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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
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to Ulysses!