Episode 17

A brief guide to “Ithaca”

Prepared by Danis Rose

2021 edition Ulysses pages 736-821
2017 edition Ulysses pages 609-673
1922 edition Ulysses pages [619]-689

Friday 17 June, 1904: 2.00to 2.45 a.m., No. 7, Eccles street

[Ithaca is] the ugly duckling of the book and therefore, I suppose, my favourites1


TITLE and SENSE: Ithaca. The Armed Hope.
SCENE: The House
HOUR: 2 p.m.
ORGAN: Skeleton
ART: Science
SYMBOL: Comets
TECHNIC: Catechism (impersonal)

Stephen and Bloom, having vacated the cabman's shelter deep in animated dialogue, make their common way across the city to Bloom's house, where he (keyless), having effected entry via a basement door, provides the young poet with a restorative cup of Epps' cocoa. At parting, an invitation to stay the night being declined by Stephen, they step out into the garden to urinate, as it happens man to man, in the proximate dawn. While outside they witness a mundane event, a lamp being lit in a window (Molly's), and a celestial phenomenon, a shooting star falling from Vega in the Lyre beyond the Tress of Berenice towards the constellation of Leo. Stephen then strides off into oblivion, down a lane.

Bloom then re-enters his unloved abode, and, after due preparation and divestiture, solicitously enters the marital bed pre-occupied and warmed by a recumbent, redolent, plump, female figure. Tired, after much wandering and some venery, after his wife's brief sleepy interrogation regarding the events of his long day, he falls into a deep slumber.

The direct route Bloom and Stephen take in traversing the city is specified. Starting from Beresford Place, the pair walk along Lower and Middle Gardiner Streets and Mountjoy Square, West; then, bearing left, along Gardiner's Place (by an inadvertence as far as the farther corner of Temple Street); then, occasionally pausing to permit their discourse, bearing right along Temple Street, North, they travel as far as Hardwicke Place and thence debouch into Eccles Street.

The style of Ithaca, a catechism of short questions and, as often as not, absurdly inflated answers, is, in a sense, beautiful in its austerity.s2

Its literary mastery aside, the episode masks Joyce's striving to fit the narrative into a kind of quasi-propositional straitjacket. When one examines his notes for the episode, one is astounded at the formalism of many: short notes appropriate for a primer on algebra, say, or trigonometry. That he was (apparently to his satisfaction) able to expand these root ideas into sensible sentences, bearing no relation whatsoever to the original beyond a vague imagined resonance, is remarkable. This involved not merely the untypical use of specific terminology (e.g., “homothetic”), but of concepts (e.g., of triangles lying on the same line and same side of it, or on the same base and between the same parallels) which he twisted to make them as congruent as he could in their new setting (in the example, we find Bloom and Stephen taking leave of one another, less as men or heavenly bodies than as triangles: “Standing perpendicular at the same door and on different sides of its base, the lines of their valedictory arms meeting at any point and forming any angle less than the sum of two right angles”). The resulting text is complex and (possibly) impossible fully to unpack back into its scientific origins, and requires close reading.

Writing to Budgen (Letters I, 159f), Joyce commented:

I am writing Ithaca in the form of a mathematical catechism. All events are resolved into their cosmic physical, psychical etc. equivalents, e.g. Bloom jumping down into the area, drawing water from the tap, the micturition in the garden, the cone of incense, lighted candle and statue so that not only will the reader know everything and know it in the baldest coldest way, but Bloom and Stephen thereby become heavenly bodies, wanderers like the stars at which they gaze.

The particularity of the “impersonal” style allowed Joyce to detail the most intimate details of Bloom's life (as he imagined it) that would otherwise be difficult to fit into the narrative. This greatly aided the verisimilitude of the portrait he was painting. Also, in the famous Budget of the Day that he includes, we find the novel essentially in miniature, sublimated, with, moreover, fine details not otherwise related.


Suitors = Scruples
Bow = Reason (Logos)
Bloom = Odysseus
Stephen = Telemachus
Boylan = Eurymachus
Molly = Penelope
7 Eccles Street = Ithaca

There does not seem at first glance to be a discernible parallel between the Homeric and the Joycean models for the Ithaca episode.

Joyce felt the difficulty, finding the blood-bespattered scene rather distasteful. In the end, searching around for a solution, he chose to represent the slaughter with Bloom's ultimate (and passive) recognition and self-admission of the inconsequence, in the light of greater tragedies such as earthquakes, famines, drought and suchlike matters of true import, of adultery and adulterers. Molly's lovers, real, imagined, and proposed, he consigns to oblivion by their rational reduction to zero.

There are some small correspondences here and there, difficult to pinpoint but definitely there. The hanging of the debauchees of the court, surely an over-reaction to an everyday matter, is to be found, symbolically, in the articles of linen that Molly leaves hanging on a line in the kitchen for all to see. The incident of the dog in the night, pining to death once it glimpses its old master, gives rise to the relationship between Bloom's father (find Odysseus' Laertes) and his good dog, Athos. The dog's well-being is uppermost in the old man's mind even as he contemplates suicide. Lastly, like Odysseus, Bloom has a scar or cicatrix. His is from the recent sting of a bee.

