Ulysses, by James Joyce: Conclusion
by Paul Mathers
We get the Good Samaritan comparison out of the way right off the bat.
Bloom and Stephen walk through Dublin late at night, reflecting on the violence of the town and how the police are only there to protect the affluent, to a cabman shelter (seems to be a bit like an all-night diner). Stephen is still a bit delirious. In the course of things, we and Bloom come to find out that he has not eaten in almost 48 hours. As is increasingly the case and as is so often the case in the wee hours of the night, their reflections take on a larger scope: God, existence, order. That latter is a strong point for Bloom and a point of almost complete ambivalence for Stephen, illustrating one common gap between young adulthood and middle age. Bloom tries to get Stephen to eat. Bloom believes that prostitutes ought to be monitored by the government and medical professionals. Bloom has opinions on the police and local government. Bloom has economic views, and views on gainful employment, which promote individual responsibility in the “each according to his ability” camp. Stephen only engages when the topics drift from the earthly.
There is a scene with a sailor boasting of his exploits at sea. Bloom seems to doubt the veracity of the mariner’s claims. As we get towards the end (not to get ahead of myself) I believe that there is a morality, or at least a metric of judgment, being promoted by Joyce. We are being led to feel certain ways about certain people, although there is a modern sensibility of the “gray” about many of the characters. This was most evident earlier in the citizen. Bloom’s motivations become a bit mixed in the scene that follows Skin-The-Goat as he speculates on the potential financial gains to be had on the quality of Stephen’s tenor voice. Therefore we no longer see Bloom as the purely compassionate surrogate father figure, but with a twinge of self-interest muddying the waters. Bloom adores Stephen regardless of Bloom’s now slightly soiled image, but this is so true of so much of human altruism. People are inclined to rewrite or apologize in retrospect, but there is so little purity in human behavior. More on this in a moment when we get to what I think is the closest passage to moralism: Molly Bloom.
We also see this in the next section as Bloom considers the concept of the perfectibility of humankind on its own steam. He internally concedes a list of factors that would prevent humans from ever achieving perfection and the list, humorously, is long. Also, in the next section, as Bloom’s reflections grow increasingly universal, the void of the infinite suggests to him that, even if there was life at other points in space, the nature of mortal existence is that of vanity. The allusion to Ecclesiastes reminds us of Buck Mulligan’s early Nietzschean worldview. Indeed, this is one of the points in which Existentialism and Judeo-Christianity harmonize. A little later, biographical information colors in our view of Bloom as a man who rejected the faith of his father and embraces the progressive ideas of his time, fancying himself a man of science. We will see by the end that faith and faithfulness seems to be a major point of the novel, albeit perhaps not viewed through a traditional lens.
I was reminded of the newspaper report about Paddy Dignam’s funeral which misrepresents who was in attendance (at least two who were not actually there and one whose identity remains a mystery). Bloom is denied the posterity of his name being accurately recorded among the mourners. His irritation is also vanity.
Joyce plays with this veiled vestigial recognition of the twinges of truth of Catholicism by making the next section narrated in the form of catechism. A question is: who is talking here? Who is showing us these things? Who is asking and answering these questions? One online friend of mine believed that it is Joyce himself inserted into the book “behind the curtain” as it were. I am inclined to agree, but I still believe that Stephen is Joyce. I also feel that there is a bit of trickery in the title in that Stephen is the true protagonist of the book. Bloom is not our hero. Stephen = Hero.
Bloom wants Stephen to stay as he does not see where Stephen could go at this hour and on this side of town. He begins to fantasize about a sort of “rent payed in tutoring” situation, having an live-in intellectual force. Stephen, the character who seems to have self- confidence and a form of self-control not dictated by the expectations of common civilization, declines. We have a wonderfully symbolic transition as Bloom’s mind turns to the moon, water, flowers, and women, all of which are external forces that Bloom seems to be at the mercy of. Before we move on, some of these judgments on the buffoonery of humankind are driven home as, in the face of reflection on the sublime, Bloom knocks his head against a beam in his house.
