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.
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.