“The Lotus Eaters”

by Ally Findley

Plot

The “Lotus Eaters” episode is the fifth episode in Ulysses, and one of the shortest chapters in the novel. In this episode, Bloom begins wandering through Dublin, on his way to Paddy Dignam’s funeral. It is a hot summer day, and the humidity perpetuates a mood of sluggishness. Bloom, in his black funeral clothes, undoubtedly feels the haze of the summer heat. While he walks, he watches and comments on the scenes he sees on the Dublin street, providing commentary on Joyce’s Dublin and characterizing Bloom through his free-flowing thoughts. He sees a young boy, smoking and waiting for his father outside of a bar 10am.

Bloom imagines the “Far East” where the hot weather causes them to “Sleep six months out of twelve. Too hot to quarrel. Influence of the climate. Lethargy. Flowers of idleness…Petals too tired to. Sleeping sickness in the air.” (5.33-36). He thinks of Molly, at home, sleeping.

Bloom stops at the post office, producing a card to receive mail for Henry Flower, a pseudonym he developed for an ad he placed in the paper, a thinly disguised solicitation for a lady to help a gentleman with literary work (Gifford reminds us of Bloom’s ad: “Wanted smart lady typist to aid gentleman in literary work”) (Gifford, 85). It’s clear that he and Martha have exchanged some raunchy correspondence, and that there was little pretense about the “literary work” which the so-called Henry Flower mentioned in his ad. In this letter, Martha chastises Bloom for his earlier letter (the contents of which are unclear, but her question “Are you not happy in your home you poor little naughty boy?” can give us a hint) (5.246-7). He pockets the letter, noting in passing that there is something else in the envelope. As he feels it through his pocket, he speculates: “photo perhaps. Hair? No.” (5.80-81).

After he stops at the post office, he runs into his friend, C.P. McCoy, who asks Bloom about his mourning clothes. When Bloom reminds him it is because Paddy Dignam’s funeral is today, McCoy launches into a sentimental account of how he found out yesterday about Dignam’s death. As will become a pattern throughout the novel, Bloom’s thoughts wander during the conversation. Mostly ignoring McCoy, Bloom tries to catch sight of a woman’s stockings as she steps into a waiting car. Just at the critical moment (“Watch! Watch! Silk flash rich stockings white. Watch!”), his view is blocked by a passing tram, frustrating Bloom (5.130-1). He laments, “Lost it. Curse your noisy pugnose. Feels locked out of it. Paradise and the peri.” (5.132-3).

Bloom and McCoy briefly talk shop about their singing wives. Bloom seems dismissive of Mrs. McCoy’s singing, though he is outwardly polite. He prefers Molly’s deeper voice, thinking Mrs. McCoy a “reedy freckled soprano” with a voice “nice enough…for a little ballad. No guts in it.” (5.184-5). McCoy asks Bloom agree to put his name on the list at the funeral, because he doesn’t think he’ll be able to make it. He seems uneasy but is relieved when Bloom agrees – true to his word, Bloom does actually do this in “Hades,” the next episode.

After McCoy is gone, Bloom opens the letter from Martha (to “Henry Flower”) – he finds that the object Martha has enclosed in the envelope is a pressed flower, presumably a reference to his pseudonym (which resembles his real name, Bloom). Interestingly, he actually puts the flower in his front pocket. This is almost a passively active move. He is aware that she could be anyone, and that she could very well be walking down the street and recognize him by the flower, visible out of his front pocket (“Might just walk into her here.”) (5.222), although it is unclear if this would really be enough for her to recognize and approach him.

After this, seemingly more or less on a whim, Bloom enters the church and sits in on a Catholic Mass. He observes the service from a psychological/emotional/low-knowledge-level distance of a non-Catholic. He recognizes the tranquilizing quality of the service, remarking on a man falling asleep by the confession box. He draws a comparison between Dublin’s alcoholics and the churchgoers, both groups wanting to numb themselves from the pain and frustration of Dublin life, stemming from colonialism and a struggling economy.

