Matcham's Masterstroke

Matcham's Masterstroke

In Brief

The prize-winning Titbits story that Bloom reads as he sits on the toilet, "Matcham's Masterstroke," strikes him as "Neat certainly. Matcham often thinks of the masterstroke by which he won the laughing witch who now. Begins and ends morally. Hand in hand. Smart." In defining the story through these details, Joyce revisited a story he himself had submitted to Titbits when he was younger. His revision benefits not only from radical cutting but also from two allusions––to an Irish saying, and to Milton's Paradise Lost––that evoke the difficulty and the promise of the Blooms' marital situation. The last three sentences in particular represent a brilliant summary of what Milton does with the image of holding hands.

Read More

In My Brother's Keeper, Stanislaus Joyce mentions a story that his brother penned "as a joke" when he was a schoolboy, "suitably written down to the style" of Titbits (91). Not wanting to have his name associated with this execrable writing, James gave it to a friend to submit to Titbits as his own. 

The plot concerned a man who goes to a masked ball disguised as a prominent Russian diplomat, and, when returning home on foot, narrowly escapes assassination at the hands of a Nihilist outside the Russian Embassy. The would-be assassin is arrested, and the masquer, too, as a suspicious character, because in his confusion he forgets about his disguise. But he is rescued by "the laughing witch who is soon to be his bride," who hearing of the attempt, at once guesses what has happened and hastens to the police station to identify him. He had been wakened from a reverie of the "laughing witch" by the rude shock of the attempt, and the few sentences that described the reverie were not without grace. A similar magazine story of this kind is attributed in Ulysses to a Mr. Philip Beaufoy, of the Playgoers' Club, London, who, if I am not greatly mistaken was, and I hope is still, a real person who had various short stories accepted by Titbits in those years. "That Titbits paper" was the only one my father used to read for general culture (91-92).
The joke in all this was that the story was "what the editors of weekly periodicals call 'plotty'" (91). It "was written in imitation of the usual story with a plot" (92), contrary to Joyce's "natural bent, which was for the plotless sketch. He came to consider a well-ordered plot in a novel or story as a meretricious literary interest" (92).

Apparently nothing of The Big Lebowski plot remains in the story that Bloom reads. It contains only a rewriting of the romantic "reverie" that Stanislaus found graceful in the original. Beaufoy's story describes how Matcham won over his "laughing witch," a theme which is relevant to Bloom's own situation. Molly is a witch by virtue of her Homeric role as an enchating, coercive Calypso. The chapter called Calypso has shown her to be a laughing one: "— O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words. / He smiled, glancing askance at her mocking eyes. The same young eyes." And Dubliners, including not only the resentful John Henry Menton but even Molly herself, wonder by what masterstroke the unprepossessing Bloom convinced her to marry him.

§ The name "Matcham" evokes matrimony because of the saying, "As God made them he matched them." In Ireland this expression is often used ironically to comment on a marital mismatch. Sure enough, several hundred pages later in Nausicaa Bloom thinks of the saying in precisely this sense: "Always see a fellow's weak point in his wife. Still there's destiny in it, falling in love. Have their own secrets between them. Chaps that would go to the dogs if some woman didn't take them in hand. Then little chits of girls, height of a shilling in coppers, with little hubbies. As God made them he matched them. Sometimes children turn out well enough. Twice nought makes one. Or old rich chap of seventy and blushing bride. Marry in May and repent in December." The ambivalence in these sentences––marital matching is a dicey business, but sometimes at least the children "turn out well enough"––coheres with the implications of Joyce's other allusion, this time to a great work of literature.

§ "Hand in hand" takes readers into Paradise Lost, whose protagonists are well matched in some ways, ill matched in others. In book 4 Milton introduces them as two naked people in love:

So passed they naked on, nor shunned the sight
Of God or Angel; for they thought no ill:
So hand in hand they passed, the loveliest pair,
That ever since in love's embraces met;
Adam the goodliest man of men since born
His sons, the fairest of her daughters Eve.  (319-24)
When Adam and Eve go to bed at night, the trope again expresses their sexual closeness and trust: "Thus talking, hand in hand alone they passed / On to their blissful bower" (689-90). But between these bookends Eve tells the story of waking up for the first time, seeing her reflection in a pool, and wanting to marry that beautiful creature rather than the man God has given her. Adam appeals to her, telling her that she was created from his side, and
With that thy gentle hand
Seized mine: I yielded; and from that time see
How beauty is excelled by manly grace,
And wisdom, which alone is truly fair.  (488-91)
But the lack of equality expressed in these lines torments Eve, leading in book 9 to her request to labor independently from Adam, even if it means facing Satan's temptations alone. Adam at last relents, and in an ominous anticipation of the quarrels of book 10 she places the weight of her decision on him:
     With thy permission then, and thus forewarned
Chiefly by what thy own last reasoning words
Touched only; that our trial, when least sought,
May find us both perhaps far less prepared,
The willinger I go, nor much expect
A foe so proud will first the weaker seek;
So bent, the more shall shame him his repulse.
  Thus saying, from her husband's hand her hand
Soft she withdrew.  (378-86)
Confronted by an angry God in book 10, Eve hunbly admits her fault ("The Serpent me beguiled and I did eat") but Adam manages to blame not only her but God too:
This Woman whom thou mad'st to be my help,
And gav'st me as thy perfet gift, so good,
So fit, so acceptable, so Divine,
That from her hand I could suspect no ill,
And what she did, whatever in it self,
Her doing seem'd to justifie the deed;
Shee gave me of the Tree, and I did eate.  (137-43)
A terrible marital quarrel follows, each partner blaming the other while refusing to take personal responsibility. The impasse of mutual recriminations begins to break when Eve first declares her fault to Adam. He follows her lead, and at the end of book 10 husband and wife express remorse first to one another and then to God. At the conclusion of the entire poem, they leave Eden not alone but together:

Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way. (12.645-49)

What Bloom thinks of Matcham's Masterstroke can be said as justly of Paradise Lost: "Begins and ends morally. Hand in hand. Smart." Milton's homely trope of a man and woman holding hands manages to encompass all of the concord in discord, the parity in disparity, of a successful marriage. It is quite a "Smart" detail, a minor miracle of "moral" storytelling. Joyce's narrative notes that Philip Beaufoy's story "did not move or touch" Bloom, but his name ("good faith") and the presence of Milton's much greater story within his bit of Titbits fluff, suggest that the Blooms' marital catastrophe may yet have a happy ending.

John Hunt 2022
William Blake's 1808 pen and watercolor drawing of Adam and Eve sleeping. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
William Blake's 1808 pen and watercolor drawing of Satan watching Adam and Eve embrace. Source: Wikimedia Commons.