Master Bloom

Master Bloom

In Brief

Of various reasons for echoing the Divine Comedy in Ulysses, one of the most important is to make Leopold Bloom play Virgil to Stephen's Dante. This equivalence is subtly introduced in Oxen of the Sun: "Master Bloom, at the braggart's side, spoke to him calming words to slumber his great fear." The early 17th century style of this section of Oxen repeatedly employs the title "Master"—it calls Dixon, Lenehan, Lynch, and Madden by that name, plus Beaumont and Fletcher for good measure—but Joyce may well be loading the word with additional significance, since Dante's maestro Virgil often attempts to quiet his fear. In the allusions cited at the end of Joyce and Dante (283) Mary Reynolds sees a particular reference to two lines from canto 20 of the Purgatorio: "my master drew up closer to me, / saying: 'Have no fear while I'm your guide'" (134-35). If this is indeed an allusion its implications are not immediately apparent, but it foretells stronger and clearer echoes of Virgil and Dante later in the novel.

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Nowhere in her book does Reynolds note the most compelling reason to suppose that Joyce is alluding to the lines from Purgatorio, which is contextual: both passages involve the younger man's response to a violent environmental disturbance. Stephen's loud and licentious verbal pyrotechnics are followed by a huge thunderclap, which makes him turn instantly pale, "and his pitch that was before so haught uplift was now of a sudden quite plucked down and his heart shook within the cage of his breast as he tasted the rumour of that storm." Long after leaving the Catholic church Joyce continued to hear in thunder the voice of an angry God, and he gives Stephen the same fear that "the god self was angered for his hellprate and paganry." He tries to laugh it off, joking that "old Nobodaddy was in his cups," but others can see that "this was only to dye his desperation as cowed he crouched in Horne's hall." Bloom attempts to allay his terror by telling Stephen that "it was no other thing but a hubbub noise that he heard, the discharge of fluid from the thunderhead, look you, having taken place, and all of the order of a natural phenomenon."

Similarly, in Purgatorio 20 an earthquake terrifies Dante: "I felt the mountain tremble / as though it might collapse, and a chill, / like the chill of death, subdued me.... Then there rose up a great cry all around us" (127-33). Neither he nor Virgil knows what to make of it, but cantos 8 and 9 have shown that fear is an inappropriate response on this mountain that restores human innocence. After Virgil tells Dante not to be afraid the two men hear "Gloria in excelsis Deo" in the souls' cries and stand "stock still and in suspense, / like the shepherds who first heard that song" (136-40). In Dante's exacting symbolic craft this allusion suggests that Christ is somehow coming to earth to liberate mankind from sin. The prediction is fulfilled a few lines later when a shade joins Dante and Virgil on their path around the mountain, much as "Christ, / just risen from the cave that was His sepulcher, / revealed himself to two He walked with on the road" to Emmaus (21.7-9). It is Statius, just released from his long purgatorial confinement, and he tells them that the mountain "trembles when a soul feels it is pure, / ready to rise, to set out on its ascent, / and next there follows that great cry" (58-60). Virgil was right, then, to say that there was nothing to fear, though he could not have said why.

Readers who find the allusion to Dante credible may nevertheless wonder why Joyce bothered to put it in his text. Virgil is a non-Christian guide who shows Dante the Christian realities of Hell and Purgatory. Bloom is a non-Christian guide who urges Stephen not to view the storm through a religious lens. Does Joyce mean for the contrast to show one freethinker leading another astray? This seems unlikely, though the narrative of Oxen does urge such a view, adopting the voice of John Bunyan: "But was young Boasthard's fear vanquished by Calmer's words? No, for he had in his bosom a spike named Bitterness which could not by words be done away.... But could he not have endeavoured to have found again as in his youth the bottle Holiness that then he lived withal? Indeed not for Grace was not there to find that bottle. Heard he then in that clap the voice of the god Bringforth or, what Calmer said, a hubbub of Phenomenon?" This narrative voice, and other theocratic ones in Oxen, can hardly represent Joyce's own views, for he too was, in Stephen's words, "a horrible example of free thought."

Oppositely, one could argue that Joyce meant for the contrast between the two guides to show the superiority of secular thinking: non-Christian Bloom interprets thunder through sound scientific principles rather than the fanciful and savagely judgmental medieval theology that non-Christian Virgil has to defend. Such an approach would better suit the irreverent logic of Ulysses, but it seems tendentious. The end of Eumaeus and the beginning of Ithaca feature Stephen and Bloom as independent intellectual agents exploring areas of agreement and disagreement, discussing "sirens, enemies of man's reason," valuing free thought: "Both indurated by early domestic training and an inherited tenacity of heterodox resistance professed their disbelief in many orthodox religious, national, social and ethical doctrines." But if Dante's story enters the text of Oxen only as an example of how not to interpret thunder, then the allusion is not very tightly focused. Joyce usually brings passages into intertextual dialogue by means of highly specific analogues, but Virgil has nothing to say about the shaking of the mountain.

These opposed readings both assume that the central point of the comparison is to somehow decide the conflict between religious and secular reasoning. That conflict is certainly the focus of the narrative in Oxen, but it need not be the primary reason for echoing Purgatorio 20. Bloom's effort to correct Stephen's mistaken understanding is a very Virgilian undertaking, but so is his generous sympathy, and here the two passages are more exactly analogous. Bloom tries to comfort Stephen's fear without understanding the life experience that has produced it: a man of little faith, he has never been terrorized by Irish Catholic threats of eternal damnation. Similarly, Virgil tries to comfort Dante's fear without understanding what has caused the earthquake or the great revivalist shout. In Hell Virgil can confidently say things like "Have no fear while I'm your guide" because he knows the place well and is divinely commissioned to command its inhabitants—though even there his confidence is sometimes misplaced. In Purgatory he can only offer vague reassurances about things that he understands poorly. But his parental impulse to protect, console, and guide Dante remains as important as ever.

Bloom feels exactly these impulses toward Stephen, and his effort to console him in a moment of existential crisis distinguishes him from all the drunken young men at the table. While they can only applaud Stephen's clever blasphemies or mockingly reprove them, Bloom responds to his fear sympathetically and attempts to allay it. A rational secularist moving through a world shaped by Christian belief, he takes religion seriously enough to appreciate its consolations and costs for human beings, just as the rationalist Virgil does.

Oxen of the Sun only hints at resemblances between Bloom and Virgil, just as it only hints at the possibility of friendship between Bloom and Stephen (another such hint comes several pages earlier when Bloom's witty disparagement of the Catholic church makes Stephen "a marvellous glad man"). The two men merely share a stage in this chapter and the next, interacting very little, but in Eumaeus and Ithaca they meet, spend time together, and converse. In those chapters the analogy with Virgil and Dante is strengthened by a succession of increasingly explicit allusions to things that happen in Inferno and Purgatorio: the leftward turns though Hell, its collapsed bridge, the growing mental integration of the two protagonists, the interview with Ulysses, the vision of the stars after emerging from Hell, the image of Virgil as a lantern-bearer and the echo of Psalm 113, and finally the terrible pathos of parting in the garden. These later allusions establish beyond any doubt that Joyce intended for his protagonists to reenact aspects of Dante's story.

JH 2022
Dante, Guided by Virgil, Offers Consolation to the Souls of the Envious, Hippolyte Flandrin's 1835 oil on canvas painting held in the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon. Source: Wikimedia Commons.