In Brief

In a blighted area at the top of South Cumberland Street, Bloom looks down at the evidence of an outdoor children's game and sees a child practicing another such game: "With careful tread he passed over a hopscotch court with its forgotten pickeystone. Not a sinner. Near the timberyard a squatted child at marbles, alone, shooting the taw with a cunnythumb." There is nothing exotic about these games, but the terms mentioned in Lotus Eaters require some explanation, and several details subtly imply that Bloom is revisiting memories of childhood humiliations.

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In the familiar game of "hopscotch," children either scratch into dirt, or mark onto pavement with chalk, a sequence of numbered spaces ending in a "safe" or "home" space. The game begins with a player tossing a small stone or some other flat marker into the first square and hopping through the sequence on one foot without touching the square that the stone occupies. (When two spaces lie side by side, both feet are used as long as neither square contains the stone.) At the end of the course, the player turns around in the safe space and repeats the sequence in reverse, bending over to pick up the stone on the way back. Then the stone is thrown into the second square, and the third, and so on through all the numbers. The turn ends when the thrown stone misses the required square or touches a line, or when the player's feet do the same thing. After other players have had their turns, the next turn starts from the point where the last one broke off. The first player to complete all the sequences wins the game.

In Ireland the stone was called a "pickeystone" or piggy. Bloom sees a stone still lying in the maze, a sign that some children were recently playing there, as he walks over the court "With careful tread," no doubt making sure not to step on any lines. The subtle evocation of remembering childhood continues as he recalls the chant that, according to Gifford, opposing players would yell at the child who stepped on a line: "You're a sinner; you're a sinner." His thought, "Not a sinner," shows him still defending himself in imagination against these loud jeers from his God-fearing Catholic playmates. One imagines Bloom not having been physically graceful or hugely popular as a child, so he may have endured this verbal gauntlet with some discomfort.

The game of "marbles" is played with small balls made of stone, clay, or glass, painted in bright colors or marked with colorful stripes. A circle several feet in diameter is drawn on the ground with chalk or string. Marbles called "ducks" are placed near the center of the circle, sometimes in a pattern. Players take turns holding another marble in a hand pressed to the ground and launching it in hopes of knocking one of the ducks out of the ring but keeping the shooter marble inside it. Players collect any marbles they succeed in knocking out of the ring and, as in hopscotch, they keep shooting until they miss. At the end of the game, the player who has collected the most marbles wins. (In some versions of the game the shooter marble is removed at the end of each turn. In other versions it is not. In "friendlies," the marbles that have been won are returned to the children who provided them. In "keepsies" they are not.)

The shooter marble, which is usually large and heavy to carry more momentum, is called the "taw." The child in Lotus Eaters is launching it in a particular manner: "shooting the taw with a cunnythumb." The connotations of this last word seem distinctly negative. Slote notes that "cunny" is "pejorative for a woman," and, citing the phrase "cunny-thumbed" in Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang, he suggests that Joyce's word involves "the stereotype that women clench their fists to punch with the thumb enclosed in their fingers." By this reading, the child that Bloom sees kneeling on the ground has a weak, effeminate way of shooting. If Bloom recognizes the technique and the name, it may remind him of his own play, because he was not skilled in the game. Five sentences later he thinks, "And once I played marbles when I went to that old dame’s school."

Slote's detective work is persuasive, but his inference about the meaning of "cunnythumb" need not remain conjectural. In fact it was a recognized way of shooting marbles. The website of the American Toy Marble Museum shows an illustration of the technique and makes this comment: "If Little Lord Fauntleroy played marbles, any boy could tell you how he would shoot. He would hold his hand vertically; place his taw or shooter against his thumb-nail and his first finger. He would shoot 'cunny thumb style,' or 'scrumpy knuckled.' The thumb would flip out weakly (Fig. 5), and the marble would roll on its way."

Much better would be the virilely effective style of a Tom Sawyer or a Huck Finn: "Tom Sawyer would lay the back of his fist on the ground or on his mole-skin 'knuckle dabster,' hold his taw between the first and second joints of the second finger and the first joint of the thumb, the three smaller fingers closed and the first finger partially open (Fig. 6). From this animated ballista the marble would shoot through the air for four or five feet, alighting on one of the ducks in the middle of the ring, sending it flying outside, while the taw would spin in the spot vacated by the duck. Tom or Huck Finn would display as much skill with his taw as an expert billiard player would with the ivory balls."

In addition to cries of "You're a sinner," then, Joyce's sentences evoke cries of "You shoot like a girl." Children's games afford endless opportunities for humiliation, and it does not take much imagination to draw a line from Bloom's childhood experiences to his present-day experiences of having to defend himself against charges of cuckoldry, effeminacy, ethnic inferiority, and political disloyalty.

JH 2021
A hopscotch player. Source:
Some standard hopscotch courts at the turn of the last century, as illustrated in Daniel Carter Beard's The Outdoor Handy Book: For the Playground, Field, and Forest (1900). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
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