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Dysfunctional Letters in Ulysses

Related topics:

Doubles
Language and Linguistics
Sexuality
Union and Division

There are two senses of letters in Ulysses: alphabet letters and letters of correspondence. Although these homonyms may seem to indicate two distinct types of things, as is often true of Joyce's sound-alike concepts (see, for example, peer/pier or sun/son or key/quay), it is more revealing to consider them in tandem, as same-ish rather than separate. Both types of letters seek to serve a linguistic purpose of facilitating interpersonal interaction, but, tragically, rarely does either type work properly. The irony of incomprehensible, meaningless, and misunderstood letters—purportedly the cornerstones of communication—is central to understanding the function of alphabet-correspondence interplay in Ulysses.

We can start thinking about the basic dysfunction of letters using Henry Staten's deconstructionist interpretation of Joyce's onomatopoeia and phonetic spellings. In "The Decomposing Form of Joyce's Ulysses," Staten introduces the novel's overall decomposition in terms of linguistic (in)digestion: "When these higher levels of integration [such as texts, correspondence, sentences, or words] are analyzed into the irreducible constituents, what remains (in the form of letters) is the residue of meaningfulness, itself meaningless or the vanishing point of meaning" (386). Though initially destructive, digestion eventually makes nutrients available for the body to use toward its greater, constructive purposes; cruelly, this productive side of the metaphor rarely holds for letters in Ulysses. As Joyce leads symbol processing to the point of atomic breakdown, rarely are characters or readers left with any accessible semantic value. Nevertheless, characters seem continually frustrated when the "higher levels of integration" that they attempt to rebuild from Joyce's letter-rubble are no more coherent, effective or meaningful than the sum of their arbitrary and impersonal constituent parts.

Dysfunction of letters (alphabetical and correspondent) operates on three important levels, each corresponding to an overarching thematic network of the text: first, with regard to identity/individuation; second, with regard to the interplay of desire and disgust in interpersonal relationships; and third, with regard to the organization of hierarchy.

Throughout the novel, letters act as primary agents of identity, either via combination (joined into lexical signifiers like words and names), or via substitution, where they serve as unattached or minimally-attached units (initials, titles). Each of these strategies is designed to achieve a particular mode of successful identification; while the vast number of possible letter combinations should enable idiosyncratic distinction, the formulaic, recognizable nature of titles and initials should result in explicit categorical recognition. However, both goals—uniqueness and specificity—remain unmet in a majority of identity constructions, revealing letters to be a dysfunctional means of individuating and comprehending characters.

We can consider, for example, the question of whether the dog Garryowen in "Cyclops" (U 12) is the same dog as Garryowen in "Nausicaa" (U 13). On the one hand, the name seems a doubly-novel combination, since neither 'Garry' nor 'Owen' appears generically dispersed within the text, and the compounding adds to the improbability of coincidental repetition. On the other hand, the "lovely dog Garryowen that almost talked it was so human" (U 13.232-3) seems irreconcilable with the "bloody mangy mongrel, Garryowen," (U 12.119-20) suggesting that the same name may not actually refer to the same dog. In this confusion, the referent of "garryowen" becomes uncertainly or incompletely individuated; rather than distinguishing the character, as we expect it to, the name leads us to a sense of ambiguous and contradictory referentiality, revealing letter-combination to be a dysfunctional means of identification. The pretense offered by letter-substitution, of successful identification through specificity, gets similarly satirized and debunked when in "Wandering Rocks" (U 10) we begin to encounter so many initials, titles, and abbreviations that the specifications actually hinder comprehension. These piles of identity-letters make the characters seem less realistic and concrete, as accumulated details start to blur listed names together into a non-individuated phonebook-esque corpus.

Later, in the nightmarish trial of "Circe" (U 15), the complaints of Mrs. Yelverton Barry and Mrs. Bellingham, whom Bloom has propositioned through the mail, become a single non-individuated charge; the affront of Bloom's lecherousness is engorged in the compilation of their joint evidence. But, this conflation has a diminishing effect on the attention afforded, by the court and the reader, to each of the female victims' personal traumas. The ladies' echoes of "Me too [...] Me too" are followed by an escalation from two to "several" unnamed "ladies hold[ing] up improper letters" from Bloom, inspiring outrage at the pattern, but not for the individuals (U 15.1074-5, 15.1076). Though The Honourable Mrs. Mervyn Talboys subjects Bloom to a spurred flogging, this brand of justice is non-specific and ineffective. Nowhere in her sentencing are the women or Bloom's letters mentioned, and Bloom's "cringing" response is paired with equal "love" for the punishment, which he requests to receive "Again!" (U 15.1085, 1086)—this may remind us of Bloom's earlier musings about the misheard song lyric "Voglio e non vorrei," or, 'I want to but I wouldn't like to' (U 4.327). Thus, far from receiving the personalized attention and/or retribution they had sought in bringing their letters to the courts, the Mrs. Bs get blended into a series of anonymous plaintiffs, soon after dismissed from the narrative without even the consolation of an effective impersonally-inspired redress.

In many of the interpersonal interactions presented by the novel, the tense yet porous boundaries of desire and disgust are negotiated with letters. But, as in the "Circe" court-case, instead of enabling characters to work through their discomfort toward meaningful connections, usually confrontation of desire and disgust yields only unfordable distance. Resentful of their inability to build satisfying relationships, frustrated characters tend to invoke letters to exacerbate these interpersonal rifts, reenacting the trauma of dysfunction.

For example, alphabet letters are active in the contours of Bloom and Stephen's developing interpersonal friction from "Eumeus" (U 16) to "Ithaca" (U 18). First, we see Bloom's near-desperate desire for a close homosocial relationship with Stephen juxtaposed against his distaste for the "horrifying" (U 16.858), suspicious (read: homosexual) undertones of the tattooed sailor at the cabman's shelter, presumed to be Skin the Goat Fitzharris 1. Unable to reconcile this internal conflict, Bloom removes himself and Stephen from the triggering environment of the shelter, relocating to Eccles street where he can pursue a reciprocal relationship through the dynamic of hospitality: awkwardly manifest in the offering of "fragments of verse from the ancient Hebrew and ancient Irish languages [...] by guest to host and by host to guest" (U 17.724-6). The dry environment of this Hebrew/Celtic alphabet sharing, "confined to certain grammatical rules of accidence and syntax and practically excluding vocabulary" (U 17.743-4)—that is, devoid of meaningful content—suggests an effort to intellectually "merge" (U 17.769) the divisive cultural binary with letters. Unfortunately, lettered theorizing does not succeed in bridging their interpersonal misconnect. This is evidenced by the ultimately separation of "(Semitic)" from "(Celtic)" at the end of the topic (U 17.773), and the maintenance of their opposing modes of communication/perception in the next question sequence: "Stephen's auditive sensation" vs. "Bloom's visual sensation" (U 17.776, 779). In the wake of this lackluster exchange, Bloom hurries to get involved with Stephen's artistic endeavors, coercing a vocal performance in order to establish creative common ground (via Molly's musical career). Drunken Stephen, frustrated with Bloom's aloof condescension, proceeds to exact revenge with his anti-Semitic song selection (U 17.795-849), a passive-aggressive attack based on the alphabetic/ideological binary already established between them.

We also see letters activating an abstract dysfunction of hierarchal organization. In the proper schema, correspondence is supposed to contain sentences, which should contain words, which should be built out of alphabetic symbols. But, because the smallest (input) and largest (output) tiers of this hierarchy are merged under the label 'letters,' our system of categorical containment begins to seem structurally unsound. Further, if alphabet letters are the smallest available graphic units (and represent the smallest discernible sound units), then Joyce's spellings-out of letter names and alphabet recitation, like "Ahbeesee defeegee kelomen opeecue rustyouvee / doubleyou" (U 4.137-8) and "em [...] pee [...] aitch [...] capital eye" (U 17.1792-3), amount to insubordination within even the most concrete foundations of the containment schema—having been shown to contain other letters in their phonetic incarnations, the alphabet letters are no longer interpretable as indivisible atomic units containing nothing smaller than themselves. This loop of dubious self-containment precludes a satisfactory linguistic hierarchy, recalling the Telemachiad's fixation on the paradox of consubstantiation (i.e. U 1.658, 3.50).

In Joyce's Iritis and the Irritated Text, Roy Gottfried discusses the interpersonal infertility of letters (correspondence) in terms of the literal difficulty characters have reading and understanding them, due to this obscurity of their component parts: "the density and nontransparency of those more basic letters of the alphabet; the letters stand out in their smallest lexical units and in their presence as form rather than in any meaning or representation" (39). By examining the relationship between the two letter-types as piece and product, his analysis unpacks the hollow inaccessibility of correspondence in terms of the abyss at the bottom of the hierarchy, concluding that Joyce's representation of interpersonal dysfunction relies on a logic of futility—the impossibility of building meaningful structures from meaningless parts. Beyond this limitation to a flawed alphabet system, we may consider the characters of Ulysses to have been even more radically socialized to build empty letter-products; not only are their building blocks ineffectual, but their instructive letter-writing manuals prescribe vacant, impersonal methodologies for assembling these blocks into supposedly personal correspondence. Although the specific manual alluded to in "Penelope," Beeton's Complete Letter Writer for Ladies and Gentlemen (U 18.740-5), claims to innovate away from the "'worse than useless'" traditional composition of "'familiar letters, [which] instead of being conversational, were formal, circumlocutory and uninteresting,'" John Smurthwaite's research characterizes Beeton's prescriptions as similarly distant, ridiculous strategies for substantiating authentic interpersonal exchange (Beeton iii, Smurthwaite 352). Ulysses's letters are thus doomed to connective dysfunction by of the soullessness of their parts and their process, both derived from a cultural insistence on the arbitrary, decorous systematization (linguistic and compositional) of human experience.


1. See Levine (1998) for a more thorough discussion of homosocial and homosexual tension in Ulysses.

Citations and Related Sources

Gottfried, Roy. Joyce’s Iritis and the Irritated Text: The Dis-Lexic "Ulysses." Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995.
Levine, Jennifer. "James Joyce, Tattoo Artist: Tracing the Outlines of Homosocial Desire." In Quare Joyce, edited by Joseph Valente, 101–20. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2000
Smurthwaite, John S. "Atty Dillon and the Ladies' Letterwriter." James Joyce Quarterly 1, no. 2 (2007): 352–54.
Staten, Henry. "The Decomposing Form of Joyce’s Ulysses." PMLA 112, no. 3 (May 1, 1997): 380–92

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