Joyce Under the Influence

Ann Fallon

Sitting opposite my thesis review committee after four years of research on the influence of Ovid on Ulysses was an exhilarating experience. I enjoyed the questions and the different points of view that were put to me and while I was well prepared, one question in particular gave me pause. To widen the discussion and to ascertain the relationship of my research to existing scholarship, I was asked if I thought that, given the evidence I had presented, Homer’s influence on Ulysses should now be discounted altogether in favour of Ovid’s. The answer, of course, is yes and no and in the course of explaining this position I will outline the essential difference between the Homeric and Ovidian world views and offer some insights into the ubiquitous presence of Ovid in Ulysses while remaining within the constraints of the shorter word count available here. While outlining his presence I will also begin to reconcile Joyce’s Modernist project with his extensive reference to the classics. This reconciliation is important, clearing up longstanding critical arguments regarding his attitude towards religion, nationalism and the ‘woman question’ in particular.

Opposing World Views

To a casual reader it might appear that there is very little difference between the ancient Greek and ancient Latin world views. Homer’s Odyssey has been Latinised and Greek mythologies handed down by the Romans and by Ovid in particular who used many of the Homeric characters and situations. However, although there are overlapping characters and mythical episodes, both Homer and Ovid represent opposing philosophical points of view. Homer is the quintessential figure of authority, of serious intent, of homage to the Gods and of establishment chauvinism while Ovid is the classical representative of a playful world view which challenges both the respectability of the gods and of the dominant conservatism and which gives a prominent voice to the feminine point of view. In The Motives of Eloquence, Richard Lanham writes of two dominant conceptions of reality in antiquity, serious and rhetorical, and says that they have found ‘their respective champions in Plato and Ovid’. Joyce chooses Homer instead of Plato but the world views are equally oppositional and provide vital examples of the philosophical tensions within his work. Lanham writes that

The issues as posed by both great poets are typical and fundamental. Serious reality ... must finally make the kind of stylistic decisions Plato makes in The Symposium. The rhetorical stylist will inevitably, like Shakespeare, reincarnate Ovid.

Ovid is for Lanham the ideal ‘homo rhetoricus’ whose playfulness expands into a philosophical depth inviting questions on the nature of authority. His ‘rhetorical’ style is an essential influence on Joyce’s work, challenging the idea of authority, and opening instead a debate on the authority of ideas, a concept so familiar to Joyce’s readers. This ‘rhetorical’ conception of reality plays a vital role in our social existence and to the centrality of language, debate and tolerance to that existence. Both Plato and Homer, as representatives of what Lanham calls ‘homo seriosus’, posit a universal truth or standard and insist upon a deontological morality that must be aligned to such truths. Homer continually shows the folly of angering or disobeying the gods and his gravitas and reputation was such that it provided a veneer of respectability for Joyce’s work in the famous ‘United States vs. One book called Ulysses’ trial in 1934. Joyce may not have foreseen this need for respectability while writing Ulysses, but it played a significant part in his decision to allow the Linati Schema and the Gorman/Gilbert Plan to find its way to the public. Gilbert later claimed to have had authorial approval for his James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study which listed and explicated the Homeric correspondences even further. The publication of his Paris diary reveals that Gilbert, rather than being on close terms, considers Joyce to be a ‘spoilt god’ and his own work on the correspondences as ‘mere parasitism’. He also inadvertently reveals a lack of engagement by Joyce which is at odds with his claim for authorial approval when he writes that

In the last two days, [I] have done Aeolus and the Wanderers and begin Scylla today. Impossible to get aid, first or last, from J.J. who is still – has been for a month – absorbed in work … for the Crosby Press.

Gilbert’s Homeric elucidations were clearly not a priority for Joyce and although they became an important aspect in the early reception of Ulysses, it is the Ovidian rhetorical flare throughout the novel, rather than the respectability of the Homeric classical references, which continues to engage his modern readers and which allowed Joyce to reconcile his use of the classics with the demands of Modernism.

The attribution of the name of ‘Homer’ assumes the recognition of an unquantifiable degree of standardization of the original oral stories, which was carried out in the second century BCE by Alexandrian scholars. This recognition notwithstanding, Ovid’s exploitation of the possibilities of the full mythology of Greece reveals the true extent of ‘Homer’s’ conservatism and his silence on the darker aspects of those stories. Andrew Lang, whose translation of the Odyssey was familiar to Joyce, gave a lecture entitled ‘Homer and Anthropology’, in Oxford in 1908. His view was that ‘Homer must have been familiar with the savage cosmogonic legends … which Hesiod does not scruple to state openly, but about such things Homer is silent’. Figures such as Orpheus, Dionysus, Narcissus and Hecate receive little or no attention from Homer but are vital to a full understanding of the desires and transgressions as well as the exploration of the psyche undertaken in the pre-Christian western world. Joyce’s engagement with such transgressions and explorations in Ulysses give clear indications that his work far exceeds the conservative nature of ‘Homer’ work. Ovid’s reputation as a less serious writer allowed his work to escape moral censorship through the centuries, while his vivid depictions of every imaginable aspect of human desire lent his work the status of forbidden literary fruit. It is from Ovid for example that we learn of Orpheus and his rejection of heterosexual love, from Ovid that we have depictions of every form of sexual desire and from Ovid that we are reminded also of the chthonic forces at work in Greek mythology.


Orpheus is introduced in the Metamorphoses when he summons Hymen to his wedding, but the omens for his marriage to Eurydice are very bad and the ceremony is followed shortly by the death of his bride. Ovid is eager to acknowledge the homosexual aspect of his nature but in Plato’s Symposium references Orpheus’s journey to Styx implies in a more judgmental tone, that the poet’s love for his wife is essentially inadequate because of his failure to bring her back. He tells us that

Orpheus, the son of Oeagrus, the harper, they sent empty away … but [Eurydice] they would not give up, because he showed no spirit; he … did not dare like Alcestis to die for love, but was contriving how he might enter hades alive.1

This view of his inadequacy towards Eurydice is in keeping with his well known misogyny and with the belief that Orpheus had introduced homosexuality to the Greeks for the first time. It is noticeable that each of the love stories told by Orpheus in the Metamorphoses deviates from acceptable norms of romantic love upon which Augustus’ new moral order depended. Orpheus is ‘the poet born of god’ and his song has the power to move even the trees. He tells of Ganymede and Hyacinth, of Myrrha’s incestuous love for her father, of Pygmalion’s excessive love for his sculpture and rejection of the women of his city and of the obsessive love of Venus for the young boy Adonis. The poet then becomes the vehicle for a series of stories within stories until in Book XI Ovid tells us of the murder of Orpheus by the Thracian women. Even this story invites another important energy into the Metamorphoses as it introduces Dionysus, reflecting the belief that Orpheus was responsible for the introduction of the cult of Dionysus to the Western world, including the Dionysian belief in metempsychosis which Pythagoras also later disseminated. Orpheus is therefore an important vehicle for the Metamorphoses pushing forward the narration of the most salacious tales and introducing other exceptional characters. Although by birth Orpheus seems to have been semi-divine, his humanity and frailty became an important topic in twentieth century orphism. Jane Harrison for example says ‘that to disbelieve in the humanity of Orpheus was to misunderstand his nature completely’.2 For Joyce Orpheus was a reminder of the potential of the Christian image of the incarnate god, but one whose claims to divinity were based upon his extraordinary work as a poet.

Given the importance of metempsychosis in Ulysses and the role of Orpheus in introducing this to the Greek world, his presence is not as contentious as that of Hecate or even of Dionysus but the deeply embedded correspondences between Stephen and Orpheus cannot be fully excavated until we see that in 1903 until 1904 when he met Nora, Joyce had experienced his own loss and rejection of the feminine. The setting of Ulysses in June 1904 consciously reflects a pivotal period in the life of both Stephen Dedalus and of Joyce. Stanislaus Joyce tells us in a diary entry in September 1903 that ‘Jim has lately become a prig about women, affecting to regard them as dirty animals and frequently quoting an epigram of a Dr. Perse’s which read

Woman is an animal that micturates once a day,
defecates once a week,
menstruates once a month and
partuates once a year.3

The name Dr. Perse is not clarified by Stanislaus but it appears to mirror the attitude of the young men with whom Gogarty and Joyce were acquainted and could easily have found its way into the ‘Oxen’ episode of Ulysses. In February 1904 Stanislaus again comments on ‘Jim[s] …instinct for women’ when he writes that Joyce ‘scarcely ever talks decently of them, even of those he likes’.4 Suzette A. Henke’s tells us that that

In much of Joyce’s early fiction the young Stephen Dedalus arrogantly flaunts a conviction of masculine superiority. As the protagonist of Stephen Hero, he appears to be an inveterate misogynist. He labels women of Ireland ‘marsupials’ and indicts them as the ‘cause of all the moral suicide in the island'. Stephen rivals Schopenhauer when he insists that only the male can comprehend the world as will and idea.5

Henke’s comparison is corroborated by Joyce’s own textual evidence in his notes to Exiles where he draws on the name of Schopenhauer to deliberately hide his humanist agenda:

Richard must not appear as a champion of woman’s rights. His language at times must be nearer to that of Schopenhauer against women and he must show at times a deep contempt for the long-haired, short-legged sex.6

The evidence from Stanislaus and from his notes therefore point to the fact that the young James went through a period of disliking the female sex, at least until he met Nora later that year. Instead of passing over this early ‘error’ Joyce has incorporated it into the character of Stephen and shows Dedalus at a point where he is grieving the loss of his mother, the only significant female presence in his life. Unlike Joyce, Stephen does not meet a life partner on the 16th of June and so Joyce and his character finally part company, Joyce onto a life that includes the feminine, Stephen out into a solitary role as artist and wanderer.

The presence of Orpheus in Ulysses is first signalled by Stephen’s description and behaviour towards the old milkwoman in ‘Telemachus’. He ‘scorn[s] to beg her favour’, and indicates that he quite literally will not give ‘twopence’ for her. Mulligan is also aware of Stephen’s disdain for the woman and to test it he casually demands and receives the twopence a little later. Stephen’s rejection of the feminine is more pronounced in ‘Proteus’ where instead of the inspiring bird girl from A Portrait he constructs the stories of two ‘Frauenzimmer,’ associating them with death and misbirth rather than with life and possibility.7 Outside of his private fictions Stephen’s character interacts with women only three times in the novel and each interaction is characterised by his rejection of the feminine. His second meeting is with his sister Dilly and he associates her with drowning and believes that she would pull him down with her. Consequently although he addresses her kindly he does not offer any financial assistance despite her great need, and yet is willing to waste his money later with the medicos. His final encounter with women in Ulysses occurs in nighttown but even here he engages in ‘pornosophical philotheology’ effectively excluding the uneducated girls from the conversation before leading them into the ‘dance of death’. Each of Stephen’s encounters is therefore negative, unsatisfactory and associated with death or barrenness and links him with a thoroughly Orphic rejection of the feminine. Joyce’s gambit with such a misogynist character has resulted in many conflicted readings of his work but an appreciation of the Ovidian influence at play allows us to distinguish between Stephen’s attitude and Joyce’s more humanist plans.

But Orpheus is only one of the important Ovidian forces in Ulysses. Dionysus, the reborn or resurrected god is also present from the early pages. Stuart Gilbert’s narrow focus on Homer, who of course fails to include Dionysus, associates the ‘omphalos’ exclusively with the god Apollo. His Study has therefore blinded Joycean critics until now to the fact that Dionysus was also strongly connected with the mythology of this stone and was in fact buried beneath it. Mulligan’s appropriation of the ‘omphalos’, his drinking, bawdiness and desire to sexually liberate all Irish women link his references more appropriately to the wildness and liberation of Dionysus rather than the orderly and controlled Apollo. Once recognized in the novel the presence of Dionysus problematizes the preeminence of Homer as representative of the classical world for Joyce.

Although generally not discussed in relation to Ulysses, the influence of Dionysus in relation to A Portrait has been discussed by Joseph S. O’Leary who writes that

All the characteristics of the cult of Dionysus occur: dithyrambic verse, abandoned dance, primitive and exciting music, glossolalia, intoxication, carnivalesque misrule, confusion of gender identity, orgies, sexual transgression and perversion, dreams and hallucinations, trance and mystical darkness. These are not merely atmospheric but constitute a phenomenology of the role of the Dionysian in life and art. The Dionysian is championed as the fertile breeding ground of freedom and creativity; but it needs the restraint and balance of the Apollonian to redeem it, to channel its powers for art.8

O’Leary writes that apart from The Birth of Tragedy, Joyce would have come across the figure of Dionysus from ‘Nietzsche’s friend Erwin Rohde [and from] the famous book and its chapter on Dionysus by Jane E. Harrison. Harrison’s Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion was published in 1903 and was influential among the female contributors to The Egoist. It outlined the opposing energies in Greek religion as the Olympian and the Chthonic. With the Chthonic figures she placed the figure of the immortal Dionysus and provides a clue to his presence Ulysses when, in describing a vase painting, Harrison depicts Dionysus at Eleusis:

The central figure is Demeter…To the right is Kore [who] …turns towards Dionysus. He too is seated, as becomes a god, and he holds his thyrsus. He is seated, but on what a throne! He is seated on the omphalos. To the ancient mind no symbolism could speak more clearly; Dionysus is accepted at Eleusis ….We are apt to regard the omphalos as exclusively the property of Apollo, and it comes a something of a shock to see Dionysus seated quietly upon it. … But at Delphi men knew that it had another and mystical content. It was the tomb of the dismembered Dionysus.9

Harrison’s work opened up further studies of the divinity and symbolism of Dionysus in the twentieth century with authors such as Paul Ciholas uncovering further evidence of the god’s association with the Omphalos. In The Omphalos and the Cross Ciholas writes that

According to ancient traditions and modern speculations Dionysus was also buried under the omphalos. Statements to that effect from Philochoros led to the belief that the omphalos was the tomb of the dismembered Dionysus. Such a tradition has persisted in many fashions throughout the centuries, including in Tatian’s assertion that [the] Omphalos is the burial place of Dionysus.10

The Omphalos cannot be exclusively associated with Apollo and many of the references to it in Ulysses are more aptly Dionysian. As an early vegetative god, references to Dionysus and to the making of wine have been well documented throughout Finnegans Wake, yet his presence in Ulysses was hidden inside the ‘Greek gift’, which the Homeric correspondences represent. Once seen in Ulysses Dionysus points to the source of the marriage difficulties between Leopold and Molly and explains her attraction to Blazes Boylan as well as her about-turn following their wild and passionate afternoon. The sexual liberation which Dionysian women enjoyed took the form of a temporary madness or release from their normal lives to which they returned later. My research has uncovered the many clues to the presence and functions of Dionysus in Ulysses and Gilbert’s silence on this important energy is difficult to fathom, given that he was chosen by Joyce in part because he had studied the classics.

The final Ovidian energy that I look at is one that I did not expect or even wish to acknowledge in my research. Having inherited the Roman bias against her I had never examined her mythological beginnings and was therefore confused by Joyce’s very obvious inclusion of Hecate in Ulysses. Once acknowledged however her presence opened up perhaps one of the most important aspects of my research and led to a more in-depth understanding of Joyce’s position on the ‘woman question’. Hecate was placed by Hesiod as an important earth goddess central to his Theogony. Albert Henrichs, Eliot Professor of Greek Literature at Harvard tells us that she was the first cousin of Apollo and Artemis and is praised as having a share of the earth, sea and sky. She was

A popular and ubiquitous goddess from the time of Hesiod until late antiquity. Unknow in Homer and harmless in Hesiod, she emerges by the 5th century as a more sinister divine figure associate with magic and witchcraft....Where and how this differentiation occurred remains uncertain.

It has been implied by Harris and Platzner that the decline of positive aspects of Hecate’s image was simply a chauvinism which saw a patriarchal society unwilling to accept a female deity and so stripped away ‘the positive connotations of the goddess and made her a terrifying witch’. It may also have been an attempt to enforce a patriarchal world view onto an early Minoan culture which Robert C Lamm, in The Humanities in Western Culture, speculates had ‘flowered because of the earth goddess religion and the resulting relative equality of the sexes’.

Joyce’s decision not to draw attention to her presence in Ulysses is in keeping with the secret nature of her cult illustrated in Figure 1 where, in contrast with the figures of the worshippers:

The physicality of the goddess’s ritual presence is decidedly ambiguous; faintly incised rather than three–dimensionally sculpted….It is left to the viewer to follow the relief’s ritual cue by imaginatively ‘fleshing out’ the divinity whose presence the object simultaneously suggests and invokes.11

She is named, appropriately enough, three times in Finnegans Wake, but many other references to witches and crones appear throughout that text. In ‘Telemachus’ she appears at the doorway of the tower and Stephen describes her as ‘old and secret [entering]… from a morning world, maybe a messenger.’ Like every Joyce character she inhabits multiple identities but her witch-like aspect accumulates quickly for Stephen who sees her as ‘a witch on her toadstool…. A wandering crone, lowly form of an immortal … a messenger from the secret morning’. The paragraph containing her description in Ulysses is almost bracketed by the word ‘secret’ and, while her role in the Wake is often referenced, her role in Ulysses is once again obscured by the Homeric correspondences which Gilbert provides. While she plays her part in references to the trinity and to the very deliberate use of the number three throughout the novel her significance is far greater for Joyce who sees Homer’s silence on Hecate together with the suppression of the feminine voice in the Odyssey as the old order which would be surpassed by his new work. His inclusion of Orpheus, Dionysus and Hecate is linked to the ‘woman question’, a question he believed to be ‘of far-reaching importance’. The Orphic misogyny of Stephen exaggerates a wider societal misogyny while the presence of Dionysus in Ulysses points toward a renewed sexual liberation for women. Hecate’s role is to open up the discussion on the spiritual equality of women, which, although seemingly shocking, has a healing effect for society in the same way that Bella Cohen’s role in ‘Circe’ ultimately heals the psychic torment of Stephen. In rejecting the feminine presences in his life Stephen becomes haunted by them and lives an emotionally barren existence. The early suppression of figures such as Hecate was for Joyce simply another facet of the continued suppression of the feminine voice in society. Joyce’s engagement with the philosophies of The Egoist and The Freewoman demanded ‘complete freedom of union under the guidance of passion between men and women, and other speculations and contentions with regard to the relations of the sexes’. 12 Her presence in Ulysses allows Joyce to highlight her absence in Homer and in this way his classical references begin to chart the censorship of the feminine which occurs in some of the earliest written records. Ovid’s role is partly to emphasise those Homeric silences by maintaining in his wide audience a fuller account of Greek mythology. Once this absence is recognised Joyce’s agenda of overcoming centuries of chauvinism, and reaching back to the earliest hints of a wider political, public and even sacral role of the feminine is uncovered.

Homer is therefore important both for what he says and for what he does not say and in the Odyssey an important turning point for the chauvinism of the classical world is transmitted by Odysseus. When he arrives on the island of the Phaecians Odysseus encounters Nausicaa and is advised by the princess that his request for aid would be better served if he addressed himself to the queen, rather than the king. Some speculation among critics exists as to the king’s lack of power in his court but it is generally assumed that the queen was in fact the ruling authority. Therefore in his narrative to the court concerning his journey to the Underworld, Odysseus seeks the queen’s favour by telling her of his meeting with Tiresias and then of all the famous and important female shades that he encountered. Queen Arête is so taken with his account that she orders her court to provide gifts and assistance to allow Odysseus to reach Ithaca in safety and appropriately attired. However her words are undermined when one of her courtiers, an old warrior, announces that although her sentiments are correct, it is the king who must give these orders. The balance of power shifts strongly to the authority of the king and seeing this Odysseus begins to tell of the famous warriors that he met in the underworld. By appropriating the power of the queen in this way Homer outlines the change to a dominant patriarchy, and does so by illustrating the suppression of the feminine voice within the court. Joyce shows himself to be an astute reader of Homer and in ‘Hades’ mimics this silencing of the feminine voice by excluding women from the Dignam funeral. The erroneous explanation for this, the idea that Irish women did not attend funerals, was offered without proof, and accepted by critics without question. My search of contemporaneous newspaper obituaries and photographic material quickly revealed the inaccuracy of this explanation and I include a number of images which clearly show the presence of women at Irish funerals and which I hope will end speculation on the matter. (Figures 2-4) Apart from correcting this error my interest lay in uncovering why Joyce had contrived an exclusively male funeral procession for Dignam and by exploring the songs, newspaper advertisements and other references in the ‘Hades’ episode, I conclude that he deliberately exaggerates the absence of the feminine in order to draw our attention to their absence in the public sphere. This should in turn invite questions about their absence and in the literary canon which, as we have seen, was first illustrated by Homer in the Odyssey.

