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Greekly Imperfect: The Homeric Origins of Joyce's "Nausicaa"
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Greekly Imperfect:
The Homeric Origins of Joyce's "Nausicaa"

The episodes of Joyce's Ulysses are sometimes linked quite tenuously to their Homeric namesakes. For example, the nineteen fractured segments of "Wandering Rocks" derive from the Odyssey's inline graphic, a pair of rocks that smash ships between them.1 By the same token, the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode barely echoes Odysseus' rough but brief passage between the dog-genitaled monster and the whirlpool. Such loose adaptations, coupled with the seeming red herring of minor verbal correspondences, have discouraged recent critics from examining individual episodes closely in the light of their Homeric origins. The "Nausicaa" episode in particular has largely escaped the notice of scholars exploring Homeric echoes and has been labeled especially un-Homeric. W. B. Stanford, one of the few Homeric scholars to write on Ulysses, calls this episode "the worst piece of literary blasphemy in the whole of Ulysses" and laments its "sordid eroticism."2 Margot Norris finds a comparable lack of Homer in Joyce's episode of tumescence and detumescence: "He appears to offer us the classics and myth . . . but gives us instead mainly the inscription of their absence."3 However, a thorough investigation of the epic text in its original Greek reveals that "Nausicaa" is very tightly adapted from Book Six of the Odyssey. The sentimental self-imagining and eroticism that so revolted Stanford do, in fact, originate in Homer and the translations of his poetry. Gerty is a careful refashioning of Homer's Nausicaa, and her narration derives from Nausicaa's lengthy monologue in the Odyssey. The erotic encounter on the strand between Gerty and Bloom mimics the one between the Phaeacian princess and Odysseus. Tragic themes latent in Homer's Nausicaa story are magnified, and a sexualized narrative of defeated expectations is transformed into a moment of transgressive sexual connection. Through [End Page 89] this intricate reworking of Homer, Joyce reminds us that the stuff of myth is not always grand.

The first scholar to compare Gerty MacDowell with Nausicaa at length was Stuart Gilbert, who had Joyce's assistance in the task. Lapsing into a dreamy, pastel tone reminiscent of the episode itself, Gilbert envisions the two girls as a "sentimental pair . . . over-ready to fall for the fascination of any 'dark stranger.'"4 He links Gerty's obsession with clean clothes to Nausicaa's pre-nuptial laundering, insists that both are of royal blood, and points out that each white-armed girl sends a stray ball into the path of the male stranger (288–9). John Prescott expands upon the list of Homeric correspondences. Like Nausicaa, Gerty is accompanied by other girls but outshines them, is affiliated with a virgin goddess, and bids a wistful farewell to the stranger.5 In addition to these correspondences, Joyce echoes several Homeric details. The epithet inline graphic, or fair-tressed, becomes Gerty's "wealth of wonderful hair" (U 13.166). Odysseus ponders clasping Nausicaa's knees in supplication (Od. 6.141–7),6 while Bloom stares at the shape of Gerty's legs in "transparent stockings" (U 13.930). Athena calms Nausicaa's trembling limbs when the young girl first sees Odysseus (inline graphicinline graphicOd., 6.140), and Gerty too has trembling limbs, which shake as she leans back to watch the fireworks. This list is not exhaustive, and such correspondences are minor: Hugh Kenner calls these smaller intertextual links "mocking mirrors" that, while entertaining, reveal little about either Ulysses or the Odyssey.7 However, they do attest that Joyce read Odyssey 6 very closely.

What versions of the Odyssey Joyce was reading is another matter. According to Frank Budgen, the one that Joyce kept closest was S. H. Butcher and Andrew Lang's prose translation.8 Published in 1888, this remained the most popular English version of the Odyssey at the time Joyce wrote Ulysses and continued to color perceptions of Homer through much of the twentieth century.9 For example, Gilbert and Prescott, both familiar with ancient Greek, cite Butcher and Lang's Homer as a rule. The two translators claimed to have come as close to epic Greek as English possibly could, but their diction is marked by archaism and excessively lofty language somewhat...