After Mass, Bloom goes to pick up lotion for Molly from the chemist. He’s forgotten Molly’s prescription, but has the chemist search for it in his records. While he waits, he thinks about the chemicals he is surrounded by, the combined forces of all of the sedatives in the room, with which the chemist spends his days. He decides to come back later.

Bloom also pockets the lemon soap to come back and pay for it when he comes back. He never does this, although he does reference the soap in his pocket at several points later in Ulysses. After this point, it’s implied, he goes to the funeral and meets up with his fellow mourners, among them Martin Cunningham and Stephen’s father, Simon Dedalus. The events of the funeral are detailed in “Hades.”


Homeric Parallels

The section in the original Odyssey addressing the Lotus Eaters is fairly brief. (This chapter of Ulysses is similarly brief.) Odysseus recounts his struggles to Lord Alcinous, particularly leading up to the more involved tale of the Cyclops. This tale, then, forms the backdrop of Odysseus’s sufferings at the time when he meets the Cyclops, and in the time before he arrives in the kingdom of Lord Alcinous, at which point he tells this tale. Odysseus recounts of his men, having landed on the island of the Lotus Eaters:

They fell in, soon enough, with the Lotos Eaters,
who showed no will to do us harm, only
offering the sweet Lotos to our friends—
but those who ate this honeyed plant, the Lotos,
never cared to report, nor to return:
they longed to stay forever, browsing on
that native bloom, forgetful of their homeland.
(Homer, Book 9, Lines 98-104)

A foundational part of the Odyssey’s ethos is loyalty to one’s homeland and one’s family. Temptations, as well as nearly impassible obstacles, crop up throughout Odysseus’s journey which often make it seem easier or even preferable to give up and make a life somewhere else, rather than persevere in returning to Ithaca. Odysseus’s overpowering desire to go home and see his family inspires some of his most ingenious problem solving and valiant battles.

The evil of the Lotus Eaters, then, though they are hospitable and kind, is that Odysseus’s men turn “forgetful of their homeland,” for which they’ve fought and killed, and to which they are attempting to return. In his re-telling of the Lotus Eaters, Joyce seems to comment on the Irish, as well, as “forgetful of their homeland” – there is a sense of lost identity during this period of Irish history. The men are listless and often out of work. They have been colonized by the English and become absorbed in the conglomerate of the British Empire. This loss of identity, or ‘forgetfulness,’ manifests itself in this sense of aimless wandering – no one really seems to have a place to be, or to take their jobs seriously.

Similar to its presence in the Odyssey, this chapter of Ulysses is somewhat transitional: in “Calypso,” we are introduced to the sleepy allure of Molly, resting quietly and not speaking, yet shaping Bloom’s thoughts and actions for the rest of the novel. She hangs over the narration, potent with the infidelity that she will commit that afternoon and powerful in Bloom’s dread and apprehension. Bloom’s distractions from going home continue well into the night, as he procrastinates to avoid reckoning with his wife’s infidelity.


Fantasies and Floating Subconscious

Throughout the novel, we experience narrative working on different levels. While witnessing the narrative of the day’s events, the narration reporting what characters say or do weaves in and out of Bloom’s thoughts and his many distractions. Through the prism of Bloom’s observations and rich inner life, with near-constant and instantaneous reflection on what he observes, this chapter examines the idea of fantasy and suspension from reality.

The first and perhaps most blatant example is Bloom’s secret correspondence with Martha Clifford, via his pseudonym, Henry Flower. Rather than have an actual affair, Bloom prefers one of words and of possibility. The reality of an affair with Martha would be inevitably disappointing, Bloom reflects, and would be “as bad as a row with Molly.” (5.271-2). Bloom maintains his faithfulness to Molly, ultimately, while attempting to vent some of his sexual frustration from his marriage.

