Caught alive – oh!

U 13.790-2: Yours for the asking. Because they want it themselves. Their natural craving. Shoals of them every evening poured out of offices. Reserve better. Don't want it they throw it at you. Catch em alive, O.

Gifford misses the point when he refers the reader to the well-known traditional song about Molly Malone. Bloom actually compares the office girls with their “natural craving” for men rather drastically to flies which get stuck on a sticky bait. The OED defines “Catch-‘em-alive-O(h)” as a slang term for fly-paper. Its first quotation is from Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1856):

Sticky old Saints, […] with such coats of varnish that every holy personage served for a fly-trap, and became what is now called in the vulgar tongue a Catch-'em-alive-O.

(chapter xvi)

"Catch em alive oh!" was also the familiar street cry of the fly-trap vendor. The fly-trap vendor (see image) wore a tall hat bound with sticky paper, on which could be seen a mass of struggling flies. This strange sight led to a popular song of the 1890s, written and composed by Arthur Seldon and performed by Gus Elen:

To sell flypapers is my trade

A fortchin at it, I ain't made

Still when it's ninety in the shade

I does a bit yer know

'Tis then them wily flies prepare

Ter buzz around and make folks swear

So up and down each street I tear

A singin' as I go.

Chorus: Catch 'em alive oh! Catch 'em alive oh!

If they once get on the gum

They'll pop off to kingdom come

Catch 'em alive oh! Catch 'em alive oh

Oh! I am the flyest man about the town.

Newspaper articles show that the term was still in use at the turn of the century and well after:

Our first and constant enemies were the flies, which were awful, and the wonder was where they all came from. […] We tried Tangle Foot, a sort of American “Catch em alive oh”, with some success, until the papers blew about and tangle-footed the clean knives and forks […]

“A Medical Officer's Experiences in the South African Campaign”

Graphic (1900), Saturday 18 August

Just at the moment America is in a great panic about flies, and every American in “Rockefeller’s own country” is busy selling fly-papers, “Catch-‘em- alive-o’s” or patent fly-exterminating machinery.

P.I.P.: Penny Illustrated Paper (1911), Saturday 22 July, p. 106

If the reader is aware of the true meaning of the phrase it is possible to link this element of Bloom’s interior monologue to an earlier associative rumination in Lestrygonians (8.896-918):

Stuck on the pane two flies buzzed, stuck.


Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her; eyes, her lips, her stretched neck, beating, woman's breasts full in her blouse of nun's veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.

Me. And me now.

Stuck, the flies buzzed.

Later in Nausicaa (13.1035-7) Bloom reverts to the fly imagery:

Mansmell, I mean. Must be connected with that because priests that are supposed to be are different. Women buzz round it like flies round treacle.

Harald Beck

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