The Man in the Macintosh: One of Literature’s Great Mysteries
Investigating One of Ulysses' Shady Characters
The reason mystery novels are satisfying is simple: we want to know who did it. Not only do we want to know who did it, but we want to know what it is that they did, how they came to do it, and why, and when, and where. Mysteries have a nice arc. They take us, in the most basic sense, from a lack of knowledge to some fulfillment of knowledge. They give us an answer. They fill the void with uncomplicated facts: “It was Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the candlestick.”
The problem with that classic mystery story arc is that it’s often not how real life works out. Life rarely gives an uncomplicated answer. Sure, sometimes we solve a crime or figure out a riddle or discover something about the universe, but often those answers only open up more questions. As E. E. Cummings once wrote, “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” Because just when you think you’ve figured something out, just when the world stands explained, always something turns up you never dreamt of. A fissure pops up and disrupts the seemingly perfect latticework you’ve erected.
James Joyce’s Ulysses is full of such fissures. At every turn, around every corner of Dublin’s cobblestone streets, in every interaction Leopold Bloom has or avoids, in everything he does and in everything he dreams, as he wanders the city on June 16th, 1904, little gaps open up, and riddles, mysteries, ambiguities tumble out. Amongst this seeming infinity of minute mysteries in the text, there is perhaps no greater mystery than the question of the identity of the so-called “man in the macintosh.” In the 94 years since the book’s publication, Joyce scholars have written innumerable words arguing for and against various answers to this question.
But before we get to the attempts at an answer, let’s remind ourselves of the enigma’s particulars. The man in the macintosh is mentioned or alluded to numerous times throughout the pages of Ulysses. He first appears in the Hades episode, where Bloom attends Dignam’s funeral with eleven other mourners. Just as the gravediggers are about to lower the coffin into the grave, Bloom notices another presence: “Now who is that lankylooking galoot over there in the macintosh? Now who is he I’d like to know? Now, I’d give a trifle to know who he is. Always someone turns up you never dreamt of.” This lankylooking galoot’s presence, Bloom notes, turns the dozen mourners into a group of 13 (“Death’s number,” Bloom thinks, even if he admits it’s a “silly superstition”).
“Where the deuce did he pop out of?” Bloom wonders. “He wasn’t in the chapel, that I’ll swear.” The ghostly presence, at first, seems like it could possibly all be in Bloom’s head—since much of the novel plays out in the stream of his consciousness—but a few pages later, Hynes, a newspaper reporter who had previously appeared in Joyce’s short story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” and who is writing down the names of the funeral attendees for the purpose of publication in the Telegraph, asks Bloom if he saw “that fellow in the, fellow was over there in the…” To which Bloom responds, “Macintosh. Yes, I saw him.” Hynes scribbles down the name “M’Intosh,” because he assumes that Bloom was giving him the man’s name rather than describing him by his clothing. Hynes’ misidentifications, of course, won’t end there. Bloom will see his name written in the paper as Boom by day’s end (next to M’Intosh’s “name,” in the Eumeus episode).
In The Wandering Rocks, a few episodes after the Hades funeral procession, we see potentially the same macintoshed man: “a pedestrian in a brown macintosh, eating dry bread, passed swiftly and unscathed across the viceroy’s path.” Then, in the Sirens episode, Bloom, under the influence of a siren’s song, in one of many chains of free associations, questions: “Wonder who was that chap at the grave in the brown mackin.” His next mention, in the Cyclops episode, gives us a new clue (or perhaps a misdirection?) when we read, “The man in the brown macintosh loves a lady who is dead.” What exactly that episode’s narrator knows to make him claim that the lankylooking galoot loves a lady who is dead is a mystery within a mystery. In Nausicaa, Bloom once again thinks of “that fellow today at the graveside in the brown macintosh” and claims he has “corns on his kismet.” In the Oxen in the Sun episode, the mystery man enters again, and may actually be the one who starts the fire in that chapter—especially since, in the following chapter, the Circe episode, amongst the chaotic phantasmagoria of Nighttown, the man in the macintosh “springs up through a trapdoor” and “points an elongated finger at Bloom,” accusing him of being “Leopold M’Intosh, the notorious fireraiser.”
