Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

The Ulysses Lexicon



Touch, Touchy, Touched, Touch and Go, Touch me not

Related Terms



The word touch operates in physical, sexual, emotional, artistic, and mental registers throughout Ulysses. The simplicity of the word, particularly in that it takes the same form as both a verb and a noun, means that many of these definitions fit grammatically and semantically into the different examples of its use in Ulysses. Often, different senses of the word occur in very close proximity, as in the second example for definition II, below. At their most basic levels, many of these meanings speak to the theme of emotional and physical connection or disconnection that recurs throughout the text. Consider, for example, Stephen's ambiguous reaction to his efforts to instruct one of his young students: "Stephen touched the edges of the book. Futility" (U 2.133). Touching the pages of a book is not physically futile, but perhaps attempting to teach the boy seems emotionally so. (See the Vowel Alternations project for a consideration of how words like "teach" and "touch" might be linguistically analogous, with a semantically interesting relationship.) The phrase "touch me not" also appears twice in Ulysses, which could refer to Jesus' command to Mary when she encounters him shortly after his resurrection (see definition XI). This allusion suggests that to touch is a uniquely human way to connect with one another.

Touch also can refer to taking/soliciting funds and the evaluation of monetary or figurative worth. In fact, the first use of touch is related to the exchange of money: "tell that oxy chap downstairs and touch him for a guinea" (U 1.154-55). This meaning hovers in the background of the many other uses of the word. Take, for example, the bawd's offer of a "fresh thing...never touched" in "Circe" (U 15.359-60). The virgin prostitute has never been touched sexually and she has also never touched (as in solicited) a man for money in exchange for a sexual favor.

At the end of the novel, however, Molly predominantly uses touch in its physical or sexual contexts in the final episode of Ulysses but she ties together several meanings of the word, reiterating many of the themes connected to it throughout the novel (U 18). Joyce foreshadows Molly's predilection for the physical/sexual in "Hades," when Bloom reflects on his dead son Rudy's conception and remembers Molly saying "give us a touch, Poldy. God, I'm dying for it" (U 6.81). In the final episode, Molly's only deviation from using touch in a physical or sexual context is when she suggests that men should get "a touch of" what it's like to be a woman during sex, pregnancy, and giving birth (U 18.158). This example uses touch to mean just a bit of something, but it also relies on the definition "to bring by touching into some condition." Pregnancy is a condition caused by a sexual touch that Molly would like men to experience just enough to encourage empathy between the sexes, an emotional connection between husband and wife. Thus, at the very end of Ulysses, Molly's use of touch intertwines nearly every significant meaning of the word.

Definitions and Examples

  1. I. Touch, v. (OED 15, 16.a, b) To succeed in getting money from, to obtain a loan or gift of money from; to rob, swindle, or cheat.

    "'Tell that oxy chap downstairs and touch him for a guinea'" (U 1.154-55).

    • v. To affect with some feeling or emotion; to move or stir the feelings of; to produce an emotion in; specifically, to affect with tender feeling, as pity or gratitude. (OED 24a)
    • v. To test the fineness of (gold or silver) by rubbing it upon a touchstone; fig. to test, try, make trial or proof of. (OED 8a)
    • v. To attain equality with, 'come up to', to rival or compare with. (OED 13b)

  2. II. Touch, v. (OED 1.a-d) The simple verb: to use the finger, hand, another body part, or some instrument to create contact with something else.

    "Never know who will touch you dead" (U 6.18).

    • v. To bring by touching into some condition. (OED 2.e)

    "Seems a secret touch telling me memory. Touched his sense moistened remembered...her hand touched me" (U 8.898-916).

    • v. To affect with feeling or emotion. (see definition V below)
    • v. To be deranged mentally. (see definition IX below)

    "Why did absence of light disturb him less than presence of noise? Because of the surety of the sense of touch in is firm full masculine feminine passive active hand" (U 17.288-290).

  3. III. Touch, v. (OED 2.a) To have sexual contact with.

    "On the smooth jutting beerpull laid Lydia hand, lightly, plumply, leave it to my hands. All lost in pity for croppy. Fro, to: to, fro: over the polished knob (she knows his eyes, my eyes, her eyes) her thumb and finger passed in pity: passed, reposed and, gently touching, then slid so smoothly, slowly down, a cool firm white enamel baton protruding through their sliding ring" (U 12.1114-17).

