Icebergs

In Brief

In Eumaeus, a chapter filled with allusions to shipwrecks, frequent mentions of ice are perhaps the first clue that Joyce may be evoking the sinking of a famous Irish vessel in April 1912. A reference, about halfway through the chapter, to "collisions with icebergs" certainly strengthens this hypothesis.

Read More

Although no one in 1904 could have known of the wreck of the Titanic—that imposing product of the Belfast shipyards had not yet been built—Senan Molony argues, in an unpublished paper presented to the summer 2019 Trieste Joyce School, that echoes of the disaster permeate the 16th chapter of Ulysses. Joyce sprinkles these echoes into his text lightly, Molony observes: "he is too fine and disciplined a writer to spoil the subtlety of his craft with a heavy hand. Therefore the Titanic influences are not so ill-mannered as to be explicit, but are instead part of Joyce's mood-tonality, his artistic pointillism, which builds up the form and shape of the overall from hundreds, or even thousands, of pieces of verbal mosaic."

As Stephen and Bloom approach the cabman's shelter early in the chapter, "Adjacent to the men's public urinal they perceived an icecream car round which a group of presumably Italians in heated altercation were getting rid of voluble expressions." In Irish cities low-class eateries and street food vendors often begin business at the end of the work day and stay open into the wee hours, so encountering such a cart after midnight would not by itself be unusual. But an ice cream cart, on a day whose morning began quite chilly and which has seen a torrential rainstorm in the late evening? Perhaps so, but the detail seems at least mildly surprising. Less than half a page later, the two men have stepped into the shelter and Bloom suggests, "to break the ice," that Stephen might want to consider having a bite to eat. The expression is perfectly commonplace, but ice has now twice been insinuated into a reader's sensorium.

When Skipper Murphy begins to command the conversation, he steers the imagery in a nautical direction: "I seen icebergs plenty, growlers." Growlers are very small bergs which get their name from the animal-like sounds they can emit as their ice melts. Since they project no more than a meter or two above the surface of the water, they are easy for lookouts to miss, especially at night or in foggy conditions, and many experienced seamen have speculated that the Titanic must have struck one of these small bergs. Traveling at considerable speed, as the big liner apparently was, hitting the more massive slab of ice that lay underneath such a berg (seven eighths of the total mass) would have been like hitting a large jagged rock below the waterline. Interestingly, the people in Eumaeus have much to say about rocks sticking out of the water. Bloom asks Murphy if he has "seen the rock of Gibraltar." Pressed for details, the old salt growls, "I'm tired of all them rocks in the sea." The keeper of the shelter wants to know "why that ship ran bang against the only rock in Galway bay when the Galway harbour scheme was mooted by a Mr Worthington."

The unobtrusive iceberg theme rises unmistakably above the surface of the text when the people in the shelter begin talking about maritime accidents: "Interest, however, was starting to flag somewhat all round and the others got on to talking about accidents at sea, ships lost in a fog, collisions with icebergs, all that sort of thing." But Molony also notes much more subtle appearances. When Murphy displays his animated tattoo of his companion Antonio, he remarks that he died at sea: "Ay, ay, sighed the sailor, looking down on his manly chest. He's gone too. Ate by sharks after. Ay, ay." "Eaten alive?" someone asks. "Ay, ay, sighed again the latter personage, more cheerily this time." Read aloud, "Ay sighed" may subliminally suggest the Ice Side that ate the Titanic alive.

Near the chapter's end, as Bloom leads Stephen through the city streets, the narrative notes that he "was keeping a sharp lookout as usual," and he jokes to his companion, "Our lives are in peril tonight." Molony observes that the men posted on the Titanic's masts were ordered to "keep a sharp lookout for small ice." Several sentences later, Bloom expresses regret that he does not have anything to feed the street-sweeper's horse, as he has fed gulls and a dog earlier in the day: "such a good poor brute, he was sorry he hadn't a lump of sugar but, as he wisely reflected, you could scarcely be prepared for every emergency that might crop up." Holding a lump of sugar up to a horse bears a clear visual resemblance to a small block of ice approaching a large ship, and describing it as an "emergency" that might "crop up" fits very neatly with the theme.

Molony's reading of Eumaeus addresses many other details, including the characterizations of Murphy and of the street-sweeping horse at the end of the chapter.

JH 2019
Photograph taken by chief steward M. Linoenewald of the liner Prinz Adalbert early on 15 April 1912,  hours after the Titanic struck an iceberg in the same area, with a note observing that red paint was "plainly visible" on the iceberg, apparently made by the "scraping of a vessel" on it. Titanic had a large stripe of red paint just above the waterline. Source: www.telegraph.co.uk.
Photograph of a growler taken on 12 April 1912 with handwritten notation, "Blue berg taken by Captain Wood S. S. Etonian 12/4/12 in Lat 41º50W Long 49º50N Titanic struck 14/4/12 and sank in three hours." Source: clickamericana.com.
Photographic image distinguishing a "growler" from smaller "bergy bits," both of them technical terms at sea.  Source: thinkenriched.com.
Lookouts in the crow's nest of the Titanic, about 15 meters above the forecastle deck. Source: www.titanicpages.com.