Study Guide

Leopold Bloom in Ulysses

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Leopold Bloom

I Have a Body and I'm Proud of It

Our introduction to Bloom begins, "Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls" (4.1). From that first line on, we find that Bloom is a man of tremendous and unabashed appetites. In short, the guy loves food. Later, in "Lestrygonians," we can practically hear Bloom's belly grumbling as he wanders about town in search of a late lunch. In "Circe," he picks up a late night snack – a pig's crubeen and a cold sheep's trotter – and only reluctantly gives it up to a stray dog. Throughout the book, Bloom's appetites are directing his thoughts. Walking around Dublin, he gets taken in by the smells of baker's and butcher's shops.

It has been said that we readers know more about Leopold Bloom than any other character in the history of literature. Well, a lot of what we know about our protagonist (Bloom) that usually gets left out of other books has to do with the dirty circumstances of him having a body. In the end of "Calypso," that same introductory episode to Bloom, we see Bloom in the outhouse taking a dump and then checking the back of his trousers to make sure they're clean. At the end of "Lotus Eaters," Bloom thinks ahead to a bath and we get an image of his penis in the tub: "the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower" (5.142). "Sirens" closes with Bloom letting out a tremendous fart, which he conceals with the noise of a passing tram. And throughout the book, feeling a bit dumpy, he keeps reminding himself that he really must do Sandow's Exercises.

The point could not be made more clearly: Bloom is not just a head floating around in a book thinking polite thoughts, attending society functions, and making banter. Bloom is a human being and he exists in a body, and the body can be kind of nasty, but that's what it's like to be alive – to go to the bathroom, to examine one's privates, to let out big farts. With Ulysses, Joyce talked about deleting the line between literature and life, and this is one big way that he attempts to do it.

Bloom's embodied-ness also contrasts the other major character of the book – Stephen Dedalus. In an episode like "Proteus," we see that Stephen can get so lost in his own thoughts that he almost forgets that he is a person in the world. Stephen tries to think of everything in spiritual and artistic terms, but the result is that he is cut off. Often, we speak of Stephen as being isolated at an interpersonal level, lacking friends and a close connection with his family, but Stephen is even isolated in the sense that he is disconnected from his own body. One of the many lessons Bloom has to teach Stephen is that he is just as human as everyone else, and that part of being a human is dealing with all the ins and outs of the physical world.

The Creepy Old Man

While we're contrasting Bloom and Stephen, another major difference is that Bloom is an extremely sexual character. Stephen may go to a brothel in "Circe," but while there all he does is play the piano, philosophize, and dance with the prostitutes before going half-mad and running out into the street. Bloom, by contrast, has a long masochistic fantasy in which the "whoremistress" Bella Cohen flogs him and abuses him. The fantasy may be the most off-the-wall sexual thought Bloom has all day, but it's only one of many.

Sometimes Bloom's "impotence" gets over-estimated when people discuss the book. It's true that Bloom has not been able to sleep with his wife for over ten years, ever since their son Rudy died, but the result is that his sexuality has come to express itself in all sorts of odd ways. In "Calypso," we see Bloom checking out a young girl's bottom at the grocer. At the end of the novel, in "Penelope," Molly remembers what an uncontrollable man Bloom was, and how he would always check out girls' underwear when their skirts blew up on their bicycles.

The indirectness of Bloom's sexual life is nowhere as clear as in his correspondence with Martha Clifford. Bloom posted an ad in the Freeman paper saying that he was a literary man looking for a typist, which ended up being the way that he started up his illicit correspondence. In the letter he receives on June 16th, Clifford calls him a "naughty boy" and says she wants to know what kind of perfume Molly wears (5.72). Martha also says that she would like to meet him. Though Bloom is aroused by the correspondence, and writes back to her (in "Sirens"), he knows that he will never meet her face-to-face. He still seeks out sexual relationships, but can't bring himself to actually complete the act. In this case, it's as if Bloom's very language has become sexualized. Because they are exchanging letters, Bloom expresses his libido through words and gets turned on by them.

Of course, the most famous/notorious expression of Bloom's sexuality comes in "Nausicaa." Partially concealed by a rock, Bloom gazes intensely at the attractive young Gerty MacDowell, who is lying on the beach. Right there in public, he begins masturbating, and when she leans back to watch some fireworks, revealing her thighs and underwear, he has an orgasm. A moment later we are again exposed to some of the ickier parts of Bloom's bodily life as, "Mr. Bloom with careful hand recomposed his wet shirt. O Lord, that little limping devil. Begins to feel cold and clammy. Aftereffect not pleasant" (13.92). Again, Bloom's sexual experience is indirect and unconsummated, but do take a moment to consider how socially unacceptable his action is. We mean, what would you do if you saw a middle-aged man masturbating on a public beach?

Especially in "Circe" and "Penelope," we get a sort of panoramic view of Bloom's indiscretions. In the imagined court fantasy in "Circe," where Bloom is tried for being a lewd man, a number of women come up and testify against him. At the time, it's hard to tell if this is just part of a guilt-complex Bloom has, but in "Penelope" we learn that some of those testimonies have a basis in truth. For example, Molly suspects that Bloom had a bit of non-kosher interaction with their old housemaid, Mary Driscoll.

The point is that Bloom is something of a sexual deviant, and that though he can't have intercourse with his wife, he still has an extremely sexualized mind. The flipside of the point is that maybe Bloom's not a deviant, and that maybe his sexual thoughts aren't so extreme. As we discussed in relation to Bloom's body, he is a human being and Joyce wants him to be experience all of the things human beings are concerned with, horniness included.

The Resigned Cuckold

Perhaps the most notable contrast between Bloom and Homer's Odysseus is that Odysseus slaughters all of his wife's suitors (even though none of them have yet won her bed), whereas Bloom, knowing full well that Boylan is going to have sex with Molly, does nothing.

That's not to say that he doesn't care or that he isn't extremely disturbed by the fact that his wife is going to have sex with another man. In "Hades," when the other men in the carriage salute Boylan, Bloom simply examines his fingernails and thinks to himself that Boylan is the "worst man in Dublin" (6.89). Later in "Lestrygonians," Bloom sees Boylan again and is terrified of having an encounter with him. He rushes into the National Library to get away from him.

In "Sirens," when Boylan gets up to leave the Ormond Hotel and head to the Bloom's house, Bloom lets out a "light sob of breath" (11.291). He's almost overcome with anxiety at the thought of their affair. After masturbating in "Nausicaa," he thinks dejectedly that Boylan "gets the plums and I the plumstones" (13.108). And perhaps nowhere is his anxiety as clearly expressed as in his masochistic fantasy in "Circe." In the fantasy, Boylan comes over while Bloom is home and treats him as a servant. As he goes in to have sex with Molly, he tells Bloom, "You can apply your eye to the keyhole and play with yourself while I just go through her a few times" (15.814).

So why doesn't he do anything? Well, one reason is that he understands where Molly is coming from. As we outlined in the section above, Bloom isn't exactly the ideal husband, and he has committed plenty of his own indiscretions. In "Lestrygonians," we learn that he and Molly haven't had sex in over ten years because he "could never like it again after Rudy" (8.160). In "Penelope," Molly clarifies this and takes it further, noting how affectionless Bloom is toward her. She thinks, "Im not an old shriveled hag before my time living with him so cold never embracing me" (18.777). Bloom can understand that Molly's affair is, in a way, justified, but he can't help being jealous. Bluntly put, the fact that you can't sexually satisfy the woman you love is enough to drive a man crazy.

But Bloom does come to terms with Molly's affair over the course of the day. We see the first major signs of resignation in "Eumaeus," when Bloom is thinking of Parnell's notorious affair with Katherine O'Shea. One might assume that, given his current position, Bloom's sympathies would lie with O'Shea's husband and not Parnell. What he actually thinks is, "it was simply a case of the husband not being up to scratch with nothing in common between them beyond the name and then a real man arriving on the scene, strong to the verge of weakness, falling a victim to her siren charms and forgetting home ties" (16.229). Now perhaps the reason Bloom sympathizes with Parnell is because Parnell is a national hero and Bloom would simply like to think of himself as more similar to the hero than to the cuckold husband. Perhaps it's partially a case of him being in denial of his current position. But the direct comparison to Bloom's own situation comes just a few moments later when he thinks, "Can real love, supposing there happens to be another chap in the case, exist between married folk?" (16.229).

Toward the end of "Ithaca," we see Bloom thinking of his predicament directly and struggling to come to terms with it. In the words of the narrator, he is trying to navigate his way through feelings of "Envy, jealousy, abnegation, equanimity" (17.287). The terms in which Bloom's resignation is finally put are: "[f]rom outrage (matrimony) to outrage (adultery) there arose nought but outrage (copulation) yet the matrimonial violator of the matrimonially violated had not yet been outraged by the adulterous violator of the adulterously violated" (17.292).

Now, what does this mean? Well, Bloom can see that all the dissatisfaction has simply compounded upon itself; one outrage leads to another. What ultimately allows him to come to terms with the situation is that Molly, "the matrimonial violator," was not outraged by her affair with Boylan – in fact, she was quite pleased with it. It's empathy with his wife's position that allows him to understand her adultery and submit to it.

