Calypso

In Brief

Episode 4, which Joyce titled "Calypso" in the schemas, begins a new section of Ulysses, marked by a Roman numeral II in print editions. Joyce loosely imitated the structure of Homer's Odyssey, which introduces Telemachus before telling the backstory of Odysseus' adventures after he left Troy and concluding with the hero's return to join his son and kill the suitors. But he altered Homer's narrative arrangement of time. Instead of starting in medias res and looking back, he starts June 16 twice, making Leopold Bloom's first three chapters cover the same period of time that Stephen has, from 8 AM till about noon. He also tinkered with Homer's spatial plan, moving his hero from exile to home. This change affects a reader's understanding of the fourth chapter.

Read More

Leaving aside all of the questions attendant upon Joyce recasting Odysseus as a socially marginal middle-class ad salesman (those questions are raised by every chapter of the novel, from here on), it is worth asking why and how he associated Bloom's first hour with Calypso's island—beyond the obvious reason that this is where Homer starts the story of Odysseus. The fifth book of the Odyssey finds the hero marooned on an island called Ogygia, desperately unhappy and longing to return to Ithaca. Bloom's narrative begins at home, for quite necessary realistic reasons: that is where he begins every day, and Joyce's novel is devoted to representing the course of a single day.

Joyce did not have to follow Homer's order of events. As the second section of Ulysses goes on, he feels quite free to alter that order. So the reader should reflect upon the fact that as Bloom more or less contentedly begins another ordinary day, bringing meat to his house and preparing it, collecting the mail, discussing things with his wife, tending to the needs of his cat, clearing his bowels and his bladder, heading out to the funeral of an acquaintance, he is symbolically presented as a hero living in exile.

Odysseus has been away from home for twenty years, seven of them in the company of a demi-goddess who gives him her love and her body, and the promise of immortality, but not the freedom to return home. At the end of the poem he regains his palace and his wife, a conclusion that Joyce reenacted by calling the penultimate chapter of his novel (in which Bloom returns home) "Ithaca," and the last chapter (in which he lies in bed beside his wife) "Penelope."

By identifying Molly with Calypso as well as Penelope, Joyce suggests that the Blooms' home is a place of dissatisfaction as much as contentment. Bloom's relationship with his wife resembles the condition of Homer's hero, who, as Athena tells Zeus, "lives and grieves upon that island / in thralldom to the nymph." When the messenger god Hermes arrives at Calypso's cave, bearing Zeus' command to release her prisoner, Odysseus is not present. He is on the seashore, sitting "apart, as a thousand times before":

                             The sweet days of his lifetime
were running out in anguish over his exile,
for long ago the nymph had ceased to please.
Though he fought shy of her and her desire,
he lay with her each night, for she compelled him.
But when day came he sat on the rocky shore
and broke his own heart groaning, with eyes wet
scanning the bare horizon of the sea.

Molly plays the role of the captor in Calypso. She orders her husband about with sharp commands, as he dutifully labors to fulfill her needs and indulge her whims. She is also the sexual partner who has "ceased to please," and here too Joyce supplies a realistic analogue to Homer's story, though he takes many chapters to supply all the details. Since the death of their second child, more than ten years earlier, the Blooms have not enjoyed satisfying sexual intercourse, and the disinterest is pretty clearly Bloom's.

Many other details link Molly with Calypso. Homer calls his goddess "the softly-braided nymph," and Molly lies in bed "counting the strands of her hair, smiling, braiding." Over the Blooms' bed hangs a reproduction of a painting titled The Bath of the Nymph, which Bloom thinks is "Not unlike her with her hair down: slimmer." He remembers how it came to hang there: "She said it would look nice over the bed." A passage in the Odyssey describing the scented smoke in Calypso's cave may have inspired Bloom's appreciation for the scents of tea and cooking food in Molly's presence. And the name Calypso means "Concealer." When Bloom delivers a letter to his wife, she hides it under the pillow. It is from the man that she will begin an affair with on this day—a great concealment.

Neither of Molly's actions is effectively concealed from her husband, but they express her alienation from him. Bloom too feels alienated. He spends much of his day thinking about other women, beginning in this chapter with the neighbors' servant girl. Although he is not conducting any physical affairs, he has visited prostitutes, and June 16 finds him engaged in an epistolary affair. It is probably not his first. His marked subservience to his wife coheres with a strongly masochistic tendency in his sexuality, an excessive deference to other men that suggests insufficient self-confidence, and an interest in Greek goddesses as immortal ideals of physical beauty who do not have to live with physical frailty.

Bloom likes his place in the world, his home with Molly. The "art" of the fourth chapter, according to Gilbert's schema, is "economics," which in its original Greek sense means household management, and this term describes Bloom's life as a househusband in Calypso. But the home, for him, is a place of entrapment as well as self-fulfillment, and when the chapter ends he makes his way out into the larger world. The travels that he undertakes on June 16, thinking constantly of the sad state of his marriage, push him out of his comfortable center and bring him back to it at the end of the day. It is perhaps not too ingenious to see in Boylan's letter an echo of Hermes' message from Zeus, freeing Odysseus to leave. It will be a long time, actually and textually, before this traveler returns.

Like Telemachus, Calypso begins near the hour of 8:00 and ends at 8:45. It takes place at the northern edge of Dublin, in a house located just inside the North Circular Road and on nearby city streets.

JH 2017
Odysseus and Calypso, 1883 oil on panel painting by Arnold Böcklin, held in the Kunstmuseum, Basel. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Odysseus and Calypso, 1943 oil on canvas painting by Max Beckmann, held in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg. Source: www.artchive.com.
Odysseus and Calypso drawn by an unknown artist. Source: ithaka.wikispaces.com.
4th or 5th century mosaic image of Odysseus in the Roman villa of La Olmeda in Pedrosa de la Vega, Spain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.