An Essay about James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom for Bloomsday

An Essay about James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom for Bloomsday

By Elizabeth Harper

In honor of Bloomsday on June 16, I’ve dug out the paper I wrote in high school about Leopold Bloom, the main character in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

I think I wrote it in Spring of 1985, and we used the classic Random House edition, not the Gabler.

I’ve done some minor editing, leaving out only a couple of sentences that seem to me either unclear or especially egregiously cringeworthy.

I wrote this in the days before computers. My mother and I would fight over the one typewriter in the house. If I made a mistake, I had to cross it out. For this particular paper, apparently we were out of Liquid Paper. There was no spellcheck. If you wanted to check the spelling of a word, you had to look it up in the dictionary.

I suppose nowadays, kids write their papers on their phones and/or they have their very own computers.

Bloom: The Emergence of Womanhood from a Coffin

And if he was alive all the time? Whew! By Jingo, that would be awful! No, no: he is dead, of course. Of course he is dead…They ought to have some law to pierce the heart and make sure or an electric clock or a telephone in the coffin and some kind of a canvas airhole. Flag of distress. (p.111)

Bloom’s fantasy about the man being buried alive, with no way to get out, mirrors his own plight. For Bloom is a live man, with the desire and capability to produce life, as shown by his sexual fantasies and observations, and ejaculations of sperm, respectively, but Bloom is unproductive because he is isolated and incapable of communicating his desires to others. Therefore he is trapped inside a metaphorical coffin. As the live man inside the coffin will eventually starve to death or suffocate, Bloom will eventually become (or fears that he will become) irrevocably impotent and forever unproductive, just as the man in the coffin will eventually be forever dead. Bloom’s only hope is to somehow synthesize or obtain the equipment equivalent to that which the man in the coffin lacked. To produce life (children), his main desire and duty, Bloom needs a woman for the purpose of utilizing her reproductive organs. Failing to communicate his need, he becomes more like a woman so that he, as a woman, will help himself, (such a transformation is obviously a remote possibility, and as we shall see, happens only in his dreams), or so that, like the ducks who respond to the duck hunter’s “quack, quack” whistle, women will be attracted to Bloom disguised as one of their own kind.

Bloom desires to enjoy love, as manifested by sexual reproduction, the merging of two to produce one. When remembering his earliest dealings with Molly, he dwells on the mutuality of submission as life-giving force.

Softly, she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweet and sour with spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting… She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me. (p.176)

The seedcake is a metaphor for their son: matter passed from orifice to orifice, to change form, and reemerge as “Young Life.” And then Bloom thinks, “Me. and me now.” and subsequently his mind is on a wild dissertation on the assholes of goddesses, indicative of his currently infertile relationship with Molly.

I was happier then *(before Rudy)*. Or was that I? OR am I now I?…something changed. Could never like it again after Rudy (p.168)

Losing his son Rudy, which discourages the Blooms from sexually reproducing again, causes Bloom to lose his sense of identity and place. In a sense, Bloom becomes an anachronism, having the same remote, discordant relationship with the present as those who are buried. How is Bloom to escape this condition?

If little Rudy had lived. See him grow up. Hear his voice in the house. Walking beside Molly in a Eton suit. My son. Me in his eyes. Strange feeling it would be. From me. Just a chance… She had that cream gown on with the rip she never stitched. Give us a touch, Poldy. god, I’m dying for it. How Life begins. (p.89)

His only hope is to merge with Molly, (or perhaps another woman? Gerty? Martha? Mrs. Breen?) to produce another son. In this sense, Ulysses is a quest for home and family. Like the live man in the coffin banging in vain six feet underground, Bloom questions silently:

Me wearing the Mrs. Breen hat on Bloomsday last year, posing with Count Leonard.

Me wearing the Mrs. Breen hat on Bloomsday last year, posing with Count Leonard.

No son. Rudy. Too late now. Or if not? If still? (p.285)

Again and again we see Bloom unable to communicate his needs and/or desires and thus unable to realize his hopes. The first conversation in the book between Molly and Bloom attests to their acute communication problem:

He said softly in the bare hall:
-I am going round the corner. Be back in a minute. And when he had heard his voice say it he added:
-You don’t want anything for breakfast?
A sleepy soft grunt answered:

And Bloom must interpret:

No. She did not want anything. (p.56)

Wait. What is this? Molly does not want any breakfast? Does she even hear Bloom’s question? We find out later Molly does indeed want breakfast.

