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What is Bloomsday? Who is Leopold Bloom?

Posted on by Kieran McGovern

June 16 is a special date for admirers of James Joyce. On this day in 1904 the Irish author had his first date with his future wife, Nora. He later chose the date as the one on which Leopold Bloom would carry out his twenty-four hour mock-odyssey in Ulysses (1922). 

Ulysses is renowned for the daunting challenge it poses readers (see here for a beginner's guide). It also weighs in at at close to a thousand pages in the paperback edition. 


Who is Leopold Bloom?
Leopold Bloom is a salesman and a middle-aged father of a teenage daughter, Milly. His only son, Rudy, died after only eleven days. Bloom is unswervingly devoted to his wife, Molly, but is aware that she is having an affair with the flashy Blazes Boylan. 


In crucial respects Bloom is an outsider in a very insular society.Though he has converted to Catholicism in order to marry Molly, he is never allowed to forget his Jewish origins. 


An unlikely hero?
Funny, kind, gentle, unfailingly polite in the most trying of circumstances, Leopold Bloom is one of the most endearing characters in modern fiction. 


His finest hour is his moral victory over an anti-Semitic nationalist (the Citizen) in the Cyclops episode. Bloom enters a raucous pub, Barney Kiernan's, looking for his friend Martin Cunningham.  Joining some acquaintances at the bar, he joins in a conversation about capital punishment. 


Bloom's thoughtful remarks incite a bellicose response from the Citizen. Drunk, and spoiling for a fight, he chooses to take them as a slur on the 'martyrs' executed by the British over the centuries. Bloom responds with a quiet condemnation of all violence:
Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. It's the very opposite of that that is really life". 
The scene ends with Bloom's hurried exit and the deranged Citizen throwing a biscuit tin at his departing stagecoach. It's a typically ignominious outcome for Bloom but an emphatic moral victory - a point the anonymous narrator underlines by describing it in terms of Elijah being called to Heaven


What happens on Bloomsday?
Joyce - whose sense of self-importance  matched his monumental talent - believed Ulysses would provide scholars with 'a lifetime' of material. Doubtless, he would think it fitting that thousands now attend public readings of his work - most famously in Dublin where Bloomsday is a major tourist event.  


In 2012 Radio 4 is celebrating Bloomsday with a series of recordings.

What is Ulysses about? Should I read it?

Ulysses by James Joyce - Softback (US)
Ulysses: Annotated Students' Edition (Penguin)
Dubliners by James Joyce
Biography - James Joyce (Oxford Lives)