While living in Paris, Joyce occasionally chatted with his friend Frank Budgen (a painter from England) as a way of working through his ideas about Ulysses. During one such conversation (related in Budgen’s book James Joyce & the Making of Ulysses) Joyce asked if Budgen could think of “any complete all-round character presented by any writer.” Budgen’s candidates included some of the best known figures in world literature, all of whom Joyce dismissed: Christ because “he was a bachelor;” Faust because “he’s never alone. Mephistopheles is always hanging round him.” Hamlet, he concedes, “is a human being, but he is a son only.” Joyce’s answer, of course, is Ulysses (Odysseus) and the reasons he gives for this choice speak volumes about his conception of what makes a hero:
“Ulysses is son to Laertes, but he is father to Telemachus, husband to Penelope, lover to Calypso, companion in arms of the Greek warriors around Troy, and King of Ithaca. He was subjected to many trials, but with wisdom and courage came through them all. Don’t forget that he was a war dodger who tried to evade military service by simulating madness . . . Another thing, the history of Ulysses did not come to an end when the Trojan War was over. It began just when the other Greek heroes went back to live the rest of their lives in peace . . . he was the first gentleman in Europe. When he advanced, naked, to meet the young princess he hid from her eyes the parts that mattered of his brine-soaked, barnacle-encrusted body. He was an inventor too. The tank was his creation. Wooden horse or iron box—it doesn’t matter.”
Speaking to another, German-speaking, friend Joyce would explain that “Ulysses was not ‘gut’ but ‘gutmutig’ [decent; good-hearted].” The hero of Ulysses could not be someone who merely embodied an ideal or whose significance was limited to specific situations (war, for instance). For his modern epic, Joyce wanted a hero who was fully engaged with the world around him.
As in life, first impressions in fiction mean a great deal and our first impression of Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses, makes clear he is no traditional masculine hero. When we first see Bloom he is in the kitchen preparing breakfast for his wife, Molly, and talking to his cat. Throughout the chapter we follow Bloom through his morning routine as he makes tea, runs a quick errand, brings Molly her breakfast in bed, reads the morning mail, thinks about the coming day’s events (including attending the funeral of an acquaintance) and spends some time in the outhouse. His interior monologue is also homey, even chatty, especially after spending three chapters with the brooding thoughts of Stephen Dedalus. While Stephen morbidly examines his own shortcomings, Bloom contemplates his cat’s whiskers (“wonder is it true if you clip them they can’t mouse after”), remembers the gift he gave his daughter for her fourth birthday (“the amberoid necklace she broke”), idly ogles a servant girl at the butchershop (“pleasant to see first thing in the morning”) and warns himself about the toilet (“better be careful not to get these trousers dirty for the funeral”). Even when the memory of his daughter’s birth calls to mind the midwife who also delivered his son, Rudy, who died as an infant—there is a gentle generosity: “Jolly old woman. Lots of babies she must have brought into the world. She knew from the first poor Rudy wouldn’t live. Well, God is good, sir. She knew at once. He would have been eleven now if he had lived.”
It is interesting to note, in the midst of all this domestic bliss, that the fourth chapter of Ulysses corresponds to the “Calypso” episode in Homer’s Odyssey. For seven years, the goddess Calypso holds Odysseus on her island in the center of the sea, compelling him to be her lover. Calypso herself is a captive, confined to her island by Zeus, and it is only through the intervention of Athena that Odysseus is freed. Much is made of the correspondences between Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey but it is worth remembering that those connections are neither static nor simplistic. In this chapter, Molly Bloom is explicitly linked to Calypso but throughout Ulysses she is also associated with Odysseus’ devoted wife Penelope. There is another, subtler, correspondence as well. In a later episode, when Circe uses sorcery to change Odysseus’ men into swine, Odysseus himself is protected from this fate by an herb given to him by the god Hermes. The name of that herb is Moly.
In this scene (lines 331-388), Molly asks Bloom for the definition of a word she has come across while reading a pulpy novel. Notice how Joyce introduces his characters and their connection to the world of Ancient Greece while the moving between dialogue, authorial description, and unfiltered examples of Bloom’s internal thought processes throughout the scene, often switching perspective within a paragraph or even a sentence. If you like you can read along with his full-cast performance from Bloomsday on Broadway featuring Stephen Colbert as Bloom:
—Show here, she said. I put a mark in it. There’s a word I wanted to ask you.
She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle and, having wiped her fingertips smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with the hairpin till she reached the word.
—Met him what? he asked.
—Here, she said. What does that mean?
He leaned downwards and read near her polished thumbnail.
—Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.
—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.
He smiled, glancing askance at her mocking eye. The same young eyes. The first night after the charades. Dolphin’s Barn. He turned over the smudged pages. Ruby: the Pride of the Ring. Hello. Illustration. Fierce Italian with carriagewhip. Must be Ruby pride of the on the floor naked. Sheet kindly lent. The monster Maffei desisted and flung his victim from him with an oath. Cruelty behind it all. Doped animals. Trapeze at Hengler’s. Had to look the other way. Mob gaping. Break your neck and we’ll break our sides. Families of them. Bone them young so they metemspychosis. That we live after death. Our souls. That a man’s soul after he dies. Dignam’s soul ….
—Did you finish it? he asked.
—Yes, she said. There’s nothing smutty in it. Is she in love with the first fellow all the time?
—Never read it. Do you want another?
—Yes. Get another of Paul de Kock’s. Nice name he has.
She poured more tea into her cup, watching its flow sideways.
Must get that Capel street library book renewed or they’ll write to Kearney, my guarantor. Reincarnation: that’s the word.
—Some people believe, he said, that we go on living in another body after death, that we lived before. They call it reincarnation. That we all lived before on the earth thousands of years ago or some other planet. They say we have forgotten it. Some say they remember their past lives.
The sluggish cream wound curdling spirals through her tea. Better remind her of the word: metempsychosis. An example would be better. An example?
The Bath of the Nymph over the bed. Given away with the Easter number of Photo Bits: splendid masterpiece in art colours. Tea before you put milk in. Not unlike her with her hair down: slimmer. Three and six I gave for the frame. She said it would look nice over the bed. Naked nymphs: Greece: and for instance all the people that lived then.
He turned the pages back.
—Metempsychosis, he said, is what the ancient Greeks called it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance. What they called nymphs, for example.
Her spoon ceased to stir up the sugar. She gazed straight before her, inhaling through her arched nostrils.
—There’s a smell of burn, she said. Did you leave anything on the fire?
—The kidney! he cried suddenly.
He fitted the book roughly into his inner pocket and, stubbing his toes against the broken commode, hurried out towards the smell, stepping hastily down the stairs with a flurried stork’s legs. Pungent smoke shot up in an angry jet from a side of the pan. By prodding a prong of the fork under the kidney he detached it and turned it turtle on its back. Only a little burnt. He tossed it off the pan on to a plate and let the scant brown gravy trickle over it.