A mawkish, clichéd, third-person narrative describes the summer evening on Sandymount Strand, near Mary, Star of the Sea church. Bloom stands across the beach from three girlfriends—Cissy Caffrey, Edy Boardman, and Gerty MacDowell—and their charges: Cissy’s twin toddler brothers and Edy’s baby brother. Cissy and Edy tend to the babies and occasionally tease Gerty, who is sitting some distance away. The narrative sympathetically describes Gerty as beautiful, and outlines the commercial products she uses to maintain her looks. Gerty’s crush—the boy who bicycles past her house—has been aloof lately. Gerty daydreams of marriage and domestic life with a silent, strong man. Meanwhile, Edy and Cissy deal loudly with the children’s disputes. Gerty is mortified by her friends’ unladylike obscenity, especially in front of the gentleman (Bloom). Nearby, at the Star of the Sea church, a men’s temperance retreat begins with a supplication to the Virgin.
The toddlers kick their ball too far. Bloom picks it up and throws it back—the ball rolls to a stop under Gerty’s skirt. Gerty tries to kick the ball to Cissy but misses. Gerty senses Bloom’s eyes on her and notices his sad face. She fantasizes that he is a foreigner in mourning who needs her comfort. Gerty displays her ankles and her hair for Bloom, knowing she is arousing him.
Gerty wonders aloud how late it is, hoping Cissy and Edy will take the children home. Cissy approaches Bloom and asks for the time. Bloom’s watch has stopped. Gerty watches Bloom put his hands back in his pockets and senses the onset of her menstrual cycle. She yearns to know Bloom’s story—is he married? A widower? Duty-bound to a madwoman?
Cissy and the others are preparing to leave when the fireworks from the Mirus bazaar begin. They run down the strand to watch, but Gerty remains. Gerty leans back, holding her knee in her hands, knowingly revealing her legs, while she watches a “long Roman candle” firework shoot high in the sky. At the climax of the episode and Gerty’s emotions (and Bloom’s own orgasmic climax, we soon realize) the Roman candle bursts in the air, to cries of “O! O!” on the ground.
As Gerty rises and begins to walk to the others, Bloom realizes that she is lame in one foot. He feels shock and pity, then relief that he did not know this when she was arousing him. Bloom ponders the sexual appeal of abnormalities, then women’s sexual urges as heightened by their menstrual cycles. Remembering Gerty’s two friends, he considers the competitiveness of female friendships, like Molly’s with Josie Breen. Bloom remembers that his watch was stopped at 4:30, and he wonders if that is when Molly and Boylan had sex.
Bloom rearranges his semen-stained shirt and ponders strategies for seducing women. Bloom wonders if Gerty noticed him masturbating—he guesses that she did, as women are very aware. He briefly wonders if Gerty is Martha Clifford. Bloom thinks about how soon girls become mothers, then of Mrs. Purefoy at the nearby maternity hospital. Bloom ponders the “magnetism” that could account for his watch stopping when Boylan and Molly were together, perhaps the same magnetism that draws men and women together.
In the Odyssey, the Nausicaa episode is a turning point. In Book 6, Odysseus winds up beached in the land of the Phaeacians. He takes a nap in a thicket, and is woken up by a ball lost in the course of a game. He finds Princess Nausicaa and her hand maidens who have come to do laundry. Odysseus considers grasping Nausicaa's knees in supplication, but instead decides to plead that she facilitate his return to Ithaca. He praises her extensively, and she agrees to help him return home.
Now there are a few obvious correlations to the current episode. Gerty corresponds to Princess Nausicaa, and Edy and Cissy are her handmaidens. Bloom is brought to everyone's attention when a ball rolls up to his foot from Tommy and Jacky's game. The big question, though, is: how does masturbating to Gerty MacDowell put Bloom on a path back home?
Throughout the last nine episodes, we have seen many instances of Bloom's sexual frustration. He has been incapable of sleeping with Molly for ten years, ever since Rudy died. He carries on an illicit correspondence with Martha Clifford, but can't imagine actually meeting her face to face. Through his thoughts, we learn that Bloom has had numerous encounters with prostitutes, some more successful than others. And of course there is always Bloom's intense anxiety over the fact that Molly is having an affair with Boylan.
In "Nausicaa," Bloom, like Molly, gets his sexual release, albeit indirectly. He takes his fantasies to a more immediate level than he does in earlier episodes in the novel, and the fact that Gerty seems attracted to him gives him confidence. There may be something of a tit-for-tat going on. Bloom will find a way to live with Molly's affair, but he also needs to find a sexual outlet in order to be on a level playing field.
Here's another question: is Leopold Bloom a loathsome offensive man? In the scene, he masturbates publicly while staring at a young girl. Because the scene becomes focused in on Bloom's perspective, it is easy to sympathize with him, but one should pause for a moment and consider how shocking it would be to see a middle-aged man masturbate in public. This is the most extreme instance yet of Joyce forcing us to accept our hero with all his faults. By now, we have seen Bloom go to the bathroom up close, release his gas as he wanders through the street, pick at his nose, and now masturbate. It's almost like a challenge from the author to the reader: "I refuse to idealize Leopold Bloom. I will make him entirely human. If you want to accept him and sympathize with him then you have to accept and sympathize with all of him."
The point is taken further because the blatant sexuality in the scene is juxtaposed with the temperance group saying supplications to the Virgin Mary. As he does elsewhere, Joyce forces us to look at religious images of purity and base images of corporality side by side. The concern is that religion and social propriety have made people alienated from their own bodies, and the body is something that has to be acknowledged and incorporated into the way we think of ourselves and formulate our values.
Now: Gerty MacDowell. Our window into Gerty's thoughts is the longest experience we have yet had of seeing things from a woman's point of view. But there's a catch. Until we switch over to Bloom's perspective halfway through the chapter, the prose is sickeningly sentimental. Joyce parodies romantic novels for young girls, and Gerty comes across a bit simply: all she thinks of are men and her appearance to them and of one day being married. She sits there and pines away for her young love, Reggy Wylie, but when she sees Bloom eying her she quickly moves into a new fantasy involving the "dark man" down the beach. If this were the only portrait we get of a woman's thoughts in the novel, we might think that of Joyce as something of a misogynist. Yet, once you read the last episode, "Penelope," try going back and looking back at Gerty's thoughts again. "Nausicaa" may mock the sentimentality of young girls, but "Penelope" is Joyce's most open and honest attempt to blast open a woman's point of view, and to reveal all the ways in which it is equal with and superior to a man's.
We remember the first time that we read "Nausicaa" we felt a bit like we had been had. We thought that the prose was incredibly beautiful, and though we knew it was tinged with parody, we didn't quite catch how deep and merciless the parody is. Once we realized it, we felt foolish for admiring the prose in the first place. This is not the right way to think about it. Though "Nausicaa" is full of parody, the language soaks up the scene to an incredible degree. As the Roman Candle shoots up in the air and Bloom reaches his climax, you can feel the language itself reaching toward its climax. Then afterward the prose again becomes simple and stuttering, seeming to capture perfectly the letdown after an orgasm: at once self-satisfied and guilty. Another instance comes at the end of the chapter as Bloom drifts off for his nap, and the language itself begins to run together and become simpler: as if the words themselves are going to sleep.