The Sirens episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses is structured around musical patterns. As a result, it is the most beautiful episode in the book. Yet its beauty is more often than not ambiguous. I hope to trace out some of these ambiguities. (All page references are to the Gabler edition.)
Sirens opens with a sequence of sixty lines, each one of which is a theme that recurs later in the episode, some many times, others but once. For instance, the theme that gives this post its title is the second of the sixty: “imperthnthn thnthnthn.” Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy are looking out the window, and the waiter is badgering them about the object of their spying. Miss Douce threatens to tell his boss about his “impertinent insolence” (212) if he doesn’t leave. Then: “Imperthnthn thnthnthn, bootsnout sniffed rudely, as he retreated as she threatened as he had come.” The theme repeats a page later: “Douce huffed and snorted down her nostrils that quivered imperthnthn like a snout in quest.” (213) Those are its only appearances in the episode.
But that theme is not the main object of my interest: like the waiter, I am more interested in the object of Miss Douce’s and Miss Kennedy’s laughter. Hence I shall engage in some impertinent insolence of my own, and investigate it. The first of the sixty themes reads, “Bronze by gold hear the hoofirons, steelyringing,” (210) referring to the brunette Miss Douce and the blonde Miss Kennedy. Once the string of themes has completed, with number 59 (“Done.”) and number 60 (“Begin!”), we are introduced to these two ladies, sitting in a bar and conversing. Their conversation turns eventually to Leopold Bloom, “that old fogey in Boyd’s.” (213) They begin to laugh at him, for instance at his “goggle eye.”
The passages describing this laughter show Joyce’s literary talents at their height. Two examples:
In a giggling peal young goldbronze voices blended, Douce with Kennedy your other eye. They threw young heads back, bronze gigglegold, to let freefly their laughter, screaming, your other, signals to each other, high piercing notes. (213)
Shrill, with deep laughter, after, gold after bronze, they urged each each to peal after peal, ringing in changes, bronzegold, goldbronze, shrilldeep, to laughter after laughter. And then laughed more. Greasy I knows. Exhausted, breathless, their shaken heads they laid, braided and pinnacled by glossycombed, against the counterledge. All flushed (O!), panting, sweating (O!), all breathless. (214)
Douce and Kennedy are having a good laugh at Leopold Bloom, man of “greasy eyes!” (214) and “bit of beard!” They are particularly laughing at the thought of Molly Bloom (née Marion Tweedy) “being married to a man like that.” This mockery is a precursor to the next episode, Cyclops, where Bloom will meet such insults face to face. And yet there is an ambiguity here, in the description of Bloom as “greasy.”
In the context in which Douce and Kennedy use it, the term ‘greasy’ means just what you’d expect: it suggests that Bloom is oily and dirty, slick. (Subliminally, it may be connected to his being Jewish, and the relevant associated stereotypes.) “—Married to the greasy nose! she yelled.” (214) But the narrator of the episode effects a shift in the way the word is to be taken. Immediately following the second longer passage quoted above (ending in “all breathless”), the narrator appends, “Married to Bloom, to greaseabloom.” Here, “greasy” is connected with “seabloom”, an image that plays off Bloom’s name and the beauty apparent within it. Moreover, the connection is not simply a juxtaposition of two opposing elements. In an Irish accent, “grease” is pronounced more like “grace” (I owe this fact to a college professor who taught a delightful tutorial on Joyce). When said aloud, then, “greaseabloom” subverts the negative connotations of “greasy”, and Bloom emerges triumphant, in a way. His greasiness is not denied, but, as with all of his vulgarities, is rather transformed into a virtue.
This is a small instance of a process that takes place over the course of the entire episode. Compare the first theme—“Bronze by gold hear the hoofirons, steelyringing”—with the fifty-sixth theme—“Where bronze from anear? Where gold from afar? Where hoofs?” The episode opens with the bronze and gold heads of Douce and Kennedy, and they are ubiquitous throughout. The first theme is one of the most repeated themes in the episode. Yet the fifty-sixth theme, which explicitly appears only once (and even then only barely) points to the absence of Douce and Kennedy. Where are bronze and gold?
