Dance of the hours

Dance of the hours

In Brief

Sitting on the toilet, Bloom recalls a time when he and Molly got dressed together, the "Morning after the bazaar dance when May's band played Ponchielli's dance of the hours." This ten-minute ballet in Amilcare Ponchielli's opera La Gioconda (1876) proved popular as a stand-alone orchestral work, and it has inspired adaptations as diverse as the dance of the animals in Disney's Fantasia and the popular song "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" (which, serendipitously, contains a reference to Ulysses). The reference to the ballet in Calypso calls attention to the narrative structure of Ulysses, which similarly represents the passage of hours in a day. As Bloom thinks about the music Joyce hints that someone like him, reflecting on the course of his day, might write something like this book.

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The ballet is performed at the climactic end of the opera's third act, as part of a series of entertainments at the palace of Alvise, a nobleman married to one of the two female leads, Laura. He has forced Laura to marry him but she remains in contact with her lover Enzo and plans to escape with him. When Alvise discovers the betrayal he forces his wife to poison herself. The palace celebration ends abruptly as a passing bell sounds and the body of Laura is revealed. The contrast between light and darkness in the ballet thus manages to suggest the struggle between forces of good and evil in the opera. It is possible that Joyce expects his reader to do something with this, since Boylan too was present at the dance and Molly has been asking interested questions about him. ("Is that Boylan well off? . . . I noticed he had a good rich smell off his breath dancing.") By this logic the well-off Boylan might stand in for Alvise somehow.

§ But the novel gives no indication that Bloom (or Joyce, for that matter) knows anything about the narrative context surrounding the ballet. He thinks only about the dance itself and how it represents the passing of the hours in the course of one day. Molly apparently asked him about the significance of the music, because he thinks, "Explain that: morning hours, noon, then evening coming on, then night hours." Several sentences later he is still thinking about the work's significance: "Evening hours, girls in grey gauze. Night hours then: black with daggers and eyemasks. Poetical idea: pink, then golden, then grey, then black. Still, true to life also. Day: then the night." The dancers represent the passing hours by means of their variously colored costumes.

Ulysses too begins in the morning and proceeds deep into the night. Its emphasis on successive hours is most evident in the overly neat divisions of Joyce's two schemas, which assign chapters to particular hours (11-12, 12-1, 1-2). But the narrative itself features effects similar to the colors of the ballet: the sun starts to warm Dublin in Telemachus and Calypso, beats down in subsequent chapters, disappears in an evening rainstorm, dies away as Bloom sits on the beach, gives way to black night. As Bloom goes back into his house from the starlit garden in Ithaca, the narrative even anticipates the reappearance of the sun several hours later. The allusion to Ponchielli's dance of the hours thus self-referentially reflects the novel's structure, which is designed to honor Aristotle's "unity of time" and thus be "true to life."

Any doubt that Joyce may be metafictively commenting on the structure of his own story disappears if one notes that Bloom thinks about writing such a story as he sits on the toilet. Reading Philip Beaufoy's story in the newspaper, which is modeled on one that the young Joyce himself wrote, Bloom envies Beaufoy for the payment received and imagines that, aided by Molly's felicitous expressions, he "Might manage a sketch. By Mr and Mrs L. M. Bloom. Invent a story for some proverb. Which?" He has no further thoughts about the moral of his tale, but much later he realizes that the events of June 16 have given him material that he could turn into such a story. Meeting Stephen and descending with him into Dublin's nighttime underbelly inspires him to wonder, in Eumaeus, whether he could write "a miniature cameo of the world we live in," and by thus imitating the writer who has created him earn some extra cash: "he wondered whether he might meet with anything approaching the same luck as Mr Philip Beaufoy if taken down in writing suppose he were to pen something out of the common groove (as he fully intended doing) at the rate of one guinea per column. My Experiences, let us say, in a Cabman's Shelter."

John Hunt 2017