Soap

Soap

In Brief

Soap is much on Bloom's mind on June 16. He buys a cake of it in Sweny's (the Irish manufacturer will be identified hundreds of pages later), and it sits in one of his pockets throughout the day, calling attention to itself from time to time. When he runs into a grimy acquaintance outside the pharmacy, he thinks, "Good morning, have you used Pears' soap?," quoting verbatim from the formula with which an English manufacturer relentlessly advertised its product. In Circe Bloom's bar of soap speaks, mouthing almost verbatim the jingle of still another brand, this one American: "We're a capital couple are Bloom and I.
 / He brightens the earth. I polish the sky." Lestrygonians and Ithaca also feature interesting interactions with soap. Collectively, these passages characterize Bloom's sense of self and evoke cultural messages about class, race, and empire encoded in some of the ads that he ponders.

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Standing in the pharmacy, Bloom thinks that taking a bath before his 11:00 appointment will fortify his mood: "Feel fresh then all day. Funeral be rather glum." He picks up a cake of soap, inhales its lemony aroma, buys it (payment to be made later), and strolls out of the shop only to run immediately into a walking refutation of cleanliness in the person of Bantam Lyons: "yellow blacknailed fingers," "rough dirt" everywhere, "Dandruff on his shoulders." Bloom thinks of the ad for Pears' soap, and when he finally gets free of Lyons he folds the soap carefully in his newspaper and walks toward the baths, imagining soothing warm water "oiled by scented melting soap."

These paragraphs at the end of Lotus Eaters portray a man who values the power of cleanliness to stave off the daily miseries of life: dirty people shuffling around a dirty city, moral indifference and personal neglect, the depressing reality of death and loss. Much later in the novel, Joyce repeats the scene with some variations as Bloom returns home. Welcoming Stephen to Eccles Street, he sets a kettle on the fire to boil water for cocoa and returns to the tap "To wash his soiled hands with a partially consumed tablet of Barrington's lemonflavoured soap, to which paper still adhered (bought thirteen hours previously for fourpence and still unpaid for), in fresh cold neverchanging everchanging water and dry them, face and hands, in a long redbordered holland cloth passed over a wooden revolving roller."

There is an air of ritual in Bloom's washing the dirt of Dublin off his body both before and after his long trek, and on both occasions Joyce heightens the effect by providing a foil to his protagonist's cleanliness. Apparently Bloom offers Stephen a chance to join him in washing up, because Stephen gives a reason for declining: "That he was hydrophobe, hating partial contact by immersion or total by submersion in cold water (his last bath having taken place in the month of October of the preceding year)." Bloom is tempted to give his filthy guest some "counsels of hygiene and prophylactic," along with some obsessive-compulsive tips for bathing ("a preliminary wetting of the head and contraction of the muscles with rapid splashing of the face and neck and thoracic and epigastric region in case of sea or river bathing"), but he wisely bites his tongue to preserve the spirit of comity that he has only recently achieved with Stephen.

Together these scenes characterize soap as a kind of protector of personal integrity, guarding the boundary between the pristine self and the dirty world outside it. Joyce suggests its psychological power even more strikingly at the end of Lestrygonians as Bloom desperately tries to avoid running into Blazes Boylan in the street. Heart racing and breath fluttering, he heads for the gate of the National Museum while frantically searching his pockets, taking strange comfort in what he at last finds there:

     His hasty hand went quick into a pocket, took out, read unfolded Agendath Netaim. Where did I?
      Busy looking for.
      He thrust back quickly Agendath.
      Afternoon she said.
      I am looking for that. Yes, that. Try all pockets. Handker. Freeman. Where did I? Ah, yes. Trousers. Purse. Potato.         Where did I?
      Hurry. Walk quietly. Moment more. My heart.
      His hand looking for the where did I put found in his hip pocket soap lotion have to call tepid paper stuck. Ah, soap there! Yes. Gate.
      Safe!
Bloom's searching of his pockets is no doubt a show calculated to account for his not looking up and risking eye contact with Boylan before he gets safely through the museum gate. But the panic is real, and the text's suggestion that he triumphantly discovers the thing he is looking for—"Ah, soap there! Yes"—creates the impression that the soap is as much his savior as the gate is. Against what feels like a mortal threat ("my heart"), Bloom takes comfort in the nugget of sweet-smelling cleanliness that he carries in his pocket.

His fetishistic attachment to soap might seem to call for some kind of psychoanalytic explanation, but what Ulysses gives its readers instead are hints of the power of late 19th century commodity advertising. Explored as a cultural studies phenomenon in Thomas Richards' book The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914 (1990) and Anne McClintock's Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest (1995), soap ads were brought into Joyce studies by Hye Ryoung Kil in an article titled "Soap Advertisements and Ulysses: The Brooke's Monkey Brand Ad and the Capital Couple," JJQ 47.3 (2010): 417-26. These three works provide some highly suggestive context for Bloom's strong attachment.

