Chapter five of James Joyce's Ulysses reflects the episode of the Lotus Eaters in Homer's Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Odysseus encounters people who seem harmless at first since they don't physically attack Odysseus or his men at all. These "Lotus Eaters" spend all day eating lotus, a flower,which is so delicious that anyone who eats it never wants to do anything else. When some of his men eat the lotus, they lose all desire to ever return home again, and Odysseus must drag them back to the ship. The lotus in literature can represent addiction to drugs (especially opium) or mindless pleasure, and a desire for peace and bliss at the expense of rigor and striving. The lotus is also associated with the Far East, especially with Buddhism, where it has religious significance.
The chapter begins with Leopold Bloom walking through Dublin. He sees two children, a boy and a girl, looking listless. The boy smokes a cigarette, and Bloom considers telling him to stop, but decides not to bother since after all, the boy's life "isn't such a bed of roses." Thus, Joyce immediately connects imagery of flowers ("a bed of roses") with the children's listlessness and Bloom's complacency. He idly remembers meeting his mistress in a park, but his thoughts are so unfocused that they drift off into a nonsense song "tooraloom tooraloom tay." Joyce associates Bloom's mistress with the lotus, indicating that his affair is a mindless escape for Bloom, not a great passion.
As he continues walking through Dublin, Bloom passes a tea company, and starts thinking about the Far East, the home of the lotus. He imagines it as "the garden of the world" a place where (in his imagination) "the air feeds most [people]" and there are "flowers of idleness." At last Bloom interrupts his reverie to go to the post office to see if his mistress has sent him a letter. She has, and it's addressed to "Henry Flowers" which appears to be his code name. Bloom's choice of the name "Henry Flowers" has significance. His real name, Bloom, is a word that means flower. The name "Henry" comes from the Germanic word for "home ruler" or "powerful ruler," and it's widely know as the name of many English kings. The name has a subtle political significance as well--the Irish did not yet have home rule, so they lacked a "Henry" of their own. Bloom longs to be the ruler of his own home, as the Irish long for home rule, which is why the name Henry appeals to him. Yet, the imagery of the lotus flower suggests that Bloom must stop being passive and idle is he's to reclaim his position as the head of his own home (just as Odysseus has to reject the Lotus Eaters and flee their land to make his way back to Ithaca).
As he leaves the post office, Bloom runs into an acquaintance, M'Coy, who he wants to escape quickly so he can read his mistress's letter. As he chats with M'Coy about a funeral for their mutual friend, Paddy Dignam, which takes place a 11am that day, Bloom watches a beautiful woman standing outside the Grosvenor. Even when talking about something as serious as death, his mind focuses on shallow pleasures. Yet, as the conversation turns towards the men's wives, Bloom thinks about Molly, imagining her at home, the "Queen in her bedroom eating bed and." If Bloom longs to be the ruler or king of his home, the quote about his wife as the Queen from the rhyme suggests that he longs for her to be at his side. Even worse, the ad he idly reads "What is a home without Plumtree's Potted Meat? Incomplete. With it an abode of bliss," rather vulgarly suggests his anxiety about her affair, and his longing for her. The passing pleasures of his affair might occupy him, but ultimately he wants his wife, and
Just as Odysseus longs to return home to his wife, Bloom ultimately wants to escape the Lotus Eaters and find his way back to a loving relationship with his wife.
Bloom escapes from the conversation with M'Coy, and glancing over the advertisement posters, he sees one for a play, Leah. It reminds him of Hamlet, in particular, "why Ophelia committed suicide." Joyce frequently refers to Hamlet in chapter one of Ulysses, where he compares Stephen Dedalus to Hamlet.
Yet, the play that has the most emotional resonance for Bloom is Mosenthal's Deborah (he mistakes it for Rachel), which his father loved. He remembers a line from the play about Nathan, "who left the house of his father to die of grief and misery in my arms, who left the house of his father and left the God of his father." He remembers his father telling him that "every word is so deep," and he sympathizes with him. Bloom's father, like the Nathan of the play, had left his Jewish faith and converted to Christianity. Bloom relates to Nathan as well--although his father converted, not him, Bloom still feels a connection to the Jewish faith. What's more, he couldn't bear to go into the room while his father was dying. This reluctance to comfort the dying and face death parallels Stephen Dedalus's reaction to his mother's death (referred to in chapter one). Just as Stephen refused to pray with his mother on her death bed, Bloom didn't see his father.
Bloom goes around the corner, passing some horses, and takes out the letter he's received from his mistress. He hums "La ci darem la mano," a line from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. In the opera, Don Giovanni sings this line as he seduces a peasant girl on her wedding day. Bloom singing it might indicate that his affair makes him feel as virile as the great lover, but it has a deep irony in that his own wife is also having an affair.
He opens the letter and inside he finds a dried yellow flower, another reference to the lotus. The letter itself is silly and shallow, but it makes Bloom think of the language of flowers as he revels in its illicit pleasure.
As Bloom continues walking through Dublin, his mind drifts towards alcohol and religion, two prominent "lotuses" of Ireland. He remembers a lord who made millions of pounds on porter, and he imagines all that alcohol flowing in a huge river, "a lazy pooling swirl of liquor bearing along wideleaved flowers of its froth." He steps into a church, All Hallows, where he sees a notice on the door about missionaries. He thinks about Eastern religions like Buddhism (in which the lotus is a scared symbol) where the Buddha is depicted "lying on his side" and "taking it easy with his hand under his cheek," and compares it to Christianity with its "crown of thorns and cross." Yet, as he watches a religious ceremony, he considers that using Latin is a good idea because it "stupefies them first." Thus, even Christianity, a religion built on striving and hardship in the name of God, has its numbing lotus-like rituals. He imagines the communion wafer is like a "lollipop."
Bloom leaves the church and goes to the chemist's (a pharmacy), where he orders some sweet-smelling lotions for his wife, and buys soap to go take a bath. On his way to the bath house, he meets Bantam Lyons, who asks to burrow Bloom's newspaper so he can check on what horses won at Ascot. This exchange indicates that gambling is a lotus, too, as are sports. Finally, Bloom imagines his bath with pleasure, with warm water streaming "around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower." The ultimate lotus.
In the Odyssey, the Lotus Eaters are not dangerous because they physically harm anyone. Yet, they represent a treacherous obstacle that Odysseus must overcome in his effort to return to his home. The lotus is a pleasant distraction, a comforting narcotic, that keeps people from truly pursuing what's meaningful and important in life. The lotuses Joyce describes are ordinary pleasures, yet he reveals time and again their dark side. Alcohol, for example, leads men to destroy their lives and happiness, and gambling leads them to lose their money. Bloom's affair has the potential to harm his relationship with his wife. Ultimately, Joyce uses the idea of the lotus to critique human beings' tendency to numb themselves.
Blogs for James Joyce's Ulysses:
Blog Posts for James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:Chapter One
Blog Posts for James Joyce's Dubliners:
"Clay" and "A Painful Case"
"Ivy Day in the Committee Room"