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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Ulysses!