Handmaid

In Brief

Having associated the gypsy woman with the sun and with the biblical figure of Eve, Stephen begins to link her with the moon and with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Walking "to the west," she joins with the moon in pulling after her the incoming, westward-flowing tide: "A tide westering, moondrawn, in her wake. Tides, myriadislanded, within her, blood not mine." This makes the dark woman the moon's helper, in parody of a Catholic prayer to the Virgin Mary: "Behold the handmaid of the moon."

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The Angelus prayer celebrates the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel told Mary that she would bear the son of God. It begins Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae, "The angel of the Lord announced to Mary," and contains the verse Ecce ancilla Domini, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord." Mary speaks these words to the angel in Luke 1:38, signifying her submission to the will of God. The prayer has traditionally been recited at 6 AM, 12 noon, and 6 PM, not only in monasteries, convents, and churches but also by ordinary people during their workdays (as in Millet's painting of French peasants), so it seems natural that it comes into Stephen's thoughts at the hour of noon.

It is less clear why he should be calling a gypsy woman the handmaid of the moon—if I am correct in thinking that he is. Gifford asserts that "The sea (the 'mighty mother') is, of course, the 'handmaid of the moon'." But although this accords with scientific reality (the waters of the sea follow the tugging pull of the moon), it makes no sense in the context of the paragraph. For several sentences, "she" has trudged across the sands of the world, dragging her load, with a tide "in her wake," and she has tides "within her," identified as "blood." How could a tide pull a tide in its wake? How could it have tides within it? Why should they be thought of as blood? The much more reasonable interpretation is that the woman who is walking west across the sands, dragging her load, also fancifully pulls the tide behind her, and contains tides of pulsing blood within her.

Should Stephen's noontide devotion to the dark-skinned traveler be read sarcastically? His imagination of her nighttime activities in Fumbally's Lane make clear that he thinks she is anything but a blessed virgin. Or might some real sense of reverence inhere in his parody? His thoughts of the "blood not mine" do not betray misogynist or racist contempt. She is "myriadislanded," an unknown universe passing parallel to his own.

JH 2017
The Angelus, oil on canvas painting by Jean-François Millet (ca. 1857-59), held in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Source: renewablescg.com.