Episode 5: Lotus-eaters
The "Lotus-Eaters" episode follows Mr. Bloom into the streets of Dublin for errands, encounters, and exoticisms. If we assume that Bloom left Eccles Street soon after the conclusion of the “Calypso” episode (which you’ll remember concluded with the bells chiming 8:45), the episode begins around 9:30 am. Mr. Bloom has walked about 30 minutes south, paralleling Stephen’s concurrent southerly walk from the Tower to the school.
He notices some scavenging children from working class families and imagines the scene of the boy sent to bring his father home from the pub on payday. While perhaps not as refined as Stephen’s, Bloom’s imagination is lively and vivid, as we will continue to see throughout the day (and, to be sure, the night).
His first order of business on this warm morning, as hinted at in the “Calypso” episode, is to visit the Post Office and see if his illicit pen-pal has responded to his latest letter. Looking through the window of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company, Bloom removes his hat under the auspices of running his hand over his brow but sneakily removes the “Mr. Henry Flower” name-card from its hiding spot in his hatband.
Mr. Bloom returns his attention to the Oriental tea shop he has stopped in front of and entertains a reverie of the lethargic inhabitants of the far east (remember that Joyce titled this episode “Lotus Eaters” after the Homeric people who eat the mellow lotus fruit and lose all other desires). He remembers seeing a photo of a man floating in the Dead Sea, unable to sink due to the water’s high salinity, and half-recalls a high school physics lesson on Archimedes’ Principle (a solid body immersed in a liquid undergoes an apparent loss of weight equal to the weight of the liquid displaced), which he then conflates with the Law of Acceleration and Newtonian ideas on gravity. This passage exemplifies Bloom’s interested mind and almost knowledge. Like all of us, he gets things wrong, but we must appreciate his mental activity.
Crossing the road to the Westland Row Post Office, Bloom puts on a careless air to disguise his anxiety, lightly tapping his leg with the newspaper he has rolled into a baton as he walks. He gives the “Mr. Henry Flower” card to the postmistress and is surprised when she hands him a letter from Martha Clifford, his illicit pen-pal. Bloom puts the letter in his pocket, looks at a recruiting poster for the British military, and leaves the Post Office.
He is covertly opening the envelope of the letter hidden in his pocket when a man named M’Coy interrupts him. Bloom is annoyed at being delayed in reading Martha’s letter but behaves pleasantly enough, especially given that M’Coy is also distracting him from watching an attractive, high-class woman climb into a carriage across the street. As we saw in the butcher’s shop earlier in the morning, Bloom has a bit of a lecherous streak to him.
A few other things to take away from Bloom’s conversation with M’Coy: many characters from the Dubliners stories are referenced, including Bob Doran (“The Boarding House”), Hoppy Holohan (“A Mother”), Bantam Lyons (“Ivy Day in the Committee Room”), and M’Coy himself (“Grace”). In this way, Joyce establishes continuity within the Dublin depicted in his various works of fiction; these characters have continued to exist, developing on unique and natural trajectories. For example, knowing from “The Boarding House” that Bob Doran was essentially trapped into marrying Polly Mooney, it makes some sense that he would go on benders from time to time.
Also, Bloom’s conversation with M’Coy is underlaid with the fact that the wives of these two men are rival singers, competing for music hall gigs and prominence. While Bloom is pleased to tell M’Coy the news of Molly’s planned concert tour, doing so reminds him of this afternoon’s meeting between his wife and Blazes Boylan.
M’Coy asks Bloom the favor of putting his name down at Dignam’s funeral, and the two men part ways. Alone again, Bloom congratulates himself on ducking M’Coy’s trick of “borrowing” luggage from people (he pawns off the things he borrows!), and then thinks about seeing a performance of the play Leah tonight. This play invokes themes of anti-Semitism and suicide, which brings Bloom’s mind to his father, who admired the play and who we later learn took his own life by poison.
Bloom turns down a side street and finally reads Martha’s letter to Henry Flower. If Bloom worried that he went too far in his last letter, it seems Martha is enjoying the new, edgier tone of their flirtation. The letter contains quite a few typographical and grammatical errors, which is ironic because the ad to which Martha responded to begin this correspondence called for a “smart lady typist to aid gentleman in literary work.” While titillated by the letter, Bloom foresees the arc of this relationship: Martha will push the flirtation while trying to maintain the appearance of the scrupulous Catholic woman, which he characterizes with the back-and-forth of a “usual love scrimmage” (5.271). Bloom therefore resolves not to meet Martha, but he will continue to indulge the excitement of the written correspondence.
He thinks about all the pins women have in their clothing while attempting to discern the meaning of various phrases from Martha’s letter, then tears the envelope bearing Henry Flower’s name into bits and tosses them into the road. Bloom ponders the similar ease with which someone could tear up a check, remembers a massive check cashed by a member of the Guinness family, and then resumes his contemplation of Dublin’s pub economy from earlier in the morning. Again, he gets it almost right.
Mr. Bloom decides to pop into All Hallows Church, where a woman’s sodality is taking place. He sees a poster for a sermon on missionary work abroad to be delivered by Father Conmee (formerly the rector of Clongowes Wood College, where young Stephen Dedalus began school), and, typical of Bloom, notes the sensory experiences of the church, such as “the cold smell of sacred stone,” the stupefying effect of hearing the Latin, the enjoyment of the music, and the appeal of drinking wine (more “aristocratic” than the Guinness the congregants are used to consuming). Also typical of Bloom, he has a relatively harmless but still rather lecherous thought that a church is a “nice discreet place to be next some girl” (5.340-41).
Bloom thinks about miracles, the practical effects of going to mass, and tries to recall the meaning of the INRI and the IHS notations surrounding the crucifix. Again, he is incorrect: INRI is “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” rather than “iron nails ran in” (5.374), as Bloom supposes, and IHS is “Jesus, the savior of men” rather than “I have suffered” (5.373). Along these same lines, Bloom is wrong both times he tries to recall the name of the man who ratted on the Invincibles (an Irish Nationalist group responsible for the Phoenix Park murders of Lords Cavendish and Burke): not Peter Carey, not Denis Carey, but James Carey. But before we condemn Bloom for his mental inaccuracy, who knows how often we ourselves are wrong in our own thoughts and recollections?
Bloom has a slew of blasphemous yet humorous and pragmatic thoughts on the Church as he sits in the pew, deconstructing each act and thinking about Catholicism in a worldly frame. Consider these thoughts in echo and in contrast to Stephen’s solemn and theological contemplation of blasphemy earlier in the novel.
At the end of the service, Bloom stands up to leave and notices that two buttons on his waistcoat had been open all morning. Eager to generalize about women, he claims that women quite enjoy the unexpected exposure of a man’s skin. Leaving the church, he checks the time (quarter past) and decides he has enough time to get some lotion made for Molly at Sweny’s Chemist down the street; however, he realizes to his frustration that the recipe for the lotion is in his other trousers, as is the key to his home (which he had reminded himself to get earlier in the morning). He begins to curse the funeral (the reason he is wearing his black suit rather than his normal pants) but checks himself by remembering poor Dignam (“it’s not his fault” (5.469)). In a wonderful bit of natural thought and problem solving, Bloom thinks that the chemist can look up the recipe for Molly’s lotion in his prescription book, and he tries to think of when he last had it made. Notably, he paid using a sovereign (a £1 coin, which would be like using a $100 bill in American currency...although it may have been closer in value to $300 today - see the “Money in Ulysses” page under the Other Resources tab on this site).
Bloom enters Sweny's and does his best to remember the ingredients to the lotion while his mind pops around from moments with Molly this morning to the usefulness of home-remedies to the letter from Martha to the idea of taking a quick bath at the Turkish bath house down the street and the idea of, ahem, “combining business with pleasure” (5.504-05) in the bath.
He arranges to pay for a bar of lemon soap and Molly’s lotion, for which he says he will return later in the day, and leaves the shop with the rolled newspaper under his armpit. On the street, an unhygienic man named Bantam Lyons nudges Mr. Bloom and asks to borrow the newspaper to see about the horses running later in the day in the Ascot Gold Cup, a major event in the British steeplechase horse-racing calendar (even so today). Bloom, hoping to get rid of Bantam Lyons, offers him the paper to keep, saying “I was just going to throw it away” (5.534). Bantam Lyons eyes Bloom somewhat suspiciously, then says, inscrutably both to Bloom and to the reader, “I’ll risk it” (5.541) and speeds off. What just happened? Well, there’s a horse named Throwaway running in the Gold Cup, and Bloom has unwittingly just given Bantam Lyons a tip on this 50-1 longshot. Make a note: this misunderstanding will reverberate later in Bloom’s day.
On his way to the bathhouse, Bloom the creative ad man spots and critiques an advertisement poster for college sports, then celebrates the pleasant weather of this morning, which he thinks would be perfect for playing the English game cricket, which is forbidden in Ireland in 1904 by Irish Nationalists who sought to promote the playing of traditional Irish sports.
The episode closes with Mr. Bloom imagining himself naked in the bathtub. So there's that.