Lotus Eaters

Lotus Eaters

In Brief

Like Stephen's second chapter, the second of Bloom's three morning chapters shows him outside of his home, making his way in the world of human society. In another echo of Nestor, the time frame is approximately 9:30 to 10:30 AM. The episode that Joyce called "Lotus Eaters" in his schemas begins the saga of Bloom's daylong journey through Dublin with a sustained meditation on drugs and other tactics for avoiding reality, inspired by some two dozen lines of Homer's poem in which some of Odysseus' men fall under the spell of a narcotic plant and must be forcibly re-conscripted. In the context of what he has learned about Molly and Blazes Boylan in Calypso, this analogue has clear application to Bloom.

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As always, Joyce adapted Homer's story very freely. Odysseus sails away from Calypso's island in Book 5 and washes up on the shore of the Phaeacians, where the princess Nausicaa finds him half-drowned. (If Joyce had been slavishly following the order of the Odyssey, Nausicaa would have been chapter 5 rather than 13.) Welcomed into the palace of Nausicaa's father, Odysseus tells his hosts of the various adventures that befell him on the long way from Troy to Ogygia. The second of these adventures, narrated in Book 9, tells of "the coastline of the Lotos Eaters, / who live upon that flower." Three of Odysseus' men scouted the land, encountering natives who, instead of being hostile, offered to share their favorite food. Tasting it, the Ithacans "never cared to report, nor to return: / they longed to stay forever, browsing on / that native bloom, forgetful of their homeland." Odysseus drove them back to their ships and secured them under the rowing benches, telling the others to shove off or "lose your hope of home."

Joyce's first sentence suggests that Bloom will be an Odysseus figure, keeping his wits as others lose theirs: "By lorries along sir John Rogerson's quay Mr Bloom walked soberly." And Joyce often does assign the role of Homer's drugged soldiers to other Dubliners. Several sentences into the chapter Bloom sees an impoverished boy "smoking a chewed fagbutt" and considers warning him about the dangers of tobacco, but then thinks of his hard life and decides against it. The boy's family, he imagines, has been blighted by alcohol, and later chapters will show that Bloom never has more than an occasional drink, to the benefit of his own family. The actual British soldiers he sees on recruiting posters in the post office look like zombies: "Half baked they look: hypnotised like." Still later in Lotus Eaters he thinks, "Cigar has a cooling effect. Narcotic," and readers will see him accept one of those in lieu of alcohol in Cyclops, but tobacco too is something he uses only in moderation. Still later he thinks of Chinese people using "an ounce of opium" in a way that evokes Karl Marx's saying that religion is the "opium of the people." He recalls a woman attending a midnight mass who looked like she was in "Seventh heaven"—drawing on a common idiomatic phrase for perfect bliss.

In passages like these, Joyce suggests Bloom's resistance not only to chemical fixes but also to social addictions like militaristic patriotism, religious faith, and racetrack betting. But the previous chapter has shown that he has his own harsh reality to avoid and his own avoidance mechanisms. In Lotus Eaters he seems to be trying to think about anything but his wife's coming infidelity, while his entire world seems to be conspiring to remind him of it. So Bloom too is drawn by the appeal of blissful insentience. In the third paragraph he thinks longingly of people in Ceylon who sleep for months at a time. Later he lusts after a nameless woman across the street and reads the latest letter in a flirtatious, pseudonymous correspondence. He dreams of being a weary Jesus soothed by the rapt attention of Mary, and of the money to be made from selling porter, and of the money raked in by the Catholic church. He wonders twice what it would be like to be castrated.

The Homeric motif of consuming a psychoactive plant underlies all of these daydreams, and the imagery of Joyce's chapter regularly reminds readers of the model. The natives of Ceylon live in "the garden of the world, big lazy leaves to float about on." Martha's inclusion of a flower in her letter suggests the "Language of flowers," "Or a poison bouquet to strike him down." Thoughts of the wealth of the Guinness brewers make barrels bump within Bloom's head, break open, and release "a lazy pooling swirl of liquor bearing along wideleaved flowers of its froth." Women receiving the Eucharist in church are "waiting for it to melt in their stomachs," making them "feel happy," "kind of kingdom of God is within you feel." The druggist "Living all the day among herbs" makes Bloom think, "Drugs age you after mental excitement. Lethargy then," and "Poisons the only cures. Remedy where you least expect it. Clever of nature." At the end of the chapter he imagines himself floating in the bath, his penis "a languid floating flower." Collectively these details paint, far more vividly than Homer does, the picture of a languid floating plant that puts human beings in a languid floating state.

These many moments of intoxicating escapism clearly relate not only to the brief story of the lotus, but also to the Homeric analogue of the previous chapter, which Joyce called Calypso. There Molly played the part of the goddess keeping Odysseus from going home, and all of Lotus Eaters shows Bloom trying not to think about what he learned in that chapter. Boylan's letter has seriously shaken what Homer calls his "hope of home," and he struggles not to ponder the marriage problems that are driving his wife to commit adultery. Seeing castrated horses at the cabstand, he thinks, "Might be happy all the same that way." Recalling the fact that the church used to employ eunuchs in its choirs, he thinks again, "One way out of it." And in a sad rejection not only of good spousal communication, but also perhaps Sigmund Freud's new "talking cure," he thinks, "Talk: as if that would mend matters."

Hugh Kenner argues that this chapter presents a man who is "virtually in shock" (Ulysses, 51): "In a state of near-nescience, Bloom is wandering almost at random, thinking of everything but the main thing he found out an hour before, that Boylan will cuckold him this afternoon. This he must not dwell on" (22). In James Joyce's Dublin (2004), Ian Gunn and Clive Hart note that "The meanderings which follow his initial appearance on the quay are like the aimless wanderings of a drugged and troubled man, Bloom's demeanour suggesting, indeed, that he may not be fully conscious of what he is doing" (34-35). In his earlier Topographical Guide (1976), Clive Hart observes that Bloom's feet tramp out two giant question marks on Dublin's pavements, the second one begun when he detours all the way around the Westland Row post office to end mere feet from where he began.

Joyce's two schemas continue the disagreement they showed about the times of Nestor and Proteus. The Gilbert schema has the actions of Lotus Eaters happening from 10 to 11, while the Linati schema says 9 to 10. The truth must be somewhere in between. In unnarrated actions that take place after Calypso ends at 8:45, Bloom pays one more visit to his wife in her bedroom and then walks southeast a little more than a mile from his house to the docklands. Lotus Eaters could not possibly begin much before 9:15, then. And it must end at around 10:30, because Bloom has an appointment in Sandymount at 11:00. Before visiting Sweny's pharmacy near the end of the chapter he looks at his watch: "How goes the time? Quarter past. Time enough yet." The Sweny's stop would not seem to take him past 10:30, and indeed it cannot, because two more unnarrated actions remain before 11:00: a visit to the Turkish baths and a tram ride southeast to Sandymount. (The list of his day's expenditures in Ithaca shows that he takes a tram—faster than walking, but not much.)

Hart observes that Bloom's journey of a little over a mile between Calypso and Lotus Eaters corresponds closely in time and distance to the one that Stephen takes between Telemachus and Nestor and predicts the walk that he and Stephen will take at the end of the novel, from the same area near the Liffey docks back to Bloom's house on Eccles Street: "The initial and final parts of the odyssey, the outward and inward journeys, are thus made to form a perfect symmetry" (James Joyce's Dublin, 34).

JH 2022
Bloom's progress from the end of Calypso to the start of Hades: his home on Eccles Street (blue arrow), Sir John Rogerson's Quay where Lotus Eaters begins (orange), and Paddy Dignam's house in Sandymount (red), shown on a simplified map of Dublin drawn by Hanni Bailey. Source: Chester Anderson, James Joyce.
"And dream idle, happy day-dreams that never ended," illustration of Odysseus' men on the island of the lotus by W. Heath Robinson in Jeanie Lang, Stories from the Odyssey Told to the Children (London, 1906). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
18th century French engraving by an unknown artist, showing Odysseus forcefully leading his men away from the land of the lotus. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
1931 photograph of two couples smoking and drinking in a Parisian bal-musette dance club, owned by Getty Images. Source: timeline.com.
1902 photograph of two women in a New York City opium den. Source: allthatsinteresting.com.
The paths walked in Lotus Eaters, drawn on an old map. Source: ulysses.bc.edu.
The same question marks drawn on a more recent map. Source: ulysses.bc.edu.