Note to my readers: This essay is a follow-up to my rereading of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse that is more personal essay than review and my rereading of Kafka’s The Trial. I’ll culminate this series with a discussion of how these three seminal modernist novelists examine and articulate the issues of moral ambiguity.
In this brief essay, I focus on James Joyce’s Ulysses —even in the face of the seeming impossibility of doing that with this tome of a novel. This is a good story, a compelling story, a story full of humor and life that captures the heart and imagination if we’re willing to read it as a good story.
Ulysses has an imposing reputation and a difficult narrative style. For goodness sakes, those of us, like me who read it in undergraduate and graduate school, read it along with a book that was longer than the novel—Ulysses Annotated. That book is the key to the allusions that pepper every page. I’ve done it that way twice and as a writer and always learning.
I suggest that for non-scholars, the novel should be read for the powerful story that it is. When you get caught up in trying to understand every allusion—and Joyce did something incredibly complex on that score—you lose the story, the life of the book. I argue that this book has lasted not because it’s so complicated but because it really does live and breathe.
The writer Anthony Burgess in a terrific little book in size ReJoyce, but large in ease of reading, says about Ulysses: “Let it join the beside library along with Shakespeare and the Bible.”
Joyce’s Ulysses is a big book. Joyce is imposingly erudite, but the novel is no solemn text. Joyce was a great humorist and humanist.
His style changed the modern world of literature. He recreates what thought might be like if written down. We get jolting shifts in style, and we get a disjointed narrative that makes sense.
I’ve come to understand what the critic Hugh Kenner meant when he called Joyce “The Arranger.” He plays games with us and it’s well worth playing along.
By the second half of the book, where the chapters get longer and longer, it’s almost as if he’s recreating what someone is saying in real time. The book has the quality of great cinema—it engulfs me in its world.
I focus my camera here on the remarkable main character Leopold Bloom, who journeys through the one day June 16th on a parallel latitude in Dublin with the young man Stephen Dedalus until their paths inevitably cross.
Joyce has created in Leopold Bloom a character who embodies goodness—not the spiritual goodness of a saint, but that of a man confronted with his own sensuality, his own failures and the world as it is, not as one might wish it to be.
Leopold Bloom is the most human, flawed, forgivable and forgiving character ever to appear in literature. He embodies goodness, not the spiritual goodness of a saint, but that of a man confronted with his own sensuality—this is a very sexy book and not just in the famous Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end.
Bloom who becomes our hero, our fallible Ulysses, like us is confronted with his own failures. In this world Bloom is an outsider, a Jew, shunned by others, the object of derision and anti-Semitism, an ordinary man, cuckolded by his wife, the woman he loves.
The power of the story comes from his simple nobility and his unfailing inability to pass judgment. We see him unfold before us moving inevitably and surprisingly toward the high-browed intellectual, self-important Stephen Dedalus, a sad much younger man in much need of the simple wisdom and unfailing humanity of Bloom.
Bloom is filled with thoughts of his own bodily functions and of sensuality. He exhibits a rather perverse obsession with women’s bloomers, as just one example of our anti-hero’s nature.
The pun on his name and his obsession is comically intended as we see in Molly’s soliloquy that closes the novel. Her soliloquy is not only oft-quoted but likely more often read that the novel itself, and I’m here to say that’s a misunderstanding of the achievement of the novel, of the power of the character made live in Leopold Bloom.
The sentence I quote from begins at line 748 in Chapter 18, the last chapter entitled “Penelope.” Ninety-one lines later with no punctuation intervening at 18:839, Molly says,
“…and the new woman bloomers God send him sense and me more money I suppose theyre called after him I never thought that would be my name"
Bloom is hardly the picture of the Homeric hero.
And yet, I am left by novel’s end with a pervasive sense of Bloom’s nobility, a nobility based in his actions, his opposition to violence, his sense of his own guilt and responsibility. I wonder if I hear Joyce’s voice in Bloom’s words, “It is hard to lay down any hard and fast rules as to right and wrong ...” “Eumaes” Chapter 16: 1093-4).
This unwillingness to pass judgment is the source of Bloom’s nobility, evidence of Joyce’s embrace of humanity with all its flaws, and one of the reasons that this novel—with all its difficulties and challenges to analytical thought—touches the heart.
Bloom’s deeds, though hardly broad and sweeping, define him, as actions define each of us in our lives. The seed of Bloom’s actions lies in his sympathy for others. Here are some examples that make me love him.
In Chapter 6, “Hades,” where Bloom crosses paths with Stephen’s father Simon, a character named Martin Cunningham appears. Cunnigham also appears in the short story “Grace,” in Dubliners, and there too, he’s a man of mixed qualities, though his intentions seem good. Cunnigham interrupts Bloom: “Martin Cunningham thwarted his speech rudely” (6:277). Yet it is Bloom who recognizes goodness in Cunningham: “Sympathetic human man he is. Intelligent. Like Shakespeare’s face. Always a good word to say” (6:344-5).
It is Bloom who remembers Mrs. Sinico (6:997), “Last time I was here was Mrs Sinico’s funeral”. Mrs Sinico also appears in the short story “A Painful Case,” in Dubliners and is portrayed there sympathetically, lost to love and ultimately to drink.
It is Bloom whose “heavy pitying gaze absorbed her [Mrs Breen’s] news” in Chapter 8 “Lestrygonians” (8:287) of Mina Purefoy’s “very stiff birth” (8:284) and it is Bloom who subsequently goes to visit Mina.
