Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

The Ulysses Lexicon

Sober

Forms

sober, soberly

Related Terms

Mary/merry/marry
Vessel
Useless

Explication

The two primary definitions of sober—not intoxicated, or having a serious disposition—overlap when one character, usually Bloom, fits both definitions. Bloom's sobriety is most explicit in the pub setting, which combines drinking and humor. Bloom awkwardly navigates pub culture by telling others about vaguely-related scientific facts and refusing alcohol (U 12, 14). Being serious is not inherently objectionable (though it sometimes inspires mockery), but abstaining from alcohol is fundamentally, unacceptably un-Irish. For instance, advocates for the temperance movement use the slogan "Ireland sober is Ireland free" at an event where most attendees are drinking. This is both futile and ironic; the idea that 'moderation through self control' will lead to political autonomy seems 'of little worth' as a strategy for revalorizing Irish national identity, which is largely based on social alcoholism (see first example of definition I below). As Bloom is both serious and also does not drink, he is a particularly obvious target for his acquaintances' derision—achieving, much to his chagrin, "freedom" from Irishness in the eyes of the surrounding community.

Definitions and Examples

  1. I. Sober, adj. (OED 3.a) Free from the influence of alcohol; not intoxicated, not drunk.

    "And one night I went in with a fellow into one of their musical evenings, song and dance about she could get up on a truss of hay she could my Maureen Lay and there was a fellow with a Ballyhooly blue ribbon badge spiffing out of him in Irish and a lot of colleen bawns going about with temperance beverages and selling medals and oranges and lemonade and a few old dry buns, gob, flahoolagh entertainment, don't be talking. Ireland sober is Ireland free" (U 12.684-92).

    • v. To moderate through self-control. (OED 1.b) The political intentions of the Irish sobriety campaign are twofold. First, by moderating drunkenness the resistance should be able to better organize itself and maintain a thrust against English infrastructure, without falling apart into chaotic, factious disarray. Second, the exercise of moderation would demonstrate exactly the kind of responsible self-governance that the Irish are supposedly incapable of—a claim which, if debunked, would threaten the popular justification of English colonial rule.
    • adj. Paltry, few in number, trifling, poor. (OED 12) In a straightforward way, the sober Irish are very few, as compared to their drunken counterparts. Further, this sense suggests a satirization of the temperance efforts, since "flahoolagh" attempts to characterize the festivities as generous and befitting a king (Gifford 338), yet the sober goal is, by definition, staunchly moderate (even "paltry," "trifling," and "poor").
    • adj. Of little use or worth. (OED 13.b) From the state of things as presented in the novel, "Ireland sober" seems to be an oxymoron, casting a cynical light on its counterpart, "Ireland free." This may suggest that any attempt to gain political independence through sobriety is not a worthwhile investment of energy, as it will probably be ineffective: Ireland will not stop drinking, nor will Irish sobriety likely end colonial rule. Also, given that most of the Dubliners in the novel associate drinking and pub culture tightly with their national identity, getting Ireland sober—even if sobriety did successfully lead to freedom—could be considered a useless solution, in that it betrays essential Irishness for the standards of the English.

    "En route to his taciturn and, not to put too fine a point on it, not yet perfectly sober companion Mr Bloom who at all events was in complete possession of his faculties, never more so, in fact disgustingly sober, spoke a word of caution re the dangers of nighttown, women of ill fame and swell mobsmen, which, barely permissible once in a while though not as a habitual practice, was of the nature of a regular deathtrap for young fellows of his age particularly if they had acquired drinking habits under the influence of liquor unless you knew a little jiujitsu for every contingency as even a fellow on the broad of his back could administer a nasty kick if you didn't look out" (U 16.60-69).

    • v. To quieten, to make gentle; to appease or pacify. (OED 1.a) Bloom's lecture seems designed to incite, rather than lull, the already "taciturn" Stephen. Just as this sense of sober is mismatched with the tone of the passage, so too do the labels "not yet perfectly sober" (Stephen) and "disgustingly sober" (Bloom) seem mismatched. Bloom rants and rambles while Stephen behaves reservedly, which is the reverse of what we might predict for the behaviors of a sober man and a drunken man, respectively. The adverbs seem likewise mismatched—we might expect to see "disgustingly" in a label describing a drunk man, but we certainly don't expect "perfectly." These ironies prompt us to reconsider the relative (un)desirability of sobriety and of alcohol, judgements which have implications for Irish resistance and national identity.
    • adj. Not harsh or violent. (OED 6b) Bloom's unsavory vision of "nighttown" proffers a need for violent self-defense, aligning drunkenness and aggression in opposition to sobriety. Presumably, were the "young fellows" and other characters of the district not drunk, there would be no "particular" need for confrontation.

  2. II. Sober, adj. (OED 4.a) Grave, serious, solemn; indicating or implying a serious mind or purpose.

    "By lorries along sir John Rogerson's quay Mr Bloom walked soberly, past Windmill lane, Leask's the linseed crusher, the postal telegraph office" (U 5.01).

    "Queer lot of stuff he must have put through his hands in his time: obituary notices, pubs' ads, speeches, divorce suits, found drowned. Nearing the end of his tether now. Sober serious man with a bit in the savingsbank I'd say. Wife a good cook and washer. Daughter working the machine in the parlour. Plain Jane, no damn nonsense..." (U 7.195-202).

    • adj. Unwell; having bad health. (OED 13.c) Whereas the man was once deep in business endeavors, he has since aged and his decline is apparent from the observation that he's "nearing the end of his tether now." Whether he is mentally unwell, physically unwell, or both seems ambiguous, but we can understand sober to describe this sense of declining health in addition to its function as a synonym for "serious."
    • adj. Dull, unimaginative, unexciting, subdued. (OED 9 and 10.b) Although his work was once interesting and varied—even curious, or "queer"—the phrase "in his time," along with the contrast to "now," implies that his current activities are much subdued. The banality of his family's characteristic activities paints a dull picture of their sober daily life, and the description of his "plain" daughter rejecting all "damn nonsense" suggests a valuation of pragmatism over imagination.

Related topics

Ingestion and Excretion
Irish History Transformed
Money
Native and Foreign
Obedience and Rebellion
Rich and Poor
Science
Water

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