Study Guide

Ulysses Mortality

By James Joyce

Mortality

Bag of corpsegas sopping in foul brine. A quiver of minnows, fat of a spongy titbit, flash through the slits of his buttoned trouserfly. God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain. Dead breaths I living breathe, tread dead dust, devour a ruinous offal from all dead. Hauled stark over the gunwale he breathes upward the stench of his green grave, his leprous nosehole snoring to the sun.
A seachange this, brown eyes saltblue. Seadeath, mildest of all deaths known to man. (3.87-88)

Here, in "Proteus," Stephen imagines the body of a man that he has heard was pulled out of the sea. Why does Stephen think of death so graphically? How might his need to think of death in such graphic terms be related to the death of his mother? To his own artistic temperament? Is he just being morbid? Is it true, as John Keats once said, that those who love life the most also long for death?

A cloud began to cover the sun wholly slowly wholly. Grey. Far.

No, not like that. A barren land, bare waste. Vulcanic lake, the dead sea: no fish, weedless, sunk deep in the earth. No wind would lift those waves, grey metal, poisonous foggy waters. Brimstone they called it raining down: the cities of the plain: Sodom, Gomorrah, Edom. All dead names. A dead sea in a dead land, grey and old. Old now. It bore the oldest, the first race. A bent hag crossed from Cassidy's clutching a noggin bottle by the neck. The oldest people. Wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity, multiplying, dying, being born everywhere. It lay there now. Now it could bear no more. Dead: an old woman's: the grey sunken cunt of the world.

Desolation. (4.59-61)

Look closely at this scene in "Calypso." How does the external scene suddenly turn Bloom's thoughts in such a morbid direction? In contrast to Joyce's letters, which are quite explicit, this is also the only place in the novel where the word "cunt" appears. What do you make of the fact that he reserves this for a description of the Dead Sea? That the female organ of reproduction is here related to death?

He ceased. Mr. Bloom glanced from his angry moustache to Mr. Power's mild face and Martin Cunningham's eyes and beard, gravely shaking. Noisy selfwilled man. Full of his son. He is right. Something to hand on. If little Rudy had lived. See him grow up. Hear his voice in the house. Walking beside Molly in an Eton suit. My son. Me in his eyes. Strange feeling it would be. From me. Just a chance. (6.29)

In "Hades," Simon Dedalus is complaining about Stephen, which gets Bloom thinking about his son Rudy. What hopes does Bloom hang on the head of his son Rudy? How does Rudy's death accentuate Bloom's sense of his own mortality?

More room if they buried them standing. Sitting or kneeling you couldn't. Standing? His head might come up some day above ground in a landslip with his hand pointing. All honeycombed the ground must be: oblong cells. (6.330)

At Dignam's funeral, Bloom can't help but think absurd thoughts about what we do with the dead. Is it possible to view death in a humorous light? Is Bloom just avoiding his own fear of death and sadness over the loss of his father and son by trying to be funny? Is it possible for death to be funny and frightening and sad all at once?

A fellow could live on his lonesome all his life. Yes, he could. Still he'd have to get someone to sod him after he died though he could dig his own grave. We all do. Only man buries. No ants too. First thing strikes anybody. Bury the dead. (6.337)

Here, Bloom lets his mind wander at Dignam's funeral. Aside from its practicality, what is the human obsession with burying the dead? Is it a way of hiding the dead, of forcing the thought of death from our lives? How has it become such a large ritual? Is Bloom, by letting his mind wander to such random thoughts, disrespecting the memory of the dead?

Bam! Expires. Gone at last. People talk about you a bit: forget you. Don't forget to pray for him. Remember him in your prayers. Even Parnell. Ivy day dying out. Then they follow: dropping into a hole one after the other. (6.345)

How is death the great leveler? How does it show what we all have in common? Does Bloom's vernacular (everyday) speech seem more or less profound than the heightened Catholic speech: "Your are dust and to dust you shall return"?

"As we, or mother Dana, weave and unweave our bodies," Stephen said, "from day to day, their molecules shuttled to and fro, so does the artist weave and unweave his image. And as the mole on my right breast is where it was when I was born, though all my body has been woven of the new stuff time after time, so through the ghost of the unquiet father the image of the unloving son looks forth." (9.145)

This is a part of Stephen's Hamlet argument in "Scylla and Charybdis." Does it seem that the idea of the body being woven and unwoven time after time could change one's notion of what it means to be mortal? If the body has been remade of entirely new stuff over and again, could that mean, in a way, that the body has already died many times? Since that old material of the body is presumably somewhere else in nature, does that make life seem less confined to individual people? Does it soften one's idea of mortality?

"For sirs, he said, our lust is brief. We are means to those small creatures within us and nature has other ends than we." (14.19)

Stephen is drunkenly pontificating in "Oxen of the Sun." What he's getting at here is that we always think of ourselves as somehow distinguished and set off from nature, but what if we are simply means to an end. Here's an analogy. Some people cultivate bacteria just in order to give cheese a certain taste. What if we're just the bacteria and there's some bigger cheese that we can't see? How does it change our view of mortality if we think of our whole lives as just some means to another of nature's ends?

Stephen's mother, emaciated, rises stark through the floor in leper gray with a wreath of faded orange blossoms and a torn bridal veil, her face worn and noseless, green with grave mould. Her hair is scant and lank. She fixes her bluecircled hollow eyesockets on Stephen and opens her toothless mouth uttering a silent word. (15.894)

Here, drunk on absinthe and dancing in Bella Cohen's brothel, Stephen has a vision of his dead mother urging him to repent. Why is it that in imagining death all we can imagine is a corpse or a skeleton? What else might death look like? What does it say about Stephen's guilt over his mother's death that she appears to him as a disgusting corpse instead of as she looked before she died?

In reality evermoving from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity. (17.156)

Bloom is here in the process of showing Stephen out his back door in the middle of the night. The thought itself is no doubt articulated much more clearly by the narrator (whoever that is) than it actually is in Bloom's head. But what about his current situation would get him thinking about the transience of life in such detail? Why here with Stephen? Why so late at night?

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