It is Bloom who helps the blind man “tapping the curbstone with his slender cane” (8:1075) and is careful not to condescend to him.
And it is Bloom who “put his name down for five shillings” to help the widow Dignam. Indeed, that mission of mercy lands him in the midst of the vicious attack by the citizen and the derision of others in Barney Kiernan’s pub, for he has come “about this insurance of poor Dignam’s” who has died and left his wife penniless.
By the measure of others, Bloom who is the butt of much derision, nonetheless fares well: Davy Berne says, “Decent quiet man he is” (8:976). ... He’s a safe man, I’d say.” (8:982) And of course that oft quoted line, “There’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom,” (10:582) spoken by Lenehan, a character also seen in “Two Gallants,” in Dubliners and described there as “a sporting vagrant” and a sponger, quite unlike Bloom.
The touch of the artist I assert here is Joyce’s recognition of the artist’s sensitive nature, the artist’s inability to avoid seeing, to avoid hearing, to avoid the bombardment that is life in a city and in this case that city is Dublin, Ireland.
In one of the most powerful chapters of the book, “Cyclops” Chapter 12, Bloom expresses his opposition to capital punishment. “So they started talking about capital punishment and of course Bloom comes out with the why and wherefore...” (12:450-5). What follows is a humorous discussion of what happens to the “poor bugger’s tool that’s being hanged” (12:457).
What interests me is that Bloom was the one who had thought about the issues involved in the killing of the guilty.
Bloom’s opposition to violence is noteworthy because it does not arise from a submissive nature, though one could argue that Bloom behaves in a subservient manner in the novel. His opposition arises from conviction.
Significant as well is his strong verbal attack against the citizen: “Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland. (12:1431) ... And I belong to a race too, says Bloom that is hated and persecuted. (12:1467) ... I’m talking about injustice, says Bloom.” (12:1474)
Bloom understands, confronts, and deflates the arrogance and pomposity of both prejudice and nationalism that lead to violence in both word and deed.
One of his finest moments comes when it is he who preaches love: “Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred” (12:1485).
The citizen, or Polyphemous, if you will, is blinded by sun, not by violence, and it is he who hurls a biscuit box at Bloom to no avail. All this occurs amidst much jocularity as well as the parody of pompous language.
But can the serious point be missed? I think not. Bloom makes clear in his retelling of the event to Stephen Dedalus that his views arise from conviction: “I resent violence and intolerance in any shape or form” (16:1099).
This is a gentle soul.
No wonder then that Bloom shall be the one to lead another, Stephen Dedalus, with a slender stick, the ashplant, to safety late in the novel. One must be struck by the gentleness Bloom offers to Stephen when he rescues him in Nighttown: “Come home. You’ll get into trouble.” (15:4511) “Face reminds me of his poor mother” (15:4949).
There’s no question he is helped in his personal journey by the meeting with Stephen, a personal journey, particularly, in his relationship with his wife Molly and the loss of his son Rudy.
Honesty characterizes this imperfect man: It is Bloom who makes us aware of his role in Molly’s betrayal. We learn from him that he has not slept with Molly for eleven years since their son Rudy died shortly after his birth: “Could never like it again after Rudy” 8:610.
Bloom’s love of Molly is clear throughout. Even with his awareness of her tryst with Boylan, the man who is her lover, he thinks of her wit. He thinks often of Molly’s beauty, as when he purchases the orange flower water for her: “Brings out the darkness of her eyes” (5:494).
In the Circe chapter, which Molly haunts, pervades, Bloom says, “Last of my race. ... Well, my fault perhaps. No son. Rudy. Too late now. Or if not? If not? If still?” and the narrator comments, “He bore no hate” (11:1066-68).
Cuckolded he is by Molly and Blazes Boylan, but his love of Molly persists as does an awareness of his own responsibility.
In Chapter 13, which ends with nine cuckoos, Bloom, who has ejaculated to the sight of Gerty MacDowell, a young woman, writes in the sand with a stick. Sticks as leitmotif, perhaps? He writes, a message for her perhaps. He writes, “I” (13:1258), “AM. I” (13:1264).
He echoes Stephen’s personal exploration. We hear Stephen, early in the novel in Chapter 3:452, “And the blame? As I am. As I am.” A reference to his guilt, his search and we hear the echo of Jesus in The New Testament, John, 8:58: “Before Abraham was, I am.”
Bloom’s surrealistic trial in Nighttown confirms for me his sense of guilt. “A fife and drum band is heard in the distance playing Kol Nidre” (15:1407-8). Kol Nidre, of course, is the solemn prayer that opens the service on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.
I assert that here is man, an ordinary man, examining his life
In that examination, in his kindness to others, in his commitment to tolerance and forgiveness, I find goodness and nobility. In Joyce’s technique, the use of stream of consciousness, the jolting shifts in style, the disjointed narrative, I find the chaos of existence and moral ambiguity shown in the very way he tells the story, and I marvel at his embrace of humanity emerging out of it all.
The writer John Berger in his essay “The First and Last Recipe: Ulysses” has said that Ulysses is an ocean. You don’t read the book, you navigate it. And I argue that one of the best ways to do that, after reading it in academia with all the tomes and references written about it, is simply to read it. Get the story, get that great story for its simple, raw, erotic humanity.
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