restricted access Fact, Fiction, and Anti-Semitism in the 'Cyclops' Episode of Joyce's Ulysses
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Fact, Fiction, and Anti-Semitism in the 'Cyclops' Episode of Joyce's Ulysses

The Question of Truth in Narration

A fascinating debate on the narration of the 'Cyclops' chapter (12) in James Joyce's Ulysses—the episode in which Leopold Bloom has an altercation with an anti-Semitic "citizen"—flared up in the nineteen-seventies. David Hayman put forward an argument about the Erzählzeit of the episode—the time of its telling—that projected it forward from the Erzählte Zeit, the time of the occurrence. "In order to find out what occurred in Barney Kiernan's at 5 P.M. on 16 June, the reader is transported at an unspecified hour to an unnamed pub where he listens silently to the porterous voice of an insistent and self-assertive clown" (242). Four years later, in 1979, Herbert Schneidau disputed Hayman's notion that the telling of the events in the pub occurs later that night in yet another pub. Instead, Schneidau suggests that the nameless narrator is not telling the events to someone later in the evening, but is actually offering a running commentary on them. Instead of telling the story, the narrator "'rehearses' it, so to speak. . . . the point is that the Nameless One cannot even experience the events without having his consciousness prepare them for later performance (100). In a rebuttal in the same James Joyce Quarterly issue, Hayman cedes the potential plausibility of this alternative formulation but without relinquishing his own point, that a past tense retrospective narration [End Page 163] more convincingly addresses the larger issues of narrative control in the episode. A quarter of a century later I am still intrigued by this debate, and think it is worth revisiting with the more rigorous analytical instruments offered us by contemporary narratology. But my sense of what is at stake is somewhat different. Does it matter whether we hear the 'Cyclops' narrator actually telling the story to someone or merely rehearsing how he would tell the story to someone? Perhaps a little, I think, and I will return to this question at a later point. But what matters more is a feature that distinguishes the narration of 'Cyclops' from other narrations in Ulysses: namely that this episode is shaped into a story heard going into circulation, or prepared for circulation. In either case, the story of what happened in Barney Kiernan's pub posits a hypothetical fictional afterlife with consequences that cannot be anything other than disastrous for Leopold Bloom. This is because the story is finally false. It is not a deliberate lie, certainly, but even if the narrator tells precisely what happened, the point of the story is nonetheless dead wrong. Leopold Bloom did not win the Gold cup race and therefore did not stiff the company of men, as is assumed by everyone present including the narrator. And yet that is the story that will be circulated with the nearly certain effect of confirming negative stereotypes that Dubliners already harbor about Jews.

Since the question of money in relation to fair play and justice is at the heart of the episode's donnée, I will call the narrator, who is a professional bill collector, "the dun"—rather than "the Nameless One" or the "barfly." Before exploring how this dun gets his facts so terribly wrong, a theoretical detour into the vexed question of the status of truth in fiction may be helpful. This is an issue of particular concern to possible worlds theory—a field of narratology poised between philosophy and literary theory. Ruth Ronen writes: "Fiction introduces non-actual states of affairs that have no claim for truth or actuality. Yet, fiction poses a problem for philosophers because unlike other possible but non-actual occurrences, fictional states of affairs dissimulate their fictionality and may be presented as facts" (31). In other words, given that nothing in a fictional world is true in the sense in which we use that term in discussing nonfiction, how can we distinguish elements in fiction that can be construed as "true" from others that are "not true"? Ronen points out that philosophy had difficulty addressing this issue until the emergence...