Love as Nepenthe: Displacing Homer with Shelley in Joyce’s Ulysses

Dylan Emerick-Brown

Publication: Volume 3 Issue 2

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Abstract

One of the least explored muses for James Joyce’s Ulysses was Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound which left its mark on Joyce’s protagonists, Leopold and Molly Bloom. Joyce quoted Aristotle in his notes in the spring of 1903, “It is harder to endure pain than to abstain from pleasure” and it is this exact sentiment that brings together the similarities between Shelley and Joyce, highlighting the Blooms’ yearning to banish grief from their minds regarding their deceased son, Rudy, and avoid the pain of loss, plaguing their marriage. One subtle Homeric seed from Prometheus Unbound—the word “nepenthe”—can be traced through Joyce’s early readings of Shelley’s play by his personal annotation in Shelley’s works within his Ulysses notebooks and the published novel. This word is the balm for a character and author who suffered through the death of a child—one alive for 11 days and the other never born. Joyce metaphorically uses nepenthe to represent chloroform, the substance Queen Victoria used to dull the pain of childbirth for her son of the same name as Bloom, Leopold. However, unlike Homer’s original use of nepenthe to simply banish grief from the mind, Joyce employs the version of nepenthe used by Shelley in which the drug is symbolic of love. This subtle contextual shift alters the theme of overcoming grief as not something to simply be eliminated, but rather something to be replaced by love. Understanding this can change the way in which readers approach the protagonist of Ulysses, the development of his struggle throughout the novel, and its ultimate conclusion.

Keywords: James Joyce, nepenthe, Ulysses, Queen Victoria, Prometheus Unbound, Percy Bysshe Shelley, love

Dylan Emerick-Brown (dylaneb@live.com) is English department chair, teaching English and AICE/Cambridge General Paper at Deltona High School in Florida, USA. His research interests include Joyce studies, typically focusing on obscure characters, intertextual influences, and steganography. He is currently working on creating an online resource website, TeachingJoyce.com, to support secondary educators in incorporating Joyce’s works in their classrooms.