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Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

The Ulysses Lexicon

Key and Quay


key, keyed, Keyes, keyless, orangekeyed, turnkey, keyboard, quay

Related Terms



When reading Ulysses, it is difficult to miss the emphasis on recurrent keys, as well as the way the different senses of the word overlap and interact. Bloom himself draws the connection between a caretaker's keys and the last name of his employer, Alexander Keyes, who wants an advertisement featuring two crossed keys (U 6.715-16, U 7.141). Despite the proliferation and conflation of these various keys, both Bloom and Stephen are key-less, implying that they are missing something pretty essential—perhaps the key to understanding their lives (U 3.2161, U 4.72-73). Since keyless also refers to a type of watch that does not require a key to wind, Bloom and Stephen's keylessness could also suggest that they have lost control of time.

The homophones key and quay, in context of Joyce's use of various Dublin quays to orient the reader during Bloom's wanderings, suggest that the words/sounds are associated with guidance or directions. Joyce refers to the quays in Dublin a total of 40 times throughout Ulysses, usually in sections narrated by Bloom or narrating his activities, but also extensively in episode 11 as Boylan moves through Dublin toward his assignation with Molly. Compared to the keyless estranged Bloom, Boylan has many quays guiding him passed the locked door of the Bloom's house and into Molly's arms.

The relationship between Bloom's key and his father's key further emphasizes the father-son relationship already implied by Bloom and Stephen's mutual keylessness. When Bloom finally returns home and retrieves his key, it is described in very gendered and sexual terms, which also ties in an aural sense of the word as it recalls the moment when a hallucination of his father has a voice in a "rich, feminine key" (U 15). The heraldic connotation of two crossed keys also conveys this theme of paternity, lineage and inheritance. Heraldry is the practice of designing, displaying, describing and recording coats of arms and heraldic badges and was used to distinguish "houses," or families, from each other in battle. Find more information here. The Coat of Arms for the Holy See and Vatican City features two crossed keys meant to represent Christ's promise to St. Peter: "I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Keys are also paternal in their association with knowledge, guardianship, and dominion.

As a final note, the recurrence of words with key nested in them suggests that Joyce's keys form a network of meaning beneath the surface of Ulysses. A quick search of the Ulysses text will reveal that Joyce uses the words "monkey," "turkey," "Crickey," "Dalkey," "Ikey," "donkey" and "jockey" repeatedly over the course of the book. In addition, Molly's chamberpot is always described as Orangekeyed. Here, Joyce may be referring to the geometrical pattern carved onto ancient Greek pottery called a "Greek key." Some people believe that the pattern is meant to represent the labyrinth in which Theseus fought the Minotaur. That labyrinth was built by the famous Greek inventor Daedalus, Stephen Dedalus' namesake. The word key thus connects Molly, Bloom, Stephen, and Boylan in their adventures and misadventures within the labyrinth of Ulysses.

Definitions and Examples

  1. I. Key, n. (OED n. A.I.1.a) An instrument designed to be fitted into a lock and turned.

    "Have you the key?" (U 1.468).

    • The first of 8 references in "Telemachus" to Stephen's apartment key, which he ultimately leaves with Buck Mulligan at Buck's request.

    "What were then the alternatives before the, premeditatively (respectively) and inadvertently, keyless couple?" (U 17.80-81).

    • Bringing the saga of the keys full circle, both Stephen and Bloom are stuck outside Bloom's house having both ended up without their keys that day. Also recalls Bloom's "keyless watch" (see entry VII) in episode 16, implying that they have both lost control of time.

    "By inserting the barrel of an arruginated male key in the hole of an unstable female lock, obtaining a purchase on the bow of the key and turning its wards from right to left, withdrawing a bolt from its staple, pulling inward spasmodically an obsolescent unhinged door and revealing and aperture for free egress and free ingress" (U 17.1215-19).

  2. II. Key, n. (OED n. A.I.1.b) A representation of a key (as in definition I, above), especially as a heraldic device.

    "Like that. Two crossed keys here. A circle. Then here the name. Alexander Keyes, tea, wine, and spirit merchant" (U 7.141).

    • n. The spiritual authority believed to have been transmitted from Christ to Peter; symbol of power and control, generally (OED n. II.3.a, b). Bloom seeks to place an ad for the "House of Key(e)s," using a design reminiscent of ecclesiastical heraldry. Bloom believes the keys are meant to symbolize "home rule," which conveys the ideas of power and control as well. See also III below.
    • n. A method used to distinguish an advertisement so as to identify the publication generating any particular response (OED n. 8, v. 6). Bloom is creating the House of Key(e)s advertisement, so this connotation seems apt as well.

  3. III. Key, n. (OED 3.b) A symbol of office, power and authority.

    "The keys of Dublin, crossed on a red cushion, are given to him [Bloom]" (U 16.1520).

    • Bloom hallucinates that he has become the ruler of Ireland. The keys crossed on the red cushion are also emblematic of ecclesiastical power (see II above).

  4. IV. Key, n. (OED 17.b) A system of notes forming a scale, regarded as forming the tonal base of a piece of music.

    "What key? Six sharps?" (U 11.995).

    • Refers to the musical key in which "The Croppy Boy," an Irish nationalist song, is sung.

    "Virag: (his face impassive, laughs in a rich feminine key)" (U 15.2431).

    • n. The pitch or tone of a person's voice, fig. (OED n. 18.b)

  5. V. Key, v. (OED phrasal verbs 1, 4) In phrase 'to key up'; to stimulate, to raise to a high pitch, to cause to be excited, tense, or prepared.

    "Still they'd kiss all right if properly keyed up" (U 6.756).

    • n. Something likened metaphorically to a key in having the power to open or close something else; a thing which provides access or opportunity; a means to a desired objective (OED II.4.a) Bloom fantasizes about having sex with women in the graveyard and considers how he would convince the women to do so. Thus, key here also implies Bloom's means to gain access to, or to open, a woman's body.

  6. VI. Key, n. (OED 19.a) On a piano/organ, each of the levers pressed by the fingers or feet.

    "He pressed (the same who pressed indulgently her hand), soft pedaling, a triple of keys to see the thickness of felt advancing, to hear the muffled hammerfall in action" (U 11.291-93).

    • Described as "obedient keys" elsewhere in the same episode.

  7. VII. Key, n. (OED 14.b) An instrument for winding a clock, watch, or other time keeping device.

    "BLOOM: (....wearing gent's sterling silver waterbury keyless watch...)" (U 16.271).


  8. VIII. Turnkey, n. (OED n. 1) One who has charge of the keys of a prison. esp. a subordinate.

    "Turnkey's daughter got him out of Richmond, up from Lusk" (U 8.459-61).


  9. IX. Keyboard, n. (OED n. 2) The set of keys on a typewriter.

    "He [Deasy] peered from under his shaggy eyebrows at the manuscript by his elbow, and, muttering, began to prod the the stiff buttons of the keyboard slowly..." (U 2.296-97).


  10. X. Quay, n. (OED) A man-made bank or landing stage, typically made of stone, lying alongside or projecting into the water for loading and unloading ships.
    Specific quays include:
    • John Rogerson's quay (U 5.01, 9.751)
    • Wellington quay (U 9.532, 17.2049)
    • Pembroke quay (U 9.794)
    • Arran quay (U 10.1185, 12.36, 15.1366)
    • Inns quay (U 12.860, 15.1366)
    • Ormond quay (U 10.1199, 11.04-05, 16.712)
    • George's quay (U 9.298)
    • Eden quay (U 11.881, 17.2171)
    • Wood quay (U 10.1196, 12.34)
    • Customhouse quay (U 16.238)
    • Burgh quay (U 17.435)
    • Merchant's quay (U 17.600)
    • Sheriff street, Lower, and East Wall quays (U 17.1727)

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