Bloom as Joyce’s Odysseus

A quick Google search of ‘Ulysses by James Joyce’ will bring back over seven million results and the headlines of the two top articles give a better summary of Joyce’s novel than I ever could. The first reads, ‘Why you should read this book – James Joyce’s Ulysses; the second, ‘Is James Joyce’s Ulysses the hardest novel to finish?’. Love it or hate it, it cannot be denied that finishing the immense, verbose novel that is Ulysses is a rewarding challenge whether that be because you’ve had a life-changing three months entirely immersed Stephen’s pomposity and Bloom’s imaginings or because you’ve finally finished the bloody thing. Although the novel is rich, consuming and entirely wonderful when read in a month in preparation for twelve weeks of three hour conversations about it in seminars, it’s probably best best tackled in sections. A series working through each episode of Ulysses is something I’d like to do one day, but for now I’m going to give a brief analysis of the opening page of ‘Calypso’ and have a quick look at one of the most interesting literary characters ever breathed into life, Joyce’s Mr. Leopold Bloom.

James Joyce’s 1922 novel, Ulysses, captures the lives of Stephen Daedalus and Mr Leopold Bloom on 6th June 1904 in Dublin, Ireland. The novel records the thoughts and movements of these Dubliners throughout the day and consequently, Joyce’s novel is incredibly verbose; we watch as the two men eat, work, think, walk, talk and fantasise during the course of the day. It’s handy to know that ‘Ulysses’ is the Latin form of ‘Odysseus’ and Joyce’s novel parallels Homer’s Odyssey structurally, with episodes that correspond with moments in Homer’s epic poem. Many critics have debated about the significance of Ulysses’ connection with the poem but what seems important, within the realm of this discussion, is that the Odyssey is permeated with Greek heroes, gods, monsters, traps, voyages and battles, where Ulysses is largely interested in the everyday.

Bloom is often thought of as being Joyce’s Odysseus because ‘Calypso’, the episode that sees the introduction of Bloom, aligns with the moment in Homer’s poem in which Odysseus becomes prominent. Bloom, however, is considerably unlike the heroic king of Ithaca and Ulysses, in terms of pronounced narrative plot, at least, is distinctly less eventful than Homer’s poem. Joyce introduces him into his novel as ‘Mr Leopold Bloom’, immediately positioning him within the text as a mature, middle-class figure, as opposed to Malachi Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus, who are introduced, in ‘Telemachus’, Joyce’s first episode, with their nicknames, Buck and Kinch. Bloom’s immediate affiliation with the bourgeoisie positions him within a demographic that is often associated in the book with that which is bland, out-dated, distinctly unexciting, particularly when considering the other notable middle-class figure that the reader has been presented with thus far in the text: Mr Deasy, the headmaster of the school at which Stephen teaches. Joyce presents Deasy as being foolish, cliché, stale and almost laughable, and, ostensibly, in the opening passages of ‘Calypso’, Bloom appears to be a Deasy-esque character, meandering around his kitchen, making breakfast for his wife and talking to his cat, the very antithesis of the heroic Odysseus. As the chapter unfolds though, Joyce elevates his bourgeois character, infusing him with a subtle dynamism. Bloom is not a hollow character as Mr Deasy seems to be; where Deasy delights in his own anti-Semitic jokes and surrounds himself with ‘dead treasure and hollow shells’, Bloom, instead, “feels” the rather mundane world around him and turns it into something new and interesting in his mind. Joyce manifests this is by describing that which Bloom sees, smells, feels, hears and tastes. We experience the world through our senses, and in describing that which Bloom sees, hears, tastes, smells and feels in this moment, Joyce’s character is made into something living, something three-dimensional rather than a shell of a character. Bloom sees his ‘clean to see’ cat and hears her ‘mkgnao-ing’ for milk; he tastes the ‘nutty gizzards’ that he eats for breakfast, which has a ‘fine tang of faintly scented urine’ and feels the ‘gentle summer morning everywhere [which] made him feel a bit peckish’. It is notable that each one of these sights, sounds, tastes, smells and sensations has a subtly surprising quality about them; that Bloom’s cat is described as being ‘clean to see’, and that Joyce describes her as ‘mkgnao’ing and ‘mrkgnao’ing rather than using a more conventional description of a sound that a cat makes is odd, somewhat out of place. The adjective ‘nutty’, used to describe the gizzards that he eats and the noun phrase ‘fine tang’ used to describe a smell reminiscent of urine seem somehow unfitting and the suggestion that the feeling of summer air on Bloom’s skin makes him feel hungry, too, is unusual. Bloom’s experiences of the world, as recorded by Joyce, are distinctive and surprising. Bloom is a living, feeling character in a text that is primarily concerned with the mundane. Bloom is no Ancient Greek hero, but he is equally impressive in Joyce’s otherwise fairly unremarkable Dublin.