Bloom also toys with the idea of running away from his life, disappearing in favor of a life of wandering. He rejects this fancy due to the lateness of the hour, the attractiveness of his bed, and the attractiveness of a statue of Narcissus on the dining room table (puts a fine point on it, I’d say). Bloom also thinks back on his day as the story of scripture (specifically the Old Testament, but with himself as a messianic figure at the end in his act of trying to help Stephen). Certain points do correspond, but we readers know that Bloom has the wrong book of antiquity in mind.
And now we come to Molly. Before I dive in here, I have to say that I feel as if having read so many other authors who are in debt to or derivative of Joyce (Vonnegut, Burroughs, R.A. Wilson, etc.) possibly prepared me to read this book by searing the nerve endings over the more scatological material. This book was tried for obscenity in my country, in which we are supposed to enjoy free speech and press, and this book was burned at one point by the United States government (as were many other books in this too too sullied nation’s history). I was a little surprised to learn that the passage specifically offending the censors was the highly cloaked passage describing Bloom’s self-abuse. I wonder if the censors of the 1920s didn’t make it far enough to Molly’s not-ready-for-prime-time language.
Molly’s lack of education, earlier hinted at by comments dropped by Bloom, is highlighted in her stream of consciousness. We’ve just had 700+ pages that couldn’t go a half dozen paragraphs without dropping a line of Shakespeare, an allusion to scripture, a poetic turn of phrase, the deep dark reaches of philosophy, or the otherwise collected wisdom of humankind. Molly thinks nearly exclusively about people and how she judges them. Her only cultural touchpoints seem to be lyrics of popular song. She thinks of her affair (with one of the more despicable characters in the book) and has the usual justification of the adulterous (if Bloom had only been a better husband). She considers seducing Stephen. She also thinks often of bodily functions and her language is decidedly “of the people.”
This tells us a few things about Bloom as well, some of which we may have suspected by now:
1) he married for looks and is inclined towards objectifying other people.
2) he lacks wisdom. We doubt he’ll ever have is dream garden estate as he’s broken even on the money of the day.
But what keeps these two together? In spite of her connubial dissatisfaction, she is defensive of Bloom at times and her episode culminates is a fond reminiscence of love. I think their common uniting factor is that they are two faithless or unfaithful people. Their totem of Narcissus in the other room as they lay foot to head, a yin to a yang, represents their worship of the body with their own on the throne. Stephen, by contrast, and although the familiar words of the father figure Polonius is one of the only bits of Hamlet not quoted in the book, is to his own self true. When Stephen left the narrative some 50 pages ago, we, like Bloom, have no idea where he’s going to go for the rest of the night. Is he going to be alright? Is he going to sleep or eat? Stephen is as one who considers the lilies of the field.
I’ve said it loud and often elsewhere, but for the sake of my own vain posterity I’ll say it here: I believe this to be one of the most perfect books in the English language. I feel a little sad that I will never again have the opportunity to read it for the first time. I was on the phone with my wife at lunch the other day as I walked the bike trail by Little Chico Creek and I was talking about this book. June 16th, 1904 did not seem, on some levels, to be a particularly momentous day in the lives of these characters. While some remarkable and memorable events occurred, the day might well blur into the haze of personal history. I was talking about Bloom’s super-objective of filling the son-shaped hole in his life with Stephen in these latter scenes and remarked on my uncertainty over Stephen’s super-objectives. Then I remarked on how, in the course of a common day, super-objectives are not always clear. The super-objective of the average day often seems to be “to get through it.” Alexander Woollcott once said,
“There is no such thing in anyone’s life as an unimportant day.”
The quotidian adds up. What we do in our daily lives ends up the sum of our lives. Bloom, Molly, and Stephen’s actions in the day are informed by their values, where they put their faith, if you will. Ours is not to place our faith in imagined future paradises, but rather to bring who we are to the present feast of human history.
Thank you for reading.