Joyce's People‎ > ‎


The anonymous libeller of Denis Breen


U 8.258-9: Someone taking a rise out of him. It’s a great shame for them whoever he is.

In the Lestrygonians episode Leopold Bloom encounters on the street a friend from childhood, Mrs. Breen, and she shows him a postcard that her senile husband Denis received that morning, with the message "U.P.: up" (or perhaps simply "U.P.").  She tells Bloom unhappily that her husband intends to take a libel action against the sender.  They agree that whoever sent the postcard is making shameful fun of Denis.

     Just what "U.P.: up" means is not as clear today as it seems to have been then.  John Simpson has sorted through the various proposals.1  He shows that "U.P." or "U.P.: up" was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the meaning "over and done with" (presumably a reference to Breen's mental state), and that this is a more likely explanation than the others that have been suggested.  My own suspicion is that, on top of this general use, there must have been some joke or anecdote turning on the phrase which had made the rounds of Dublin, and which made this insult far funnier (to those who enjoy making fun of others) than, say, a postcard saying "senile" would have been.  But I have no evidence to present on that point.

     What I will address is the question of who sent the card.

     To start with what I think is a false trail:  Bloom guesses (8.320) that it came from Alf Bergan or Rich Goulding.  And indeed, it is Alf who next brings up the subject of the postcard, in the Cyclops episode, where (12.249-62) doubled over with laughter, he tells those present that Breen is outside with a postcard carrying those words, and planning to take a libel action for ten thousand pounds. He is later asked whether he himself sent the postcard, and laughingly denies it (12.1038-47).

     This would leave him a likely suspect (as would one more point, (15.485), where Bergan appears in one of Bloom's Nighttown visions, mocking Breen with the words "U.p.: up".)  But Joyce quietly gives us evidence pointing in another direction.  Let us go back to Alf's first announcement of the situation:

— Look at him, says he. Breen. He's traipsing all round Dublin with a postcard someone sent him with U. p: up on it to take a li...
     And he doubled up.
Take a what? says I.
Libel action, says he, for ten thousand pounds.
O hell! says I. (12.257-62)

     Why "O hell"?

     It isn't till 17 pages later that the subject of the postcard comes up again.  When it does, we learn that Corny Kelleher has advised Breen to have the handwriting examined.  The anonymous narrator of the chapter listens impassively to most of the discussion of the card, but finally:

And moreover, says J. J., a postcard is publication.  It was held to be sufficient evidence of malice in the testcase  Sadgrove v. Hole.  In my opinion an action might lie.

        Six and eightpence, please.2  Who wants your opinion?  Let us drink our pints in peace.  Gob, we won't be let even do that  much itself. (12.1071-5)

     So it seems the narrator of this chapter is upset by the thought that Breen may take a libel action, and even have a chance of winning. To say what is now obvious -- this would make sense if he was the sender of the card.

     Is his opinion of Breen such as would lead him to insult Breen that way?  This is answered by his thoughts a moment earlier:

Cruelty to animals so it is to let that bloody povertystricken Breen out on grass with his beard out tripping him, bringing down the rain. (12.1062-4)

     And once we have this suggestion of whom the card might come from -- who in the book would be a more appropriate sender of an anonymous postcard than the Nameless One?

George Bergman

Search by keyword (within this site)

1 John Simpson “U.P: up and away”, in James Joyce Online Notes (2014), no. 7.
2 For many years 6s. 8d. or one third of a pound sterling was a standard lawyer’s fee (see SIX adj. 2e in OED).