Leopold Bloom: Antihero
While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, Homer would have probably been none too amused by James Joyce’s classic 1922 novel, Ulysses. Mockingly modeled after Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey, it is the 24-hour ‘odyssey’ of aspiring young writer Stephen Dedalus and an aging advertising huckster, Leopold Bloom, who are unknowingly in search of each other, just as father and son were in the poem. Leopold Bloom continues to both fascinate and infuriate readers with his vulgarity, which is the antithesis of any Homeric hero, who wear their character like a badge of honor. For years, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether Bloom is a literary hero or if he is the embodiment of the anti-hero. When he is first introduced in Chapter 4, “Calypso,” his gluttony is readily apparent: “MR. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine” (Joyce 45). This is hardly the description of a swashbuckling, heroic warrior that dominated ancient Greek poetic epics.
But Leopold Bloom is a complex character, which makes him, perhaps, one of the most compelling and human of all twentieth-century literary protagonists. He is a Jew living in Catholic Dublin. No matter how many Guinness ales he swills or how many barroom brawls he engages in, in the name of patriotism, Leopold Bloom is treated like an outsider. Certainly, his eating habits resemble that of a pig and his greed and vulgarisms resemble those of the money-lending Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. In the pivotal Chapter 12, “Cyclops,” Bloom seems to show himself at his least heroic — attempting to use his business savvy to defraud a man of money to which he was owed. But is Leopold Bloom really a calculating lout, or is he merely parodying the stereotype with which the Dublin citizens perennially saddled Jews? Bloom is constantly being berated for being Jewish, describe by Martin Cunningham as “a perverted Jew” (Joyce 276). He is made to feel ashamed of his heritage: “The Jew hates the Jew in the Jew” (Gordon 251).
While Leopold Bloom may appear to outwardly lack the qualities of honor and courage which have historically defined the classical hero, he remains faithful to his adulterous wife, Molly, loyal to the marriage regarded by many as a sham. Unlike Homer’s mighty Ulysses, who sought to kill his wife’s suitors, Bloom looks the other way and is solicitous to Molly. He truly loves her and remembers how their marriage used to be. Bloom also wishes to serve as a father figure to the wandering Stephen Dedalus, who, perhaps reminds him of himself as a young man. The two often argue matters of principle, as fathers and sons often do. But beneath it all, there seems to be an underlying respect between the two. Bloom offers the young man a place to stay at the end of Ulysses, which he refuses. He prefers to continue on his own journey. While it is true that Leopold Bloom is coarse, downright obnoxious at times, he is also compassionate, doing the best he can in a world where he is continually victimized by prejudice.
James Joyce had little interest in the external adventurous exploits of ancient Greek warriors who were willing to lay down their lives on the battlefield simply because it was the honorable thing to do. Instead, Joyce was interested in the internal motivations which made a man act in a certain way. In his epic poetry, Homer glorified that which was extraordinary, making the characteristics of mortals and Gods interchangeable. In Odyssey, Ulysses was an old war hero whose courage carried him through a 25-year-journey which happily reunited him with his wife and son. In Ulysses, James Joyce paid homage to the ordinary, detailing the monotony of an average 24 hours in June of 1904, and celebrated man’s reverence for seemingly mundane rituals. This is a study of a common man who possesses none of the characteristics of David or the mighty Hercules. Leopold Bloom does not possess the finely-chiseled features of Adonis, or the impressive heroism of Achilles. On the contrary, Leopold Bloom represents “Everyman,” who is doing his best to survive in a world of adversity, while keeping his life and family intact. James Joyce has constructed a character who cannot be judged on the basis of his exterior. It is what lies within where his true measure is found.
While the classical or Homeric literature was concerned with ideals, twentieth century literature placed primary emphasis on man. Leopold Bloom is well-aware of his shortcomings, and constantly struggles to become a better person. When confronted with his wife’s infidelity, he vows to ‘turn the other cheek,’ lamenting “the futility of triumph or protest or vindication: the inanity of extolled virtue: the lethargy of nescient matter: the apathy of the stars” (Joyce). Modern-day protagonists often struggle to do the right thing. Leopold Bloom and Willy Loman were cut from this mold. They were far from perfect — they were often embarrassments to their family. But both Leopold Bloom and Willy Loman were endearingly human beings who kept trying to get it right. They did not have the benefit of divine intervention, as did Homer’s characters. They had to rely on themselves to persevere. In the end, Willy Loman grew tired of trying, but one gets the sense that Leopold Bloom would continue to hold his head high for as long as he lived. He was a Jew, but he also considered himself a nationalist who had just as much right to call himself Irish as did the Catholic majority. Yes, he could be rude and occasionally crude, but he was also loyal and demonstrated himself as capable of redemption. Leopold Bloom was no saint, but with warts and all, he was someone who inspired strong feelings in all, whether they be amusement, chagrin, ire or revulsion.
In the appreciation of art, literature and film, man brings his own unique human experience. The street-smart protagonists of Spike Lee films might be regarded as heroes to some and anti-heroes to others. Leopold Bloom was greeted with a similar ambivalence in the 1920s. After Ulysses, the heroic ideal was never quite the same. Of Leopold Bloom, it could be said, “The life of this insignificant man did have significance; it had one meaning that, in the long run counts in each person’s life… Who can doubt that this man is a good patron for us? This man of humble, everyday routine, this man of silent performance of duty, of honest righteousness and of manly piety, this man who was charged with protecting the grace of God in its embodied life?” (Baumann 22)