There is a turning point on page 237. We are treated to an “exquisite contrast: bronzelid, minagold”, and then, a few lines later, is this: “Under the sandwichbell lay on a bier of bread one last, one lonely, last sardine of summer. Bloom alone.” It is initially tempting to read this as a description of Bloom as the lonely last sardine of summer, but the passage is again ambiguous. For, after this image of Bloom alone (and know that alone is not at all the same as lonely), we do not see bronze or gold again. They are mentioned only once, and mentioned only to note that they are not seen. A blind stripling has been making his way to the bar (his approach is marked by the presence of increasingly frequent taps, the tap of the cane he uses to navigate), and of him the narrator says, “He saw not bronze. He saw not gold.” (238) (The narrator goes on to list many others he did not see—Bloom is not on the list.)
This passage is the one quasi-explicit use of the fifty-sixth theme. Where are bronze and gold? They are not seen; who knows where they are? By and large they are absent: we are now seeing Bloom alone. (Here we see how “Bloom alone” has a dual meaning: Bloom is alone, yes, but also Bloom alone is seen by us—we see no one else.) It is this absence in which we really see the theme at work. It is not revealed (except in a glimpse) in any explicit language, but is instead revealed by the absence of language that recalls the previously omnipresent first theme. The two themes are opposed, and, by the end, the fifty-sixth theme has vanquished its rival.
This victory of Bloom’s is also represented with a second effort by Joyce to transform a vulgar act into a heroic one. Before looking into this, though, go back to the two passages quoted above, the descriptions of “bronze gigglegold.” Laughter is a naturally musical sound, and it is no surprise to find it at the start of Sirens. But while the language of those passages is beautiful, the laughter described is not. It is described (in passages not quoted) as “shrill” and “shrieking.” (213) In the first quoted passage, the laugher is described as “screaming” and “high piercing notes”; in the second, we are given a description of a strenuous, sweaty process. Joyce reveals the physicality of their laughter, showing it in detail that reveals its ugliness.
Of course, physicality need not be ugly, and Joyce throughout the novel uses such descriptions to reveal beauty—this is, in fact, precisely what happens when he is transforming Bloom’s crude physicality into his heroic nobility. The end of the Sirens episode is in fact a description of Bloom farting: little bits of gas escape as Bloom frantically searches for a safe, private place to let go, and he finally finds a “good oppor” (239) and lets it out: “Pprrpffrrppffff.” This fart—one of two in the novel—is the climax of the episode, and is presented as deliciously musical, much more so than the laughter of Misses Douce and Kennedy. Notably, just before the fart occurs, Bloom is described, again, as “Seabloom, greaseabloom” (238)—establishing firmly the positive valence of the image, of his greasiness.
But there is one further ambiguity that complicates things. In my discussion of the fifty-sixth theme, I focused on its first two questions, about Douce and Kennedy. But there are three questions total, the third being, “Where hoofs?” Like Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy, the hoofs are absent at the end of the episode. In fact, they have been absent for a while, for they are the hoofs of the mare that “Blazes” Boylan is riding. Boylan is riding off to sleep with none other than Molly Bloom, so the question “where hoofs?” must receive the answer: Bloom’s house. The seeming triumph of the first two questions evaporates in the face of the third. Bloom may have vanquished two of his critics, but he has, so it seems, lost the much more important battle.
Yet even here things are not straightforward. When Boylan first walks into the bar, he is greeted by Lenehan: “See the conquering hero comes.” (217) Lenehan (probably) has no knowledge of the affair, but it is hard not to read a subtext of Boylan conquering Bloom. Immediately, however, the narrator subverts this: “Between the car and window, warily walking, went Bloom, unconquered hero.” Boylan may be a conquering hero, but Bloom remains unconquered.
This is, or should be, unsatisfying. For the ominous question “where hoofs?” arises later in the episode, and it doesn’t lack force. The narrator referring to Bloom as an unconquered hero is suggestive, but unconvincing, and the third question in theme fifty-six brings that home. If Bloom remains unconquered, we must see it. I think we do see just that, but for that we’d need to look well beyond Sirens. Sirens, taken alone, remains ambiguous.