Ulysses

by: James Joyce

Leopold Bloom

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.


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