A donkey brayed

A donkey brayed

In Brief

When the gravediggers have laid Paddy Dignam to rest Bloom thinks, "If we were all suddenly somebody else." Immediately the narrative adds, "Far away a donkey brayed." It is a strange moment: the finality of death prompts an odd metaphysical fancy, and then an animal cries out as if in response. The cry makes Bloom recall some popular lore about donkeys, but one commentator notes that it may also play a symbolic role in the narrative. In a chapter stuffed with allusions to the underworlds of the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and the Inferno, the donkey's bray recalls the moment in Homer's Iliad when the horses of Achilles shed tears at the death of Patroclus.

Read More

§ The donkey is a quintessentially Irish animal, grazing in paddocks all over the country, and two Irish beliefs pop up in response to this one. When he hears its bray Bloom thinks, "Rain. No such ass. Never see a dead one, they say. Shame of death." Gifford notes "the Irish superstition that a donkey braying at midday forecasts rain," which the meteorology of June 16 supports. Thornton quotes a saying from P. W. Joyce's English As We Speak It in Ireland: "Three things no person ever saw: —a highlander's kneebuckle, a dead ass, a tinker's funeral." Commentary might well end with these proverbial commonplaces, but Bloom's attribution of human emotion to the animal, just after he ponders metempsychosis or metamorphosis, encourages another reading.

§ In a personal communication, Senan Molony points out a resemblance between Joyce's donkey and the two divine stallions of Achilles. The only other Greek who can fully manage these noble animals is Patroclus, and they reward his mastery with love. As fighting rages around his corpse, "at a distance from the battle the horses of Aeacides had been mourning from the time they first learned of the falling of their charioteer" (17.426-28, trans. Caroline Alexander). Nothing will persuade the horses to go back to the ships or rejoin the fighting. They stand apart, and "hot tears from their lids flowed down to the ground as they wept with longing for their charioteer" (437-39). Although immortal and nonhuman, they share the grief that devastates the combatants in Homer's tragic poem. Like these horses, the animal in Hades trumpets its dismay from "Far away." Its braying suggests a possible answer to the question implied by Bloom's thought, "If we were all suddenly somebody else": could Patrick (Dignam) be Patroclus? If a humble donkey in some Glasnevin yard can play the part of god-given horses, then the poor Dublin drunkard laid to rest in a Glasnevin grave may stand in for a great Achaean warrior.

§ Joyce does not weave detailed symbolic parallels between Patrick and Patroclus as he does between Leopold and Odysseus. But just as Patroclus represents all of tragically mortal humanity in Iliad 17, so Dignam functions in Ulysses as a comically generalized figure of human mortality and the possibility of postmortal existence. Any teasing suggestion in Hades that in life Dignam reincarnated a Greek hero should probably be compared to the sly suggestion in Nausicaa that, after death, he has been reincarnated as a bat flitting about in the evening air near his Sandymount house. Bloom thinks of the bat as "Like a little man in a cloak," "Hanging by his heels in the odour of sanctity" in the church belfry, and he calls it a "Ba," evoking the part of the soul that ancient Egyptians thought lived on after death. In Circe metempsychosis turns Dignam into a beagle, a new life-form that rivals the donkey for antiheroic, comical independence.

JH 2020
Irish donkey looking for company. Source: www.pinterest.com.
Automedon Tames the Horses of Achilles, 1868 oil on canvas painting by Henri Regnault held in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Greeks and the Trojans Fighting over the Body of Patroclus, one of several similar oil paintings by Antoine Wiertz starting in 1836, this one held in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. Source: Wikimedia Commons.