You know how it feels to sit in class right before lunch? It's hard to focus, your stomach grumbles, you're groggy, every thought seems to lead right back to food. That's where our friend Leopold Bloom is right now as he scours Dublin for a late 1pm lunch. Everything he thinks about becomes associated with food.
This is, of course, totally natural. But as we look at Bloom's thoughts, we start to think more and more about what an enormous role hunger plays in our lives. When Bloom sees the poet George Russell, he wonders whether or not a man's diet can affect his poetic disposition. When he thinks about battles of the past, he wonders if cycles of war and peace can be traced back to a man's mood. Even when he remembers making love to Molly at Howth's head, he gets stuck on the detail that she pushed seedcake from her mouth into his.
The idea of "appetite" balloons out into more than just hunger. Bloom's search for food in the chapter can be thought of in even more general terms: Bloom has a desire for something and he wants to satisfy it. When you think about it, you can explain a huge amount of human behavior this way. We act in accordance with our needs and desires, and when we fulfill them we are happy – for a moment – before replacing them with new needs and desires. The difficulty is to find a balance: to try to find ways to fulfill our appetites without becoming slaves to them. In Bloom's case, hungry as he is, he is so revolted by the way that men are chowing down in Burton's restaurant that he holds off and goes over to Davy Byrne's pub. He compares the men to animals eating at a trough, which is fitting because when we just blindly act on our desires we can seem much more like animals than men.
One of the big questions Bloom asks himself in this chapter is: am I happy? For him, this question is formed by contrasting the past with the present: Was I happier then? Am I happier now? The most poignant moment in the chapter comes after Bloom remembers rolling around with Molly in the tall grass, and then thinks "Me. And me now" (8.436). Howth's Head was an ecstatic moment of bliss for Bloom, one that he returns to again and again in his memory. Today, he's just trying as hard as he can not to think about the fact that Molly and Boylan are going to sleep together sometime in the afternoon. He tries to curb his thoughts away from Molly, and when he sees Boylan in the street he panics and hides.
As much as we may sympathize with Bloom in these moments, he also seems like a chicken. The more active among us say: don't let Boylan do it! We hate to burst your bubble, but that's just not what's going to happen. Throughout the novel, Bloom struggles to come to terms with his wife's affair and his life now. In this chapter, we also learn explicitly that Bloom hasn't been able to sleep with his wife for ten years, ever since his son Rudy died. There are many reasons to think that Bloom is not a happy man, but in this chapter we observe that he's trying to be. And by doing so, Bloom might just be revising what we think of as happiness. Happiness becomes something real and attainable and robust rather than just one ecstatic moment in a lifetime.
Of course, Bloom's not just hung up on his own problems in this chapter. The other thing we learn in "Lestrygonians" is that Bloom has a remarkable ability to empathize. We notice this, first, when Josie Breen brings up Mina Purefoy. She tells Bloom that Mina is giving birth this very day, and Bloom thinks about what an incredibly painful process it must be. He even goes so far as to imagine what it must be like to have an infant suckling at your breasts for months on end, and what it feels like to have a child kicking around in your womb trying to go out. Later, when Bloom helps the blind stripling across the street, we get several pages of him trying to imagine what it must feel like to be blind. He wonders if they experience distances as a weight in the forehead, and if they think of women in terms of smells.
Bloom may not be a genius in the way that Stephen is, but he does have an excellent imagination, and in this chapter we see how it allows him to put himself into the minds of others, to imagine how they feel. This is a quality that Stephen quite clearly lacks.
The ability to move into the minds of others ties into a term that comes up in the chapter and is one of the key ways of looking at Ulysses overall. The term is parallax. Now, parallax is an astronomical term referring to the way that one object can appear to be positioned differently when seen from two different perspectives. For a simple example, fix your eyes on an object before you and close your left eye, then your right, then your left. You'll notice that the object seems to wobble back and forth.
Now, throughout Ulysses we get a wide variety of perspectives on a similar situation. We are privy to the thoughts of Stephen Dedalus, Bloom, and Molly, as well as a whole host of characters in "The Wandering Rocks" episode. In this episode, we have Bloom wondering what he looks like from another person's perspective, and when he goes to take a pee in Davy Byrne's, we get a glimpse of the other men's views on Bloom, many of which are inaccurate.
In some sense, the point is simple: there are a number of different ways of looking at the same thing. But there's a problem. We can't constantly be looking at things from several perspectives at once. Each of us is, after all, trapped in our own mind, stuck with our own point of view. Ulysses, though, refuses to get stuck in one person's mind. It seems to say that the only way you can get a sense of a thing is by constantly moving from one perspective to the next. By doing so, it presents us with an idea about what literature can do: it can teach us to empathize, to get outside of our own heads, and it can remind us that other people exist and have different perspectives on the same issue.
We'll give you one last fun point to think about in this chapter. As Bloom wanders around town, his thoughts are constantly linked to his surroundings. Different storefronts in Dublin make his mind race from one thing to the next. When we read the scene where Bloom leads the blind stripling (young man) across the street by his elbow, we might think of this as what Joyce is doing for us. After all, most of us are not in Dublin. We can't see what the words are referring to and have only the language to guide us: we're blind. And Joyce, as he leads us on this grand tour of Dublin, is a great deal like Bloom, gently leading us – the blind stripling – through a city that we cannot see.