The final mention of the man in the macintosh arrives in the penultimate chapter, the Ithaca episode, which takes the form of a catechism of questions and answers. One question reads: “What selfinvolved enigma did Bloom risen, going, gathering multicoloured multiform multitudinous garments, voluntarily apprehending, not comprehend?” The answer is tellingly in the form of a question: “Who was M’Intosh?”
I remember when I first read Ulysses, in college, I felt an urgent need to unravel this enigma, to know the man in the macintosh’s identity, to come to some conclusion. Even if I couldn’t convince everyone else of the answer, I at least wanted to find the answer that seemed most right to me.
Now who is he I’d like to know…
“Do we know who he is?” Vladimir Nabokov once asked his students in a lecture on Joyce. “I think we do.” It was Nabokov’s argument that “the man in the brown macintosh who passes through the dream of the book is no other than the author himself.” Nabokov explained that the telltale clue comes in the Scylla and Charybdis episode, where Stephen is discussing Shakespeare in the library and “affirms that Shakespeare himself is present in his, Shakespeare’s, works. Shakespeare, he says, tensely: ‘He has hidden his own name, a fair name, William, in the plays, a super here, a clown there, as a painter of old Italy set his face in a dark corner of his canvas…’ and this is exactly what Joyce has done.” In this reading, Joyce becomes a sort of proto-Hitchcock, making a cameo in his own art. Of course, this argument of Nabokov’s is very Nabokovian. (Don’t we, unfortunately, often come to the conclusions that best comform to our preconceived world view?) Nabokov himself often introduced manifestations of his own authorial presence into his novels. Let us not forget that Vivian Darkbloom, who appears in both Lolita and Ada, or Ardor, and Blavdak Vinomori, who appears in King, Queen, Knave, both have names which are anagrams of the author’s own.
While it is certainly possible that “Bloom glimpses his maker!”—as Nabokov exclaimed—I’m left wondering, to what end? Is one of literature’s greatest mysteries nothing more than some metafictional gag? Why make a cameo in your own novel, especially when a character in that novel, Stephen Dedalus, is already also clearly based on you? But if not Joyce, then who else might that lankylooking galoot be? Well, Bloom may have glimpsed his other maker, of course: God. I’ve seen that argument made. (If God can be “a shout in the street,” as Stephen Dedalus claims, why can’t he be a man in a macintosh?) Or, if not God himself, perhaps the mysterious figure is God in the form of Jesus. (He is the thirteenth, amongst twelve disciples, after all.) There are numerous other religious interpretations I’ve seen throughout the years: Is he Joseph? Is he Lazarus? Is he the Wandering Jew? Is he a Jewish messiah? Is he the Devil?
If not the Devil, maybe he is merely the embodiment of Death? Maybe he is Hades? There are a number of these mythological interpretations. One of the possibilities is that he is Hermes. Hermes is a god of liminal states, a messenger between worlds, so he does fit this strange, ambiguous raincoat-wearer rather well. Another mythological possibility is that he represents Theoclymenos in the book’s Homeric connections. Theoclymenos is the one in the Odyssey who predicts that the suitors of Penelope will all die. They laugh at his predictions, thinking he is crazy, but Theoclymenos is proven right. Is the macintosh a bad joke along these lines? The man wears a macintosh because he is predicting rain, even though no one else is dressed for it. They all think it odd to be wearing a macintosh, but in the end, he is right, and seems to be the only one in Dublin properly dressed for the day?
I’ve also read theories that the man in the macintosh is Irish poet James Clarence Mangan, and others that argue he may be Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell.
