Brass quoits

Brass quoits

In Brief

A dictionary offers only minimal help in understanding what Joyce may have meant in Calypso by referring to "the loose brass quoits" of the Blooms' bed. His usage appears to be metaphorical, evoking some feature of the bedposts by comparing them to the iron rings of a horseshoes-like game played throughout the British Isles, often in pub settings. But the suggestive aspects of the language give readers all they need to know.

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The game of quoits is ancient, probably having descended from the sport of discus throwing. Players throw iron or steel rings at spikes set in squares of moist clay. Like dinner plates with the bottoms cut away, the rings are concave on one side and convex on the other, helping them dig into the clay when skillfully thrown. Points are scored by landing rings close to the stake or encircling it.

Joyce evidently is using the iron rings to name some similarly shaped structures on the brass bed that Molly's father brought over the water from Gibraltar. One might suppose by analogy that the "quoits" are rings encircling the rods at the head and foot of the bed. Gifford pursues this interpretation: "The quoits are the brass discs that decorate the metal rods supporting the bedstead." But Victorian brass beds do not seem ever to have had purely decorative elements of this sort, and a sliding ring would not fit with Bloom's reflection that the discs have worked loose and should be secured: "Must get those settled really. Pity. All the way from Gibraltar." The word, then, more likely refers to washers that help secure the finials to the bedposts, or perhaps to caps that are fitted to the tops of the posts.

Although the text does not describe the shape or function of the quoits, a reader might be forgiven for hearing lascivious suggestions in the thought of concave rings encircling stiff spikes. They seem to inhabit the same imagistic universe as a horse named Sceptre aiming for the Gold Cup, or a "loud proud knocker" announcing its presence in a welcoming doorway. This suspicion is abundantly confirmed by the novel's treatment of the noise that the quoits make. Calypso says simply that they "jingled," but in later chapters the jingling sound acquires a wealth of sexual suggestions.

[2022: In a personal communication, Paulo Leite notes that the sexually suggestive notes probably do not stop there. Molly is a remarkably loose woman. Irrepressibly self-confident, audacious people are often described as brassy. And readers will learn later that Molly and Boylan have made the quoits ring with their coitus. Responding imaginatively to the phrase "loose brass quoits," then, can evoke Molly's sexual activity just as effectively as any study of pub games can. Even on the level of pronoun referents, Joyce has insinuated an equivalence between the bed's rings and Molly's vagina. "Must get those settled really. Pity. All the way from Gibraltar. Forgotten any little Spanish she knew."]

Lovers of Shakespeare may perhaps note a resemblance between Bloom's desire to get his wife's unruly organ "settled" and Gratiano's declaration at the end of The Merchant of Venice:

Well, while I live I'll fear no other thing
So sore, as keeping safe Nerissa's ring.
JH 2020
Ball finial on the post of a Victorian brass bed. Source unknown.
Quoits lodged in clay near the stake. Source:
Brass bed finial washer. Source:
Brass bed post cap, 1.5" diameter. Source: