Toad eyes

Toad eyes

In Brief

Of the many strange narrative devices in Ulysses, one of the strangest is a convention-violating interplay between the thoughts and words of the third-person narrator and those of the characters. In several of the novel's chapters, Joyce experiments with breaking down the wall of expectations segregating the teller of the tale from those whose stories he tells.

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In The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses (Princeton, 1981), Karen Lawrence notes an odd sympathy between Bloom and the narrator of Hades (50). The narrator describes the priest in the mortuary chapel as balancing a book "against his toad's belly." Bloom's interior monologue then intrudes: "Who'll read the book? I, said the rook." It seems odd, though Lawrence does not make anything of it, that Bloom recalls these lines from the Cock Robin nursery rhyme, about a bird who plays a parson, immediately after the narrator uses an animal metaphor to describe the priest. Is the connection coincidental? In the next line, the narrator continues the animal metaphors by saying that the priest "began to read out of his book with a fluent croak." Bloom responds with more animal metaphors, again not conclusive enough for Lawrence to mention: "Bully about the muzzle he looks. . . . Burst sideways like a sheep in clover Dedalus says he will. With a belly on him like a poisoned pup." But finally, several sentences later, Bloom responds specifically to the image of a toad's belly: "Eyes of a toad too. What swells him up that way?" It seems that Bloom has been listening to the narration.

Characters are not supposed to be aware of things that the narrator is saying. If they gain such awareness (as in Marvell's Upon Appleton House, when the mowers respond to one of the narrator's similes by exclaiming, "he called us Israelites"), the foundations of the fiction threaten to crumble. Narrators are allowed more knowledge: they can quote the speech of their characters, describe the contents of their minds, and approximate those mental contents through free indirect discourse. But no matter how omniscient or reliable the narrator's insights, he or she is not normally supposed to carry on dialogue with the character. When this convention is broken, it often happens outside the frame of the fiction, as when Thackeray wafts a parting benediction to Amelia at the end of Vanity Fair: "Grow green again, tender little parasite."

Beginning in Scylla and Charybdis, Joyce has his narrator snatch and redeploy characters' words, much as Bloom seems to meditate on the narrator's words in Hades. Lawrence notes an example. Stephen says, "A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery." Parodically, the poet's phrase then becomes part of a narrative sentence that sounds more than faintly mocking: "Portals of discovery opened to let in the quaker librarian." Scylla and Charybdis frequently creates such effects, and two chapters later, in Sirens, the narrative voice is constantly being infected by the words of the characters.

The most bizarre and complex of these effects in Sirens occurs when the two barmaids explode in bursts of derisive laughter about "that old fogey in Boyd's," who sold Miss Douce some lotion for her skin. The two women excoriate the "hideous old wretch," imagining how awful it would be to be married to his "greasy eyes," his "bit of beard," and his "greasy nose," and when they finally desist in exhaustion, the narrator muses, "Married to Bloom, to greaseaseabloom." Bloom, still walking the streets, has not yet arrived at the Ormond. The barmaids cannot possibly be talking about him. Has the narrator then become so solicitous toward poor soon-to-be-cuckolded Bloom that he responds to the barmaids' speech defensively and tenderly, imagining that they are deriding his protagonist? Whatever the psychology behind the transfer, the narrator has used the barmaids' words to give his protagonist a new name, as is emphasized several sentences later: "By Cantwell's offices roved Greaseabloom, by Ceppi's virgins, bright of their oils. Nannetti's father hawked those things about, wheedling at doors as I."

JH 2014
Parson Rook, reading his book, in The Death and Burial of Cock Robin (London: William Darton and Son). Source:
E. H. Shepard's Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, from The Wind in the Willows. Source:
An old fogey. Source: