Episode 5, "Lotus Eaters," begins the saga of Bloom's daylong wanderings through Dublin with a sustained meditation on drugs and other tactics for avoiding reality. It was inspired by a very brief tale (about two dozen lines) in Book 9 of Homer's epic in which some of Odysseus' men fall under the spell of a narcotic plant and must be forcibly re-conscripted. As always, Joyce adapted the Homeric story very freely. His first sentence makes Bloom an Odysseus figure, keeping his wits about him as others lose theirs: "By lorries along sir John Rogerson's quay Mr Bloom walked soberly." But the previous chapter has shown that Bloom has his own harsh reality to avoid and his own avoidance mechanisms. In Lotus Eaters he seems to be trying to think about anything but his wife's coming infidelity, while his entire world seems to be conspiring to remind him of it.
In the Odyssey, most of the wanderings of the protagonist are narrated retrospectively. Odysseus sails away from Calypso's island in Book 5 and washes up on the shore of the Phaeacians, where the princess Nausicaa finds him half-drowned. (If Joyce had been slavishly following the sequence of Homer's events, Nausicaa would have been his fifth chapter rather than his thirteenth.) Received hospitably into the palace of Nausicaa's father, Odysseus tells his hosts of the various adventures that befell him on the long way from Troy to Ogygia.
The second of these adventures, narrated in Book 9, tells of "the coastline of the Lotos Eaters, / who live upon that flower." Three of Odysseus' men scouted the land, encountering natives who offered no hostility but only a sample of their favorite food. Tasting it, the Ithacans "never cared to report, nor to return: / they longed to stay forever, browsing on / that native bloom, forgetful of their homeland." Odysseus felt compelled to drive them back to their ships and secure them under the rowing benches, admonishing the others to shove off or "lose your hope of home."
Since Calypso has taken place in Bloom's home rather than a place of exile, Lotus Eaters marks the beginning of his wanderings, and much of what he thinks in the chapter stands juxtaposed against what he has just left. If his "hope of home" has been shaken by Boylan's letter, other Dubliners have far less to stake their hopes on. Several sentences into the chapter he sees an impoverished boy "smoking a chewed fagbutt" and considers warning him about the dangers of tobacco, but then thinks of his family: "Tell him if he smokes he won't grow. O let him! His life isn't such a bed of roses. Waiting outside pubs to bring da home. Come home to ma, da." Countless Dublin homes have been blighted by alcohol—but later chapters will show that Bloom has evaded this habit, to the benefit of his family.
Tobacco and alcohol (and opium, also mentioned in the chapter) make hard lives more bearable but exact a heavy price. So too do various non-chemical fixes to which Bloom seems immune: militaristic patriotic fervor, mesmerizing religious rituals, the alluring greed of betting on horses. Some milder indulgences clearly appeal to him: drinking tea, dreaming of warmer climates, lusting after women who are not his wife. But these tender seductions are less dangerous than Bloom's determination not to think seriously about the marriage problems that are driving his wife to commit adultery. At one point in the chapter he envies castrated horses their freedom from sexual desire. At another he discounts the value of communication between spouses: "Talk: as if that would mend matters."
Hugh Kenner argues that this chapter presents a man who is "virtually in shock" (Ulysses, 51). "In a state of near-nescience, Bloom is wandering almost at random, thinking of everything but the main thing he found out an hour before, that Boylan will cuckold him this afternoon. This he must not dwell on." Ian Gunn and Clive Hart note that "The meanderings which follow his initial appearance on the quay are like the aimless wanderings of a drugged and troubled man, Bloom's demeanour suggesting, indeed, that he may not be fully conscious of what he is doing" (James Joyce's Dublin, 34-35). Several scholars have argued that Bloom's steps trace the shape of a giant question mark. In A Topographical Guide to James Joyce's Ulysses, Hart observes that he actually tramps out two question marks, the second one begun when he detours all the way around the post office to reach a church that stands beside it.
Joyce's two schemas continue the disagreement they showed about the times of Stephen's second and third chapters: Gilbert's has Lotus Eaters starting at 10 AM, while Linati's says 9. They agree, however, that the following chapter, Hades, takes place between 11:00 and noon. Somewhere near the beginning of this two-hour frame, perhaps 9:30 or so to give Bloom time to travel to his spot south of the river, the chapter begins. An hour or so later, the action ends with Bloom thinking of a mild physical indulgence: taking a warm bath and masturbating in the water. His anticipation of these anodynes bring to his mind the lotus flower that ties together the chapter's thoughts about evading life's hardships.
In the unrepresented temporal space between Calypso and Lotus Eaters, by some unspecified mode of locomotion, Bloom has traveled from his house in the north central part of the city to an area just south of the River Liffey and east of the central business hub. Gunn and Hart infer that he has probably walked. If so, they note, his perambulation of a little over a mile corresponds closely in time and distance to the one that Stephen takes between Telemachus and Nestor, and it predicts the walk that he and Stephen will take at the end of the novel, from the same area near the Liffey docks back to Bloom's house on Eccles Street: "The initial and final parts of the odyssey, the outward and inward journeys, are thus made to form a perfect symmetry" (34).