Leopold Bloom

In Brief

Joyce continued the story of Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, but his persona had exhausted its potential. He needed a more mature protagonist, someone fully adult and open to registers of experience that Stephen could not accommodate. The Homeric design of his new novel encouraged him to create such a person, "many-minded," practical, tested by adversity. He found his Ulysses in the man he called "Mr Leopold Bloom." Bloom too is autobiographical in many ways, the self-expression of an older James Joyce. But in many other ways he represents a leap outside of the artist's personality, an effort to sympathetically inhabit very different forms of human existence.

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Bloom is 38 years old at the time represented in the novel. Joyce began writing Ulysses at age 32 and published it on his 40th birthday. By this time in his life he had metamorphosed considerably from the brilliant student and rebellious poet imaged in Stephen Dedalus. He was supporting a common-law wife and two children with an assortment of low-paying jobs, struggling desperately to publish his works in the face of brutal censorship forces, and beginning to suffer the serious health problems that would plague him for the rest of his life. His "epic of the body," as he once called Ulysses, reflects his maturation from a young man of great intellectual promise into a middle-aged man defined by major life experiences.

Countless details tie Bloom to the man who conceived him. The name on his birth certificate, "Leopold Paula Bloom" (Ithaca) jokingly reproduces the mistake that caused the future novelist to be officially registered as "James Augusta Joyce" (Ellmann, 21). It also suggests an androgynous interest in female experience that Joyce shared. Bloom's unprepossessing physicality, his lack of male bluster and dominance, his pacifism, his social marginality, his markedly anal sexuality, his voyeurism, his passion for female undergarments, his less than brilliant employment history, his religious apostasy, all encourage readers to identify him with the author.

So too do Joyce's frequent suggestions that, in a different life, Bloom might himself have become a writer. A story he reads in Calypso makes him think throughout the day of writing something similar that might earn him a bit of money. Ithaca recalls snatches of verse and acrostics that he composed as a young man. Lenehan says in Wandering Rocks, "There's a touch of the artist about old Bloom." In context, all of these implications of equivalence between the uneducated and clownish Bloom and the sophisticated Joyce seem equivocal, wry, mocking. But there is more to it than that. Bloom thinks constantly, sensitively, and creatively about his world, in patterns that make his interior monologue, if not the equal of Stephen's self-consciously brilliant thoughts, at least a worthy counterpart to them. Ellmann remarks justly that Bloom's "monologue is a continuous poetry, full of phrases of extraordinary intensity" (362).

But Bloom encompasses many other features that were not part of Joyce's life, beginning with the fact that he is descended from a Hungarian Jew. Ellmann notes that Joyce's chief model in this regard was his close friend in Trieste, the writer born as Ettore Schmitz but known by the pen name Italo Svevo, "whose grandfather came from Hungary, and who wore the mustache that Joyce gave to Bloom, and like Bloom had a wife and daughter. . . . The difference in age between Schmitz and Joyce was, as Harry Levin points out, roughly the same as that between Bloom and Stephen . . . Schmitz was in many ways quite different from Bloom; but he had married a Gentile, he had changed his name (though only for literary purposes), he knew something of Jewish customs, and he shared Bloom's amiably ironic view of life. Joyce could not abide the inner organs of animals and fowl, while Schmitz, like Bloom, loved them. Some of these are small similarities, but Joyce had a spider's eye" (374).

Schmitz was a prosperous businessman who met Joyce through the Berlitz school in Trieste. The young, impoverished teacher and his older, richer student became fast friends who took long walks through the city streets together, as Bloom and Stephen do at the end of June 16. Their families became close, as Bloom hopes may happen with Stephen. And Schmitz gave Joyce abundant information about Jewish traditions and the Jews living in Trieste.

Another purportedly Jewish model for Bloom was an otherwise little-known Dubliner named Alfred H. Hunter who played the Good Samaritan to Joyce in 1904, when the writer accosted an attractive young woman in St. Stephen's Green, not realizing that she had a boyfriend nearby. Abandoned by his friend Vincent Cosgrave, Joyce ended up, as he observed in a notebook, with a "black eye, sprained wrist, sprained ankle, cut chin, cut hand." Hunter, whom Joyce had met briefly once or twice, came upon the scene, helped the writer up, and took him home. Ellmann says that Hunter was "rumored to be Jewish and to have an unfaithful wife" (162). In fact he was not Jewish, as Louise Hyman notes (The Jews of Ireland, 169), but Ellmann got his information from Stanislaus Joyce, so James may very well have supposed him to be so. And Bloom, for that matter, is only ambiguously Jewish himself.

Within a few years Joyce was thinking of putting Hunter in a Dubliners story to be called "Ulysses," which would follow the man as he wandered about Dublin. When Joyce instead began writing Ulysses as a novel he asked Stanislaus and his Aunt Josephine for more details about the man (Ellmann, 375). Several of these made it into the book, as Vivien Igoe observes in The Real People of Joyc'es Ulysses. Hunter was born in 1866, the same year as Bloom. His wife was named Marion (though they married considerably later than the Blooms, in 1899), and the couple lived at a succession of different addresses. She was the daughter of a professor of music who served as grand organist of the Dublin Freemasons. Hunter worked as an advertising canvasser for the Freeman's Journal from 1902 onwards.

Inspired by Hunter's "corporal work of mercy" (Cyclops, Ithaca), Joyce conceived the most striking and important of Bloom's qualities: kindness, compassion, familial warmth. To some extent, he associated this ethical disposition with Jews in general. Frank Budgen recorded that Joyce said to him of Jews, "Look at them. They are better husbands than we are, better fathers and better sons," and Ellmann observes that he quietly valued two characteristics of Jews: "their chosen isolation, and the close family ties which were perhaps the result of it" (373).

Bloom is not only a devoted husband and father. He extends his kindness to a young man whom he has briefly met only twice. He attends the funeral of an acquaintance with whom he was not particularly close, and generously contributes money to his impoverished family. He goes to the hospital to inquire about a distant acquaintance who is in her third day of labor. He gives food to gulls and to a stray dog. He thinks often of the condition of being cast out and in need.

It has been said that by reading Ulysses we come to know Leopold in more depth and detail than we know ourselves. Countless Bloomian qualities must remain unmentioned in a brief note: his interest in experimental science, his civic-minded practicality, his traumatic experiences of loss, his financial prudence, his get-rich-quick schemes, his intellectual curiosity, his close-but-not-quite recall of past learning, his goofy miscalculations, his recessive social persona, his energetic expression of opinions, his playfulness. But it is his thoughtfulness, in both senses of the word, that make him the hero of Joyce's modern epic.

JH 2017
Joyce's quick pencil sketch of Leopold Bloom, executed in 1926, with the first line of Homer's Odyssey: "Tell me, Muse, of that manyminded man, who wandered far and wide." Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Richard Hamilton's image of Bloom, made on paper in the 1980s by soft-ground etching, roulette, engraving and aquatint, held by the Art Institute of Chicago. Source: www.artic.edu.
Photographic portrait of Ettore Schmitz, a.k.a. Italo Svevo, date unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Source: wcpa.homestead.com.