Thursday, March 13, 2014

James Joyce's Ulysses: Chapter 7, Aeolus

Chapter Seven of Ulysses depicts Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in the newspaper offices for several Dublin newspapers, including the Freeman's Journal and the Telegraph. The two men interact with many of the same people, but never actually meet. The blustery, fast-paced, and intellectual atmosphere of the newspaper offices refer to Aeolus, the god of the winds in Homer's Odyssey. In the Greek myth, Aeolus gives Odysseus a bag of winds, ensuring him a safe journey back to Ithaca. But his greedy crew thinks the huge bag is full of gold which Odysseus is keeping for himself, so they wait until he's asleep and open it. All the winds rush out at once, causing a huge storm that blows Odysseus back to Aeolus' island. But instead of helping Odysseus a second time, Aeolus forbids him to land and coldly sends him away. In addition to references to the myth of Aeolus, Joyce references Irish independence, frequently comparing the British empire to Imperial Rome.

Bloom, a canvasser for the newspapers, wants to place an ad in the Freeman's Journal for Alexander Keyes. He tactfully explains to the foreman how the ad should look: a pair of crossed keys at the top. The keys are both a pun on Keyes's name and a reference to home rule (the House of Keyes was on the Isle of Man, which was independent from the British empire). The foreman agrees to run the ad, just as Aeolus agrees to help Odysseus return home, but like Aeolus he has conditions--he wants three month's renewal first. Bloom decides to phone Keyes about the renewal. He passes by a group of men including Simon Dedalus, Professor MacHugh, and the editor of Freeman's Journal, Myles Crawford. Bloom asks Crawford's permission to use his phone while the men begin a freewheeling intellectual discussion revolving around home rule, the Irish language, and the British empire. Bloom leaves to find Keyes, the newsboys capering around him like playful gusts of wind.

While Bloom is out, Stephen Dedalus comes in with Mr. Deasey's letter for the paper. Crawford agrees to run the letter, then asks Stephen to write something for the newspaper "with bite in it." Stephen tells him the "parable of the plums," and the men decide to go have a drink at a pub. As they're leaving, Bloom reappears, still surrounded by a "whirl of wild newsboys." He tells Crawford that Keyes will renew his ad for two months. But Crawford rudely blows him off, just as Aeolus dismisses Odysseus when he returns for help.

While this chapter took some effort to understand, it ended up being rich with ideas, images, and humor. For example, as the men reminisce about the great journalists of the past, Bushe. One of the men tells Stephen, "one of the most polished periods I think I ever listened to in my life fell from the lips of Seymour Bushe." I'm not certain whether the character speaking is making a joke (he doesn't seem to be), or Joyce decided to put this dirty little joke in for fun. In another section, the professor recounts an inspiring speech he heard on the subject of reviving the Irish language. This fine rhetoric that makes its most important points by comparing the Hebrews in Egypt to the Irish in the British empire.

Stephen's "parable of the plums" has some very interesting connotations in light of everything that goes on in the chapter as well. It concerns two elderly Dublin "vestals" who go to see Nelson's pillar. They save their money, buy food (including the plums), then struggle up the long and difficult climb to the top of the pillar. Once there, they lift up their skirts to sit down, far away from the edge. Looking up at Nelson's statue gives them a crick in the neck, so they eat their plums and spit the pits out over the railings.

Stephen's parable is full of symbolism. In particular, he calls the women "vestals." Vestal virgins were the high priestesses of Rome, and Romans believed that any vestal who failed in her duties to a sacred flame would bring the wrath of the gods down on the city. In this context, Dublin's elderly vestals seem the embodiment of mediocrity and servitude to the British empire. After all, vestal virgins are from Rome, which the professor earlier links to Britain (while Ireland is more like ancient Greece). Furthermore, they are attending Nelson's pillar, a symbol of the empire, not Ireland. And if the women are Dublin's vestals, they are poor ones--they lift up their skirts immodestly and rudely throw their plum pits off the side of the pillar. No wonder, Stephen seems to imply, the Irish have so much bad luck.

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