Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

The Ulysses Lexicon



glass, lookingglass, glassy, eyeglass, glasses

Related Terms

Peer and Pier


The most obvious definition for glass in Ulysses is a clear substance that can transformed into various shapes, via melting and molding or blowing, for different hardware purposes. Some examples include: glass as a reflective surface ["the cracked lookingglass of a servant" (U 1.146), see definition I below]; as a vessel for holding contents ["glass of water" (U 1.265-67), see definition II below]; as an architectural element ["shattered glass and toppling masonry" (U 2.9-10), see definition III below]; and as optics worn by characters ["through his misty glasses weak eyes looked up pleading" (U 2.124-25), see definition IV below].

Accordingly, glass takes on many different connotations. The "cracked lookingglass," according to Gifford, is an allusion to an essay by Oscar Wilde questioning the equality of Art and Life—because such an equation "reduce[s] genius to the position of a cracked looking glass" (16). The glass of water that Stephen's mother drinks links this action to a religious rite of fasting before mass every Sunday. Thus, the glass as a vessel takes on a religious significance and could be said to contain holy water, blessing Stephen's mother. Lastly, the glasses worn by various characters literally help them see; however, these eyeglasses could also represent either a near-mirroring of the beholder, or a critical scrutinizing of the beholder. For example, in "Nestor" (U 2), the bespectacled Sargent may mirror Stephen's own frustration, or alternately, he might serve as a skeptical examiner of Stephen's efforts. (See also the discussion of Stephen and Sargent in "Peer and Pier.")

Many of Joyce's usages imply a transparent barrier—one can look through glass, but the image received is often a distortion. Although glass is a clear substance, it may be milky, fog up, or otherwise obstruct one's eye from seeing the whole truth. Glass as a reflective surface, which should objectively replicate whatever lies before it, seems similarly given to distortion in the novel. Whether the surface itself is responsible, as with flowing or rippled water, or whether the viewer's subjectivity initiates a warp (e.g. many humans cannot look in a mirror without passing some biased judgment on what they see), images mediated by reflective glass also seem to be incomplete or modified views of the truth.

The destruction of glass indicates: jagged edges (i.e. the danger of cut glass); destruction of civilization—specifically the cities Pyrrhus and Troy—through "toppling masonry" (U 3.249); and even an admission of anger or guilt, as one intentionally throws glass or accidentally drops a fragile object. Further, glass can also refer to a "sand-glass" for measuring time (OED n.6.a.); a sand-glass, if broken, would signify the end of time, another symbol of the Apocalypse. The motif of sand is especially fitting for the scenes of Ulysses, like "Telemachus" (U 1) and "Nausicaa" (U 13), set on or near Sandycove beach.

Glass, like many words in Ulysses, is characterized by multiple, often contradictory, layers of meaning. It's an object that is easy to break, yet despite this fragility, glass is frequently entrusted for both everyday and industrial purposes. The prevalence of glass in Ulysses, in context of the word's vessel sense, also calls attention to the novel's dominant motif of drinking. Just think of the innumerable cups, mugs, glasses, and other containers used by the characters to drink alcohol, far more often than water. This may be interesting to consider in light of the "waterlover" Bloom's struggle with pub culture, which contributes to his exclusion from Irishness (U 17.183).

Definitions and Examples

  1. I. Glass, n. (OED n.8.a.) A glass mirror, a looking-glass.

    "It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant" (U 1.146).

  2. II. Glass, n. (OED n.5.) A drinking-vessel made of glass.

    "Memories beset his brooding brain. Her glass of water from the kitchen tap when she had approached the sacrament" (U 1.265-7).

  3. III. Glass, n. (OED n.3.a.) The substance as made into articles of use or ornament; as collective sing. meaning things made of glass: e.g. vessels or ornaments of glass, window-panes or lights.

    "I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass, and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame" (U 2.9-10).

  4. IV.Glass or Glasses, n. (OED n.10.d) An eyeglass; also in plural, spectacles.

    "His thick hair and scraggy neck gave witness of unreadiness and through his misty glasses weak eyes looked up pleading" (U 2.124-25).

Related topics

Ingestion and Excretion
Irish History Transformed
Light and Shadow

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