In Brief

If anyone in Ulysses can be called a good Samaritan it is Leopold Bloom, and the first sentence of Eumaeus shows him acting explicitly and precisely like the one in the Bible: "Preparatory to anything else Mr Bloom brushed off the greater bulk of the shavings and handed Stephen the hat and ashplant and bucked him up generally in orthodox Samaritan fashion which he very badly needed." But two Joycean ironies lurk within this little tribute to Bloom, undermining its hagiography.

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Luke's gospel recounts an unbeliever's challenge which Jesus answers by invoking two ancient commandments from Deuteronomy: "And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?" (10:25-29).

Jesus answers the lawyer's implicitly selfish question with the parable of a Jew who travels from Jerusalem to Jericho and runs into thieves who rob him of his clothes, wound him, and leave him half dead by the side of the road. A priest happens by, sees the man, prudently crosses to the other side of the road, and passes on. A Levite does the same thing. But a passing Samaritan, one of a sect that was bitterly at odds with the Jews, "had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him" (10.34). Which of these three men, Jesus asks, do you think was a "neighbour"? The lawyer can only say that it was the Samaritan, and Jesus tells him, "Go thou and do likewise." He thus implies that pious outward observance of a received religion counts for little. The heretic fulfilled the divine command better than the priest and the Levite.

Joyce scrupulously reproduces the biblical story: a thug knocks Stephen to the ground, where he appears half dead, and it is a member of a despised race, not one of Dublin's pious Catholics, that helps him to his feet, restores his scattered articles of clothing, escorts him to a place of safety and recuperation (a cabman's shelter, standing in for the inn), physically supports him as he staggers out, and takes him into his own home. Bloom's action is admirable, but this mock-heroic novel will not let him play the part of a hero in any straightforward, sentimentally inspiring way.

For starters, the inept prose narration distances attentive readers from simple acceptance of what they are told. "Good Samaritan" is a cliché, but this sentence undermines unreflective reception of the cliché with the phrase "orthodox Samaritan fashion." By definition, and by conscious intention in Jesus' parable, Samaritans are not orthodox; they are the walking embodiments of heterodoxy. Putting these two words together is the first howler in a flood of poor prose techniques that this episode will unleash on its readers.

Joyce also undercuts the trope by implicitly connecting it with an allusion to the same biblical passage eleven chapters earlier, in Lotus Eaters. When Bloom steps into St. Andrew's church he sees that there are not many people in it, only some members of a women's sodality, and thinks, "Pity so empty. Nice discreet place to be next some girl. Who is my neighbour?" If the church were more crowded, he thinks, he could sit down beside some pretty girl and worship her from anear. This kind of neighborliness is not exactly what Jesus had in mind, any more than Bloom's lusting after the next-door servant girl in Calypso was. In Circe Bloom becomes a kind of Christ-figure himself and advocates for some distinctly un-Catholic values: "free love and a free lay church in a free lay state." In him, Jesus' admonition to love generously acquires a sexual expression that is anything but orthodox. Readers are not invited to condemn Bloom, but neither are they invited to see him as the usual kind of hero.

JH 2019
Parable of the Good Samaritan, 1647 oil on canvas painting by Balthasar Cortbemde held in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Good Samaritan, 1616 oil on canvas painting by Jacob Jordaens held in the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Source: Wikimedia Commons.