Mother Slipperslapper

Mother Slipperslapper

In Brief

In Hades Bloom imagines that women tending to a corpse would "Slop about in slipperslappers for fear he'd wake." In Circe Zoe calls Bella Cohen "Mother Slipperslapper," and later in that chapter a "woman's slipperslappers" are among the items flung at Bloom as he flees the whorehouse. This is not a commonly used word. The sense seems to be simply "slippers": flimsy slip-on house shoes. Joyce's name Mother Slipperslapper suggests that he has taken his long word from an old English folk song called The Fox, or A Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night. If Bloom is thinking of this song in Hades, he is, very typically, keeping dismal adult facts of life at bay with the childish play of nursery rhymes.

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The story of a fox visiting an old woman's property at night and relieving her of a duck and a goose dates back to a Middle English poem of the 15th century. Song versions are nearly as old (one was written down on the flyleaf of a manuscript in about 1500), and children's picture books have presented the story for a long time. Thornton notes that Old Mother Slipper Slopper figures in a nursery rhyme printed in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, which comments, "This rollicking song is traditional both in England and America, the fourth verse being a particular favorite and sometimes appearing alone."

The fourth verse is the one in which the old woman bounds out of bed, sticks her head out of the window, and hollers, "John, John, the grey goose is gone! / And the fox is on the town-o!" Many variants of her name have been sung: old Mother Slipperslapper or Slipperslopper (the sentence in Hades manages to evoke both), Flipperflopper (a common American variation, heard on the first recording here), Widdlewaddle, Pitterpatter, or Gigglegaggle, or simply "the old woman" or "the old grey woman" (as in the second recording).

Some annotators have labored to find solemn significance in this nursery rhyme figure who pops up in Bloom's thoughts as he thinks of women laying out corpses. Gifford and Seidman associate her with the Shan Van Vocht, saying (without elaboration) that she "is a type of the 'poor old woman' who personifies Ireland." Zack Bowen wavers between such symbol-hunting and realistic interpretation: "In the passage under consideration mother slipperslapper is a surrogate for Ireland as well as all of womankind and the women who prepare the bodies for burial in Ireland," but "the lady in the song seems here to have been merely used as a cliché for an aroused and wary old woman." Nothing in Joyce's text encourages a hunt for mythical figures, but on the other hand it is uncharitable, and unperceptive, to call Mother Slipperslapper a mere cliché! No stale familiarity clings to her comically inventive name, which adds linguistic zing to the "Huggermugger" that Bloom has just borrowed from Hamlet.

Joyce does, however, give his readers a context in which to make sense of the allusion. The old woman on Newbridge Avenue peers bleakly out of her window at the funeral carriages, "Thanking her stars she was passed over" by the hand of Death. But in the scene called up from the song an old woman is troubled by a less momentous appearance of Death: "John, John, the grey goose is gone!" Bloom's charming inclination to see childish play everywhere he looks, even in the midst of grim adult realities, manifests itself here in an inclination that will characterize him throughout Hades: he simply will not pay solemn reverence to death.

And Joyce adds another light touch. Against the nursery rhyme playing in the background of his reveries, Bloom imagines that an old woman tending to a corpse would "Slop about in slipperslappers for fear he'd wake." No doubt the skeptical Bloom is recalling old wives' superstitions in a purely dismissive spirit. But Joyce found the superstition affirmed in another "rollicking song" (this phrase of the Oxford Dictionary shows up in Hades when Bloom hears "a rollicking rattling song of the halls"). That song, Finnegans Wake, touts the miraculous power of whiskey to make a corpse wake up, offering intimations of immortality that Joyce was happy to explore at great length in his last novel.

John Hunt 2020
Sheet music of The Fox, with the American variant, Flipper-Flopper. Source: