Study Guide

Ulysses Cyclops Analysis

By James Joyce

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Cyclops Analysis

In Book 9 of the Odyssey, Odysseus describes his adventures in the land of the one-eyed Cyclopes. The Cyclopes live in a fertile land, but do not know anything about agriculture. Each one lives roughly and independently, and there is no social organization or justice. Odysseus and his men become trapped in the cave of Polyphemus, and the Cyclops eats two of them the first night. The second night, Odysseus gets Polyphemus drunk, and tells him that his name is "Nobody." When the giant goes to sleep, Odysseus sticks a pike of olive wood into his eye. While Odysseus and his crew make their getaway, Polyphemus stumbles out of his cave shouting that "Nobody" has blinded him. The other Cyclopes laugh at him, and Odysseus boasts as his ship pulls away. Polyphemus heaves a boulder out at the ship that nearly sinks it, then prays to his father, Poseidon, to make Odysseus' journey long and difficult.

Episode 12 in Ulysses is chock-full of allusions to the book above. In Ulysses, being one-eyed is a metaphor for being confined to a narrow point of view. The citizen, whose aggressive nationalist thinking can seem "one-eyed", represents Polyphemus. As he rants against all things not Irish, Bloom constantly pushes for moderation. The citizen ignores him, and it becomes increasingly apparent that he is not just a nationalist, but also a bigot and a xenophobe (someone who is afraid or against things that are different). For a time, Bloom lets his slurs pass by unnoticed, but in the end he stands up to him. While the citizen mocks the Jewish faith, Bloom shouts back at him, listing off all of the famous Jews in history, and closes by shouting that Jesus was a Jew. The citizen is furious, and (in his role as Polyphemus) rushes inside to find something to throw at Bloom (except here it is a biscuitbox instead of a boulder).

So, who is the citizen? Generally speaking, the citizen is representative of an Irish attitude that was not uncommon in 1904. Strongly (sometimes violently) resistant to English oppression, the attitude was fiercely nationalistic and insular, constantly willing to proclaim the greatness of the Irish people and Irish culture, but impervious to influence from outside the island. Gifford's annotations suggest that the citizen is modeled on a man named Michael Cusack. Cusack founded the Gaelic Athletic Association, a group so focused on Irish pride that they actually denounced people as un-Irish if they watched English games like football (soccer) or rugby.

What is more interesting, though, is that Joyce's biographer, Richard Ellmann, suggests that thecharacter is loosely based on Joyce himself. Some of the short-sighted nationalist sentiments expressed by the citizen come straight out of pieces written by Joyce at a younger age. In "Proteus" we've seen Joyce poke fun at his ego and his literary ambitions as Dedalus imagines future reviews of his books. Here, in his critique of Irish nationalism, we again get the author reflecting on himself, having a laugh at his own expense (and not just making fun of the nationalistic sentiments of others).

Of course, the citizen is not the only character that can be taken to represent Polyphemus. Of the eighteen episodes in the novel, "Cyclops" is the only one written in the first person. Though we never learn the narrator's name, we constantly hear him commenting on the scene. Like the citizen, he comes across as a bigot, and like the citizen, he is anything but fond of Leopold Bloom. The narrator seems to know quite a bit about the Blooms through his friend Pisser Burke. He's especially upset with Bloom today because he thinks (based on a misunderstanding involving Bantam Lyons) that Bloom has won a bundle of money in the horse race, and is just being too stingy to buy anyone a drink.

As readers, we're subjected to the narrator's very limited point-of-view, and we begin to notice just how constraining it can be to hear a story in the first person. The pronoun "I" becomes another metaphor for the Cyclops, for only being able to see things one way. It's directly opposed to the idea of parallax – seeing one thing from a number of different points of view in order to get a fuller sense of the thing– that runs through the entire novel.

Now, we remember that the first time we read "Cyclops" the hardest and most confusing thing about the episode is the fact that there are whole sections of prose written in bizarre styles that don't seem to jive with the rest of the scene. One moment we're hearing the citizen complain about the deforestation of Ireland, and the next we're reading about the daughters of Ireland being married off in what seems like a wedding feature from a newspaper. Throughout the episode, there are 33 instances where the prose takes on a different style as Joyce begins parodying some form of writing or the other. Often the Episode parodies the style of Irish myths and legends, sometimes it's the style of journalism, at other points the style of medieval romance. In almost all cases, the prose is extremely exaggerated to comic effect. At one point a list of great Irishmen goes on for almost a full page and includes Charlemagne, Beethoven, and the Buddha (obviously, none of whom are Irishmen).

So what's going on with all the parody? Well, the best way to think of it is in relation to the first-person narrator of the chapter. In a sense, the author is refusing to be confined to this guy's simple point of view. Instead of just telling things as the narrator sees them, he's constantly breaking into new styles, evoking scenes that are set off by the talk in Barney Kiernan's pub but certainly are not taking place there. But in a deeper sense, the author is bringing attention to the omnipresence of point-of-view. What we mean is that people are constantly writing with their own set of beliefs and opinions, biases and prejudices, whether they are supposed to be or not.

One way we can tell that writing is subjective is through the style. For example, in the parodies or Irish myth, we see how writers of mythology tend to exalt their characters as fearless heroes, super-human in their greatness. The style is serious and over-done, trying to make every little action seem of utmost importance. Another example is journalistic writing. Journalism purports to be "objective," but the writer often has a set of views that he or she is subtly trying to put forward in the course of portraying the event. Many of the journalistic passages in "Cyclops" parody how feature articles are in reality concealed advertisements. In short, the point of the parodies is: point of view is everywhere. It's not just the overtly bigoted citizen or the mean-spirited narrator; we are all Cyclops-like, confined to our beliefs and prejudices, our set way of seeing things.

Lastly, let's focus in on Bloom's big speech in the chapter. For a number of episodes, we've seen men making subtle digs at Bloom and talking about him behind his back. Even when they try to conceal it from Bloom, other characters make statements that clearly reveal their anti-Semitism. In "Cyclops," this all builds to a climax.

After Bloom complains of the persecution of Jews that's taking place even at this very moment, John Wyse Nolan tells him that he should stand up for himself if he feels so strongly. Bloom suddenly backs off, goes "as limp as a wet rag" (12.422). He says, "But it's no use. Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life" (12.423). When Bergan asks him what he means, Bloom says, "Love. I mean the opposite of hatred" (12.425).

As you read, it's easy to just skim over these lines, to miss the weight attached to them. The reason is that it's not just the words themselves that are important; it's the context in which Bloom speaks them. Imagine back in grade school when everyone's picking on the outsider in class, and you're sitting there trying to determine whether or not you're going to stick up for him or not. You'd like to, and what you have to say is obvious and unprofound ("This is wrong."), but it takes a lot of guts to get up and actually say it. Similarly, it is a real act of courage for an outsider like Bloom to preach love to a bunch of indifferent and mocking men in a pub in Dublin.

As we move forward in the book and Stephen and Bloom move closer together, we will see just how important Bloom's simple message is to Stephen. Ulysses is a book that believes in the salvatory power of love, and yet love and the idea of love are problematic in the text. Stephen shares Bloom's opposition to the myopic nature of nationalism, to force, hatred, and history, but he is not yet at a point where he can utter "the word known to all men." Stephen's intellect has, in effect, taught him the art of renunciation, but it has not yet taught him that of acceptance. He has not yet fulfilled his mother's wish for him in Portrait, to "know what the heart is and what it feels." It takes an ordinary man like Bloom to capture the worthlessness of the intellect in the absence of love.

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