Gathering Flowers

Gathering Flowers: Joyce’s “The Lotus Eaters” and the Floral Dictionary

One of the themes uniting the disparate subjects and styles of Ulysses is an exploration of language. The “rigorous anatomy of the properties and processes of the sign” begun through Stephen Dedalus mirrors Joyce’s own fascination (McArthur 633). Like Stephen, Joyce is a writer attempting to more fully understand the workings of his medium. The conventions of different stylistic genres used throughout the novel paint additional layers of connotation and provide yet another fertile plot for analysis and understanding. Finding the parameters that hem particular communicative styles, and how certain tasks are facilitated by those parameters, Joyce then shifts between styles in order to better serve the goals of each episode. For episode V, “The Lotus Eaters,” Joyce selects an unusual genre for parody. The special properties of this non-verbal system make it an appropriate choice for the needs of this episode. In “The Lotus Eaters,” Joyce parodies the conventions of floral dictionaries in order to make use of its essential semiotic property: deepening subtext through connotation while providing security through interpretive flexibility.

Ulysses considers the contemporary human experience confined in terms of temporal rather than thematic scope. Particular attention is paid to the use and function of language. The pursuit of sex is one of the most fraught communicative situations in any era, and it is also one in which the attributes of non-textual forms can be particularly useful. The courtship process is governed by the transmission and reception of signals. Success means the fulfillment of the great biological imperative, or at least the satisfaction of that impulse. It is a major focus of mankind and, thus, Ulysses. Behavior in service to that impulse often defies reason and rationality. The sex urge is a pre-verbal, primal instinct. Body language and delivery are often more important in securing attraction than message content. It is no wonder that the ordered system of textual languages is often sloughed off during the sex act; the language of lust is often closer to the sounds of beasts.  

Romance is also unusual in terms of potential social outcomes. Desire can lead to a conflict in purpose. Any system of sexual repression, such as most religions, or exclusivity, such as monogamy, rewards stifling desire. But when those desires prove too strong to ignore, the strategy instead becomes one of secret indulgence. Communication in these instances suffers from the same internal conflict and urge to dissemble. Traditional language becomes an inappropriate choice of medium. The inherent illogic, and primal nature, of desire is at odds with the ordered nature of language. Evading social reprisal further necessitates deniability. Something said can be overheard. Something written can be read by another, potentially years later. Alternate systems of communicative therefore evolve to service this need while avoiding these potential pitfalls. 

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Cover of Ingram's reference work Flora Symbolica (click image for URL of online ebook)

The repetition of flowers and floral imagery throughout “The Lotus Eaters” is not merely symbolic. It indicates another of the generic parodies that Joyce uses throughout the novel. The genre in question is the floral dictionary, a product of the socially repressive climate of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Within this system, each variety of flower conveyed a particular message. They served as a sort of alphabet which allowed for discrete communication, particularly in matters of love and courtship. These floral systems “arose as a solution to social stigma” which would otherwise accompany open discussion of such matters (Eastman 382). While the language of flowers was not used exclusively in matters of love, it possessed certain qualities that made it ideal for that use, and it is that use which gave the system traction. That blooms are themselves genitalia is likely no coincidence.

Floral communication offered rich and varied connotation. The dictionaries themselves were artful in construction, featuring bright, colorful illustrations and illustrative allusions to poem and song. Excerpts from Shakespeare, Milton, and the traditions of the globe lent layered meanings to each blossom. Though most flowers were assigned a principle signification, the storied history behind each allowed for deeper subtext. Layering meaning also meant that intent was never quite fixed. Lacking the strict one to one relationship of textual signifier to signified gave flexibility to interpretation. In terms of potential social reprisal, a bouquet offered the plausible deniability an intercepted love letter did not.

Beyond the flexibility within even a given dictionary, the greater system of floral discourse was comprised of many competing dictionary systems. John Henry Ingram’s 1869 Flora Symbolica and Kate Greenaway’s 1884 Language of Flowers were among the most widely read (Eastman 384). There was no consensus concerning the meaning of each flower across systems. Though this may at first glance seem a recipe for confusion, when purpose is considered the plurality of definitions available becomes simply an additional layer of security. Like having the correct key to decipher a code, the recipient must know the correct dictionary to consult and can claim an alternate meaning if communication is intercepted or rebuffed.      

            Flowers also die. “The short and fragile nature of flowers has ever caused them to be regarded as types of the frail tenure of this existence” (Ingram 29). In their brevity is a beauty that speaks to living in the moment and that advises action and immediacy.  A flower is a reminder of mortality. Beyond such existential poignancy is a more practical value. Flowers wilt and are then discarded. The message they bear is then discarded as well. 


page 42 of the original publication of "The Lotus Eaters" in The Little Review July 1918

For Joyce, adopting the vocabulary, and style, of these dictionaries was appropriate for all of these reasons and more. It continues the playful dissection of language which characterizes the novel while allowing him to explore his “fascination with non-verbal signifiers” (Eastman 391). The sexual forces behind the formation of the genre are of great concern to Bloom and figure prominently in his thoughts during “The Lotus Eaters.”  Here is a new palette of signals more akin to the subtlety of body language. The subtextual and allusive nature of floral discourse parallels the internally referential stream of consciousness of Ulysses.

            Joyce would doubtless have been aware of this common communicative system. Immediately following his reading of Martha Clifford’s letter in Episode V, Leopold Bloom examines the flower she included in the envelope, thinks, “Language of flowers,” and then delivers the episode’s most flower-dense passage (Joyce 64). What is difficult in terms of decoding is that none of Joyce’s notesheets or notebooks contain any references to this passage, nor indication of which dictionary might have been the source of his choices (Eastman 384).

            An examination of the two most widely read candidates, Greenaway’s Language of Flowers and Ingram’s Flora Symbolica, reveals the latter to be a more likely choice. Despite the fact that Greenaway’s title appears in Joyce’s text, her dictionary is the shallower of the two. It is delicately and densely illustrated, with entire pages devoted to cherubic figures frolicking amidst wild flowers and gathering bouquets. There is a very long list of floral attributions, but these are simple correspondences: raspberry means remorse, thistle means austerity. The volume is rounded out at the conclusion by various poems featuring flowers and printed without analysis or explanation.

            Ingram’s Flora Symbolica, on the other hand, is a much more academic work. Ingram explains in his preface that he intended it to be “the most complete work on the subject ever published.” It has depth rather than Greenaway’s breadth, devoting many pages of background and explanation to each flower. The history of the plant, its various inclusions in legend, art, and folklore, and ample excerpts of poetry accompany the attributions. This is a source more in keeping with Joyce. Rather than explaining that the rose means love, with a snippet of verse for good measure, Ingram exhaustively offers the social and religious history of the flower from Jericho to modern song. In terms of research, complexity, and completeness, Flora Symbolica is unlike other floral dictionaries and a more appropriate source for a novelist who well appreciated such things.

            The floral gloss was added in its entirety after the original publication of the episode in the July 1918 issue of the Little Review (Eastman 381). Comparing this original version to later editions, such as the Gabler edition, further highlights the function of the floral dictionary parody. Reexamining the passage describing Martha’s letter through Ingram is instructive. A flower is included with her letter. There are then a series of flowers interspersed with Bloom’s thoughts as he recalls the letter’s content. It is important to remember, however, that the reader is very much situated within Bloom. In what is a communicative context comprised of two persons, the interpretation happening here is entirely his. The floral portion of her message transmission is that single blossom which is never definitively identified. The floral portion of his message reception is the identification of that blossom and all the imagery that follows. Martha is thus inaccessible to the reader in perhaps the same way that she is to Bloom.


page 43 of the original publication of "The Lotus Eaters" in The Little Review July 1918

Bloom murmurs about the tulip, the cactus, the forget-me-not, the violet, the rose, and the anemone in the paragraph following the letter. They provide additional insight beyond the words supplied. “Angry tulips with you” begins this series (Joyce 64). The anger mentioned recalls the other instances of violent diction in both Martha’s letter and Bloom’s thoughts. There are hints of sado-masochism in the repetitions of naughtiness and punishment by both parties. The tulip is a declaration of love with a history soaked in commerce and hysteria due to the “tulipmania” of Holland in the 17th century (Ingram 208). Thus there are connotations of violent desire and precious rarity coloring his impulse to declare romantic desire. 

            The cactus represents warmth, and Bloom longs to punish it (Joyce 64). This flower, which seemingly serves as a stand-in for Martha’s genitalia, is given short shrift in Flora. However, the cactus’ most notable trait, its thorns, will be echoed later on the page as Bloom discards Martha’s pin and wonders at the great number women keep within their drawers (64). He is alert to the danger involved in his pursuit. This recalls also the thorn motif surrounding Jesus and self-sacrifice.

            The forget-me-not offers its titular plea and underscores the desperation in Martha’s request. For good reason, it seems, as mention of their impending meeting is punctuated by the anemone, indicating sorrow and withered hopes. Bloom is getting what he craves from these missives alone and has no intention of making good on his promise to meet.

The violet and the rose, paired as they are, provide an interesting contrast. The violet represents modesty and faithfulness while the rose represents romantic love and death (Ingram 256, 23). The tension created mirrors the tension of this interaction for Bloom. He grapples with two very different perceptions of femininity as he grapples with two very different women. There is also present the even more essential tension between his responsibility toward his wife and his own carnal wants. Despite Molly’s transgressions Bloom is conflicted in his own and it is for this reason that he carries out an affair by post – a modest love.

            The rose, repeated again in connection to thorns, introduces another contextual layer based on its Eastern origins. In fact, according to Ingram, all of these blossoms originate in what Joyce would term the Orient. Famed Persian poet Jami wrote that the very first rose appeared in Gulistan when the flowers demanded a new sovereign from Allah because their ruler, the lotus, would slumber all the night (Ingram 30). This “maiden queen” began in white but when a poor nightingale grew mad with love for her, he impaled himself against her thorns, bleeding her petals red (Ingram 31). The rose, and thus sexual fulfillment, may indeed be the cure for the Homeric languor of abstinence in this episode. And Bloom might realize the lesson of the nightingale: that this cure comes with a price.    

Due to the inherent subtlety and depth of the floral signifier, Bloom himself may not have come to grips consciously with any of these subtleties of emotion, and yet borrowing this vocabulary allows an unconscious acknowledgement toward these connotations. The reader may see aspects of his psyche that he himself has not yet realized. There is equal deniability for transmitter and recipient.

More interesting still are the invented flowers. “Darling manflower” and “naughty nightstalk” are examples of Bloom himself practicing the interpretive form (Joyce 64). Beyond even the flexibility of multiple significations, and competing systems of signification, we see here an invention of wholly new signifiers. Here is meaning obscured through improvisation with a communicative form. The fluidity of meaning which results is the ultimate expression of floral discourse.

There is, as well, Martha’s flower. Her attempt to engage with floral discourse was this single bloom, the only flower present in this passage in the original 1918 publication. It was identified as “A yellow flower with flattened petals” (Joyce, “Ulysses Episode V” 42). During the later addendums, Joyce added, “A flower. I think it’s a” (63). The fragment makes it even more plain that Bloom does not know what he is holding. Whatever message she intended by way of the language of flowers has not been received.

            In the “Sirens” episode Bloom recalls the flower and wonders if it was a daisy (Joyce 216). The addition of “its almost no smell” makes this very possible as the daisy is one of the few yellow flowers with flattened petals and little aroma (Joyce 64). Though the identification is never definitive, it is another insight into Bloom’s reception. The daisy is the flower of innocence (Ingram 266). It seems to indicate a hope that Martha will resist, stay innocent, so that he may overpower her, remain true to Molly, or both. Yet in Gaelic poetry, the daisy was the flower lain on the graves of infants (Ingram 267). Within even this knotted web of desire and self-delusion, there may be a memory of Bloom’s lost son and the specter that haunts sexual fulfillment for him forever.  

The ability to provide a rich and inherently sexual connotative framework while reserving deniability for both message transmitter and recipient makes the floral dictionary uniquely suited to this episode. The inclusion of a floral vocabulary furthers the depth and intertextuality already present in “The Lotus Eaters,” providing subtle insights into truths that Bloom might not admit or even realize. The non-textual nature of those insights allow them to merely suggest without stating, just as his improvised flowers defer translation to some floral dictionary as yet unwritten. Leopold Bloom offers the reader a bouquet through which to interpret his interpretation, and portions of that process lead to deliberate dead-ends.


Works Cited

Eastman, Jacqueline F. “The Language of Flowers: A New Source for ‘Lotus Eaters.’” James Joyce Quarterly 26.3 (Spring 1989): 379-396. JSTOR. Web.

Ingram, John H. Flora Symbolica: The Language and Sentiment of Flowers. London: F.W. Warne and Co., 1869. Web.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage Books, 1986. Print.

Joyce, James. “Ulysses Episode V.” The Little Review July 1918: 37-49. HathiTrust. Web.

McArthur, Murray. “’Signs on a White Field’: Semiotics and Forgery in the ‘Proteus’ Chapter of Ulysses.” ELH 53.3 (Autumn 1986): 633-652. JSTOR. Web.

Gathering Flowers