A bar of soap from Sweny’s Pharmacy. Photo originally taken by Peter Chrisp.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a bar of soap has a variety of new associations— of desperate searching in local stores, of singing “Happy Birthday” twice while scrubbing, of staying home, of remembering the small ways we each contribute to public health every day. However, there is one kind of soap bar that has held a special meaning among Joyceans for decades: a bar of lemon soap from Sweny’s Pharmacy in Dublin.
In Ulysses, Bloom purchases a bar of this “[s]weet lemony wax” (U 5.512) while picking up a prescription at Sweny’s in “Lotus Eaters.” It is even transformed into a minor character in the anthropomorphic “Circe” episode, when it proclaims “[w]e’re a capital couple are Bloom and I./He brightens the earth. I polish the sky [sic]” (U 15.338-339). This bar of lemon soap has become the focus of examinations regarding multiple aspects of Joyce’s writing; these include, among other things, advertising, domesticity, consumer culture, and imperialism. (For one example, see Hye Ryoung Kil’s “Soap Advertisements and Ulysses: The Brooke’s Monkey Brand Ad and the Capital Couple”, in which Kil examines the lemon soap as a challenge to British imperial commodity culture’s obsession with cleanliness.)
Since the novel’s publication, Sweny’s Pharmacy has become a volunteer-run secondhand bookshop that stocks all of Joyce’s works and normally hosts numerous Joyce-related events throughout the year as well as selling bars of lemon soap (though for more than Bloom’s fourpence (U 5.511)). Joyce fans come from all over the world to visit, buying bars of this soap for themselves and their Joycean friends in order to own a little piece of Joycean iconography for themselves.
Post written by Marie Sartain.