However, the early acceptance of Gilbert’s correspondences, followed by the rapid rejection of their importance to the novel masks Joyce’s wider agenda of including the classical references in order to dismiss the chauvinism contained within, and to begin a new cycle of shared opportunities and liberties between male and female. This implies that Joyce would continue the work of Ibsen in presenting strong, unconstrained female figures back into the canon. Had Gilbert’s work not made such a powerful impression on critics it may have been possible to discern the presence of figures such as Dionysus, Hecate, Orpheus in Ulysses earlier, and investigations into their function in the novel would have been completed long before my work in 2015.

Having examined in detail Gilbert’s comments in his Paris diary, his Homeric correspondences and the impact which these had on subsequent critics we must conclude that they constitute Joyce’s ‘Greek gift’ to his readers which obscures the active principles of less conservative mythologies within. The freshness and vitality of these hidden mythologies have continued to ambush readers, forcing us to question the nature of the subconscious, of sexual desires, and of authority in Ulysses. The combination of the publicised Homeric correspondences, along with Ovid’s hidden but widespread influence in Ulysses, becomes the Trojan horse which invites Modernism into the Victorian world view.

While the Homeric correspondences in Ulysses cannot therefore be dismissed, many of the most important classical references, both Homeric and Ovidian, do not come from Gilbert’s Study. Critics such as Fritz Senn, Margaret MacBride, Len Platt and Gregory Castle have provided more in terms of in-depth engagement with important Homeric references in Ulysses than Gilbert could in the hothouse of Joycean intrigue in which he worked. The new correspondences which I have followed, the ubiquitous presence of Ovidian deities however, of Dionysus, Hecate and of the semi-divine Orpheus provide vital energies to the novel and help us to resolve important tensions in Ulysses. Gilbert’s unquestioning acceptance of Joyce’s ‘hints’ blinded him to perhaps the most important aspect of the author’s Modernist agenda, the use of the classics to delineate and overcome the chauvinism of the old order. Joyce’s Modernism is therefore not entirely ‘new’, pointing back as it does to pre-warrior and pre-Homeric societies in which the feminine voice appears to have been valued equally with the male. However the impact of Gilbert’s Study and the consequent deflection by subsequent critics has added to the confusion over Joyce’s attitude towards the feminine, a confusion that my work on Ovid helps to clarify.


  1. Plato, The Symposium, p.43.   // back
  2. WKC Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, p.4.   // back
  3. Stanislaus Joyce, The Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce, p.20.   // back
  4. Stansilaus Joyce, The Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce, p.22.   // back
  5. Suzette A. Henke, ‘Feminist Perspectives on James Joyce’, Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, p.14.   // back
  6. ‘Notes’, James Joyce: Poems and Exiles, Ed. JCC Mays, p.348.   // back
  7. Ulysses, 3.29.   // back
  8. Joseph O’Leary, ‘Dionysus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, Journal of Irish Studies, p.67.   // back
  9. Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, p.556-7.    // back
  10. Paul Ciholas, The Omphalos and the Cross, p.16-17.   // back
  11. Verity Jane Platt. Facing the Gods. p.41.   // back
  12. Mrs Humphrey Ward, The New Freewoman (1st July, 1913) p.40. Quoted in advertisement.   // back