by James Joyce
Ulysses Theme of Mortality
Ulysses is full of that most common thing – death. Stephen Dedalus's mother has died between the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the opening of Ulysses, and he is tormented by feelings of remorse and guilt because he refused to pray over her before she passed. Leopold Bloom is a man who is in a sense living between two deaths – his father has committed suicide, and his son Rudy died over ten years ago, at the age of just eleven days. Thus the characters in the book are intimately aware of what a fleeting thing life is, and we are exposed to a great deal of their thoughts surrounding human mortality. At the same time, this isn't all super heavy-handed and serious. In "Hades," for example, you'll find that some of Bloom's thoughts on death are actually hilarious. Example: why don't they bury people long ways up instead of horizontal, so as to save space?
Questions About Mortality
- Life is often viewed as being transient in Ulysses. How does life's very transience give way to a different concept of mortality, one not tied into any one individual's life span?
- Though they have all died before the start of the novel, May Dedalus, Rudolph Virag, and Rudy all seem to be characters in Ulysses. In what ways is the line between life and death blurred in the novel? In what ways is it maintained?
- Particularly in "Hades," death is treated humorously in the novel. Is it possible to think of one's mortality as a comic matter? Do the characters seem to have mastered this capacity, or do their attempts to crack jokes about death simply indicate that they are frightened of it and trying to hide it?
- The deaths of Rudolph Virag (Bloom's father) and Rudy (Bloom's son) have left Bloom the only remaining male progenitor in his line. Does this fact seem to heighten Bloom's sense of his own mortality? When he reflects on their deaths, is he also thinking about his own?
Chew on This
Stephen's vanity blinds him from any real sense of his own death. All he can imagine is the completion of his great artistic project, and young as he is, everything else seems tangential to it, including his own life.
In contrast to Bloom, who realizes that he is the last of his family line, most men in the novel never have to come to terms with what it means to be mortal. The other characters that speak of death seem to harbor the belief that by reproducing, they are guaranteed a form of immortality.