Great eyes

Great eyes

In Brief

Mulligan's "great searching eyes" are the first of many that one becomes aware of in reading Ulysses. In this novel characters' eyes frequently convey information about their minds, and none more so than Mulligan's.

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In Telemachus, Mulligan has "great searching eyes," "mobile eyes." Stephen's decision to disclose his grievance against Mulligan stirs "silver points of anxiety in his eyes." When he is clowning, his eyes blink "pleasantly"; they lose all evidence of "shrewd sense," "blinking with mad gaiety." But Stephen sees the shrewd sense, and he discerns Mulligan's intention to claim the key: "He will ask for it. That was in his eyes." He sees things in Haines' eyes as well: their "wondering unsteady" quality when he begins declaiming Irish to the old milkwoman; the "firm and prudent" quality they display as the Englishman looks out on the sea, his nation's dominion; the fact that, despite Stephen's wish to dislike the stranger, "the cold gaze which had measured him was not all unkind." (In Nestor, Stephen recalls that Haines' eyes were "unhating.")

§ Some textual controversy attends the first of these glimpses of a character's eyes. Gabler’s edition replaces “great searching eyes” with “grey searching eyes.” It is hard to prefer this change on aesthetic grounds. Losing the suggestion of intellectual spaciousness, "grey" gains in return only a possible symbolic suggestion that, as Gifford notes, Buck Mulligan may be similar to Athena, because she is called the “grey-eyed goddess” throughout the Odyssey. But this correspondence is built on shaky ground. The word sometimes translated as “grey-eyed” in English versions of the Odyssey, glaukopis, more properly means “with gleaming eyes.” Even if one supposes that Joyce intended a comparison between Mulligan and Athena, it is hard to make sense of it. Why would he cast Mulligan both as Stephen's Antinous-like antagonist and as his beneficent protector?

Gabler's emendation appears not only pointless but also highly arbitrary if one takes account of the fact that Mulligan's model, Oliver St John Gogarty, had strikingly blue eyes. Here is Gogarty's biographer Ulick O'Connor: "The eyes are striking, vivid blue, so deep in colour that his daughter actually remembers their being a shade of violet at times. His hair is brown, but sometimes streaked with gold from the bleaching of the sun, and inclinced to stand upright when brushed sideways" (20). Joyce captured the mix of hair colors in his fifth paragraph by describing Mulligan's hair as "grained and hued like pale oak." Why would he have chosen to change the vivid blue eyes to a duller hue? In fact, he did not. Mulligan's eyes are described later in Telemachus as "smokeblue"—greyish, perhaps, but hardly grey. This is one of a distressingly large number of instances in which Gabler's efforts to produce a "corrected text" introduced new and totally unnecessary errors.

JH 2011
A Roman statue of Athena (Minerva) from the 1st century CE, displayed in the Louvre mueum, Paris. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Oil painting by Jooce Garrett after a portrait by Augustus John, featured on the cover of Ulick O'Connor's biography.  Source: O'Connor, Oliver St John Gogarty.