A Gentleman and a Jew

Reading Ulysses today, it's easy to forget just what a big deal it would have been for an Irish reader that Bloom is Jewish. In Ulysses, Joyce has set out to write the great Irish novel (and, coincidentally, the greatest novel of all time), which would have made nationalistic Irishmen exceedingly proud. But then who does Joyce pick as the hero of his novel? He picks someone that most of those same nationalistic Irishmen wouldn't have thought of as a fellow patriot; they would have thought of him as a second-class citizen.

In 1904 Dublin, anti-Semitism would not have been as intense as it was on the European continent, but it was, no doubt, alive and well. Two years later, in 1906, Edward Raphael Lipsett wrote down some of his impressions on what it meant to be a Jew in Ireland. He wrote, "You cannot get one native to remember that a Jew may be an Irishman. The term 'Irish Jew' seems to have a contradictory ring upon the native ear; the idea is wholly inconceivable to the native mind…" We get whiffs of anti-Semitism when the men begin to mock the Jewish moneylender Reuben J. Dodd in the "Hades" episode, and we get hit straight on with the xenophobic stench in "Cyclops."

But whether Irishmen liked it or not, Bloom was completely a Jew. In "Lotus Eaters," Bloom pokes his head into a Christian church and all of his thoughts are the thoughts of an outsider, one who doesn't quite understand what is going on. He considers confession as "God's little joke," and pondering how complete Church theology is, he thinks to himself that priests have an "answer pat for everything" (5.99). A bit later, Bloom picks up a paper and begins reading about colonies that are being set up near the Dead Sea – part of the Zionist movement. After he grabs his throwaway in "Lestrygonians," the narrator begins to associate him with the Jewish prophet Elijah. In "Ithaca," Bloom shows Stephen how to write in Hebrew, and is saddened by Stephen's anti-Semitic story even though Stephen doesn't think of it that way. As you move through the novel, you'll find that a large number of Bloom's thoughts are filtered through this Jewish perspective.

That's not to say that Bloom is a very devout Jew. You'll notice that he digs on pork, and hence isn't keeping kosher. One also gets the sense that Bloom is not too in touch with his religious faith. He thinks the fact that the brain is made up of grey matter leaves no room for the existence of God. In "Eumaeus" and "Ithaca," he even seems quite ambivalent about admitting to Stephen that he is a Jew.

For Bloom, it's clear that his Jewishness is more of a cultural position than a religious position, and more so that it's something that is imposed on him from outside. When other people in the novel look at Bloom, they think of him as a Jew. The result is that his race becomes a defining aspect of his personality regardless of whether or not he thinks of it that way. In "Circe," Bloom makes it clear that for him, being Leopold Bloom comes first and being a Jew comes second. He vainly imagines himself as the ruler, not of Jerusalem, but of "the new Bloomusalem" (15.315).

In "Cyclops," Bloom comes face to face with anti-Semitism. At the end of the episode, when the citizen mocks him, he shouts back that the citizen's God (Christ) was a Jew just like he is. The statement is true, but it drives the citizen mad and he rushes out into the street and flings a tin after Bloom. Though this is what Bloom remembers later, his real battle against anti-Semitism comes earlier.

As the citizen begins making passive-aggressive digs at him, he says, "Persecution, all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations" (12.399). A moment later, when asked what a nation is, Bloom says, "A nation is the same people living in the same place" (12.403). What's key here is Bloom's moderation, his willingness to combat the citizen's narrow-minded nationalism. Being a Jew in Ireland, an outsider in an intensely nationalistic land, Bloom has a more flexible concept of what a nation is than the citizen does. Suspended as he is between his Jewishness and his Irishness, Bloom can see all the faults of short-sighed nationalistic thinking and steer clear of them.

The take-home point is that it's not Bloom's aggressiveness toward the citizen so much as his reasonable response to him that combats the citizen's views. As Bloom thinks later, in Eumaeus, "People could put up with being bitten by a wolf but what properly riled them was a bite from a sheep" (16.247).

The Quipping Ad Man

In Ulysses, we have a sharp contrast drawn between the aspiring artist Stephen and the content ad man Leopold Bloom. Stephen, in his search for a sense of 'vocation,' couldn't conceive of selling ads. Bloom occasionally indulges fantasies of writing stories for a local pennyweekly, but for the most part he seems pretty satisfied with what he's doing. But, despite this difference, both men have remarkably creative minds in their own way.

As Bloom's mind wanders at Dignam's funeral in the "Hades" episode, we see his imagination take flight. Thinking of why people are buried long-ways instead of straight up and down, he thinks, "More room if they buried them standing. Sitting or kneeling you couldn't. Standing? His head might come up some day above ground in a landslip with his hand pointing. All honeycombed the ground must: oblong cells" (6.330). We're not saying that Bloom has the mind of a literary genius, but the idea of the world as one great big honeycomb on account of up and down graves is pretty amusing. Similarly, in "Aeolus," he enters the newspaper office and hears the clacking of the machines. He thinks to himself, "Everything speaks in its own way" (7.83). Much of what sustains us through the long passages of Bloom's stream-of-consciousness is his child-like curiosity and his extremely amusing mind.

