Leopold Bloom functions as a sort of Everyman—a bourgeois Odysseus for the twentieth century. At the same time, the novel’s depiction of his personality is one of the most detailed in all literature. Bloom is a thirty-eight-year-old advertising canvasser. His father was a Hungarian Jew, and Joyce exploits the irony of this fact—that Dublin’s latter-day Odysseus is really a Jew with Hungarian origins—to such an extent that readers often forget Bloom’s Irish mother and multiple baptisms. Bloom’s status as an outsider, combined with his own ability to envision an inclusive state, make him a figure who both suffers from and exposes the insularity of Ireland and Irishness in 1904. Yet the social exclusion of Bloom is not simply one-sided. Bloom is clear-sighted and mostly unsentimental when it comes to his male peers. He does not like to drink often or to gossip, and though he is always friendly, he is not sorry to be excluded from their circles.
When Bloom first appears in Episode Four of Ulysses, his character is noteworthy for its differences from Stephen’s character, on which the first three episodes focus. Stephen’s cerebrality makes Bloom’s comfort with the physical world seem more remarkable. This ease accords with his practical mind and scientific curiosity. Whereas Stephen, in Episode Three, shuts himself off from the mat-erial world to ponder the workings of his own perception, Bloom appears in the beginning of Episode Four bending down to his cat, wondering how her senses work. Bloom’s comfort with the physical also manifests itself in his sexuality, a dimension mostly absent from Stephen’s character. We get ample evidence of Bloom’s sexuality—from his penchant for voyeurism and female underclothing to his masturbation and erotic correspondence—while Stephen seems inexperienced and celibate.
Other disparities between the two men further define Bloom’s character: where Stephen is depressive and somewhat dramatic, Bloom is mature and even-headed. Bloom possesses the ability to cheer himself up and to pragmatically refuse to think about depressing topics. Yet Bloom and Stephen are similar, too. They are both unrealized artists, if with completely different agendas. As one Dubliner puts it, “There’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom.” We might say that Bloom’s conception of art is bourgeois, in the sense that he considers art as a way to effect people’s actions and feelings in an immediate way. From his desire to create a newer, better advertisement, to his love poem to Molly, to his reading of Shakespeare for its moral value, Bloom’s version of art does not stray far from real-life situations. Bloom’s sense of culture and his aspiration to be “cultured” also seem to bring him close to Stephen. The two men share a love for music, and Stephen’s companionship is attractive to Bloom, who would love to be an expert, rather than a dabbler, in various subjects.
Two emotional crises plague Bloom’s otherwise cheerful demeanor throughout Ulysses—the breakdown of his male family line and the infidelity of his wife, Molly. The untimely deaths of both Bloom’s father (by suicide) and only son, Rudy (days after his birth), lead Bloom to feel cosmically lonely and powerless. Bloom is allowed a brief respite from these emotions during his union with Stephen in the latter part of the novel. We slowly realize over the course of Ulysses that the first crisis of family line is related to the second crisis of marital infidelity: the Blooms’ intimacy and attempts at procreation have broken down since the death of their only son eleven years ago. Bloom’s reaction to Molly’s decision to look elsewhere (to Blazes Boylan) for sex is complex. Bloom enjoys the fact that other men appreciate his wife, and he is generally a passive, accepting person. Bloom is clear-sighted enough to realize, though, that Blazes Boylan is a paltry replacement for himself, and he ultimately cheers himself by recontextualizing the problem. Boylan is only one of many, and it is on Molly that Bloom should concentrate his own energies.
In fact, it is this ability to shift perspective by sympathizing with another viewpoint that renders Bloom heroic. His compassion is evident throughout—he is charitable to animals and people in need, his sympathies extend even to a woman in labor. Bloom’s masculinity is frequently called into question by other characters; hence, the second irony of Ulysses is that Bloom as Everyman is also somewhat feminine. And it is precisely his fluid, androgynous capacity to empathize with people and things of all types—and to be both a symbolic father and a mother to Stephen—that makes him the hero of the novel.
Over the course of the novel, we get a very clear picture of Bloom and Stephen because we witness their interactions with many different people and see what they are thinking throughout all of these interactions. For most of the novel we only see Molly Bloom through other people’s eyes, so it may be tempting to dismiss her as a self-centered, unfaithful woman. The way we decide to view her will require us to reevaluate the understanding we have thus far formed of Leopold Bloom. If we focus on the “vulgarity” and physicality of her monologue, our built-up sympathies with Bloom as the well-meaning husband of a loose woman are ratified. But a more nuanced understanding of her involves seeing her as an outgoing woman who takes a certain pride in her husband, but who has been feeling a lack of demonstrative love. This idea yields a reevaluation of Bloom as being unfaithful in his own ways and complicit in the temporary breakdown of their marriage.
Like Bloom, Molly is a Dublin outsider. She was raised in the military atmosphere of Gibraltar by her father, Major Brian Tweedy. Molly never knew her mother, who was possibly Jewish, or just Jewish-lo-oking. Bloom associates Molly with the “hot-blooded” Mediterranean regions, and, to a lesser degree, the exoticism of the East. Yet Molly considers her own childhood to have been normal, outside the dramatic entrances and exits of young, good-looking soldiers going off to war. Molly seems to organize her life around men and to have very few female friends. She enjoys being looked at and gains self-esteem from the admiration of men. Molly is extremely self-aware and perceptive—she knows without looking when she is being looked at. A man’s admiration of her does not cloud her own negative judgments about him. She is frank about topics that other people are likely to sentimentalize—intimacy, mourning, and motherhood, for example. She is also frank about the extent to which living involves adaptations of different roles. Her sense of this truth—which is perhaps related to her own career as a stage singer—aligns her with Stephen, who is also conscious of his outward existence in terms of a series of roles. Molly and Stephen both share a capacity for storytelling, scene-setting, and mimicry. Molly’s storytelling and frankness about role-playing evinces her sense of humor, and it also mediates our sense of her as a hypocritical character. Finally, it is this pragmatic and fluid adoption of roles that enables Molly to reconnect with Bloom through vivid recollections, and, indeed, reenactments, of the past, as in her final memory of the Howth scene at the end of Ulysses.
The character of Stephen Dedalus is a harshly drawn version of Joyce himself at age twenty-two. Stephen first appeared as the main character of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which followed his development from early childhood to his proud and ambitious days before leaving Dublin for Paris and the realization of his artistic capabilities. When we meet Stephen again at the beginning of Ulysses, it is over two years after the end of Portrait. Stephen has been back in Dublin for over a year, having returned to sit at his mother’s deathbed. Stephen’s artistic talent is still unrealized—he is currently a reluctant teacher of history at a boy’s school. He is disappointed and moody and is still dressed in mourning over the death of his mother almost a year ago. Stephen’s interactions with various characters—Buck, Haines, Mr. Deasy—in the opening episodes of the book crystallize our sense of the damaging ties and obligations that have resulted from Stephen’s return to Ireland. At the beginning of Ulysses, Stephen is a self-conscious young man whose identity is still in formation. Stephen’s aloofness and his attempts to understand himself through fictional characters such as Hamlet dramatize his struggle to solidify this identity.
Stephen is depicted as above most of the action of the novel. He exists mainly within his own world of ideas—his actions in the world tend to pointedly distance himself from others and from the world itself. His freeness with money is less a demonstration of his generosity than of his lack of material concerns. His unwashed state similarly reflects his removal from the material world. His cryptic stories and riddles cut o-thers off rather than include them. He stubbornly holds grudges, and our admiration of his noble struggle for independence is tempered by our knowledge of the impoverished siblings he has left behind. If Stephen himself is an unsympathetic character, however, the issues central to his identity struggle are easier for us to sympathize with. From his contemplation of the eye’s perception of the outside world to his teaching of a history lesson to his meditations on amor matris or “mother love,” Stephen’s mental meanderings center on the problem of whether, and how, to be an active or passive being within the world.
Stephen’s struggles tend to center around his parents. His mother, who seems to blame Stephen for refusing to pray at her deathbed, represents not only a mother’s love but also the church and Ireland. Stephen is haunted by his mother’s memory and ghost in the same ways that he is haunted by memories of his early piety. Though Stephen’s father is still alive and well, we see Stephen attempting to ignore or deny him throughout all of Ulysses. Stephen’s struggle with his father seems to be about Stephen’s need to have a space in which to create—a space untainted by Simon Dedalus’s overly critical judgments. Stephen’s struggle to define his identity without the constraint or aid imposed by his father bleeds into larger conflicts—Stephen’s struggle with the authority of God, the authority of the British empire, even with the authority of the mocker or joker.
After the first three episodes, Stephen’s appearances in Ulysses are limited. However, these limited appearances—in Episodes Nine, Fourteen, and Fifteen—demonstrate that Stephen’s attempted repudiation of authority and obligations has precipitated what seems to him to be the abandonment of all those close to him. At the end of Episode Fifteen, Stephen lies nearly unconscious on the ground, feeling as though he has been “betrayed” by everyone. Never before has Stephen seemed so much in need of a parent, and it is Bloom—not wholly father nor mother—who cares for him.
Though Stephen plays a part in the final episodes of Ulysses, we see less and less of his thoughts as the novel progresses (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Stephen becomes drunker and drunker). Instead, the circumstances of the novel and the apparent choices that Stephen makes take over our sense of his character. By the novel’s end, we see that Stephen recognizes a break with Buck Mulligan, will quit his job at Deasy’s school, and has accepted, if only temporarily, Bloom’s hospitality. In Bloom’s kitchen, Stephen puts something in his mouth besides alcohol for the first time since Episode One, and has a conversation with Bloom, as opposed to performing as he did earlier in the day. We are thus encouraged to understand that, in the calm of the late-night hours, Stephen has recognized the power of a reciprocal relationship to provide sustenance.
This book needs a No Fear for it! But if there were a No Fear made, it should be made in a different way from the others; some lines just need to be put into context. For example, I can't tell if one character is thinking or talking.
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I think Ulysses, and all Joyce (except Finnegan's Wake) should have a No Fear and a summary video. These classics are often overlooked by kids my age, and they should be read!
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I'm about half way through Ulysses and I'm beginning to realize that his scenarios and conversations will never become any clearer than they are now. I rarely quit a thing once I've started, but it's very frustrating. To those of you who have read it in full....do you understand who's talking, where they are, who's good/bad.....nothing is clear to me. I just keep reading words......I'm not sure why.