Unlike either the anchor or Antonio’s face, the tattooed figure “16” is a symbol that is presented but provided by the text with no naturalized signification or context to read it within (aside from its being inked on Murphy’s chest). The reader in this instance is forced to create signification of his or her own with little to no aid from Murphy (who dodges questions about what it means) or the chapter’s narrator (who just describes its presence on Murphy’s chest and provides no further commentary). A reader of the “16” is thus challenged to either create significance for this figure or to ignore it. One way a reader can create signification for the enigmatic “16” is to move outside of the text and attempt to find signification from some other source. One example of this strategy is provided by critic Don Gifford who, in his Ulysses Annotated, posits that, “in European slang and numerology the number sixteen meant homosexuality” (544). Once significance is attached to the “16,” this significance can shift the meaning of the other two tattoos on Murphy’s chest. For example, if one reads the “16” the way Don Gifford suggests, as associated with homosexuality, then the presence of the “16” inked near the profile of Antonio’s face could lead a reader to now associate Antonio and Murphy as lovers. Gifford may be correct in his attribution of the number “16” with homosexuality, but this tattoo appears in chapter sixteen of Ulysses. Even if an extra-textual meaning or signification is affixed to a symbol within the text, there is no guarantee that applying this meaning back to the text will elucidate anything. Any meaning a reader or critic may propose about the significance of “16” can be undercut by its appearance in the sixteenth chapter of Ulysses, as this would provide, perhaps, the simplest answer to the meaning of the number. Thus, the problem of assigning definitive signification to a signifier that is not clearly delimited by its text proves to be a precarious task.
When the possibility of Murphy as a liar and unreliable narrator is considered, one could ultimately come to the conclusion that all meanings and context he provides regarding his tattoos are false and that the meaning one finds therein is compromised. If this is the case, then the reader of chapter sixteen of Ulysses finds him or herself in a position that forces him or her to treat all of the tattoos, and not just the figure “16,” as being without a clear textual context.
Some readers may find this playing with definitive meaning frustrating, or as an end game on Joyce’s part that avers that if meaning is undercut then a text becomes meaningless. Joyce challenges this possible view of meaninglessness, however, with Bloom’s reaction to his discovery of the “false” postcard address: “Though not an implicit believer in the lurid story narrated [by Murphy]...nevertheless it reminded him in a way of a longcherished plan he meant to one day realise some Wednesday or Saturday of traveling to London via long sea” (512). While Murphy’s narrative may be completely false, it does provide Bloom with an avenue to access and reflect on his own life and recall his dream to take a boat trip to London. Whether or not Bloom will ever take this trip to London is left to the reader to decide. Bloom is not concerned with creating signification out of Murphy’s story or tattoos, or very bothered by the fact that everything Murphy says and represents may be false, rather, Bloom uses Murphy to come to a personal understanding about his own life. This may be what Joyce desires of his readers: you may argue and search for meaning where there may or may not be any, but in the end, the meaning that matters is the meaning a signifier signifies to an individual reader and to his or her own “real” life.
Ulysses is a text that creates meaning and signification in a way similar to Murphy’s tattoos. With the tattoos, the reader is presented with threes different symbols (on one space, Murphy’s chest) that create meaning in three differing ways. Likewise, Ulysses is a novel, or singular space, that incorporates many different genres and styles of writing that create meaning in their own unique ways. From the discourse of the newspaper headlines in “Aeolus,” to the dramatic form of “Circe,” and the scientific Q&A of “Ithaca” (not to mention the tour de force of styles co-mingled the “Oxen of the Sun”), Joyce fills each chapter of his novel with a different form of signification ability. This does not mean that the text is meaningless, but that the possibility for meaning approaches limitlessness. By challenging the ability of a reader to arrive at a definitive meaning for his text, Joyce ends up subverting the naturalized meanings of words, symbols, and allusions and creates a text that a reader can interact with, in a different way, each time they approach it.
Next time...Led Zeppelin