Ruby, Pride of the Ring

Ruby, Pride of the Ring

In Brief

The pulp fiction in which Molly encounters the word metempsychosis, "Ruby: the Pride of the Ring," is based on an actual book published fifteen years earlier by Amye Reade, Ruby. A Novel. Founded on the Life of a Circus Girl (London, 1889). Though sentimental and melodramatic, Reade's novel is driven by a serious purpose: indicting the vicious exploitation of human beings in 19th century circus troupes. Bloom shares her compassionate horror at these sufferings, but Joyce also makes the story raise questions about male sexual domination, as well as thoughts of loss and renewal. Ruby returns again and again in Circe.

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Thumbing through Molly's book in Calypso, Bloom comes across an interesting plate: "Fierce Italian with carriagewhip. Must be Ruby pride of the on the floor naked." Beneath the picture he reads the sentence which it illustrates: "The monster Maffei desisted and flung his victim from him with an oath." Joyce added the name Maffei to the caption. He slightly changed the title of the book, and made Bloom mistake the identity of the naked woman on the floor. But these small changes do not detract from the central message of Reade's novel. Bloom shares her revulsion at inflicting suffering on human beings (and animals) to promote the thrills of public entertainment: "Cruelty behind it all. Doped animals. Trapeze at Hengler's.  Had to look the other way. Mob gaping. Break your neck and we'll break our sides."

Reade's novel tells the story of how Ruby Hayward, the daughter of an ideal father and a horrible mother, is sold into slavery at the tender age of thirteen to Signor Enrico, a circus master. Enrico treats his indentured servant as he would an animal, driving her to exhaustion and beating her when she does not meet his expectations. Utterly worn out, she falls from a horse just when her father Jack has conveniently returned from Australia and decided to attend the circus, not knowing that his daughter is employed there. He and Ruby's fellow rider and friend, Victoria Melton, attend Ruby on her deathbed, and Reade ends the novel happily by marrying Vic to Jack and giving the couple a daughter whom they name Ruby. Passing up the opportunity to associate the evil Enrico with Henry Flower, Joyce changed his name to Maffei, which Gifford speculates may suggest mafiosi.

Enrico strips his girls naked before beating them, but, incredibly, the novel never suggests that he is sexually abusing them. The illustration by Talbot Hughes manages to make the suggestion, although he covers the naked Vic with a sheet for decency's sake. This titillating detail catches Bloom's attention: "Hello. Illustration." So, in addition to giving Joyce a vehicle (one of many) for presenting Bloom's compassionate responses to the sufferings of other sentient creatures, the novel also ties into the masochistic aspect of Bloom's sexuality.

The sadomasochistic implications of Ruby are developed in Circe, where, by the kind of associative logic that Sigmund Freud saw operating in dreams, the circus ring where Ruby performs becomes a wedding ring signifying domination. When Bloom compensates for Molly's betrayal by playing the Don Juan with Josie Breen (what Stephen calls "assumed diongiovannism" in Scylla and Charybdis), he marks his conquest with a ring: "(Tenderly, as he slips on her finger a ruby ring.) Là ci darem la mano." Later, when he is crowned king of Ireland, the ring adorns Bloom's hand, to signify his power: "Bloom assumes a mantle of cloth of gold and puts on a ruby ring. He ascends and stands on the stone of destiny."

But the ring is most at home representing Bloom's submissive tendencies. When Bella Cohen becomes Bello and Bloom becomes one of her girls, she names him Ruby: "What you longed for has come to pass. Henceforth you are unmanned and mine in earnest, a thing under the yoke. Now for your punishment frock. You will shed your male garments, you understand, Ruby Cohen? and don the shot silk luxuriously rustling over head and shoulders. And quickly too!" Bloom's transformation into a woman, which figuratively expresses his tendency to abase himself before beautiful women, is sealed when Bello places a ring on his finger: "By day you will souse and bat our smelling underclothes also when we ladies are unwell, and swab out our latrines with dress pinned up and a dishclout tied to your tail. Won't that be nice? (He places a ruby ring on her finger.) And there now! With this ring I thee own. Say, thank you, mistress."

Ruby's story implicitly addresses not only men's domination of women, but also the conventions of clothing by which women are made sexually alluring to men and defined as subordinate beings. Ruby resists the revealing toy-doll costume which she is expected to wear in the circus, to no avail. Bello subjects Bloom to the same objectifying conventions: "As they are now so will you be, wigged, singed, perfumesprayed, ricepowdered, with smoothshaven armpits. Tape measurements will be taken next your skin. You will be laced with cruel force into vicelike corsets of soft dove coutille with whalebone busk to the diamondtrimmed pelvis, the absolute outside edge, while your figure, plumper than when at large, will be restrained in nettight frocks, pretty two ounce petticoats and fringes and things stamped, of course, with my houseflag, creations of lovely lingerie."

In developing these implications of the Ruby story, Joyce may have been influenced by The Subjection of Women (1869), the book that John Stuart Mill wrote with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill. The Mills likened marriage laws to slavery, and argued that "woman" is to a very large degree a social construction.

The source of Joyce's Ruby was discovered by Mary Power, who published an article titled "The Discovery of Ruby" in James Joyce Quarterly 18.2 (1981), pp. 115-21. Among other comments, Power observes that, although the word "metempsychosis" does not appear in Reade's novel, it does seem appropriate to what she is doing. Amye Reade "anticipates Joyce's interest in changes of state," and she reincarnates Ruby as Jack's new daughter, showing that "future generations can overcome past tragedies" (121).

It seems quite likely that Joyce acknowledged this transmigration of souls with one final, faintly audible allusion in Circe. When Bloom has a vision of his dead son at the end of the chapter, a vision prompted by gazing on Stephen with paternal interest, the association between Rudy and ruddy coloration adds touches of deep red to the boy's figure: "He has a delicate mauve face. On his suit he has diamond and ruby buttons." Rudy is Bloom's Ruby, and like Jack Hayward he has a chance to renew him in the present.

JH 2017
Illustration by Talbot Hughes on p. 369 of a copy of Reade's novel held in the British Museum, showing Vic beaten by Signor Enrico. Source:
Illustration on p. 396 of the novel, showing Ruby on her deathbed, joined by her friend Vic and her father Jack. Source:
Illustration on p. 289 of the novel, showing Vic modeling for Ruby the kind of apparel that she will have to wear in the circus. Source: