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Leopold Bloom, Prince of the People

From: Joyce Studies Annual
pp. 307-311

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One of the recurrent questions implicit in Joyce’s Ulysses is how Leopold Bloom can serve as a counterpart to the Ulysses of Homeric epic. To what degree does he respond to the Ulysses prototype or merit this distinction? Ulysses is a warrior and King of Ithaca, while Bloom is a middle class Jew with the rather mundane job of advertising salesman. Ulysses wanders the Mediterranean world for ten long years. Bloom wanders about Dublin for one day.

Bloom may be a type of “wandering Jew,” though it appears that he has lived and been settled in Dublin for a long time, probably since his birth. He is not, therefore, a Jew who has been pulled and pushed from country to country, which weakens but does not negate his status as “wandering Jew.” Indeed, Bloom remarks to Stephen in Latin, “Ubi patria . . . vita bene,” which can be loosely translated as, “Wherever I am well . . . there is my country” (16.1138–39).

Bloom’s traits of generosity, compassion, and forgiveness differ from the ruthless and unsparing vengeance that mark the homecoming of Ulysses, whose Greek name Odysseus can fittingly be translated as “Wrathful.”

What then, if anything, links the two protagonists? Is there something kingly about Bloom that elevates him allegorically to the level of Ithaca’s ruler? If so, how does Joyce make reference to this? In this regard, the names he gives to the male Bloom line in the novel are suggestive. The male protagonist is named Leopold. His only son and male heir, who died eleven days after his birth, is named Rudy. Rudy is a diminutive of Rudolph, which is the name of Bloom’s father who committed suicide. Leopold and Rudolph are not typical Irish names. They are of Germanic origin, native to Northern and Central Europe, where they often served as the names of Kings. The most prominent Leopold of Joyce’s time and of the period of the book, 1904, was King Leopold II of Belgium. King Leopold had an only son and heir who died in his eleventh year; his name was also Leopold. However, before exploring Bloom’s connection to Leopold II and other monarchs, I want to focus not on the son but on a daughter of Leopold II, Princess Stephanie.

At barely seventeen, Stephanie was married to the Austrian Crown Prince who was heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then occupied by the Emperor Franz-Josef. The Crown Prince’s name was Rudolph. At first, this was considered a very advantageous match, but Stephanie’s place in Archduke Rudolph’s bed was usurped by the Baroness Mary Vetsera, with whom Rudolph had an intense affair. The Archduke’s family, led by the Emperor Franz-Josef, vehemently opposed this liaison. The occasionally unstable Rudolph did not take well to this disapproval nor to the implicit dynastic pressures it conveyed. On the last weekend of January 1889, he and his mistress repaired to the Imperial Hunting Lodge at Mayerling. There, in what appears to have been a suicide pact, Rudolph shot and killed Mary and then committed suicide.

The event, which came to be known as “The Incident at Mayerling,” convulsed the Austro-Hungarian Empire and all of Europe. It had an effect on the populace of the time not unlike the assassination of John F. Kennedy closer to our own day.1 James Joyce, living in Trieste under the Austro-Hungarian throne for most of the period 1904–14, would certainly have been familiar with the recent history of the Empire.

With Prince Rudolph’s death, his title descended on one of his cousins, Franz-Ferdinand, with regrettable results. This is the same Archduke Franz-Ferdinand who stubbornly ignored the advice of his counselors and continued his automobile journey around the city of Sarajevo, in the course of which he was assassinated (June 28, 1914). This lit the fuse for the opening of World War I, the same event that led to the departure of James Joyce, a British subject, from Austro-Hungarian Trieste, as the two Empires were now at war.

The events at Mayerling find echoes in Joyce’s novel when we learn that Bloom...

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