## That’s Maths: James Joyce included oblique mathematical references in ‘Ulysses’

As Bloomsday approaches, there is merit in reflecting on James Joyce’s relationship with mathematics. He entered UCD in September 1898. His examination marks are recorded in the archives of the National University of Ireland, and summarised in a table in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce. The marks fluctuate widely, suggesting some lack of focus and dedication. In his matriculation year, Joyce managed only an abysmal 22 per cent in maths. The following year he got an impressive 60 per cent. In his third year he dropped mathematics but studied logic, achieving only a miserable 27 per cent.

For his finals in 1902, Joyce took English, French and Italian. One might have expected a spectacular performance in English, but he was awarded only 43 per cent, well below his best effort in maths. Ellmann remarked that Joyce had done well enough to pass but had not bothered to excel – definitely a case of “could do better”.

As a result of his university studies, Joyce was familiar – at least in outline – with a wide range of concepts in higher mathematics. He makes reference to irrational numbers, infinite series, continued fractions and limits. He was intrigued with the concept of limit, and this theme occurs repeatedly in Ulysses. However, most mathematical references are oblique and frequently abstruse. Joyce drew upon his sketchy knowledge for narrative detail and literary colour.

#### Cost of milk

In the opening scene of Ulysses, at the Martello tower in Sandycove, an old lady sums up the cost of milk delivered to the three residents: "Well, it's seven mornings a pint at twopence is seven twos is a shilling and twopence over and these three mornings a quart at fourpence is three quarts is a shilling and one and two is two and two, sir." To readers who remember the old pounds, shillings and pence, with 12 pence to a shilling, this can be decoded easily enough. But as time passes, the meaning becomes more obscure.