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Unanswered Questions in Eumaeus and Ithaca

Tuesday, November 10, 2009; 09:44 pm Leave a comment Go to comments

For today I’m going to shift my focus a little bit and write about a theme I’ve yet to explore, and that is unanswered questions. The three instances in particular I want to talk about are the exchange between Bloom and Molly in Ithaca, unanswered questions in Eumaeus as a whole, and in a broader sense unanswered questions for the reader.

First of all Professor Simpson pointed out in class that the only question in Ithaca that isn’t asked is the one that’s been weighing on Bloom’s mind all day, and that is “What have you done today Molly?” Of course it makes sense that he doesn’t answer in one way because he’s been avoiding the subject of Boylan the entire novel. However, between the rearranged furniture, the betting tickets, the potted meat and all that, one would think that Boylan would be on the surface of Bloom’s mind. If we take this as a given (and it’s not a very hard premise to accept), then what we’re seeing here is an immense show of willpower by Bloom to not ask the one expected question. We also should ask, why? He considers all of the possibilities of retribution on 603, but rejects all of them in favor of coping with the jealousy and humiliation – Bloom appears to value his relationship with Molly almost too much, such that he’s willing to accept it in a severely damaged form. The other half of Bloom’s interaction with Molly must be noted, and that is Molly’s question to Bloom of what he did that day. As we are all aware, he leaves out significant portions of his day and even manipulates his story some (calling Stephen a professor and author). Between this and his non-question to Molly, their marriage is in many respects nothing but living a lie.

As for Eumaeus, we said most of it in class, but questions here are by and large evaded and given half-answers and lies by omission. In particular the sailor’s evasion of questions comes to mind, which we covered pretty thoroughly in class. So, I’ll address here what it means in the larger context of how questions have been functioning so far. Strange as this notion might be, an unanswered question can be another avenue in establishing the higher ground in a social situation. The way this can happen is demonstrated by the cunning manner of the sailor, whose dodges of embarrassing questions that could lead to a revelation of his homosexuality allow him to continue to keep his audience rapt.

Finally there are the unanswered questions that the reader has, countered by the overload of questions in Ithaca. Throughout the novel, the reader is left wanting two things: answers to his or her own questions regarding plot and characters, and for questions posed in the text itself to be answered. As for the first, we get plenty of answers in Ithaca but few that reveal questions likely on the reader’s mind (unless in a highly specific coincidence the reader wanted to know about the workings of a faucet), and are in this way kept in a lower position of power relative through the book. Much like the sailor retains his audience by not giving everything away, the book ensures that we cannot reach the same level as it by leaving questions open-ended. As for answers to questions explicitly in the text, we get those too but not in the way we were hoping. Information is certainly there, but it is presented in a typical Joycean fashion, which is something that we have to unravel. In depth answers are found in the text in Ithaca, but the information they give explicitly does little for us, and it is really only the implicit ties to other ongoing themes of Ulysses that gives us any sort of satisfaction.

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