Remember in "Eumaeus" when we talked about how epic heroes like Odysseus don't actually exist? Well, Leopold Bloom exists. Or at least Joyce is more ferociously determined to prove that his character is a real person like us (with bills and a family tree and dated memories and a desk with drawers chock-full of different personal items) than any other novelist before or since. It's as if he is attempting a proof by exhaustion: you don't think Bloom is real? Well, here is 70 pages of real live Bloom for you. The question and answer is almost like a challenge from the reader to the author, and Joyce answers it triumphantly on every count. It has been said that by the end of Ulysses, we know more about Leopold Bloom than about any other character in the history of literature. Another way to think of it: by the end of Ulysses, we know more about Leopold Bloom than we do about our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, ourselves.
"Ithaca" is a difficult chapter, but in our opinion this is the payoff. Joyce has thrown down a lot of obstacles and stylistic traps in his book: he has forced us to follow about twenty different characters simultaneously in "The Wandering Rocks;" he has tempted us into sentiment with the overblown prose of "Nausicaa;" he has made the action nearly opaque with the morphing styles of "Oxen of the Sun;" he has intentionally bored us with the flat prose of "Eumaeus." But it's what comes after that really counts. "Ithaca" was Joyce's favorite episode in the book, and in our opinion, once you've reached "Ithaca" you've run the gauntlet (Ellmann, James Joyce, 500). Whether or not you realize it, this is your reward.
"Ithaca" is written in the style of a catechism. In Christian tradition, the catechism is used to summarize and explain religious doctrine. It is composed of questions and responses, and is intended to be memorized by young students. After memorization, the students can be asked the questions in order to test the strength of their belief. Here, Joyce is attempting to outdo the catechism. He plays with the concept of indoctrination and instead of offering memorized beliefs he fills it with the details of how people actually live (regardless of what their faith tells them to say).
Furthermore, Joyce uses list after list as if trying to cram the entire world into the episode. When Bloom turns on the tap, we don't just get a description of the water splashing in his mug. We get a description of the water flowing from the local reservoir through all the pipes and into the tap and out, and then another description of the myriad characteristics of water that make it appealing to Bloom. It's as if Joyce is summoning all of his power to help us put our lives in the proper perspective, to overwhelm our individual points of view, to force us to realize just what an infinitesimal role we play in the universe.
One simple way Joyce does this is by taking things that ordinarily seem familiar and expressing them in ways that make them seem bizarre or strange. In some cases, he might do this by describing ordinary things in extremely extensive terms (the kettle boiling over on the fire gets a scientific treatment). But more often you'll find that reading Joyce's convoluted sentences can seem like trying to untangle the Gordian knot. You read it over and over and you think: what is this guy saying? We don't claim to have done so in every case, but usually you can get the thing to go straight and by then the realization locked up inside of it seems like a reward. He forces you to think about what he's saying and not just let your eyes move idly over the page.
Now in Book 17 of the Odyssey, Odysseus and Telemachus go their separate ways to Odysseus's palace. Odysseus is in disguise, and he sees what a wreck his home has become; all of the suitors waiting for Penelope are extremely unruly. The next morning, the suitors all attempt to string Odysseus's bow in order to win the heart of Penelope. None can. Odysseus comes up in disguise, strings it, and then he and Telemachus proceed to slaughter all of Penelope's false suitors. When the slaughter is over, Telemachus goes out on an errand and Odysseus fumigates his house.
There are a number of minor correlations. The suitor Antinous throws a stool at Odysseus when he first enters in disguise; Bloom runs into a sideboard when he enters his house. Zeus re-assures Odysseus with a thunderclap after he strings his bow; the wood in Bloom's desk lets out a loud crack as he sits there and thinks of Rudolph Virag. In the Odyssey, Antinous is the first suitor to be killed; Bloom has already saved Stephen from Mulligan's abuse. The second to go is Eurymachus; here, Boylan is like Eurymachus, though it remains to be seen how Bloom will defeat him. At the height of Odysseus and Telemachus's slaughter of the suitors, the aegis of Athena shines over the palace; outside, Stephen and Bloom observe a shooting star. After the slaughter, Odysseus fumigates his house; Bloom burns incense to clear up the smell in the room.
But for all these correlations, there seems to be one glaring difference that outshines everything else: Odysseus is a hero; Bloom is not. For his part, Odysseus comes home, slaughters all of his wife's suitors and reclaims her in glory. Bloom, on the other hand, returns to find that Molly and Boylan have not even made an effort to disguise their adultery. (Boylan left his betting tickets in the kitchen; they have re-arranged the furniture so as to sit next to each other at the piano; Boylan's impress is still in the bed.) What does Bloom do? Nothing.
We admit that he briefly considers divorce or a duel with Boylan, but these ideas are just as fantastical as his plan to wander the earth. No, what Bloom does is he reflects logically on the situation and does everything he can to put it into the proper perspective. He thinks of all the crimes that are worse than adultery, and muses on how every man that sleeps with a woman thinks that he's the first whereas he is really only one in a series. Bloom resigns himself to the affair; he forgives her.
This is not to say that Bloom does the right thing. The thing about Ulysses is that we're prevented from coming to a conclusion about Bloom. We are forced to hold two contradictory ideas about Bloom in our head at the same time. First, Bloom is a coward and all of his speculation on the vastness of the universe is just a way of avoiding doing anything about his wife's affair. Second, Bloom is incredibly kind and forgiving and human and he loves his wife even if he can't express it. It's impossible to judge Bloom. Either you accept him with all of his faults and flaws or you forget about him.
Similarly, the interaction between Stephen and Bloom isn't exactly ideal. They find that they have a great deal in common, and they enact a meeting of cultures by showing each other how to write in Gaelic and Hebrew respectively (though they admit that neither of them speaks these languages particularly well – hence the enacting). At the same time, Stephen sings an anti-Semitic song that he sees as a parable that could include both him and Bloom, but Bloom begins to feel dejected. As Stephen departs, they are full of plans for future meetings, but Bloom notes that Stephen seems indifferent and assumes that most of these plans will fall through. In terms of the plot of the story, we find that our climax is also something of an anti-climax, that Bloom and Stephen do compliment each other nicely and each has something to offer the other, but that they won't exactly become best friends.
Our two cents on the climax is that it's a climax that's bigger than Bloom and Stephen; it's bigger than what happens. Their meeting becomes the occasion for some of the most remarkable prose in the English language, for a real effort to, as we have said, overwhelm the perspective of any one individual and try to give men a sense of their place in the universe. It's the language itself that reaches a climax rather than the events.