Ulysses is a great work of free indirect discourse and so it would be possible to argue that these strange descriptions and musings do not belong to Bloom, but to Joyce himself. Free indirect discourse makes it difficult to distinguish between the narrative voice and the voice of characters; it is difficult to discern what is third person narration and what belongs to the internal monologue of Bloom, Stephen and other characters in the novel. While it may be difficult to distinguish whose voice is prominent in each moment of Ulysses, there are clues in the language that suggest when the reader sees the world objectively, through the narrator, if indeed there is a narrator, and when Joyce presents the world “through” one of his characters. Joyce writes, ‘the cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high’. It isn’t immediately obvious whether this observation belongs to Bloom or to a narrator, but we can infer from the narrative that it is Bloom’s for it seems unlikely that Leopold Bloom, a man who watches his cat ‘curiously, kindly’ and affectionately calls her ‘pussens’, would refer to that same animal as ‘the cat’. The empathy displayed in Bloom’s treatment of his cat is a distinctive quality of his character — when Bloom makes his wife’s breakfast, Joyce writes, ‘another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full’. And so when Joyce writes, ‘— O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire. The cat mewed in answer’, we can infer that it is written in the third person; he narrative voice transcribes Bloom’s dialogue with his cat and notes ‘the cat’s’ reply, employing the generic term to describe the sound that a cat makes, ‘mew’. Throughout the passage, though, as previously discussed, Bloom’s cat does not ‘mew’, she ‘mkgnao!’s and ‘mrkgnao!’s. If the ‘mewing’ belongs to the narrative voice, the other, more interesting sounds belong to Bloom. The distinct sound of Bloom’s cat is a transcription of the way that Bloom hears his cat communicate with him, a transcription of Bloom’s own experience with the world around him. Joyce’s use of free indirect discourse allows him to infuse his text, particularly this episode, with the personality of Mr Leopold Bloom.

A close look at the way in which Joyce makes use of narrative voice, however, reveals that this is not the case. ‘Calypso’, the fourth episode of Ulysses — the episode that brings Bloom into the novel — is the episode in which Joyce’s method of turning the ordinary into something interesting, surprising, is first apparent, and perhaps most impressive. Joyce’s world becomes something new and refreshing in this episode.

This is a shift from that which Joyce has presented the reader with in the first three episodes of his novel. In the previous episode, ‘Proteus’, Stephen walks along Sandymount Strand, contemplating the ‘ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through [his] eyes’. The episode depicts Stephen as he attempts to find the right words to express something powerful and profound, fumbling with language in his attempt to do so. Stephen’s language in this episode recalls words and phrases that have been used previously in the narrative by other characters such as Buck Mulligan’s song about Mary Ann, ‘hising up her petticoats’ and the boatman’s ‘five phantoms’ in ‘Telemachus’. Stephen also uses clichéd images in his re-rendering of the world, thinking of the moon and ‘a naked woman shining in her courts’ as he attempts to create something beautiful and moving in language. These attempts, however, ultimately fail to create something powerful. The episode ends with the image of Stephen’s rotting teeth and his self-conscious action of wiping dry snot on a rock, images of decay and the corporeal, the very opposite of the abstract, beautiful, moving poetry that he seeks to create. When Joyce writes of the world as Stephen experiences it, then, it is merely a medley of recycled images and unwanted, useless physical matter. In an earlier episode, Joyce writes, ‘[Buck Mulligan] peered […] his even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points. Chrysostomos’. The first sentence is written in the third person narrative voice, it belongs to the novel’s elusive narrator. The second, however, belongs to Stephen. ‘Chrysostomos’ is a Greek word meaning ‘golden-mouthed’ and it is also the name a father of the Church, St John Chrysostomos. It seems, then, that we are to understand this word to be a part of Stephen’s interior monologue as he had been given a classicist, Jesuit education. Stephen rewrites the narrative voice’s ‘gold points’ as ‘chrysostomos’ in attempt, it seems, to turn it into something beautiful, a habit of Stephen’s as he constantly seeks to create poetry. His attempt, however, is distancing, jarring, rather than innovative or meaningful as it is unlikely that the reader will be familiar with Stephen’s word; it is either skimmed past, and ineffective as a consequence, or looked up in the endnotes that many contemporary editions of Ulysses provide, and is thus disruptive to the process of reading and enjoying Joyce’s flowing novel. Bloom’s, perhaps unintentional, re-rendering of the world, on the other hand, is quietly stirring. He is certainly not the grandiose hero of the Odyssey but it is he, not Deasy and not Stephen, that is the character in Joyce’s novel who creates movement and injects life into the otherwise distinctly ordinary day.

Joyce, at the beginning of ‘Calypso’ depicts what seems to be an entirely ordinary morning in a novel that details the happenings on an entirely ordinary day in Dublin. With the introduction of Mr Bloom into the novel though, something in Ulysses changes. Joyce leaves Deasy, stale and outmoded, and Stephen, with his pompous and threadbare ponderings, behind to present his reader with the hero of his novel. Is it not grand event or character that defines Ulysses, it is Bloom, whose character Joyce infuses into the language and everyday happenings of Ulysses, through his use of narrative voice, that ultimately impresses.

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