While the slaughter – and slaughter it is – is going on, Penelope is upstairs out of earshot, soundly, profoundly asleep, and well out of harm's way. Only later (in the final Od. 24) does Odysseus go up to her and reveal who he is. Even then this is not before she has tested him by having him describe the making of their bridal bed. Why should she take this man to be her husband? This sequestration of the female can be found in Joyce also. Molly is in bed upstairs, if not yet asleep, while below in the kitchen the two men, Bloom and Stephen, Jew and gentile converse.

As for the Blooms' jingly bed, it too has a particular history, having been bought at an auction in Gibraltar from old Cohen by Molly's father. It has seen better days, in all senses of the phrase.

THE ODYSSEY, 16-23 (Ithaca)

Many others
Setting: Odysseus' Palace at Ithaca

On his arrival in disguise at the palace Odysseus is recognized only by his faithful dog, Argus, lying outside the doors in a puddle of mule- and cattle-dung, plagued by ticks. The poor dog has a moment of joy on recognition, then succumbs to its senility.

Odysseus enters the banqueting hall to beg for something to eat while he evaluates the situation and is immediately abused by Antinoos. A genuine beggar by the door, the pauper Irus, takes him to be a rival and threatens him. Delighting in this argument between the two beggars, the suitors propose a boxing-match between the pair of them, offering a huge black pudding and a seat at the table as a prize to the winner.

Cornered so, Odysseus exposes and flexes his sinewy thighs. This show impresses the audience, but alarms Irus; he cannot, however, now back out of the proposed fight. So they go at each other and Odysseus effortlessly thrashes Irus. A further confrontation, with Eurymachos,s3 ensues but calm is restored by Amphinomos, who advises everyone to go to bed and sleep off their contentions; for tomorrow is another day. And this they do, shuffling off to sleep off the wine they have imbibed and the food they have gorged.

Once the hall is deserted, Odysseus and Telemachos remove all weapons, putting them out of reach. Odysseus then goes to Penelope and pretends he is Aethon, brother to Idomeneos, a king of Crete, and he informs her of Odysseus' imminent return. She, meanwhile, orders her slave Eurycleia to take good care of this well-travelled beggar that bears such good tidings.s4 When in the exercise of this command the maid washes his feet, she recognizes the scar from a boar's tusk that he still bears on his thigh.s5 She knows it is he: Odysseus. But, wishing to keep his identity unknown, he binds her to silence on pain of instant death.

The next day, Penelope decides on a test of skill, the victor to take her in marriage. Twelve grey iron axes are set up in a trench, and their rings aligned.s6 Each man, using Odysseus' own curving bow, given to him by Iphitus, son to Eurytus, in Lacedaemon in Messeniais, is to try to shoot an arrow through all of the rings at once.

All fail even to string the bow, much less shoot straight. Odysseus intervenes and proposes that he himself try. The nobles are much put out by this, fearing disgrace if a mere beggar should succeed where they failed; but they are persuaded to allow him. Penelope, meanwhile, is peremptorily ordered to her bed chamber by her son, Telemachos.

Examining minutely the bow to assess its condition and satisfied that it is as it should be, Odysseus, while still seated, draws the string with ease and looses the feathered arrow: and it passes cleanly through all twelve of the rings. At this triumph, the thunder sounds.

Hearing it as an omen, Odysseus rips off his rags and, naked, turns the bow and, without warning, shoots an arrow directly through Antinoos' neck. With a gurgling outflow of blood he drops dead where he sits drinking. And next pitiless Odysseus slays Eurylochos. Telemachos, not to be left out of the fray, spears Amphinomus from behind, and the unsuspecting victim pitches forward and his forehead smacks mortally against the ground.

The suitors are quickly confused and scramble for their weapons. Melanthios finds some armour for them. As he is about helping the suitors, Odysseus and Telemachos surprise him and hoist him up towards the ceiling, trussed like a goose. Athene meanwhile assumes the body of a swallow and, flying to a roof-beam, perches and surveys the spectacle beneath.

Telemachos next slays Euxades, and Odysseus, aided by the shepherd and the cowherd Philoetius, wades in with sword and lance and kills yet others, pitilessly, one by one.

With all the enemy dead, Odysseus orders the twelve faithless slaves, fingered by Eurycleia, to carry the corpses out, wash down the blood-splattered tables and chairs, burn sulphur, and perform other manners of cleansing. Having finished this grisly task, they are taken out by Telemachos into the courtyard and hanged there, strung together in a line, their feet twitching. Only now is Melanthios lowered from the beam and tortured unmercifully: his nose and ears are cut away, his genitals are ripped out and tossed as gobbets for the dogs, and his hands and feet are lopped off, so unforgiving is the man of sorrows and of troubles, from Ilion returned.

The dark deed done, Odysseus fumigates the hall of slaughter and every room.