Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

Bock, Martin. "James Joyce and Germ Theory: The Skeleton at the Feast." James Joyce Quarterly 45, no. 1 (2007): 23–46.

Related topics:

Touch and Feeling

Bock argues that understanding the theories of contagion contemporary to Joyce can provide insight into Joyce's fiction. Bock begins by examining the scientific and popular thought about the spread of disease in early 20th century Ireland. Reacting to the rise of germ theory, newspaper health columns and politicians alike warned about the dangers of excess dust, crowds, consumptives' spit and phlegm, and dirty streets as vectors of tuberculosis and influenza. Buck Mulligan's comments about the filthiness of Ireland as the source of Irish poor health exemplify these warnings (U 1.411-414), (U 14.1241-1250). Bock then shows how this knowledge of popular germ theory allows the reader new perspective on much of Joyce's fiction. The dusty rooms of "Eveline" and "The Dead" and the pale (i.e. tubercular) faces of Freddy Malins and Lily in "The Dead" become much more ominous. The same ominous effect exists within Ulysses in J.J O'Molloy's ceaseless coughing and sneezing (U 10.454-63), the phlegm-filled coughs of the adult bookseller (U 10.632-41), and the dusty, dirty clothing of Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall (U 10.1111-20). At a more abstract level, Bock argues that disease, in linking affection and infection, exemplifies the personal relationships throughout the novel, in which love and death are intertwined, as in Molly's comment that she is dying for a touch (U 6.80-81). Finally, Bock speculates that the man in the Macintosh might represent a human vector of infectious diseases: anonymous and omnipresent, present both within street crowds and at Glasnevin cemetery (U 10.1271-72).

Citations and Related Sources

Rothstein, William G. American Physicians in the Nineteenth Century: From Sects to Science. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Thackray, Arnold. "Natural Knowledge in Cultural Context: The Manchester Mode." The American Historical Review 79, no. 3 (June 1, 1974): 672–709.
Turner, Bryan S., and Colin Samson. Medical Power and Social Knowledge. SAGE Publications Limited, 1995.
Youngson, Alexander John. The Scientific Revolution in Victorian Medicine. Croom Helm London, 1979.

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