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The Oxen of the Sun are the sacred herd of the god Helios. Odysseus has been warned that his crew must not kill these beasts or they will come to deadly harm. When they land on the Sun God’s island, Odysseus makes his men swear that they will spare the cattle. But the crews break their oath. When Odysseus is asleep they kill and eat them. Zeus personally avenges this blasphemy by sending a thunderbolt that destroys all the crew. Odysseus alone escapes in the keel of his wrecked ship and is carried to Calypso’s island. The thunderclap occurs literally in the narrative. A shower sends down its fertilizing rain on drought stricken Ireland. But the destruction of the crew (the medical students including Mulligan) must be taken as prophetic. They will perish as creative artists because they have broken a vow. That goes for Mulligan too: he will never be a poet. He says of Stephen that he will remain a poetaster, with the outward shell of style but not the inward spirit. But what was the vow they broke? It has been suggested that as good Catholics they are committed to fertility ("Be fruitful and multiply"). However, since they consort with prostitutes and use contraceptives they have sinned against fertility. Stephen talks of "these God-possibled souls we nightly impossiblize." Bloom has also sinned in this respect. The point reached in the Biblical narrative is the Last Supper. It takes place liturgically on Maundy Thursday. The analogy between Stephen and Christ, sitting at table, eating and drinking with his disciples, is clear enough. It extends to Stephen’s theological discourses. They are almost sermons, full of Biblical allusions that point to the imminent death of Christ on the Cross. Stephen’s fear of death emerges powerfully through his learned jesting.
A number of related Themes are clearly presented. The cow (or ox) as a symbol of fertility is constantly referred to. The implicit connection with Homer is obvious. The riotous behavior of the young men, moving about in the portals of the Maternity Hospital, seems on the surface to be vital and lusty. In fact, their behavior is a parody of fertility. Their jokes, like the actions of Ulysses’ men, are destructive of the life-force and mockery of the true mysteries of birth, as presented in Mrs. Purefoy’s labors. Their jests tend to center on contraception, abortion and child killing. Bloom is disgusted by the vehemence of their rejection of humanity. And yet Bloom himself, fresh from the adventure with Gerty MacDowell, is no model of the true lover. This is a sterile world.
The most obvious fact about "The Oxen of the Sun" is that it is written in a series of different English ‘period’ styles. The theme of fertility is central to the chapter. The historical parodies have a second meaning. They are the empty shells of literature. Literature in essence was to Joyce the same in every age. Homer is our contemporary. The character of Odysseus is eternally true to human nature. True poetry cannot date. What does change is the accidental part of literature, the language of the age, the conventions and cliches, the "formulae" or repeated phrases of Homer. Only in this relatively trivial sense can literature be said to evolve. Yet paradoxically, the creative writer whose final concern is with the unchanging part of experience and of art is forced to deal with the transient and inessential media of style and language. He must wrestle with them endlessly, since he has nothing else to use.
This chapter is memorable for the sustained brilliance of the parodies. It is noted also for Joyce’s perception of the development of a language--from the chaos of pre-English to the chaos of Dublin street talk--through all the stages of sophistication and decay. Joyce masterfully catches the accents of such different writers. It gives us a clear sense, not merely of the individual characteristics of writers, but of the inevitable pattern of development from one stage to the next. The incantatory praise of the Hospital is an example of the primitive or magical use of language. The theme of multiplying is expressed in the Latinate style. A passage is the style of old English Elegy expounds the bliss of the unborn baby. In the style of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Sir Andrew Horne is praised. The passage describing Mrs. Purefoy’s long labor is in the style of Sir Thomas Malory. Meditations on the cyclic nature of life are in the style of Sir Thomas Browne. Meteorological account is rendered in the style of the diarists: Pepys and Evelyn. Bannon’s affair with Milly is described in the style of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Bloom’s memories of his childhood are narrated after the manner of Charles Lamb. It is followed by passages written in the style of writers like De Quincey, Landor, Pater, Ruskin and others.