Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 685
The Modern Hero
Ulysses has as its hero a most ordinary man, Leopold Bloom. So unlike the muscular, militaristic Homeric hero whose name serves as the novel’s title, Bloom is gentle, self-effacing, reserved, and peripheralized. Arguably more associated with home than the outer world, even though on this day he spends most of his time out about town, the kindly, other-centered Bloom is first depicted making breakfast for his wife and feeding the cat. He is a caring man, deeply attached to his wife and daughter and continuing to mourn the neonatal death of his son, Rudy. Whereas Ulysses welcomes adventures in strange and threatening places and has a crew of sailors he orders about, Bloom lives an ordinary man’s life and is a loner, an outsider, a Jew, a man who thinks about the physical world but chooses not to interfere, a man who lives very much in his body, responsive to women, courteous toward men, sensual in an unobtrusive way. He admires women on the street, wonders sympathetically about a woman in protracted labor, and talks politely to a childhood sweetheart. He helps a blind man cross the street, he tells an acquaintance his hat has a ding in it, and he kindly reminds someone of a loan and does not take offense when the man seems to brush him off.
While the daring epic hero slays the Cyclops and navigates between the rocks of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis, Bloom maneuvers among offensive others, seeking to engage with them peacefully, deferring to others and not taking offense even when he is directly insulted. He dresses in black out of respect for a friend’s funeral and gives generously to the collection taken up for the man’s widow. While the epic hero is defined by his conquests, his ego, his self-centeredness, Bloom is defined by his small gestures of kindness, his thoughtfulness of others and of the physical world, and his polite social restraint.
Sad about his wife’s infidelity, he is resigned rather than defensive or controlling. Though their marriage is sexless, he is not without desire. He becomes aroused while looking at Gerty MacDowell on the beach, but he satisfies his desire privately, without imposing it on her, and his thoughts here and elsewhere inevitably return to Molly, so comfortably is he bound to her. In many ways, Leopold Bloom is the antithesis of the classical Ulysses; he is not a world traveler or an adventurer; he is not larger-than-life, and he is not able to perform extraordinary feats. In this character, Joyce affirms what is extraordinary about an ordinary man’s character; he provides a new sense of the heroic, written in the small-scale actions of a twentieth-century urban man, in his kindliness in the face of alienation, in his ability to calmly analyze differences, in his civic decency.
The Artist’s Search for a Place in the World
Stephen Dedalus is a would-be poet, a well-schooled young man full of academic theories and familiar texts. In a sense homeless (he rents a place that is usurped by others, he is back in Ireland only temporarily, he has nowhere to sleep in this day), Stephen expresses the discomfort and ennui of a creative spirit who has not yet found his medium or made his mark. Like the young Icarus, the son of the mythological Dedalus, Stephen has yet to test his wings, and perhaps like the mythic son, he may fail when he does. He is hampered, he says, by two masters, the government of England that controls Ireland and the Catholic Church that clutches his conscience. Without the role model of a suitable father, Stephen drifts in Dublin literary society, working at a job that bores him, excluded by literary insiders he wishes to displace. His plight in part results from his age: he is just starting out, and he is at this moment hampered by grief and guilt concerning his mother. On a larger scale, his plight is a product of feeling trapped by a social context which is itself fettered by poverty and alcoholism.