Chapter Fifteen, Circe
Narrative Focus: Bloom/Stephen
Characters: Bloom, Stephen, Lynch, Mulligan, Bella Cohen (madame), Zoe, Kitty, Flory, Stephen’s mother, Lipoti Virag (Bloom’s grandfather), Rudy (Bloom’s son), Cissy Caffrey, Major Tweedy (Molly’s father), Private Carr, Private Compton, other phantoms.
Setting: Bella’s Brothel, Midnight.
Circe the Enchantress transformed Odysseus’ men into swine. Armed by Hermes with the magic herb moly as an antidote to Circe’s magic, Odysseus forced her to restore the men’s human shape. After living with her for a year and begetting a son (Telegonus), Odysseus set out on Circe’s instructions to visit the Underworld and learn the secret of his return (Book X). The parallels between Circe’s House and Bella’s are self-evident: magic and metamorphosis are the keynotes of this chapter.
Prose fiction dissolves into drama, reality into dream, magic, and vision. Bloom sees the ghosts of his father, mother, and son Rudy, Stephen the ghost of his mother. As the Walpugisnacht fantasy of Circe’s House lifts, reality enters once again in the person of Private Carr, who knocks Stephen unconscious. Stephen and Bloom, however, have survived their final trial and solved the mystery of their identity amid Circe’s magic, so Bloom steps in to act as father to Stephen, who drunkenly quotes snippets of Yeats’ “Who Goes with Fergus?”
This is the climax and critical crux of the novel.
From The New Bloomsday Book:
“The withdrawal of the rational element, represented in Homer by the bestializing of Circe’s victims, has its contemporary counterpart in both the content and the form of this episode. Its nightmare quality is appropriate to the hour and to the condition of Stephen, who is drunk after his potent mixture of drinks, culminating in absinthe. . . . What passes in the mind is expressed in dramatic form exactly as what happens externally is expressed. This technique makes difficulties for the reader, but it would be a mistake to overestimate the novelty of Joyce’s experiment in this respect. It is doubtful whether much is done in this episode, in the way of materializing imagery and concretizing mental sequences, which is not anticipated in, for instance, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The weird sisters themselves exemplify the process of personifying the spiritual and mental forces at work in man’s inner life.”