The idea of the affair is more appealing than its likely reality. In fact, the idea of the entire thing is to escape reality, not to alter the existing reality – its separation from reality is its purpose and the reason it can continue to exist. (Also, he still hopes to fix things with Molly, but is trying to be patient – which we find out later in “Penelope,” she doesn’t want him to be, and has been waiting for him to openly address the issues in their marriage.)

While talking to McCoy, Bloom pays little heed to his acquaintance’s words. He is watching for a view of a woman’s stockings which will flash as she climbs into a waiting car. The urgency with which Bloom watches for this moment speaks to the deprivation he is feeling, as well as his voyeuristic nature, which is another angle one can take on his constant observation. In a way, this moment with the stockings foreshadows the “Nausicaa” episode and Bloom’s voyeurism with Gerty.

Watch! Watch! Silk flash rich stockings white. Watch!
A heavy tramcar honking its gong slewed between.”
(5.130-1)

He is frustrated: “Lost it. Curse your noisy pugnose. Feels locked out of it. Paradise and the peri.” (5.132-3). Gifford explains of this line, “A catchphrase for ‘so near to paradise and yet prevented.’ The phrase is the title of an interpolated poem in Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, an Oriental Romance (1817).” (Gifford, 87). It refers, then, both to how close and yet how far Bloom is from the fulfillment of his fantasy, and also to Bloom’s infatuation with Orientalism which colors this episode as Bloom muses on the heat.

The line also evokes a sense of paradise and its periphery. Bloom feels like he is in purgatory, existing around the edges of differently imaged possibilities for his reality. This is particularly true in this chapter, but continues throughout the day that Ulysses spans– the slow, circuitous voyage home to avoid the consequences of a dissolving marriage – or, perhaps, to seek inspiration and return to face the music and reconcile. The paradise of reconciliation hovers just out of reach, as do the thousand other strands of tempting possibilities, like Martha, or the silk stockings.

Bloom contemplates an affair with Martha, deciding against consummating it, realizing that the reality of such an affair would be unsatisfying and make it even more difficult to reconcile with Molly. He thinks, “Could meet one Sunday after the rosary. Thank you: not having any. Usual love scrimmage. Then running round corners. Bad as a row with Molly. Cigar has a cooling effect. Narcotic.” (5.270-2). Bloom likes to imagine, rather than to act on fantasies (foreshadowing his encounter with Gerty in the “Nausicaa” episode). As Harry Blamires writes, “One should note that Bloom’s affair with Martha Clifford, now to be explored, is an inactive experiment in mental self-indulgence.” (Blamires, 25).

Similarly, Joyce and Bloom seem to suggest that these little escapes from reality are what make life bearable. Throughout the day, Bloom avoids going home, distracting himself and taking wide, looping routes around Dublin to avoid thinking about and openly confronting his wife’s affair. Ulysses, the odyssey of a day, reflects on the little things we do to help us get through life. Bloom daydreams, imagines the Dead Sea and the Orient, mentally escaping the drudgery with his imagination.

It seems, as we experience his thoughts, that we are hovering just above his subconscious. In the narration style, we see these creep in (intrusive thoughts about Molly and their marital problems, her likely affair with Boylan), but he always has some scene that he’s imagining, or remembering, or some larger problem in society, technology, or business that he is trying to work out. In this episode, for example, he tries to recall what his physics teacher in high school taught them about Archimedes’ Law, to scientifically muse on the Dead Sea as a part of his Far East fantasy.

This episode, and the previous one, are good for setting up Bloom as a character, situating him as an observer and a dreamer, always a degree removed socially, but invested emotionally and mentally in the fabric of Dublin.

 

In this chapter, some of the repeating phrases that cycle through Ulysses are introduced: “What is home without Plumtree’s Potted Meat? Incomplete. With it an abode of bliss?” (5.144-7). This ad and variations of it recur in Bloom’s stream of consciousness throughout the text. The nonsense song on one of the first pages, “tooraloom, tooraloom, tay” is also repeated on and off throughout Ulysses.

In addition to the cyclical thoughts, generally more trivial or innocuous, Bloom’s subconscious continually introduces thoughts of a darker nature, before dismissing them. When thinking about the theater, he is reminded of his father’s love for the theater, which makes him think of his father’s suicide: “Poor papa! Poor man! I’m glad I didn’t go into the room to look at his face. That day! O, dear! Ffoo! Well, perhaps it was best for him.” (5.207-9). His father’s suicide, his son Rudy’s premature death, and Molly’s affair cycle painfully through his thoughts, often in short, anxious sentences. The reader can feel Bloom’s resistance to fully indulge the thoughts, and his willingness to be distracted by what he observes externally.

Even so early in the novel (still just 10am on Bloom’s long, long day), we see his fantasy of home-coming and reconciliation with Molly, dream-like as he projects it through his Far East musings (Molly’s foreign-ness, the Spanish side of her, explains in part his foreign fantasies, or perhaps her foreignness is part of what seems to draw him to her). He imagines his return as “She listens with big dark soft eyes. Tell her: more and more: all. Then a sigh: silence. Long long long rest.” (5.298-9). He basks in the fantasy of the journey’s end: “Just loll there: quiet dusk: let everything rip. Forget. Tell about places you have been, strange customs.” (5.292-4).

This passage also corresponds to what is happening in the Odyssey at this point – in the Lotus Eaters section, Odysseus is recounting strange things he’s seen, not experiencing them in ‘real-time’ so to speak. We retroactively experience them as he tells his tale in Alcinous’s court.


Lethargy and Sedatives in “The Lotus Eaters”

One of the most consistent qualities of turn of the century Dublin, as depicted by Joyce, is its stagnation. Its men are frustrated, often out of work, and feeling disenfranchised and emasculated by British colonialism. (The Citizen in “Cyclops” and his fellow bar patrons are great examples of this.) In this episode, this stagnation is enacted through stifling humidity. We are shown all the ways which Dublin has tried to anesthetize itself from this frustration and pain.

The heat of this chapter is palpable in its hazy, humid language: “Mr Bloom turned his largelidded eyes with unhasty friendliness” (5.150). There is a drunken kind of sloshing of the chapter (even though all of the drinking in this novel comes later). Bloom thinks about the port being carried on the freight train:

“Barrels bumped in his head: dull porter slopped and churned inside. The bungholes sprang open and a huge dull flood leaked out, flowing together, winding through mudflats all over the level land, a lazy pooling swirl of liquor bearing along wideleaved flowers of its froth.”
(5.314-7)

The floral language, as well, seems to gesture at this chapter’s Odyssean parallel. This warm, humid stupefaction of Dublin recalls the tropical world of the Lotus Eaters.

Bloom, in his detachment in creed and tradition, also observes the Mass from an emotional distance. The Church, which Marx once described as “the opiate of the masses,” here provides the opiate of the Mass. Bloom describes the image of an “Old fellow asleep near that confessionbox. Hence all the snores. Blind faith. Safe in the arms of kingdom come. Lulls all pain. Wake this time next year.” (5.366-8)

Bloom notes the similarities between alcoholism of Dublin and the communion – he says the wine “Makes it more aristocratic than for example if he drank what they are used to Guinness’s porter or some temperance beverage” (5.387-8). Both are a means of numbing pain and perhaps escaping the drudgery of life in some sort of transcendent feeling — and both are literally alcohol, although taking Communion is a far cry from binge drinking. This episode examines the means of numbing or abstracting oneself from hard, physical reality.

This exploration of religion, and more specifically Irish Catholicism, from a detached vantage point is characteristic of Joyce’s work, and more broadly of modernist literature. While many would argue that this detachment is a result of secularization (what Pericles Lewis refers to as the “secularization hypothesis”), in fact, it seems as though it is less that the churches have lost all sacredness, and more that the spiritual need which the church is designed to fill has been re-conceptualized. Lewis writes, in his essay on “Church Going in the Modern Novel,” that “The modernists’ attempts to describe forms of experience that would traditionally have been called “religious” reflects a blurring of the lines between the sacred and the profane. Precisely as the modernists turn away from institutional religion, they seek forms of sacredness and possibilities of ritual in the profane world.” (Lewis, 671). Therefore, Bloom appreciates the Catholic Mass he observes for its communal and spiritually soothing properties, even while sacrilegiously comparing the wine to “Guiness’s porter,” and drawing a line from the soothing Mass to the way others in Dublin have turned to drink — perhaps for similar reasons to those who find comfort in the Mass and cling to their religion for solace.

Later, Bloom visits the chemist to pick up lotion for Molly. He thinks about the role of drugs in separating those who take them from reality, and reflects on the role of the chemist who sells them:

“The alchemists. Drugs age you after mental excitement. Lethargy then…Living all the day among herbs, ointments, disinfectants…Enough stuff here to chloroform you…Chloroform. Overdose of laudanum. Sleeping draughts.”
(5.474-82)

He seems to further connect these drugs to the Mass, and to the alcoholism, in the sense that they provide a means of detaching from reality. He also connects them to the overall sense of drowsiness that pervades the chapter and connects to the Homeric parallel of the Lotus Eaters.

The chapter closes with Bloom imagining himself floating in the bath, referring, at the end to his phallic “flower” lazing in the bath (this also references back to his letters to Martha and his pseudonym, Henry Flower, and perhaps is a cheeky nod at this and the Lotus Eaters parallel). After he leaves the chemist’s shop (and this daydream) behind, the chapter ends. The next chapter, “Hades,” begins with him getting into the carriage with Martin Cunningham, Simon Dedalus, and company, to go to Paddy Dignam’s funeral.


Conclusion

The style of narration in the “Lotus Eaters” weaves consciousness and subconscious together without a clear separation of characters, with their thoughts and reflections, and the hovering narrator, with his observations and reflections on characters and events. This complex web of narration is one of the distinguishing factors of Ulysses, and one of the reasons why it is such a revolutionary novel. In showing distinctly the split levels of Bloom’s consciousness, the narration achieves a new kind of complexity, rotating around and diving in and out of the different levels of his psyche –those acknowledged, unacknowledged, and those he attempts, without fail, to suppress.

We, as readers, relate to Bloom, his preoccupations, and his distractions. Throughout the novel, there are these small mundane moments in which Bloom proves himself endearingly human: he finds the top buttons of his trousers are undone, accidentally steals soap, and doesn’t fully pay attention to people when they are talking to him.

Ulysses, in many ways, is about the little ways we find solace and cope just to get through the day. It’s a long day, but Bloom gets through it in the end. We don’t know what will happen afterward: will he confront Molly about her infidelity? Will they reconcile? What will happen to Stephen? Will he take Bloom’s advice? Will Bloom’s intervention with Stephen make a difference in Stephen’s life? Yet despite these factual uncertainties, we know that Bloom has reached the end of this day, and that he ultimately arrives home, safe and sound. Later, in “Scylla and Charybdis,” Stephen echoes this sentiment: “Every life is many days, day after day.” (9.1043-4).

Bloom’s active imagination, showcased in this chapter, allows him to abstract himself from his present reality. This turns out to be a valuable survival skill as his subconscious creeps in and he repeatedly forces it down – eventually, he will have to deal with this, and perhaps, eventually, it would be healthier to deal with these issues directly. But engagement with his consciousness and his watchfulness of the world around him proves kinder than Bloom’s subconscious does, and, like the ‘opiate’ of the mass, or the wares of the alchemist, Bloom’s little distractions spare him from reckoning with harsher realities for a while.

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