Increase and multiply

Increase and multiply

In Brief

God's command to "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28), which the Catholic church interprets in a remarkably literal and prescriptive way, echoes throughout Ulysses. Bloom has no use for the sexual totalitarianism. In Lestrygonians he observes that its enforcers do not have to live with the consequences: "That’s in their theology or the priest won’t give the poor woman the confession, the absolution. Increase and multiply. Did you ever hear such an idea? Eat you out of house and home. No families themselves to feed." Still, he feels the power of the call to reproduce, and in Oxen of the Sun Joyce harps on the theme, suggesting that his male protagonists have some work to do in the bedroom.

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In Proteus Stephen thinks of his parents having performed "the coupler's will." Gifford reasons that God is the "coupler" because He joins men and women in the sacrament of marriage, and it is His "will" that human beings procreate. In a personal communication, Senan Molony argues that the coupler, which Joyce does not capitalize, should instead be seen as the priest who married Stephen's parents, because he is the one who actually gave them the charge. And, as Bloom observes, it is also the priest who enforces the ban on practicing birth control. But Stephen is thinking of God just before and just after he speaks of the coupler, and other passages in the novel suggest that the Almighty has not entirely delegated this particular "will" to his vicars on earth. In Nausicaa Bloom recalls the Irish expression, "As God made them he matched them," which suggests that couplings may be effected at a higher pay grade.

The distinction is a fine one not worth much argument, but the question of how the church's teaching may apply to Stephen and to Bloom is more interesting. Bloom thinks of the doctrine in Lestrygonians when he sees Simon Dedalus' half-starving daughter on the street. With only very slight exaggeration of Joyce's family background he reflects, "Fifteen children he had. Birth every year almost." It seems unlikely that the apostate Stephen will ever practice such murine reproduction (Joyce himself had only two children), but clearly he wants to find a mate, and clearly he is not doing much to make it happen. In Oxen of the Sun, which plays relentlessly with the idea that fecundation is a divinely ordained imperative, Bloom grieves "for young Stephen for that he lived riotously with those wastrels and murdered his goods with whores."

But the chapter subjects Bloom to similar criticism. Another of its sections condemns him as "his own and only enjoyer," a husband whose field "lies fallow for the want of a ploughshare." Having produced only one child who survived to reproductive age, and having neglected his marital duty since the trauma of losing his infant son, thereby making it impossible to heal the breach with another child, is Bloom failing, if not the church's command to subdue the earth with children, then at least his biological imperative to perpetuate his lineage? In Ithaca he thinks, no, he has raised one child and therefore is not obligated to make any others: "The parties concerned, uniting, had increased and multiplied, which being done, offspring produced and educed to maturity, the parties, if not disunited were obliged to reunite for increase and multiplication, which was absurd." Having sex with Molly after she has taken a lover seems all the more undesirable, and absurd to boot, since the purpose of sex is to create children, and that phase of his life is over.

But repetitions of the word "multiply" hint at the sad sterility of the marriage. In Calypso Bloom thinks of the Jewish people "multiplying, dying, being born everywhere," and then of the Dead Sea, "an old woman's: the grey sunken cunt of the world." Later in Lestrygonians he dreams of governments giving every child a financial start in life: "give every child born five quid at compound interest up to twentyone five per cent is a hundred shillings and five tiresome pounds multiply by twenty decimal system encourage people to put by money save hundred and ten and a bit twentyone years want to work it out on paper come to a tidy sum more than you think. / Not stillborn of course. They are not even registered. Trouble for nothing." In Oxen of the Sun Mulligan lewdly proposes a fertilizing farm to remedy the childlessness of women with no mates, or poor ones, and thereby to "multiply the inlets of happiness."

This chapter's evocations of a God who insists on procreation and is angry when his will is thwarted echo the Homeric god who is angered by the slaughter of his cattle. It seems impossible that Joyce meant to affirm the Catholic church's rules for sexual behavior, but on the other hand it is quite possible that he is affirming the deep human drive couched in the biblical injunction. Considering the importance placed on children in Joyce's novel, readers may well assent to the assertion, in Oxen's first long paragraph, that "no nature's boon can contend against the bounty of increase."

JH 2021
Poster for Be Fruitful & Multiply, a 2005 film by Shosh Shlam. Source: