Redefining the Epic Hero in Joyce's "Eumaeus"

By Meyer, Joseph Matthew | The Midwest Quarterly, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Redefining the Epic Hero in Joyce's "Eumaeus"


Meyer, Joseph Matthew, The Midwest Quarterly


The mark of a truly great piece of literature lies in its ability to grow with humanity, to evolve. Even though the printed words will never change, the meanings and interpretations will. Thus, over the years since the first publication of James Joyce's Ulysses, countless articles and criticisms have been written to convey different notions and ideas concerning the themes and motives behind just about every single word printed in the text. However, for all its analysis, there is one chapter which to this day is left virtually untouched by critics when considering the amount of criticism that has been written for the other eighteen chapters. The chapter I am speaking of is number sixteen, "Eumaeus."

In his article, Brook Thomas, author of multiple articles that discuss the complex writing styles employed by Joyce, notes that "Eumaeus," "has the privileged status of being the most maligned chapter of the book" (15). James H. Maddox, in his book-length study of Ulysses, refers to it as "a dead spot in which nothing happens at great length" (156). The problems that surround this chapter seem to stem from its style, or lack thereof. All of the other chapters have very conspicuous styles, almost to the point that it can overshadow the events of the chapter. The writing in "Eumaeus" is, for the most part, simple. It is not as romantically written as the "Nausicaa" chapter, nor is it as musical as the "Sirens" chapter. It is simply a chapter filled with dialogue, long discussions that appear to go nowhere, and it is for this reason that many critics seem to lose interest when it comes to this chapter. What many critics fail to recognize, however, is the importance of "Eumaeus" to the culmination of not only the story, but of the synthesis between Homer's Odyssey and Joyce's own tale of the wandering Leopold Bloom. It is imperative that we remember that the Odyssey is not simply a story about Odysseus's journey home. It is also about the triumphant reuniting of a father and son, and Joyce reminds us of this part of the story in "Eumaeus."

The critical interpretations of this chapter are often inconclusive and leave one with a sense of irreconcilability between critical views and the text itself. Joyce's themes are often hidden implicitly within convoluted sentence structure and rhetoric that seems to go absolutely nowhere; yet, there is often a method to his madness, and in "Eumaeus," it is no different. To fully understand the context and importance of the chapter, one need not look any farther than the text on which it is based, The Odyssey. Through careful analysis of Joyce's use of epic tradition, language, and characterization, one can see that "Eumaeus" is Joyce's commentary on the differences between the classical epic, based on actions and brought about through exaggerated tales of oral tradition, and his own modern-day epic, based on discourse and brought about through mundane yet realistic events. In doing so, Joyce reconstructs the epic hero from the man of action to the man of discourse.

Though it would seem that Joyce must have admired Homer's epic tradition, considering it is the frame from which his greatest masterpiece was formed, Ulysses does not seem rooted so much in the format of The Odyssey, as much as it is rooted simply in the story itself. According to Richard Ellmann, at the age of twenty, "Joyce had no interest in Homer." Furthermore, he described Homer's works as being "outside of the tradition of European culture" (103). Thus, for Joyce, The Odyssey did not appear to be an overwhelmingly influential piece of literature. Yet it would seem that the Irish-born author had a change of heart when he decided to pen the tale of his often-brooding character Stephen Dedalus and his not quite epic hero Leopold Bloom.

Though Joyce had his reservations about Homer's epic tale, there was one aspect of The Odyssey that Joyce had great respect for: the theme. Joyce described The Odyssey as "the most beautiful, all-embracing theme" of humanity. …

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