Crosstrees

In Brief

As Stephen looks over his shoulder and sees the disembodied threemaster glide past him, he notices that her sails are "brailed up on the crosstrees." He is hardly employing nautical terminology. The conjunction of the words cross and tree, and the fact that there are three of them, infers an allusion to the Crucifixion. Jesus was crucified between two thieves, and Christians have frequently referred to the cross on which he hung as a "tree," opposing its salvific power to the tree in Eden that brought death to mankind. The crucifixion symbolism has significance for Stephen much as it did for Gabriel Conroy at the end of "The Dead."

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Stephen has repeatedly pondered images of death in the third episode: a dead fetus in a bag, the "ghostwoman with ashes on her breath," the remnants of the "lost Armada," "crucified shirts" and "Human shells," a post office doorman blown to bits by a shotgun, prison walls and tenements blown up by gunpowder, waves of murderous Vikings, a shoal of beached whales, the "Houses of decay" evoked by Guido Cavalcanti, a drowning man, the rotting body of a dog, a drowned man. But near the end of the chapter he has been thinking intensively of the benign aspects of death: resurrection as for Milton's Lycidas, transfiguration as in Ariel's song, reincarnation in his cycle of life forms, welcome release in the mildness of "Seadeath." The evocation of Calvary in the final sentence joins these trains of thought in balanced opposition. Crucifixion suggests both the cruel certainty of extinction and hope for some kind of resurrection.

Joyce had already played with such ambiguities at the end of "The Dead," the concluding story of Dubliners. As Gabriel Conroy swoons into fantasies of joining the dead, he thinks of snow falling on "the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns." The details in these sentences unmistakably evoke the hill of Calvary, the crosses on which three men died, the spears of the Roman soldiers, and the thorns of Christ's crown. But do Gabriel's thoughts represent a capitulation to insignificance, or a revelation of the possibility of redemption? Joyce leaves the fate of his protagonist sublimely uncertain, while embuing it with mythic potential. The story ends with snow falling "like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

Throughout Ulysses, Stephen is seen slipping into a recapitulation of his father's dissolute existence, and simultaneously positioning himself to be reborn. The narrative does not indicate which trajectory may ultimately prevail. Here at the end of the Telemachiad, the symbol attached to Gabriel at the end of "The Dead" is repurposed, to express both the despair and hope of Stephen's life.

JH 2015
Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Crosses, oil on canvas painting ca. 1620, owned by the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
An American three-masted schooner named HMS Bounty, which sank off the coast of North Carolina in October 2012, during Hurricane Sandy. Most schooners are fore-and-aft rigged, but it seems that Stephen is seeing a square-rigged one such as this. Source: www.bob-owens.com.