Making Sense of Scylla and Charybdis

There’s no doubt that Episode 9 is amongst the most difficult we’ve encountered thus far.  I’ve read numerous analyses of it, only to find its meaning ever more elusive.  While I’m perfectly comfortable accepting the idea that I’ll never truly get it, I’d hate to just dismiss it as impossible and move on.  That’s why I’d like to offer a few random thoughts on it and hope it makes more sense.

  • Stephen only briefly alludes to the Scylla and Charybdis of The Odyssey.  Between all of the articles I’ve read, it seems that everyone has differing opinions on where these allusions pop up.  Some say A.E.’s philosophy is like a whirlpool, or it’s Shakespeare’s psyche, or whatever.  I’m not going to spend much time on this; instead, I’ll let the collective mind hash it out this week.
  • Other smart people had a lot to say about the significance of paternity in this episode, and how it was the central theme.  I can see that.  Think about it: Hamlet and his dead father; Shakespeare’s dead son, Hamnet; Stephen and his deadbeat dad; Bloom and his dead son, Rudy.
  • Then there’s a whole other thing about Shakespeare and how he inserted his life into his plays.  Richard Ellmann talks about how the characters in Hamlet were all projections of Shakespeare’s desire for revenge on his unfaithful wife.  Both Stephen and Bloom are like Joyce himself.  Perhaps in some ways, all the characters in this episode represent some fragmented aspect of Stephen’s own personality: he’s his own worst enemy.  Or maybe not.
  • Consider the theme of sundering and reconciliation.  Stephen suggests that reconciliation is not possible without a sundering.  But let’s consider sundering in more general terms.  An article I read – “Sundering and Reconciliation…” by John S. Hunt – speaks of sundering and reconciliation in terms of exile and return, “an alienation of the self from the world in which it lives, from other human beings […] while reunion signifies a process of projecting selfhood back into the empirical world and seeing its preoccupations and desires reflected and consummated there” (298).  This episode further demonstrates how Stephen is an outsider.  His writing was unwanted, his opinions were not shared by the scholars, and his former companion Buck treats him with scorn.  The question is How will Stephen be reconciled with himself and with the world?”

I wish I could offer something more coherent and connected, but I’m afraid this episode embodies its title.  To stray too far toward either interpretation seems unwise, so perhaps it’s time to do as Odysseus did: sacrifice a few sailors and move on.


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