In Brief

The morpheme "cuck" appears in several different guises in Ulysses. The book refers repeatedly to cuckolds and the cuckoo bird whose call taunts unhappy spouses. But the "cuckstool" in Bloom's privy brings in a different, scatological significance. This excremental meaning surfaces again, combined with the theme of sexual humiliation, in Bella Cohen's memories of her husband "Cuck Cohen."

Read More

In late medieval and early modern Europe, overly talkative women and dishonest tradesmen were punished by being tied to a "cuckstool" or "cucking stool" that was either ducked in a pond or river or set where passersby could jeer and throw things, as with the similar practice of placing malefactors in the "pillory" or "stocks." Joyce's commentators have typically assumed that the use of the word in Calypso refers to this medieval punishment—an allusion which would suggest that the representation of Bloom's defecation is designed to humble him. Such echoes may play a minor role, but the cucking stool has an older, simpler, and much more obviously relevant meaning: "shitting chair."

The American Heritage Dictionary translates the Middle English cucking stol as "excreting stool," tracing its etymology to the verb cukken, "to defecate." The dictionary's appendix of Indo-European roots identifies kakka- or kaka- as the ultimate source of the Old Norse kūka and the Latin cacāre, both meaning "to defecate," and the Greek kakos, "bad." In a personal communication, Vincent Van Wyk notes that in Dutch-speaking countries the homophonic kakstoel (kak is pronounced "cuck") still refers to chairs or boxes containing a chamberpot beneath a hole. Today kakstoels are used only for toilet-training young children, but in 1904, when ceramic flush toilets were only beginning to take over (Thomas Twyford invented them in 1870, and Thomas Crapper began to patent various designs soon after), such close-stools would have been found all over Europe.

Van Wyk supposes that, since Bloom thinks of a king in his counting house just as he sits down, his outhouse may contain such a throne—a more elegant fixture that a middle-class wife would probably demand—rather than just a rough board with a hole. Such an inference must remain speculative, but this meaning of "cuckstool" makes much better literal sense of the scene presented in Calypso. It also explains why the word "cuck" would show up again in Circe surrounded with mentions of privies, shit, and anality. Bella Cohen, transformed into the dominating Bello, informs Bloom that she will bury him in the whorehouse cesspool along with her many husbands:

We’ll bury you in our shrubbery jakes where you’ll be dead and dirty with old Cuck Cohen, my stepnephew I married, the bloody old gouty procurator and sodomite with a crick in his neck, and my other ten or eleven husbands, whatever the buggers’ names were, suffocated in the one cesspool. (He explodes in a loud phlegmy laugh.) We’ll manure you, Mr Flower!

If a reader also hears echoes of cuckoldry and its attendant humiliation in the name "Cuck Cohen," so much the better (or worse). Bella/o goes through husbands like toilet paper and disposes of them in a manner suiting their sexual degradation.

JH 2021
Woodblock print representation of a cucking stool in John Ashton's 1834 Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
A close-stool ca. 1870. Source: