Bloomsday — Barry McCrea on Family and Form in Ulysses

Barry McCrea

In In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust, Barry McCrea shows how the reconception of family and kinship underlies the revolutionary experiments of the modernist novel. This is particularly true, as McCrea shows, in Ulysses, wherein Stephen and Bloom, who meet each other as strangers develop a distinct kind of family. Below are excerpts from McCrea’s book that focus on the “Ithaca” chapter, which famously includes the question-and-answer format:

The narrative duty of marriages is to produce a new family, to incorporate the stranger in order to promise a reproduction, with a difference, of the basic structures of the present. As the English formula “happily ever after” and the French “ils eurent beaucoup d’enfants” clearly suggest, fairytale marriages are supposed to guarantee the future through biological fertility. “Ithaca,” as its Homeric correspondence implies, promises the new family of Ulysses, and the new vision of the world that it offers, as in a marriage plot, comes from a fusion of two strangers. In the case of Stephen and Bloom, instead of this promise about the future, we have a retrospective arrangement of the past. The combination of Bloom and Stephen offers no guarantees or even hints about the world to come but instead an exhaustive depiction of the world up to now….

In this melancholy series of questions and answers, Ulysses is reflecting on its own limits as a novel and on the existence of the future as something that exceeds its own system; it is considering, with some sorrow, the price, as it were, of its queer, retrospective model. The language of the passage—“for circulation on the waters of civic finance, for possible, circuitous or direct, return”—brings us back to “Telemachus” and to a future-oriented fantasy of escaping the monopoly of the genealogical family: Mulligan’s fanciful evocations of Homeric voyage and the utopian transformation of Dublin Bay out of the restrictive womb of Ireland and biological parentage and into an expanse of Greek adventure. That moment in “Telemachus” was only the first of many invocations of water as a symbolic means of circulation and return. Of course, Ulysses itself achieves this transformation, converting Dublin into a sea that can host an odyssey and creating within it an alternative to the circuit of natural paternity. What we learn from the family reunions of “Ithaca” is that within the confined waters of this novel, returns, whether “circuitous or direct” are guaranteed: Bloom will get back home, Stephen and Molly will show up again at the end of the novel. But the queer, retrospective system of Ulysses is closed to the future, to the open seas of reality that lie beyond it, where there are no such guarantees.

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