James Joyce’s Ulysses is a text heavily invested in questioning language’s ability to create, subvert, and play with the nature of meaning. Therefore, what happens in Ulysses, from the perspective of plot, is often times less important than how something is spoken about in the text. In chapter sixteen of Ulysses, Joyce presents his reader with the long anticipated meeting of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, which is arguably one of the most important plot points of the novel. While the awaited convergence of these father and son figures comes to fruition in this section, other characters populate the cab shelter the two find refuge in and at times seem to be of more import to the narration than Leopold and Stephen themselves. One of these periphery characters, who moves to the center of this chapter and seemingly subverts the “plot” of the text, is the yarn-spinning sailor D. B. Murphy. Murphy, in this chapter, for awhile usurps the position of Odysseus from Bloom and enacts the role of the long traveled mariner who has returned home and litters the chapter of Stephen and Leopold’s “reunion” with tales of his life at sea, his estrangement from his family, and his homecoming to Ireland.
Concomitant to Murphy’s story telling in this chapter is the presence of three tattoos he shows to his audience. “Seeing they were all looking at his chest [Murphy] accommodatingly dragged his shirt more open so that on top of the timehonoured symbol of the mariner’s hope and rest they had a full view of the figure 16 and a young man’s sideface looking frowningly rather” (516). I believe these tattoos can be read as an illustration of the process whereby multiple meanings are created as Joyce draws together accepted, manipulated, and enigmatic significations of symbols on the singular space of Murphy’s chest. This process can also be read as one of the ways Joyce creates and incorporates multiple meanings into Ulysses as a whole.
The first of Murphy’s tattoos to look at is the anchor. As noted in the above quotation, the anchor is presented as representative of a sailor’s hope and rest, a traditionally accepted and naturalized meaning of the anchor as a symbol. A real anchor fixes a ship in one place and allows the mariners on a ship a respite from travel on the sea. Anchoring a ship can provide temporary relief for sailors if it stops a ship’s movement in a port of call and it can also provide a form of permanent stoppage if it is used to moor a ship in a homeport. When anchored, the dangers of the sea are abated and a sailor is allowed to rest and reflect on his travels and take up land life once again. As such, the symbol of an anchor, as commonly accepted based on these maritime realities, is a mark that represents safety and hope of another day. The meaning of the anchor, in this context in chapter sixteen, is fixed by the narrator and is also fixed by a reader who accepts the naturalized meaning of this “timehonoured” symbol. The meaning of the anchor tattoo is thus presented, agreed upon, and slips out of discussion in the text.
Inked above Murphy’s anchor is another tattoo: the profile of a man’s frowning face. In this instance, the significance of this symbol is not as clear as that of the anchor, as its meaning is not explicitly delineated by the narrator of the chapter—a face could be representative of any number of meanings. While the face is not initially imbued with specific meaning, Murphy later reveals that the face tattooed on his chest is that of man named Antonio who, after inking the three tattoos on his chest, was eaten by a shark. The biographical information provided by Murphy begins to create significance for the tattooed face and provides a context for the reader of Ulysses to read the tattoo in to. Because the face is that of a frowning seaman, and specifically that of the creator of Murphy’s tattoos, a reader could associate the tattooed face with Murphy’s travels on the sea, his life aboard ship with his fellow mates, or as an example of tattoo portraiture work (among other possible associations). While the biographical information begins to give significance to Antonio’s face, the meaning a reader begins to assign to this tattoo is played with because Murphy, while speaking to his listeners about the face tattoo, “was busily engaged in collecting round the. Someway in his. Squeezing or. –See here, he said, showing Antonio. There he is cursing the mate. And there he is now, he added, the same fellow, pulling the skin with his fingers, some special knack evidently, and he laughing at a yarn” (516). Joyce shows Murphy here as possessing the ability to manipulate the tattoo of Antonio’s face and its emotional resonance: Antonio can be made happy and smiling, or angry and frowning by Murphy’s deft fingers. This is an interesting trick as tattoos are normally given the signification of being a permanent art. Once the ink of the tattoo artist has been placed under the skin, it is there to stay. By manipulating the tattoo, and coupling this manipulation with the back-story about it and its creator, Joyce provides his reader with two distinct ways to contextualize Antonio’s face. Between these two poles, of back-story and smiling/frowning faces, a reader is allowed to shift between different meanings in the fixed context Joyce provides. Murphy’s tattoo appears to be set in its meaning, but as Joyce shows, through Murphy’s playing with Antonio’s face, no meaning, however permanent it may appear, is immune from being manipulated. A modicum of fluidity is thus associated with Antonio’s face through its manipulation, but the multiple meanings that can be arrived at here are still somewhat controlled by the contextual auspices the reader has been provided by from Murphy, the narrator of chapter sixteen, and, ultimately, Joyce himself. Although the fluidity of meaning surrounding Antonio’s face is not absolute, its possibility differentiates it from the anchor tattoo, as discussed above, whose meaning is delineated for the reader without manipulation or play.
Next time...Murphy's Tattoos (part 2)