Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

The Ulysses Lexicon




Related Terms



As with most words in Ulysses, the word vessel will not be contained. For instance, vessel denotes both an object that holds water as well as a ship that floats on water; something that is meant to keep water in and also something meant to keep it out. Vessel is used to describe an empty chamberpot and a tea kettle, both of which cast the vessel as passive receptacles. The chamberpot is there to be filled by Molly's "Tinkling" (U 11.979), and the kettle's purpose is to receive the stove's heat (an interesting side-note: both the chamberpot and the kettle make noise when being used). Alternatively, the vessel-as-ship is not inherently passive, but here it operates as a distant symbol of escape, mentioned multiple times and never boarded. For a work that draws on The Odyssey—the tale of a man who spent the better part of twenty years on a boat—it is striking that the characters of Ulysses are landlocked. These perspectives in mind, the conflicting definitions of vessel share a common theme of passivity: vessel-as-container being the passive recipient of fluids, vessel-as-ship being the subject of passive observers, despite its active potential.

Another interesting dimension of vessel is its Christian connotation: the word invokes Saint Mary ("Spiritual Vessel, Vessel of Honor, Vessel of Devotion"), who makes an appearance in "Nausica" (U 13). Beyond her multiple vessel-names, Mary represents both incarnations of the word vessel, being both the recipient of prayers for recovering alcoholics and a symbol of unobtainable escape. Additionally, her role as the mother of Christ establishes her as a vessel for humankind's salvation, carrying in her the Messiah. (An interesting side-note: since she shares blood with her son, an anatomical sense of vessel comes into play: the blood vessels). Yet despite her holy status, her pregnancy was only declared "Immaculate" and stainless of sin by Pope Pius IX in 1854, leaving the reputation of Mary and Jesus in the hands of a man centuries separated from them (Gifford 390). Therefore, even Mary, the Mother of God, is reduced to the same passive/active status as a container or a ship: she is both the recipient and distributor of grace and spiritual cleansing.

Perhaps then the role of the vessel is to challenge our binary notions of passive and active in Ulysses, suggesting a fluidity in the ability to retain and move across everything, from tangible water to intangible grace. Such a reading also fits into the conversation about flow versus containment of gender roles and sexuality in the novel.

Definitions and Examples

  1. I. Vessel, n. (OED 2.a) Any article designed to serve as a receptacle for a liquid or other substance.

    "Chamber music. Could make a kind of pun on that. It is a kind of music I often thought when she. Acoustics that is. Tinkling. Empty vessels make most noise. Because the acoustics, the resonance changes according as the weight of the water is equal to the law of falling water" (U 11.979-83).

    "What concomitant phenomenon took place in the vessel of liquid by the agency of fire?" (U 17.255-56).

    "Heat (convected), a mode of motion developed by such combustion, was constantly and increasingly conveyed from the source of clarification to the liquid contained in the vessel, being radiated through the uneven unpolished dark surface of the metal iron, in part reflected, in part absorbed, in part transmitted, gradually raising the temperature of the water from normal to boiling point . . ." (U 17.263-69).

  2. II. Vessel, n. (OED 3.a, b) Biblical: Said of a person having the containing capacity or function of a vessel. Said of the body, especially as the receptacle of the soul.

    "Through the open window of the church the fragrant incenses was wafted and with it the fragrant names of her who was conceived without stain of original sin, spiritual vessel, pray for us, honourable vessel, pray for us, vessel of singular devotion, pray for us, mystical rose" (U 13.371-74).

  3. III. Vessel, n. (OED 4.a) Any structure designed to float upon and traverse the water for the carriage of persons or goods.

    "Hopeless thing sand. Nothing grows in it. All fades. No fear of big vessels coming up here. Except Guinness's barges" (U 13.1267-68).

    "Out of that, bloody curse to you! Others in vessels, bit of a handkerchief sail, pitched about like snuff at a wake when the story winds do blow" (U 13.1150-51).

    • n. Slang for 'the nose.' (OED 2.e)
    • n. One of the membranous canals, ducts, or tubes in which the fluids of the body are contained and by means of which they are circulated; frequently, a blood vessel. (OED 5.a)

Related topics

Ingestion and Excretion

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