In Brief

The color "purple" and its sibling "violet" play a large role in the visual panoply of Ulysses (17 and 19 mentions respectively). The presence of a third near-synonym, "mauve" (12 mentions), points to the scientific discovery responsible for making these colors so popular in the second half of the 19th century: the laboratory synthesis of the first aniline dye. This chemically reproducible color revolutionized fashion and other aspects of Victorian design, studding cityscapes full of brown and grey woolen threads with accents of spectacular, luxurious richness. (Today, mauve sometimes refers to duller hues, but it originally denoted a deep, strong, brilliant purple.) Among other interesting associations in the novel, Joyce attaches this color to the face of Bloom's dead son, Rudy.

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For most of human history, as Victoria Finlay lovingly details in Colour: Travels through the Paintbox (2002), the precious pigments and dyes in artists' paintboxes came from substances like crushed beetle shells, rocks mined from deep in the earth, and the urine of cows fed on mangoes. Then, in the Industrial Era, came "the world-changing find of mauve by the eighteen-year-old chemistry prodigy William Perkin in 1856" (xi). Working with other students under the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann, Perkin was using a coal tar-derived salt called aniline to try to synthesize quinine, an anti-malarial substance (very important to the Empire in those days) that could only be harvested from the bark of chincona trees in the Andes.

All the students' efforts failed, but when Perkin used alcohol to clean a black residue from one of his flasks, he observed an intense purple color and astutely tried dying a piece of silk with it. He conducted further experiments, filed a patent for his process, borrowed money from his father to build a factory, went into the dyeing business, and found almost immediate financial success. Throughout the late 1850s and early 60s, fashionable women in western capitals (including Queen Victoria and the Empress Eugénie) were wearing dresses dyed with the new color. Scientists too took note: in the following decades laboratories produced many new synthetic aniline dyes.

Purple garments had traditionally been reserved for Roman senators and emperors and other people of great power or wealth. The ancient dye, painstakingly harvested from the anal mucus of certain predatory sea snails, came from the Phoenicians, a mercantile people who lived in Tyre, in the south of what is now Lebanon. Their name, Finlay observes, "derives from the Greek word for purple, phoinis" (340). The prestige of the Purple People's product endured long after the garments made with it were lost. Perkin initially dubbed his new color Tyrian Purple, but soon he hit on a brand-new, catchier moniker. He termed it "mauve," a French word for the common mallow plant whose flowers have a similar color—or, alternatively, "mauveine," a compound of mauve and aniline. ("Aniline" itself has a colorful history. It comes from nila, an ancient name for the Indus Valley plants that produced the deep blue indigo, i.e. "Indian," hue.) The "mauveine measles" that swept through European populations after 1856 influenced the coloring even of postage stamps.

Ulysses contains a couple of details that hearken back to the early days of this frenzy. In Nestor Stephen gazes on Mr. Deasy's apostle spoons "snug in their spooncase of purple plush, faded," and in Ithaca Bloom dreams of becoming rich by finding a rare postage stamp from the year of his birth ("7 shilling, mauve, imperforate, Hamburg, 1866"). Other details suggest that the rage for the synthetic dye was still very much alive in 1904. In Hades Bloom admires the flecks of bright color in a wool coat: "Nice soft tweed Ned Lambert has in that suit. Tinge of purple. I had one like that when we lived in Lombard street west." In Circe "A man in purple shirt and grey trousers, brownsocked," walks through the hallway of the brothel on his way out. Bloom has recently bought Molly some sexy "violet garters" (Calypso, Nausicaa, Ithaca, Penelope) after receiving payment for his advertising labors, and if one of his new plans pays off he intends to buy her some even sexier "violet silk petticoats" (Sirens). In Ithaca he takes off his right sock "having unhooked a purple elastic sock suspender." In Nausicaa Gerty MacDowell remembers some beautiful thoughts that she has written "in violet ink" that she bought in Wisdom Hely's stationery store.

Other purple shades were available before Perkin's discovery. The ancient Celtic hero featured in one of Cyclops' parodic episodes wears leather boots "dyed in lichen purple," an old British and Irish practice that produced a softer shade of purple. (It involved soaking lichens in urine.) The Citizen looks back to other imagined glories when Irishmen traded with Mediterranean sailors: "Where are the Greek merchants that came through the pillars of Hercules, the Gibraltar now grabbed by the foe of mankind, with gold and Tyrian purple to sell in Wexford at the fair of Carmen?" These cultural memories of the ancient Phoenician color of emperors surface repeatedly in Circe. Bloom sports "a purple Napoleon hat" (presumably the familiar bicorne) while flirting with Josie Breen. When the bishops invest him with royal power later in the chapter he appears "In dalmatic and purple mantle" (the dalmatic is a garment worn by English kings at their coronations). The Archbishop of Armagh stands before Bloom "In purple stock and shovel hat," ceremonially administering the oath of office.

Violet and purple, in Joyce's lyrical prose, often conjure up the lush, evocative hues of night skies and dark sea floors, respectively: "in violet night walking beneath a reign of uncouth stars" (Proteus); "Night sky, moon, violet, colour of Molly's new garters" (Calypso); "The bay purple by the Lion's head. Green by Drumleck. Yellowgreen towards Sutton. Fields of undersea, the lines faint brown in grass, buried cities" (Lestrygonians); "purple seagems and playful insects" (Cyclops); "a cluster of violet but one white stars" (Nausicaa); "from the Lion's Head cliff into the purple waiting waters" (Circe); " A white yashmak, violet in the night, covers her face" (Circe).

"Mauve," on the other hand, is associated with artificially colored fabrics. In Aeolus Stephen imagines Dante's triune rhymes as "approaching girls, in green, in rose, in russet, entwining, per l'aer perso, in mauve, in purple, quella pacifica oriafiamma, in gold of oriflamme, di rimirar fè più ardenti." Gerty MacDowell too thinks of the colors of beautiful garments: "each set slotted with different coloured ribbons, rosepink, pale blue, mauve and peagreen." And the shade over the gasjet in Bella Cohen's brothel, the one that occasions so much uproar, is made of "mauve tissuepaper." The color is mentioned repeatedly as Gerald the moth bangs against it, as the gas level fluctuates, and as Stephen smashes it with his ashplant. (In this last instance, it is called a "mauve purple shade.")

But the most indelible impression of this artificial color is created at the end of the chapter, when an apparition of his dead son comes to Bloom as he stands over Stephen's crumpled body in the street. Rudy holds "a slim ivory cane with a violet bowknot," and "He has a delicate mauve face." It is unclear whether "delicate" modifies "face" or "mauve." Both are possible, since the dye could be applied in a dilute form, as seen in the shawl shown here. Such an odd facial coloring might seem (since this is Circe) to spring purely from spontaneous hallucination, but that is not the case. The word takes readers back to a moment in Hades when Bloom contemplated a child's tiny coffin passing in the street and thought, "A dwarf's face, mauve and wrinkled like little Rudy's was."

Here too the coloring seems odd, but knowing that Bloom has actually observed it on his sick son makes a difference. A pediatric cardiologist of my acquaintance who has remotely diagnosed the cause of Rudy's early death—hypoplastic left heart syndrome—notes that the mixture of cyanotic and oxygenated blood resulting from this congenital heart defect would produce precisely the effect Bloom recalls: purple skin.

It is interesting that a shade (or family of shades) associated with rich, exotic beauty should find its most lasting impression in Bloom's most painful memory. Joyce's text does something similar when Stephen imagines, in Proteus, that the bag of one of the women walking down to the beach contains "A misbirth with a trailing navelcord, hushed in ruddy wool." A botched birth becomes transformed, in his language, from an ugly bloodstained mess to a baby softly enveloped in red wool, with all the sense of quiet peace implied by "hushed" and all the connotations of cheerful good health carried by the word "ruddy." Rudy was buried in a wool garment that Molly knitted for him, and the novel allows the memory to resurface twice in visions of lost children with rich reddish coloration—a kind of sea change into something rich and strange.

Thanks to Vincent Van Wyk for getting me thinking about all the mentions of purple in Ulysses and their relation to the discovery of the first synthetic aniline dye.

JH 2021
Oil portrait of William Henry Perkin shown holding his laboratory-derived color, long after the discovery. Source:
Piece of silk dyed by Sir William Henry Perkin in 1860. Source:
Google doodle honoring Sir William Perkin on the 180th anniversary of his 12 March 1838 birthday. Source:
6d postage stamp with Queen Victoria's image printed with Perkin's mauve from 1867 to 1880. Source:
1 1/4 schilling violet stamps from the Free City of Hamburg issued on 27 June 1866. Source:
Shawl colored with Perkin's mauve dye that was shown at the International Exhibition of 1862. Source:
A Victorian mauveine dyed silk dress held in the Science Museum, London. Source: