Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

The Ulysses Lexicon



shell, nutshell, razorshells, shellfish

Related Terms



Shells in Ulysses are a symbol for wealth and power, particularly as they relate to Stephen. An antiquated form of currency, shells no longer have the value once attributed to them and therefore correspond well with Stephen's view of money as an empty concept. Shells also associate money with death, through their recurrent appearance alongside images of drowning, the manner of death that Stephen imagines for himself and Dilly in "Wandering Rocks" as he considers the improbability of overcoming the crushing pressures of poverty (U 10.875-77). A shell is also a natural source of comfort and protection, frequently the home of the creature it belongs to, which stands as an important correspondence given the theme of homelessness in the novel.

The shell is also a symbol of sensuous beauty in that it alludes to Venus Anadyomene, which would also relate to the listening to the sound of a shell done by Ms. Douce, one of the sirens in episode 11. Further, there are several references to the use of oysters, a popular shellfish, as an aphrodisiac. Bloom initially expresses distaste for them, recalling seeing Boylan at the Red Bank club in "Lestrygonians" (U 8). But, in the fantasy of "Circe" Bloom is depicted eating a dozen, "shells included" (U 15.1841-51), as he hangs from Nelson's pillar performing other incredible feats, the oysters serving as a cure for the impotence from which Bloom suffers.

A closing note on shells and sexuality: while the word shell itself does not occur in "Nausicaa" (U 13), it suggests itself in many ways. The setting of Bloom's encounter with Gerty makes the lack of the word conspicuous, given its abundance in Stephen's wandering along the beach and because it is in this episode that the affair between Boylan and Molly is consummated, solidifying Boylan's role as potent financial and sexual rival. Shell can also suggests a case of metal containing gunpowder, such as the firework which appear on the beach at the climax of the chapter (U 13.736-40). While Odysseus confronts Penelope's suitors in close-range battle, the fireworks which accompany Bloom's orgasm are significantly less threatening than the mortar shells of the battlefield, and his throwing away of the stick at the end of the episode is yet another image that reveals Bloom's refusal to fight to prevent Molly's affair in the manner expected of the mythic hero.

Definitions and Examples

  1. I. Shell, n. (OED I., III.20) The hard outside covering of an animal, a fruit, etc.

    "My teeth are very bad. Why, I wonder. Feel. That one is going too. Shells. Ought I go to a dentist, I wonder, with that money? That one. This. Toothless Kinch, the superman" (U 3.494-96).

    "Ringsend: wigwams of brown steersmen and master mariners. Human shells" (U 3.156-57).

    • n. The hard covering or 'house' of a snail. (OED n. I.9.a.)

    "Gas: then solid: then world: then cold: then dead shell drifting around, frozen rock, like that pineapple rock" (U 8.582-84).

    • n. The crust of the Earth. (OED n. III. 20. b.)

    "—I have put the matter into a nutshell, Mr Deasy said. It's about the foot and mouth disease. Just look through it. There can be no two opinions on the matter" (U 2.321-23).

    • (fig) In a nutshell; to summarize succinctly. (OED I.7.a.)

  2. II. Shell, n. (OED I) The calcareous or chitinous outer covering of crustaceans, molluscs, and other invertebrates. See also cockle-shell, n..

    "Stephen's hand, free again, went back to the hollow shells. Symbols too of beauty and of power. A lump in my pocket: symbols soiled by greed and misery" (U 2.226-28).

    • Allusive use: the association of a shell with persons of classical mythology (e.g. Venus Anadyomene). (OED I.1.b)

    "Bloom through the bar door saw a shell held at their ears. He heard more faintly that that they heard, each for herself alone, then each for other, hearing the plash of waves loudly as a silent roar" (U 11.934-36).

    • n. Allusive use: the sound of the sea heard when a round-lipped shell is placed with the mouth to one's ear. (OED I.1.b)

    "Stephen's embarrassed hand moved over the shells heaped in the cold stone mortar: whelks and money cowries and leopard shells: and this, whorled as an emir's turban, and this, the scallop of Saint James. An old pilgrim's hoard. Dead treasure, hollow shells" (U 2.211-16).

    • n. Seashells used as money. (OED I.1.c.)

  3. III. Shell, n. (OED IV.25) An empty or hollow thing; mere exterior or framework.

    "He put it back in his sidepocket and took from his waistcoatpocket a nickel tinderbox, sprang it open too, and, having lit his cigarette, held the flaming spunk towards Stephen in the shell of his hands" (U 1.618-21).

    "Her ear too is a shell" (U 11.938).

    • n. The outer ear. (OED n. II.17)

    "His boots trod again a damp crackling mast, razorshells, squeaking pebbles, that on the unnumbered pebbled beats, wood sieved by the shipworm, lost Armada" (U 3.147-49).

    • n. The skeleton or carcass of a building or a ship. (OED IV.26.b)

    "Driving before it a loose drift of rubble, fanshoals of fishes, silly shells. A corpse rising saltwhite from the undertow, bobbing a pace a pace a porpoise landward" (U 3.471-73).

    • n. A wooden coffin, esp. a rough or temporary one. Also a thin coffin of lead or other material to be enclosed in a more substantial one. (OED III.22)

  4. IV. 'In the shell,' phrase. (OED I.6) Unhatched; also fig., in embryo. In fig. phrases referring to emergence into life; especially in 'out of one's shell.'

    "Excuse bad writing. Hurry. Piano downstairs. Coming out her shell. Row with her in the XL cafe about the bracelet" (U 4.421-23).

Related topics

Ingestion and Excretion
Language and Linguistics
Obedience and Rebellion
Rich and Poor

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