    • v. To affect with some feeling or emotion; to move or stir the feelings of; to produce an emotion in; spec. to affect with tender feeling, as pity or gratitude. (OED 24a)

    "THE BAWD: Ten shillings a maidenhead. Fresh thing was never touched. Fifteen. There's no one in it only her father that's dead drunk" (U 15.359-60).

    • v. To succeed in getting money from, to obtain a loan or gift of money from; to rob, swindle, or cheat. (see definition I above)
    • v. The simple verb. (see definition II above)

  5. IV. Touch, n. (OED 14) Mental or moral perception or feeling.

    "Ikey touch that: homerule sun rising up in the Northwest" (U 4.103).

    • The condition of being mentally 'touched' or affected; slight derangement. (see definition IX below) The ironic use of "Ikey" (meaning 'Jew/Jewish' and 'clever') suggests that Bloom may be critiquing his own heritage as much as he is commenting on the witticism "homerule sun rising up in the Northwest," a symbol of Irish nationalism.

    "Couldn't you do the Yeats touch?" (U 9.1160-61).

  6. V. Touch, v. (OED 24.a) To affect with some feeling or emotion; to stir the feelings of; to produce an emotion in; specifically to affect with tender feeling, as pity or gratitude.

    "It did not move or touch him but it was something quick and neat" (U 4.511-12).

    "Such an appeal will touch him" (U 9.433).

  7. VI. Touch, n. (OED 2.c, 10.a, b, 8.a, b) A small quantity of some substance brought into contact with a surface so as to leave its mark/stain. Also a small quantity of artistic capability or, in music specifically, an attribute of a performer.

    "Mr Bloom, looking sideways up from the cross he had made, saw the foreman's sallow face, think he has a touch of jaundice..." (U 7.135).

    "There's a touch of the artist about old Bloom" (U 10.582-83).

    • v. In drawing, painting, etc.: To mark, draw, delineate (a detail of the work) by touching the surface with the pencil, brush, etc.; also, to modify or alter by such touches. Hence transf. in literary composition. (OED 10.a) Although no piece of artwork is being literally manipulated in this passage, Bloom's characterization as a sort of "artist" suggests a connotation with this artistic sense of the word.

    "Wonder who's playing. Nice touch. Must be Cowley" (U 11.560).

  8. VII. Touchy, adj. (OED 1) Easily moved to anger; highly sensitive in temper or disposition.

    "Women especially are so touchy" (U 6.753-54).

    • adj. Sensitive to the touch; physically irritable. (OED 2.a) Bloom is contemplating a number of things here, one of which seems to be his wife's "touchy" behavior in bed. It is unclear whether he is referring to her disposition or alluding to their nonexistent sex life. This is the only time "touchy" is used in the whole novel.

  9. VIII. Touch, fig. v. (OED n. and adj., verbal phrase 3) A risky, precarious, or delicate state of things (such that a mere touch might cause a disaster).

    "Cleverest fellow at the junior bar he used to be. Decline, poor chap. That hectic flush spells finis for a man. Touch and go with him" (U 7.293).

  10. IX. Touched, adj. (OED pass. verb 23.a) To be deranged mentally.

    "All a bit touched" (U 8.513).

  11. X. Touch, n. (OED 4.b) A 'hit', stroke (of wit, satire, etc).

    "Hughes and hews and hues, the colour, but it's so typical the way he works it out. It's the very essence of Wilde, don't you know. The light touch. His glance touched their faces" (U 9.530).

    • v. To affect with some feeling or emotion (see definition V above).
    • v. To physically touch (see definition I above).

  12. XI. "Touch-me-not," n. (OED 3.a) A person or thing that must not be touched.

    "You could try our friend, Mr. Power suggested backward. —Boyd? Martin Cunningham said shortly. Touch me not" (U 10.966-67).

    "...of course any old rag looks well on you then a great touchmenot too in her own way..." (U 18.1037-38). (U 10.966-67).

Related topics

Creation and Making
Race and Ethnicity
Rich and Poor
Touch and Feeling

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