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.