What values does James Joyce assert in making Leopold Bloom the hero of Ulysses?

In considering this question, we should first consider the type of hero we are dealing with in the character of Leopold Bloom.  Certainly he is not a study of the traditional epic hero, which the title of the work might suggest.  A restrained, moderate and self-effacing individual, Bloom in fact punctures the myth of the ‘larger than life’ epic hero: he is neither a keen adventurer nor a warrior-type in the tradition of, for example, the Homeric epic works such as The Iliad or The Odyssey.  The character of Bloom is Joyce’s celebration of a modern-day hero, who represents a synthesis of humanity: a man who is the heroic centre of the work because he is unexceptional.

While accepting that Bloom is an ordinary and even commonplace individual (though he is also a complex character), it must be remembered that he is living in an exceptional environment at a volatile period in Ireland’s history.  The Dublin of 1904, which Joyce portrays, is a reflection of a divided Ireland - Nationalist against Unionist, Catholic against Protestant, Irish against English (not to forget the anti-Semitism with which Bloom is often confronted), as well as the many other problems of a country suffering from political, economic, and social instability, such as poverty, and moral and social privation.  Joyce also shows as intolerable the religious and governmental pressures on individuals which restrict personal freedom.  Dublin is in a state of political, social and moral collapse and, through Leopold Bloom, Joyce demonstrates an alternative code for living which he possibly sees as a route towards ending the infighting and fratricidal chaos of that beleaguered country.  Phoenix-like, Bloom seems to rise above the ashes which are the divisions of his country to show himself as a uniquely ‘human’ individual – indeed a ‘universal’ figure who provides the voice of reason and moderation against the violently divided backdrop of a country at war with itself.

“To everyone according to his needs and to everyone according to their deeds” [Chapter 16].  Bloom’s homespun re-working of the basic Marxist philosophy indicates his desire for social accountability and social responsibility.  Bloom asserts in the same chapter that if an individual works, he/she should be able to enjoy a good standard of living.  Against this view there is set the corruption of those who enjoy wealth and ease of living (Mulligan and Boylan, for example).  The incident in which Boylan’s family sold the horses to the enemy epitomises the self-seeking treachery which Joyce saw in Ireland. 

Indeed parallels can be drawn between Bloom and Ireland – both are shown to be victims of self-seekers.  While Bloom produces no coherent plan for the social regeneration towards which he is inclined, he does hold a vision in front of him of a ‘Promised Land’ in Ireland.  ‘Bloomusalem’ is a parody of that place – his exaggerated idea of a world where fair play and compassion are projected on a massive scale to produce universal tolerance, religious re-union, and the dispensation of free washing machines!

In the Circe episode where Bloom indulges this vision of a perfect world, he allows his own sense of good nature, fair play and compassion to overtake him, but it is nevertheless clear to the reader that he has serious humanistic ideals behind these comically overstated sentiments.

Good-hearted civic feeling is Bloom’s route towards social regeneration.  For this to be possible, he believes that tolerance must be applied to seal over the wounds of Ireland’s divisions.  Tolerance does indeed seem to be one of the central values explored in Ulysses and which Joyce examines in depth through Leopold Bloom.  It is the abundance of that quality in Bloom which gives him much of his heroic aspect.  As a Jew, he experiences isolation from his fellow citizens through their anti-Semitism.  Additionally, Bloom is exiled in other non-racial aspects of his life: from his marital bed (through the usurper Blazes Boylan).  The death of his son Rudy has exiled him as a father and Bloom’s own father’s suicide could also be said to have exiled him as a son.  Circumstances have denied Bloom those human relationships which he privately cherishes – husband, father, son, citizen and countryman.  In spite of his overwhelming sense of isolation, he holds on tenaciously to the values of love and tolerance as unifying forces – his commitment to those ideals being demonstrated by his own example throughout Ulysses.  Bloom is therefore a hero of suffering (a parallel could be drawn between Christ and Bloom here) who is able to tolerate his oppressors and betrayers whilst retaining an unembittered, forgiving and morally positive approach to living.

The Ireland portrayed in Ulysses is one which is obsessed with its own history.  This national trait is vividly demonstrated in the Aeolus episode at the newspaper office.  Bloom is busily concerning himself with the immediate commercial problems of the work day whilst his colleagues effectively ‘blow him off course’ with the ‘windy’ voices of their over sentimentality.  “Tell him to go to hell!” is the editor’s response to Bloom’s telephone call (because Bloom is interrupting his passionate discussion of Ireland’s history).  Bloom is shown to exist very much in the present, while those around him are happily wallowing in the past and allowing current concerns to pass them by.

In the Cyclops episode, Bloom is confronted by the violent aggression of the Citizen – a strident nationalist (and anti-Semitic) individual, who is holding forth in Barney Kiernan’s bar.  This man’s loud and savage denunciation in favour of the nationalist armed struggle swamps Bloom’s moderate and reasonable voice, which calls for a peaceful resolution to the problems (he is a nationalist himself).  Bloom is ridiculed as “the new apostle of the gentiles”, but still speaks out bravely in favour of universal love.  The Citizen becomes threateningly violent towards Bloom at the end of this incident but, when contemplating the altercation later in the day, Bloom forgives the man in his own mind: “Perhaps not to hurt he meant”.

In this almost passive hero, Joyce seems to be making a virtue out of the ‘impotent’ aspects of Bloom’s character.  Against this ‘virtual impotency’ is set the morally impoverished ‘potency’ of characters such as Boylan and Mulligan; their impoverishment being manifested in their self-seeking actions, such as their womanizing and the crude nature of their attitude to the opposite sex.  In the Penelope chapter, Molly considers Boylan’s roughness and crudity against the restraint in her own husband, but both men leave her unsatisfied in their different ways.

Moderation in all things is Bloom’s governing principle, whether it be a political, social or moral question, drinking, smoking or whoring.  A moderate solution which Bloom sees to the England-Ireland problem is to “make the best of both countries” (he also somewhat pragmatically observes that the Irish have fought more with the English than against them).  Being a good Irishman, for Bloom, was not a matter of class or creed.  We are reminded here of his spirited defense of his own race to the aggressive Citizen: “Christ has a jaw like me!”  In the Homecoming chapter, Bloom (assuming a fatherly like role) lectures Stephen on the dangers of whoring and drinking, and he worries about the influence of the character Mulligan – towards whom he entertains a low opinion – on the younger man.

Bloom’s generous nature and spirit serve to counter the stereotypical idea of the Jew.  Whilst careful with his money (he keeps a written account of all his expenditure), he is nonetheless happy to unselfishly and quietly dispense his money for the benefit of others: towards the Dignam funeral fund, for example, and he also contemplates the possibility of helping Stephen financially (although it could be said he was seeking an emotional reward for so doing).  Bloom also displays his caring personality in many small acts of goodwill, such as the Dignam’s insurance problem, and looking after the drunken Stephen during and after the Circe episode at the brother's.  Against this generous capacity of Bloom’s is set the distrust with which he is regarded by his fellow citizens.  He leaves Barney Kiernan’s bar and is falsely believed to be going to collect winnings from that day’s Gold Cup horse race, and then is further falsely believed to shirk buying a round of drinks from those supposed proceeds.  The reader is made patently aware of Bloom’s generosity of spirit and can feel the injustice of the myopic attitude of the people around him.

Bloom’s sensitivity to suffering is revealed in his sympathetic reaction to the protracted labour of Mina Purefoy.  To accentuate this sensitivity, Joyce shows the insensitivity of the medical students at the Holles Street Maternity Hospital [Chapter 14].  Their crude and chauvinistic conversation within earshot of the suffering experienced in the labour ward, reduces the process of human regeneration to a vulgar level.  The medical students’ ranks are swelled by the arrival of Mulligan, who revels in his own dubious brand of potency and uncouth attitude to women by his claims that he was going to set himself up with a national farm where he would personally ‘service’ women, irrespective of class, for the effects of nuptial sterility.  Only Bloom is truly pleased to hear that Mrs Purefoy has delivered her baby.

In presenting the character Bloom to us, Joyce has painted a complete picture of an incomplete man.  It is Bloom’s tolerant attitude to the deficient aspects in his life which (again) demonstrates his ‘heroic’ virtue.  The completeness of the portrait gives the reader a picture of the epitome of humanity – his virtues and failings (the latter perhaps being most dramatically demonstrated on the beach with Gerty McDowell).  Joyce also achieves a finely wrought synthesis of the extremes of mind and flesh.  Bloom is the mean between these aspects of human nature which are represented in their extreme forms by Mulligan/Boylan (flesh) and Stephen (mind).  To further enhance the ‘universal’ quality of his hero, Bloom is an androgynous character.  Molly’s use of the name ‘Poldy’ is a symbolic emasculation for Bloom – she has taken the masculine ‘Leo’ away from him.  Bloom further demonstrates many qualities stereotypically attributed to women: care, compassion, love etc., which together provide a picture of “the new womanly man” Bloom envisages in the Circe episode (indeed, he fantasizes that he actually is a woman in the same episode).

The ‘carnival’ of experiences to which Bloom is exposed demonstrates a universality in Ulysses which belies entirely the subject matter of the work – that is, simply a day in the life of one ordinary man.  None of Bloom’s experiences, if taken separately, is revelatory, but when put together, Joyce succeeds in presenting an in-depth study of the human condition as it pertains to an individual who suffers at the hands of his fellow beings (and who then finds the strength to carry on through his own philosophy of universal love and goodwill).  Described as “an independent spirit whose independence of spirit mines the city, whether the city knows it or not” and in the Wandering rocks episode as “a cultured allroundman… He’s not one of your common or garden…you know…  There’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom”.  This rare praise from one of his fellow citizens may be a ray of light from Joyce; that something of the virtue of this man is seeping through into the community – at least it is a more hopeful indicator that the undeserved criticism Bloom often (and frequently unknowingly) receives from his fellows.  Perhaps Joyce’s final message in Ulysses is that if everyone was prepared to take up the values of love, tolerance, compassion and goodwill, then ‘Bloomusalem’ could exist in Ireland and not merely as Leopold Bloom’s vision of his own ‘promised land’.

The text used for this essay was the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics version.

Ulysses by James Joyce can purchased from Amazon 

The full free online text is available at Project Gutenberg

For Further Online Reading about Ulysses:

The Modernism Lab at Yale University 

The University of Wolverhampton: Notes on James Joyce's Ulysses

Why is Ulysses Stephen Fry's favorite book?  (Youtube)

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