One of the more prevalent theories is that the man in the macintosh, who you’ll remember, according to the narrator of the Cyclops episode, “loves a lady who is dead,” is Mr. Duffy from the Dubliners story “A Painful Case.” Readers of that story will know that there’s no denying Duffy loves a lady who is dead. Duffy is a reclusive man, an “outcast from life’s feast,” who fell in love with Mrs. Sinico, a married woman, but spurned her when she showed him affection. She is struck by a train and killed in what may have been a successful suicide attempt. If not Duffy, it could also be her widower, Mr. Sinico. Interestingly, Bloom, elsewhere in the Hades episode, remembers attending Mrs. Sinico’s funeral at the very cemetery in which the Hades episode takes place. Maybe that lankylooking galoot is one of these two men, there to pay his respects to his dead love?
There are still other characters in Ulysses who are possible candidates for the man in the macintosh. Some have argued he’s a man named Wetherup. Some claim another candidate is the man wearing the sandwich board “Y” in the HELY’S advertisement. Some think that the man in the macintosh is an arsonist who sets the blaze in the Oxen in the Sun episode. It’s also quite possible that he is the ghost of Rudolph Bloom, Leopold’s father. If whoever the man in the macintosh is literally should correspond metaphorically with Theoclymenos from the Odyssey, and we’re asking ourselves, “Who could predict the weather and would know to wear a raincoat?” we are told in the Circe episode that Bloom’s father “was a regular barometer” because of his sciatica. And as Hamlet plays a major role in Joyce’s text, it may not be too much of a stretch to concede the possibility of a ghost-father’s appearance, especially as the Hades episode itself, with its gravediggers, has further Hamlet reverberations.
Joyce once claimed, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” Enough time hasn’t passed to prove his statement true—as we’re only now coming up on the first century since the publication of Ulysses—but if it keeps trending the way it has, the novel’s mysteries will continue to make readers argue for the foreseeable future.
Though there are any number of interpretations as to who the man in the macintosh could be, there are really three ways of looking at the riddle. The first is to think that maybe Joyce hasn’t given the man in the macintosh any identity, but has instead given us a palimpsest on which we can write whatever identity we want; the second is to think that maybe Joyce has made the man in the macintosh some sort of Frankenstein’s monster, intentionally stitching in numerous possible identities; and the third is to think that maybe Joyce really does only have just one answer to the riddle, that maybe we’re supposed to have figured it out by now.
Yet even when we narrow the possibilities down to these three avenues, I still find myself unable to pick a camp. The one I would think I would agree with the least, that assumes there is only one right answer, is as vital a part of the conversation as the other two. Without thinking that there may be one possible explanation, we would no longer need to search for new ones. We could just throw up our hands and say, “Well, the man in the macintosh is whomever you want him to be.” I think it’s important that the search continues, but I think it’s equally important to concede that the ambiguity will be continuous as well. The human impulse is to search, but there is a counter-impulse there too, perhaps more hidden but equally human, one that appreciates mystery, one that relishes uncertainty, one that courts doubt. The man in the macintosh is a synecdoche of Ulysses and our frustration in attempting an interpretation of the character is a microcosmic display of the messiness of all textual exegesis.
The man in the macintosh isn’t my favorite mystery in literature because it pushes me to answer it; nor is it my favorite mystery in literature because it admits to being unanswerable. It is my favorite mystery because it challenges me to accept it for what it is—an enigma. While on the one hand it goads readers into attempting an answer, over time, instead of gnawing at me, or in addition to gnawing at me, it began to perfectly embody everything I love about art and remind me why I came to literature in the first place—not for answers, but for possibilities; not to be preached to, but to be cracked open. The man in the macintosh remains my favorite mystery in literature, precisely because it remains. To quote Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father, “It’s as uncertain as a child’s bottom.” There’s a hope for an answer always, but equally an admission that no answer will satisfy, no answer could possibly end the question. The uncertainty, the mystery, the doubt is what keeps me coming back to Ulysses. It’s why I’m never not reading it.