Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

The Ulysses Lexicon

Limp

Forms

limp, limping, limped

Related Terms

Touch
Flower
Private

Explication

Though the word has several diverse etymologies and obscure meanings, Joyce uses arguably only the most straightforward definitions of the word limp in Ulysses. However, throughout the work the lines between these simple senses become blurred, such that limp takes on more layers of complexity in context.

The most frequent usage of the word is in its adjective form, meaning wanting in firmness (See definition I below). Limp is used in this sense to describe objects including dogs' ears, an almost-closed door, paper, and penises. The other common usage is a verb, meaning to walk lamely (see definition II below), with its related noun form, i.e. She has a limp. These two distinct forms two forms seem to echo each other when the narration describes a blind man's hand as a "limp seeing hand" (U 8.1091). On the surface, this seems like an insignificant description. However, because Bloom later has a significant encounter with Gerty MacDowell, who has a limp, the word becomes conflated with disability. Paradoxically, then, the hand is both limp—flaccid, impotent, lame—and empowered, possessing the advantage of sight.

This becomes more complicated as Bloom uses limp to refer to his penis. For instance, as Bloom imagines himself in a nice, warm bath, he refers to his penis euphemistically as "the limp father of thousands" (U 5.570, see definition I below for full quotation and explication). Later, after he masturbates while watching Gerty, he thinks: "O Lord, that little limping devil" (U 13.852). While limp is not an unusually significant descriptor for a flaccid penis, it is significant that Bloom uses the word to refer to a physical disability and shortly thereafter uses the same word to refer to his own member, presumably erect during this scene. This may speak to Bloom's insecurity about impotency and poor sexual performance, since it is also known that he "Could never like [sex] again after Rudy" (U 8.610), his infant son, died.

With the word limp, Joyce takes a word's simplest definitions and gives them complex meaning through association and interconnection. The lines between the two forms of the word as adjective and as reference to a physical disability become blurred in the contradictory description of the blind man's "limp seeing hand" and in Bloom's description of his "limping" penis, in light of Gerty's limp leg.

Definitions and Examples

  1. I. Limp, adj. (OED 1.a) Wanting in firmness or stiffness, flaccid; flexible, pliant. Of a textile fabric: Unstiffened.

    "A limp black missile flew out of his talking hands" (U 1.518).

    • This quote refers to the moment Buck throws Stephen his "Latin quarter hat," which is a soft hat associated with the art and student worlds of the London Quarter in Paris, contrasted with the hard hats then fashionable in Dublin (Gifford 22). Stephen's disassociation with Dublin may or not may be an intentional commentary, since we know Stephen has spent time in Paris.

    "He saw... his navel, bud of flesh: and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower" (U 5.570).

    • "The father of thousands" corresponds to the plant called "the mother of thousands," a plant common to Ireland and British Dublin (Gifford 100). In the metaphor, if Bloom's penis is the plant/flower, then limp is still functioning as an adjective here, much like "languid," though it seems like limp could have also worked euphemistically as a noun.

    '"Twas murmur we did for a gallus potion would rouse a friar, I'm thinking, and he limp with leching" (U 9.560).

    • Buck Mulligan parodies the style of Synge’s plays in this quote. Here his ribaldry uses limp to, like Bloom, refer to a penis, joking that a friar would be roused through the process of being hanged, and then become "limp with leching." This crude joke is characteristic of Buck's often crass humor, and provides an example of when another character, other than Bloom, uses limp to refer to a flaccid penis that we might expect to be erect.

  2. II. Limp, v. (OED v2 a) To walk lamely.

    "Mr Bloom watched her as she limped away" (U 13.772).

Related topics

Bodies
Paternity
Reproduction
Sexuality
Touch and Feeling

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