Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
At its most basic level, Ulysses is a book about Stephen’s search for a symbolic father and Bloom’s search for a son. In this respect, the plot of Ulysses parallels Telemachus’s search for Odysseus, and vice versa, in The Odyssey. Bloom’s search for a son stems at least in part from his need to reinforce his identity and heritage through progeny. Stephen already has a biological father, Simon Dedalus, but considers him a father only in “flesh.” Stephen feels that his own ability to mature and become a father himself (of art or children) is restricted by Simon’s criticism and lack of understanding. Thus Stephen’s search involves finding a symbolic father who will, in turn, allow Stephen himself to be a father. Both men, in truth, are searching for paternity as a way to reinforce their own identities.
Stephen is more conscious of his quest for paternity than Bloom, and he mentally recurs to several important motifs with which to understand paternity. Stephen’s thinking about the Holy Trinity involves, on the one hand, Church doctrines that uphold the unity of the Father and the Son and, on the other hand, the writings of heretics that challenge this doctrine by arguing that God created the rest of the Trinity, concluding that each subsequent creation is inherently different. Stephen’s second motif involves his Hamlet theory, which seeks to prove that Shakespeare represented himself through the ghost-father in Hamlet, but also—through his translation of his life into art—became the father of his own father, of his life, and “of all his race.” The Holy Trinity and Hamlet motifs reinforce our sense of Stephen’s and Bloom’s parallel quests for paternity. These quests seem to end in Bloom’s kitchen, with Bloom recognizing “the future” in Stephen and Stephen recognizing “the past” in Bloom. Though united as father and son in this moment, the men will soon part ways, and their paternity quests will undoubtedly continue, for Ulysses demonstrates that the quest for paternity is a search for a lasting manifestation of self.
The phrase agenbite of inwit, a religious term meaning “remorse of conscience,” comes to Stephen’s mind again and again in Ulysses. Stephen associates the phrase with his guilt over his mother’s death—he suspects that he may have killed her by refusing to kneel and pray at her sickbed when she asked. The theme of remorse runs through Ulysses to address the feelings associated with modern breaks with family and tradition. Bloom, too, has guilty feelings about his father because he no longer observes certain traditions his father observed, such as keeping kosher. Episode Fifteen, “Circe,” dramatizes this remorse as Bloom’s “Sins of the Past” rise up and confront him one by one. Ulysses juxtaposes characters who experience remorse with characters who do not, such as Buck Mulligan, who shamelessly refers to Stephen’s mother as “beastly dead,” and Simon Dedalus, who mourns his late wife but does not regret his treatment of her. Though remorse of conscience can have a repressive, paralyzing effect, as in Stephen’s case, it is also vaguely positive. A self-conscious awareness of the past, even the sins of the past, helps constitute an individual as an ethical being in the present.
In nearly all senses, the notion of Leopold Bloom as an epic hero is laughable—his job, talents, family relations, public relations, and private actions all suggest his utter ordinariness. It is only Bloom’s extraordinary capacity for sympathy and compassion that allows him an unironic heroism in the course of the novel. Bloom’s fluid ability to empathize with such a wide variety of beings—cats, birds, dogs, dead men, vicious men, blind men, old ladies, a woman in labor, the poor, and so on—is the modern-day equivalent to Odysseus’s capacity to adapt to a wide variety of challenges. Bloom’s compassion often dictates the course of his day and the novel, as when he stops at the river Liffey to feed the gulls or at the hospital to check on Mrs. Purefoy. There is a network of symbols in Ulysses that present Bloom as Ireland’s savior, and his message is, at a basic level, to “love.” He is juxtaposed with Stephen, who would also be Ireland’s savior but is lacking in compassion. Bloom returns home, faces evidence of his cuckold status, and slays his competition—not with arrows, but with a refocused perspective that is available only through his fluid capacity for empathy.
Parallax is an astronomical term that Bloom encounters in his reading and that arises repeatedly through the course of the novel. It refers to the difference of position of one object when seen from two different vantage points. These differing viewpoints can be collated to better approximate the position of the object. As a novel, Ulysses uses a similar tactic. Three main characters—Stephen, Bloom, and Molly—and a subset of narrative techniques that affect our perception of events and characters combine to demonstrate the fallibility of one single perspective. Our understanding of particular characters and events must be continually revised as we consider further perspectives. The most obvious example is Molly’s past love life. Though we can construct a judgment of Molly as a loose woman from the testimonies of various characters in the novel—Bloom, Lenehan, Dixon, and so on—this judgment must be revised with the integration of Molly’s own final testimony.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The traditional associations of light with good and dark with bad are upended in Ulysses, in which the two protagonists are dressed in mourning black, and the more menacing characters are associated with light and brightness. This reversal arises in part as a reaction to Mr. Deasy’s anti-Semitic judgment that Jews have “sinned against the light.” Deasy himself is associated with the brightness of coins, representing wealth without spirituality. “Blazes” Boylan, Bloom’s nemesis, is associated with brightness through his name and his flashy behavior, again suggesting surface without substance. Bloom’s and Stephen’s dark colors suggest a variety of associations: Jewishness, anarchy, outsider/wanderer status. Furthermore, Throwaway, the “dark horse,” wins the Gold Cup Horserace.
While Odysseus is away from Ithaca in The Odyssey, his household is usurped by would-be suitors of his wife, Penelope. This motif translates directly to Ulysses and provides a connection between Stephen and Bloom. Stephen pays the rent for the Martello tower, where he, Buck, and Haines are staying. Buck’s demand of the house key is thus a usurpation of Stephen’s household rights, and Stephen recognizes this and refuses to return to the tower. Stephen mentally dramatizes this usurpation as a replay of Claudius’s usurpation of Gertrude and the throne in Hamlet. Meanwhile, Bloom’s home has been usurped by Blazes Boylan, who comes and goes at will and has sex with Molly in Bloom’s absence. Stephen’s and Bloom’s lack of house keys throughout Ulysses symbolizes these usurpations.
The motif of the East appears mainly in Bloom’s thoughts. For Bloom, the East is a place of exoticism, representing the promise of a paradisiacal existence. Bloom’s hazy conception of this faraway land arises from a network of connections: the planter’s companies (such as Agendeth Netaim), which suggest newly fertile and potentially profitable homes; Zionist movements for a homeland; Molly and her childhood in Gibraltar; narcotics; and erotics. For Bloom and the reader, the East becomes the imaginative space where hopes can be realized. The only place where Molly, Stephen, and Bloom all meet is in their parallel dreams of each other the night before, dreams that seem to be set in an Eastern locale.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In Episode Five, Bloom reads an ad in his newspaper: “What is home without / Plumtree’s Potted Meat? / Incomplete. / With it an abode of bliss.” Bloom’s conscious reaction is his belief that the ad is poorly placed—directly below the obituaries, suggesting an infelicitous relation between dead bodies and “potted meat.” On a subconscious level, however, the figure of Plumtree’s Potted Meat comes to stand for Bloom’s anxieties about Boylan’s usurpation of his wife and home. The image of meat inside a pot crudely suggests the sexual relation between Boylan and Molly. The wording of the ad further suggests, less concretely, Bloom’s masculine anxieties—he worries that he is not the head of an “abode of bliss” but rather a servant in a home “incomplete.” The connection between Plumtree’s meat and Bloom’s anxieties about Molly’s unhappiness and infidelity is driven home when Bloom finds crumbs of the potted meat that Boylan and Molly shared earlier in his own bed.
The afternoon’s Gold Cup Horserace and the bets placed on it provide much of the public drama in Ulysses, though it happens offstage. In Episode Five, Bantam Lyons mistakenly thinks that Bloom has tipped him off to the horse “Throwaway,” the dark horse with a long-shot chance. “Throwaway” does end up winning the race, notably ousting “Sceptre,” the horse with the phallic name, on which Lenehan and Boylan have bet. This underdog victory represents Bloom’s eventual unshowy triumph over Boylan, to win the “Gold Cup” of Molly’s heart.
Stephen deliberately conceives of his Latin Quarter hat as a symbol. The Latin Quarter is a student district in Paris, and Stephen hopes to suggest his exiled, anti-establishment status while back in Ireland. He also refers to the hat as his “Hamlet hat,” tipping us off to the intentional brooding and artistic connotations of the head gear. Yet Stephen cannot always control his own hat as a symbol, especially in the eyes of others. Through the eyes of others, it comes to signify Stephen’s mock priest-liness and provinciality.
In Episode Fifteen, Bloom’s potato functions like Odysseus’s use of “moly” in Circe’s den—it serves to protect him from enchantment, enchantments to which Bloom succumbs when he briefly gives it over to Zoe Higgins. The potato, old and shriveled now, is an heirloom from Bloom’s mother, Ellen. As an organic product that is both fruit and root but is now shriveled, it gestures toward Bloom’s anxieties about fertility and his family line. Most important, however, is the potato’s connection to Ireland—Bloom’s potato talisman stands for his frequently overlooked maternal Irish heritage.
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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