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In Book XI of the Odyssey Odysseus visits Hades on the advice of Circe. He wants to consult the seer Tiresias about his homecoming. He kills an ox and the famished dead come to drink the blood. He meets the ghost of Elpenor. Odysseus meets his former commander-in-chief Agamemnon and Ajax, who refuses to speak to him because of a quarrel, Hercules and others. There are mythological characters whom he sees but does not meet, such as Sisyphus, condemned to the eternal punishment of rolling a stone uphill. His modern equivalent is Martin Cunningham, married to a hopeless drunkard who keeps selling their furniture for drink. Agamemnon is paralleled by Parnell, brought low by a woman. Ajax is solicitor Menton. Elpenor is Paddy Dignam, the most recently dead. Cerberus, the guardian dog at the gates of hell, is Father Coffey, "with a belly on him like a poisoned pup." The four rivers of Hades (Styx, Acheron, Cocytus, Phlegethon) are represented by the River Dodder, the Grand and Royal canals and the River Liffey, all of which are crossed by the funeral procession. The other correspondences are not certain, but it may be assumed that the caretaker of the cemetery, whom Joyce called the ‘symbol’ of the chapter, is Tiresias.
The Homeric episodes do not appear in their correct order. However, the Biblical episodes seem to do so more precisely. After the Egyptian captivity, there is the Exodus in which Moses leads the chosen people into the wilderness. This is a time of hardship for them, and many, including Moses himself, die before they enter the Promised Land of Canan. Then there is the figure of Parnell, leading the Irish people out of captivity through adversity towards Home Rule. He himself died before it was reached. Not only the cemetery but the whole of Dublin is described as a stony wilderness like the Sinai desert.
This chapter is one of the easiest to read in the novel. Yet it is one of the most moving. It is easy in that the reader, by now accustomed to Joyce’s narrative method of mingled event and meditation, finds here a clear and simple succession of events during the movement to the graveside. The chapter, therefore, has a clarity of focus. The various responses of Bloom are within common experience. The conversation of the fellow mourners and the insistent memories of the past are readily comprehended as an integral part of a funeral. Bloom’s reactions here come from a few central concerns: his wife, his dead father and son, and his memories of Dublin streets. Within these concerns, his thoughts move at a leisured pace.
Dublin society is revealed with clarity in this chapter. This is a city, which its inhabitants know in detail. It is a city with an intimate and small population. Through the window they can spot people they recognize. It is a society built on gossip, scandal and shared experiences. Inevitably, it is a society with a good deal of certainty and security. Everyone has his place and has his friends and enemies. Even the dead Mulcahy in the story has the two drunkards who come looking for him.
The chapter reveals more about Bloom’s character. He has a lively curiosity in himself and his environment, the same interest in technique, and in church affairs. His ever ready sympathy is still apparent, but Joyce nevertheless touches on some aspects of his character which are markedly less attractive. For example, he is over eager, and Martin Cunningham has to rebuke him: "we had better look a little serious." To Henry Menton, Bloom is just a "coon", not worthy of such a wife. This suggests that Bloom is not highly regarded by friends.