In the second half of the 19th century toilet soap, previously the privilege of the rich, began to be mass-produced and marketed to middle-class consumers who appreciated its ability to differentiate them from the grimy working classes. Starting in 1884, a brand called Pears' Soap began touting its product in ads that aligned personal cleanliness not only with freedom from manual labor but also with superiority to the dark-skinned laborers in Britain's colonies. Omnipresent print ads promised to lift users of their soap into the ruling class, asking, "Good morning! Have you used Pears' Soap?" So pervasive was this advertising that, according to a book by James B. Twitchell cited in one of Kil's endnotes, well-bred Victorians became leery of saying "good morning" to one another, lest they seem to be repeating the language of the ads. Bloom, however, does not sound very embarrassed when he imagines spouting the line to the filthy Bantam Lyons. He evidently thinks that the man should improve himself.

It is hard to know just how much purchase the ad may have on Bloom's thinking. He is an advertising man, after all, and jingles and pitches pass through his mind all day without necessarily saying much about his beliefs. But the novel does provide plenty of hints about how the British ideal of cleanliness embodied in the soap ads might appeal to a man in Bloom's social station. The British had long sought to suggest that the white people they colonized on the island next door were somehow racially different from themselves, presenting the Irish in countless cartoons as dirty, hairy, negroid ape-men. And Bloom, of course, has an additional racial hurdle to surmount: he struggles even to be accepted as legitimately Irish. In Cyclops the Citizen calls him a "whiteeyed kaffir," demeaning him by association with Africans just as the English did with the Irish.

The sense of racial inferiority that Bloom struggles with can be seen in the language that he uses in Lestrygonians to characterize Reuben J. Dodd, a man whom he takes to be Jewish but less successful at integrating himself into Gentile society: "Now he’s really what they call a dirty jew." His love of hygeine may well contain an element of servile aspiration. The Pears ads, without doubt, encouraged and justified such aspiration. As Kil observes,"The possibility of racial cleansing and the progress of the dominated depicted in soap ads subversively challenged the idea that cleanliness was uniquely English.... the virtuousness of white civilization appeared to be a cultural rather than a natural attribute that anyone could purchase" (418).

The ad parodied in Circe was for a different kind of soap, one used for cleaning household surfaces rather than the human body. "Brooke's Soap Monkey Brand," manufactured by an American company, was advertised in 1891 in an image that showed a minstrel-like monkey sitting on the tip of the crescent moon and singing, "We're a capital couple the Moon and I, / I polish the earth, she brightens the sky." Only this one ad used the conceit of the moon, but many others featured the dressed-up monkey. Its resemblance to 19th century depictions of Irishmen and Blacks is probably not accidental. Kil suggests that the monkey stood in for all those people (manual laborers, women, colonial subjects) on whose backs empire was built and households cleaned, while simultaneously suggesting that the soap had magically rendered brute labor unnecessary.

By substituting Bloom for this half-civilized simian, the novel may be portraying its protagonist as an Irish-Jewish mongrel who believes that the right kind of soap can confer a kind of racial purity. But the Monkey Brand ads appeared to target class and gender as much as race: they evoked a world in which household cleaning was accomplished by the magic of modern chemistry rather than by the arms of charwomen. This distancing of consciousness from the labor of domestic help has a presence in Circe. Twenty pages after the parody of the Brooke's ad, a woman who performed menial physical labor in Bloom's home, Mary Driscoll, accuses him of having propositioned her, and he uses racially suggestive language to refute her: "I treated you white. I gave you mementos, smart emerald garters far above your station. Incautiously I took your part when you were accused of pilfering." Mary here is the monkey in the house, magically ennobled and effaced by the kind of thinking that polishes the earth and brightens the sky.

Kil's article raises another line of questioning whose implications are very murky, but probably worth mentioning. In 1899 the British firm Lever Brothers bought Brooke's Soap after noting its effectiveness in selling household soap, which British manufacturers had not previously bothered to advertise. In British hands the ads for Monkey Brand came to more closely resemble the Pears ads promising to civilize the dusky world. Did Joyce view the two soaps through the same colonialist lens? This seems possible, but Kil also suggests that he may have felt more sympathetic toward the company that produced the 1891 ad because it was American. The soap that Bloom carries around all day is Irish, and in Lestrygonians he thinks happily of giving Milly baths with an "American soap I bought: elderflower." When the Irish soap diffuses light and perfume about the sky and proclaims in an American spirit that "We're a capital couple are Bloom and I," could it possibly be evoking independence from colonial domination rather than submission to it? This is one of several tantalizing questions raised, but hardly answered, by the novel's engagement with soap ads.

JH 2022
An 1891 ad for Brooke's Soap. Source: www.art.com.