I'm certain half of what has been written about James Joyce has been written about the section called Circe in Ulysses. I don't even know where to start. In this point of the story, it is past midnight, and Bloom has followed Stephen Dedalus into the redlight district in Dublin, concerned because of how drunk he is. Somehow, despite never really being around him, he has declared himself his protector.
Then the crazy starts. There are actual events going on - he really does go into a brothel, the women there really do charge him for things, Stephen really does try to talk philosophy to two sailors who are going to beat him up, and Bloom really does end the chapter watching over Stephen's passed out body.
Most of the chapter, however, is focused on a swirling fantasy world, mostly in Bloom's head, but some of it belongs to Stephen as well. It is impossible to explain. Both the reality and the fantasy are thrown at the reader at the same time, and the entire segment is written like a play, with named speakers and actions in parentheses. In fact, this would be the most clear chapter in Ulysses (since most of it lacks any quotation marks or "he said-she saids") were it not for the simultaneous events. Hugh Kenner, on his chapter on Circe inJames Joyce's Ulysses: Critical Essays, includes a chart in the appendix that lays out what is actually going on alongside Bloom's vivid imagination. I pledge never to mock a scholarly chart or graph again!
Some of it is obviously fantasy, imagination, or daydream. For instance, all of the sudden, deceased people from Bloom's life, as well as younger versions of people he currently knows, show up for a trial of his character. It reminds me of the Wandering Rocks chapter, where Bloom is moving throughout the city and coming across a lot of minor characters; I believe most of them show up here, even the taxi driver. The trial and defense seem to serve the purpose of Bloom dealing with the guilt he has about various sexual deviances (in his view), and culminates in an exposure of his failings as a husband. Close to when he is leaving the brothel, he has this exchange (BELLO is really BELLA, but she changes genders during the daydream):
BLOOM: Ten and six. The act of low scoundrels. Let me go. I will return. I will prove...
BELLO: As a paying guest or a kept man? Too late. You have made your secondbest bed and others must lie in it. Your epitaph is written. You are down and out and don't you forget it, old bean.
Joyce, James (2009). Ulysses (p. 543). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
I don't know how Ulysses ends, but I suspect Bloom may have made some kind of decision about needing to step up with Molly during this long night. I'm not sure. I guess that is what I hope, but I might be thinking along too modern of a vein. Instead, he puts all of that aside to deal with Stephen, who is so past drunk he is not watching out for his money or safety. He can still recite Yeats, though. At least he is well-educated.
What do the scholars say? There is a deep-seated desire to compare this to other writers, I think to make it seem less inaccessible. Blamires spends a lot of time in comparison with Shakespeare, Gilbert discusses Flaubert (a connection that means nothing to me at this point in my own scholarship), and Kenner manages to throw in Shakespeare, Flaubert, Eliot, and Dickens. Not to mention the connection to the Odyssey, of course, one must never forget that, and Joyce certainly hasn't with his very obvious and frequent animal references, particularly equating the women to pigs. Ah, thanks Joyce, pleasant comparison.
This section includes a touching moment where Bloom has a vision of his deceased son, Rudy, and he has been somewhat of an elephant in every room from the beginning. It is not long to the end. See you on the other side!