Monthly wash

Monthly wash

In Brief

Unkind as it may seem for Mulligan to say that “The unclean bard makes a point of washing once a month,” he is actually being generous to Stephen, or ignorant of the true magnitude of his problem. Because of a morbid fear of water, Stephen has not had a bath for eight months.

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Ithaca explains "That he was hydrophobe, hating partial contact by immersion or total by submersion in cold water (his last bath having taken place in the month of October of the preceding year), disliking the aqueous substances of glass and crystal, distrusting aquacities of thought and language."

The last proclivity may be assigned to Stephen’s Jesuitical love of intellectual clarity, but the phobia dates to a single event narrated in A Portrait. As a very young boy (probably age 6), and new to Clongowes Wood College, he was pushed by an older boy into “the square ditch,” a cesspool for a privy used by the boys in the dormitory. The water was “cold and slimy,” another boy “had once seen a big rat jump into the scum,” and Stephen is soon sent to the infirmary with a severe infection that makes him wonder whether he will die. Now, at age 22, he still dreads the water, as he acknowledges in Proteus when he thinks of "my fear" in contrast to Mulligan's aquatic heroism.

Mulligan continues to niggle at Stephen's unwashed state in Oxen of the Sun, calling him "polycimical." Combining the Greek prefix poly- (many) with the Latin noun cimex (bug, plural cimices), the word implies that he is infested with bugs.

Penelope contains the novel's funniest reference to Stephen's hygiene. Conflating him with a small statue of a Greek god that her husband once bought, Molly imagines performing fellatio on one or both of them: "besides hes young those fine young men I could see down in Margate strand bathing place from the side of the rock standing up in the sun naked like a God or something and then plunging into the sea with them why arent all men like that thered be some consolation for a woman like that lovely little statue he bought I could look at him all day long curly head and his shoulders his finger up for you to listen theres real beauty and poetry for you I often felt I wanted to kiss him all over also his lovely young cock there so simple I wouldnt mind taking him in my mouth if nobody was looking as if it was asking you to suck it so clean and white he looks with his boyish face I would too in ½ a minute even if some of it went down what its only like gruel or the dew theres no danger besides hed be so clean compared with those pigs of men I suppose never dream of washing it from 1 years end to the other the most of them." Stephen is quite unlike those youths who regularly plunge naked into the sea, and quite like those pigs of men who never dream of washing it.

JH 2011

Class of Elements at Clongowes Wood College, 1888, with a tiny and isolated James Joyce, age 6, seated at center. Reproduced courtesy of Father Bruce Bradley, S.J. in David Pierce, James Joyce's Ireland.

The Swimming Hole, ca. 1883 oil on canvas painting by Thomas Eakins, held in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth. Source: