Matcham's Masterstroke

Matcham's Masterstroke

In Brief

As Bloom reads Philip Beaufoy's Matcham's Masterstroke on the toilet, the first sentence of the story and a later sentence (probably the last) surface in his internal monologue: "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 selected one minor part of a story he himself had submitted to Titbits when he was younger, and he added allusions to an Irish saying and a Miltonic trope that evoke the difficulty of Bloom's marital situation.

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In My Brother's Keeper, Stanislaus Joyce recalls that Joyce's story was "suitably written down to the style of a weekly paper admired by Leopold Bloom," and that he submitted it "as a joke and as an experiment in raising the wind. . . . 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" (91).

Apparently nothing of the Big Lebowski plot remains in the story that Bloom reads. Beaufoy's story elaborates on those few graceful (and "moral") sentences that described the romantic reverie, and it seems relevant to his own situation. Molly is indeed a witch by virtue of her Homeric role as Calypso, and 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."

Joyce has also built into Beaufoy's two sentences two suggestive allusions. In the context of marriage, "Matcham" may recall the saying, "As God made them he matched them," common in Ireland and often used ironically to comment on a marital mismatch. Sure enough, several hundred pages later in Nausicaa Bloom thinks of the saying with a mixture of ironic detachment and generous appreciation: "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."

"Hand in hand" alludes to several uses of the phrase in Milton's Paradise Lost. Book 4 twice describes Adam and Eve in this way: "hand in hand they passed, the loveliest pair / That ever since in love's embraces met." The poem's final book concludes with them leaving Eden in the same way:

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)

After all their uncertainty about one another, and all of the bitter mutual recrimination that follows the eating of the forbidden fruit, these married partners forgive one another and approach their God and their lives in a spirit of humility and trust. Their hand-holding at the end of the epic confirms and extends the first hand-holding in Book 4 ("With that thy gentle hand / Seized mine: I yielded") that told them they were one flesh, life partners. "Hand in hand" is a moral sentence indeed.

Multiple aspects of the Blooms' marriage, then, flash through these two sentences of Beaufoy's story: the "laughing witch" who captivated Bloom, the "masterstroke" by which he won her hand in marriage (many Dubliners, including Molly, wonder about how that happened), the "matching" of dissimilar people that sometimes fails spectacularly and sometimes relieves the loneliness of human life, the "hand in hand" physical closeness without which a marriage is nothing. Joyce's narrative notes that the story "did not move or touch" Bloom, but it certainly can prompt reflection in the reader of Ulysses.

JH 2017
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.