Huge key

Huge key

In Brief

The “huge key" that locks the strong exterior door of the Martello tower is mentioned eight times in Telemachus, and again in Proteus. Buttressed by references to another key in Bloom's chapters, it becomes emblematic of various kinds of dispossession: homelessness, sexual betrayal, political subjection, metaphysical ignorance.

Read More

The key is indeed huge. Preserved in the Joyce Museum that now inhabits the tower, it dwarfs the printed pamphlet next to it, measuring perhaps nine inches in length. Stephen is keenly aware that Mulligan “wants that key,” and events prove him right: at the swimming hole, Mulligan says, "Give us that key, Kinch . . . to keep my chemise flat." Much later in the book he gives Stephen the slip and goes home to Sandycove without him. At the end of Telemachus Stephen thinks of Mulligan as a “Usurper," and in Proteus he thinks, "He has the key. I will not sleep there when this night comes." Giving up the key equates to homelessness for Stephen.

Less literally, the same is true for Bloom. Exiting his front door in the morning to buy meat, he realizes that he has left the house key in the pants that he wore the day before, and resolves to transfer it to the pockets of his funeral suit when he gets back, before leaving again for the day. He fails to do so, a fact that renders him "doubly irritated" in Ithaca, "because he had forgotten and because he remembered that he had reminded himself twice not to forget." The chapter then notes that his keylessness allies him with the young man standing next to him: he and Stephen are "the, premeditatedly (respectively) and inadvertently, keyless couple." For Bloom, the lack of a house key can be physically remedied by climbing over a railing, hanging from it by his hands, dropping several feet into the basement "area," and entering through the unlocked kitchen door. But being without a key, just after his wife has cuckolded him, symbolically suggests that he has been evicted from his home, a suggestion sounded quite vividly in Circe when Blazes Boylan invites him to "apply your eye to the keyhole and play with yourself while I just go through her a few times."

Similar echoes of dispossession sound for the entire country of Ireland when Bloom goes searching for an ad whose visual device, two crossed keys, the merchant Alexander Keyes would like to use in a new ad. The idea, Bloom says to Nannetti in Aeolus, is "the house of keys. You know, councillor, the Manx parliament. Innuendo of home rule. Tourists, you know, from the isle of Man. Catches the eye, you see. Can you do that?" The lower chamber of the Isle of Man's parliament is called the House of Keys, and as Gifford observes "after 1866 its members were chosen by popular election." Lacking such a parliament, Ireland is a house without keys, its subject population excluded from full citizenship by British imperial rule. Citing Erskine Childers' The Framework of Home Rule (1911), Slote notes that "Since the Manx people are of Celtic origin, their relative independence from English control was taken as a possible model for the Home Rule movement in Ireland."

In a still broader sense, keylessness may evoke the state of metaphysical cluelessness that characterizes every human being on the planet. Later in Ithaca, Stephen describes himself to Bloom as "a conscious rational animal proceeding syllogistically from the known to the unknown and a conscious rational reagent between a micro and a macrocosm ineluctably constructed upon the incertitude of the void." Not quite fathoming his brainy companion's conception of wresting meaning from a universal void, Bloom does understand enough to intuit a clever analogy with his having recently dropped through empty space to get into his house: he comforts himself in his bafflement by reflecting that "as a competent keyless citizen he had proceeded energetically from the unknown to the known through the incertitude of the void."

JH 2019
The key to the door of the Martello tower, held in a glass display case in the James Joyce Museum, Sandycove. Source: John Hunt.