Hurry on with that tea, she said. I’m parched…What a time you were, she said…She doubled a slice of bread into her mouth (p.62-63)

Bloom certainly wanted to bring Molly breakfast, for he would not even have asked or bothered if he did not. Why all this confusion? Bloom speaks “softly in the bare hall,” isolated and lonely like in the coffin. Milly’s quickly scrawled letter makes him feel helpless in his isolation:

Separation…Prevent Useless: can’t move. Useless to move now (p.66-67)

His affection, and longing for his precious only child cannot be communicated to Milly, the one who could alleviate his loneliness by simply writing longer letters. It does seem at times, though, that everyone is crowded outside Bloom’s metaphorical coffin, knocking, but Bloom cannot respond. Martha, in her letter, begs Bloom to answer her many questions and reveal himself to her:

Please write me a long letter and tell me more (p.78)

When he is writing back to her, however, his thought processes are confused, and his letter seems to be drivel:

know what I mean. No, change that ee. Accept my poor little pres enclos. Ask her no answ…Bye for today. Yes, yes will tell you. Want to. To keep it up. Call me that other.

And then he asks himself “Folly am I writing” (p.279). Bloom has trouble communicating to just about everyone it seems. He struggles to explain his idea of the “House of Keyes.. Isle of Man… Innuendo of Home rule” (quest for home and family symbol) as an advertisement to a foreman in Aeolus:

You see? Do you think that’s a good idea?
The foreman moved his scratching hand to his lower ribs and scratched there quietly (p.120)

—in confusion. Even among “the guys” in Cyclops, Bloom fails to make his point effectively. “Love, says Bloom” (p.333), and his attempt at wisdom and communication is met with sarcasm.

Barbara Button as Molly Bloom.

Barbara Button as Molly Bloom.

Bloom tries to become like a woman in two ways: either he tries to identify with them, imagine how they feel, or he acts in such a way to cause himself to be like, or treated like, a woman. He tries the former when thinking about Widow Dignam:

Condole with her. Your terrible loss. I hope you’ll soon follow him…Her son was the substance. Something new to hope for not like the past she wanted back, waiting It never comes. One must go first: alone under the ground: and lie no more in her warm bed. (p.102)

How appropriate! One might think that Bloom was thinking of himself rather than poor departed Dignam. He wants Molly to “follow him” and get him out of that coffin so that they can make babies. He imagines Mrs. Purefoy in labour, sharing her agony as if the child was his own:

Sss. Dth, dth, dth! Three days imagine groaning on a bed with a vinegared handkerchief round her forehead, her belly swollen out! Phew! Dreadful simply! Child’s head too big: forceps. Doubled up inside her trying to butt its way out blindly, groping for the way out. Kill me that would. (p. 161)

Bloom’s own fears of dying babies are reflected in the above mentioned gory details: the umbilical cord strangling the baby’s oversized head, the forceps piercing his little heart. But then Bloom thinks more optimistically of women preparing for the ritual of sexual reproduction. He believes he understands women completely:

I’m all clean come and dirty me. And they like dressing one another for the sacrifice. Milly delighted with Molly’s new blouse. At first. Put them all on to take them all off. Molly (p.368)

Bloom even empathizes with a prostitute. “O, well, she has to live like the rest.”

In Circe, Bloom actually becomes a prostitute. Here is Bloom’s “moment of truth”:


…Not man…Woman.


…Henceforth you are unmanned and mine in earnest, a thing under the yoke.

And from this point on Bloom learns what it is like to be a woman, a slave, a doll, a plaything. He is mutilated, degraded, condescended to. And that precious power of women to give life? That belongs to Bello also, for Bello auctions off Bloom’s breast milk. (p. 535-540)

Does Bloom get out of the coffin? Well women are not attracted to him because he seems like them, and he certainly cannot become a woman, and after his dream, he probably would not want to…

On Sunday, June 16, 2019, I will be performing at this Bloomsday event organized by playwright and James Joyce aficionado Jeff Helgeson.

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