As Bloom wanders about town, he thinks of different places for ads, imagines conceiving advertisements that make people stop and stare, and remembers different jingles that have stuck in his head (like the one for "Plumtree's Potted Meat"). But the thing is that advertising wasn't exactly the most well-respected occupation in Dublin, and in a way Bloom's role as an ad man further contributes to his peripheral social status.

You'll find that one of the most disappointing things about Leopold Bloom is the contrast between the creativity of his thought and the banality of what comes out of his mouth. You know that great aunt or uncle who wants to just sit you down and lecture you about how the world works for hours on end? Well, that's kind of how Bloom is. He has this irritating habit of constantly wanting to explain things to people. In "Cyclops," when the men begin discussing Irish sport, Bloom goes on one of his soapbox speeches, and the narrator thinks begrudgingly, "If you said to Bloom: Look at, Bloom. Do you see that straw? That's a straw. Declare to my aunt he'd talk about it for an hour or so he would and talk steady" (12.235).

Now, what's interesting about this is that if it weren't for Bloom's stream-of-consciousness he'd be just another guy at the bar. Another Matt Lenehan, Tom Kernan, Joe Hynes, etc. What makes Bloom so interesting is his interior life, which might make you think that if you took any one of these average Joe's and opened up their minds, they too might move into the "Ulysses" role.

Mr. Empathy: "The New Womanly Man"

One of the big themes people talk about when they talk about the plot of Ulysses is how Bloom becomes a "surrogate father" for Stephen. There's some truth to the idea, but it's also very easy to over-estimate this relationship. The fact of the matter is that their interaction is quite fleeting. They don't really talk until the 16th episode of the book, and after Stephen leaves, Bloom senses his indifference and thinks that they probably will not meet again. But Bloom does have something to teach Stephen, and we can even boil it down to a short little dictum. Here it is: Compassion is heroic.

Throughout the novel, we see numerous examples of Bloom trying to imagine what it might be like to be in another person's mind. In "Hades," he imagines that Dignam's wife must feel his death much more strongly than Bloom does, and he thinks of what it would be like to be married to the undertaker, John O'Connell. In "Lestrygonians," Bloom helps a blind man across the street and tries to imagine how he sees the world: "See things in their foreheads perhaps. Kind of sense of volume. Weight. Would he feel it if something was removed? Feel a gap" (8.530). In "Sirens," Bloom thinks disparagingly of Richie Goulding, but then imagines how tough his back pain must be for him. In "Cyclops," when the men are laughing at Denis Breen, Bloom is the only one to speak up and mention how hard life must be for Breen's wife. Later, at the maternity hospital waiting to hear if Mina Purefoy has given birth, the narrator notes that Bloom "felt with wonder women's woe in the travail that they have of motherhood" (14.13). Of all the men there, he is the only one to stop and ask Nurse Callan if she will pass on his well wishes to Mrs. Purefoy.

We've already noted in "The Resigned Cuckold" section that Bloom's ability to empathize with his wife's position is what ultimately allows him to get over her affair. In contrast to the point of view we get in the Odyssey, Bloom thinks about what it must be like to be Penelope – to be the wife waiting at home, not sure whether or not your husband is going to return. In his words, "Never about the runaway wife coming back, however much devoted to the absentee. The face at the window!" (16.79). Given the fact that Bloom could easily fall into despair over his wife's affair, it is his ability to put himself in other people's shoes that is his saving grace.

Now, in "Circe," Bloom's ability to empathize with women is given hyperbolic expression. In his masochistic court fantasy, he imagines doctors Mulligan and Dixon giving testimony on the state of his health, and it is announced that he is actually pregnant with children. Dixon calls him an example of "the new womanly man" (1.373). Bloom responds, "O, I so want to be a mother" (15.374). The scene is comic, but it does capture Bloom's uncanny ability to sympathize with the women around him, and his willingness to consider their particular pains and struggles.

In "The Quipping Ad Man" section, we note how Bloom can be somewhat preachy when he talks – constantly trying to explain things to other people. But in one of these moments, Bloom actually voices the central message of the book. Bloom has been complaining about the persecution of the Jewish people, and John Henry Menton asks him why he doesn't stand up and do something about it. Despite the fact that he is in Barney Kiernan's pub with a bunch of macho, narrow-minded men who don't particularly like him, he says what he thinks: "Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life" (12.423). Alf asks what he is referring to, and he says, "Love" (12.425).

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