In Brief

Bloom's long encounter with his Nymph ends with a disapparition that makes her beauty seem false and meretricious: "With a cry flees from him unveiled, her plaster cast cracking, a cloud of stench escaping from the cracks." The cracking plaster allies the Nymph with the statues of Greek goddesses in the National Museum, but the bad smell recalls another unreliable vision of beauty: the Siren in Dante's Purgatorio. By alluding to this memorable scene in the Divine Comedy, Joyce challenges the Christian poet's claim that romantic love is, or should be, fundamentally non-sexual.

Read More

During his second night's sleep on the purgatorial mountain, in canto 19, Dante dreams of a woman whom he associates with the "sweet siren" whose song attracted Homer's Odysseus (19-24). At first the woman appears ugly: "stammering, cross-eyed, splayfooted, / with crippled hands and sickly pale complexion" (8-9). But as he stares at her, a transformation occurs: "my gaze gave her a ready tongue / and then in very little time / straightened her crooked limbs / and tinged her sallow face as love desires" (12-15). She starts to sing seductively, as a siren would, but her song is interrupted by a lady who comes to the dreamer's side and performs an intervention: "'O Virgil, Virgil, who is this?' / she asked indignant" (29-30). Virgil steps forward, seizes the siren, and rips her clothes off, exposing "her belly. / The stench that came from there awoke me" (32-33). The lady here may be Beatrice, Dante's guide in matters of faith, descending from heaven a second time to direct Virgil on Dante's behalf. The other woman is no Greek Siren but a creature of Dante's imagination, though perhaps suggested by actual women.

While these questions of identity are debated, the subject matter addressed in the dream seems more certain. The transiently attractive femmina repeats a fictive motif explored in the Vita Nuova, the Convivio, the Inferno, and the Purgatorio: objects of erotic desire opposed to the true love that Dante has found in Beatrice. She seems desirable for a moment, but then repellent. Later in the Purgatorio, Beatrice accuses Dante of being unfaithful to her after her death: "when I changed lives, he took himself from me / and gave himself to others" (30.125-26); "He set his steps upon an untrue way, / pursuing those false images of good / that bring no promise to fulfillment–– / useless the inspiration I sought and won for him, / as both with dreams and other means / I called him back" (130-35). Dante confesses to the charge, and Beatrice reminds him that she embodies "the highest beauty" (31.52), "so that you now may bear / the shame of your shameful straying and next time, / when you hear the Sirens' call (udendo le serene), be stronger" (43-45).

The Siren, then, represents Dante's susceptibility to an incontinent sexual appetite that could distract him from his decidedly non-sexual love of Beatrice. More even than Plato in the Symposium, Dante strips romantic love of the erotic hunger that most human beings regard as its essence, defining it instead as a force that draws the soul to the highest spiritual values––to God. Purgatorio 19 shows a lover's libidinous imagination transforming something ugly into an image that could compete with Beatrice. The stench (puzzo) that comes from the woman's genitals may have been suggested by Virgil's description of the Harpies in Aeneid 3.216-18 ("most foul the discharge of their bellies"), but for Dante it clearly expresses a disgusted rejection of all sexual attraction.  

By importing this detail into his own fiction, Joyce might seem to be painting the Nymph with a misogynistic brush. Only a moment earlier, her own vaginal secretions have been observed as a stain spreads on her clothing, and now "a cloud of stench" envelops her.  But Joyce, or Bloom, is not reviling female sexuality. The stain and the smell represent a rejection not of women's bodies but of the Nymph's claim to embody "Only the ethereal": "Sacrilege! To attempt my virtue! (A large moist stain appears on her robe.) Sully my innocence! You are not fit to touch the garment of a pure woman." These qualities––ethereality, virtue, purity, innocence––are precisely those that define Beatrice. Just as Dante's imagination transformed something ugly into an object of sexual desire, Bloom's imagination has transformed an image of a woman bathing into an object of spiritual aspiration. At this decisive moment in Circe, that idealization of women ends and Bloom boldly confronts Bella, rejecting her domination.

As in many other parts of Ulysses, Joyce's engagement with Dante here is admiring, precise, and far-reaching. It is also fundamentally hostile to the Christian values of the Commedia. By associating Bloom's idealized Nymph with Dante's misleading Siren, Joyce rejects the notion that erotic attraction could lead anywhere better than into the bed of another human being.

John Hunt 2023
Dante's Dream of the Siren, Garry Shead's 2016 oil on linen painting of the scene in Purgatorio 19. Source: