Lotus Eaters

In Brief

Like Stephen's second chapter, the second of Bloom's three morning chapters shows him outside of his domicile, 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" 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 several 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 the Homeric story very freely. The first sentence of the chapter makes Bloom an Odysseus figure, keeping his wits about him as others lose theirs: "By lorries along sir John Rogerson's quay Mr Bloom walked soberly." In the third paragraph he thinks of people in Ceylon who "Sleep six months out of twelve," which Gifford attributes to a Greek mythological belief that "the Lotus-Eaters slept half the year." But the previous chapter has shown that Bloom 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.

In the Odyssey, most of the wanderings of the protagonist are narrated retrospectively. 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 sequence of Homer's events, Nausicaa would have been his fifth chapter rather than his thirteenth.) Received hospitably 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 offered no hostility but only a sample of 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 felt compelled to drive them back to their ships and secure them under the rowing benches, admonishing the others to shove off or "lose your hope of home."

Since Calypso has taken place in Bloom's home, Lotus Eaters marks the beginning of his wanderings, and much of what he thinks in the chapter stands juxtaposed against what he has just left. If his "hope of home" has been shaken by Boylan's letter, other Dubliners have far less to stake their hopes on. Several sentences into the chapter he sees an impoverished boy "smoking a chewed fagbutt" and considers warning him about the dangers of tobacco, but then thinks of his family: "Tell him if he smokes he won't grow. O let him! His life isn't such a bed of roses. Waiting outside pubs to bring da home. Come home to ma, da." Countless Dublin homes have been blighted by alcohol—but later chapters will show that Bloom has evaded this habit, to the benefit of his family.

Tobacco and alcohol (and opium, also mentioned in the chapter) make hard lives more bearable but exact a heavy price. So too do various non-chemical fixes to which Bloom seems immune: militaristic patriotic fervor, mesmerizing religious rituals, the alluring greed of betting on horses. Some milder indulgences clearly appeal to him: drinking tea, dreaming of warmer climates, lusting after women who are not his wife. But these tender seductions are less dangerous than Bloom's determination not to think seriously about the marriage problems that are driving his wife to commit adultery. At one point in the chapter he envies castrated horses their freedom from sexual desire. At another he discounts the value of communication between spouses: "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). 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" (James Joyce's Dublin, 34-35). Scholars have noted that Bloom's steps trace the shape of a giant question mark. In his earlier Topographical Guide (1976), Hart observes that he actually tramps out two question marks, 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 Stephen's second and third chapters: Gilbert's has Lotus Eaters starting at 10 AM, while Linati's says 9. Neither can be correct, because unnarrated actions occur both before and after those represented in the chapter. After the conclusion of Calypso at 8:45, Bloom pays one more visit to his wife in her bedroom and then travels southeast a little more than a mile from his house to the docklands. Lotus Eaters could not begin earlier than about 9:30. After the conclusion of the chapter, Bloom visits the Turkish baths that he has been thinking about and then continues his southeasterly travels to Sandymount, where he joins the funeral party at about 11:00. So the chapter could not end much later than 10:30.

Clive 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 2018
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" [sic], W. Heath Robinson's illustration of Odysseus' men on the island of the lotus, in Jeanie Lang, Stories from the Odyssey Told to the Children (London, 1906). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
18th century French engraving, by an unknown artist, of Odysseus forcefully leading his men away from the land of the lotus. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The question marks inscribed by Bloom's feet in Lotus Eaters, on a map from Joyce's day and on one from today. Source: ulysses.bc.edu.