and anointed him and dressed him in royal raiment and set before him food fit for a prince; but he refused to eat until his companions were restored as men. Kirke relented and, by her magic, turned them back into their former persons, but now better and younger than before.

Odysseus then went to the ship and called all his companions together. He advised them that it is a good place he had found, and they drew the boats upon the shore, and all, even reluctant Eurylochos, made their way to Kirke's home.

For a year it was thus, and only then, when the year had wheeled about, was Odysseus minded to leave. Kirke told him that he must first go the place of Hades, abode of dread Persephone, and speak with the Theban seer Teiresias and listen to his prophecies, as his was the sole substantial mind among the multitude of shadows in that infernal place. He is to sail to the groves of Persephone, where there is a rock where two roaring rivers join the Acheron: Cocytus, a tributary of the Styx, and Pyriphlegethon, and land there and, going ashore, to dig a trench two feet square and pour into it libations to the dead, first of milk and honey, then of sweet wine, then of water, and sprinkle over the space white barley meal. He is then to pray to the shades, swearing that when in Ithaca he will slay a heifer, the best of the herd, in their name and heap the altar, and he will offer a ram to Teiresias: the finest jet-black ram in his flock, and after promising this, he must slay a ram and a black ewe, holding their heads towards Erebus while looking backwards to the running streams. The hosts of the dead will then materialise. He is to call to his companions and have them kill with pitiless bronze and flay and burn the sheep and invoke with prayers Hades and dread Persephone, and he must draw his sword and sit by the pit, and prevent any ghost from drinking the pooled black blood, until he has first questioned Teiresias. These things he must do, as commanded by the gods.

Dawn rose and the Achaeans gathered by the boats where Kirke had tethered a black ewe and a ram; and with much bustling and activity they boarded the ships. Elpenor alone among them fails to board, as seeking to enjoy the coolness of the night air he had climbed a ladder to sleep on Kirke's roof; but in the morning in his haste to join the others, he toppled off the ladder and in the fall shattered his neck.

And, in their hurry to be off, the Achaeans left him as he was, unmourned, unburied.