On Bloomsday, you can thank the Catholic Church for the humor in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’
Despite its reputation for being intellectually demanding, James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses is also funny, even absurd at times. And the strength of its humor springs from the author’s observations about the life of the church, an institution whose theology and rituals, though they continue to be adapted over the years, in some ways have not changed much over the last century.
For instance, Joyce set the action of the book on one day: June 16, 1904, the feast day of the French Jesuit John Francis Regis, the patron saint of illegitimate children. Paternity is an important theme throughout the book. The novel’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, mourns both his deceased son and his father, and finds another son in Stephen Dedalus.
James Joyce was raised and educated in the Catholic Church, attending Clongowes Wood, a Jesuit college (the equivalent of an American high school), and although he grew alienated from the church, Ulysses is overflowing with references to prayers, church services and saints. In the book, we follow an ordinary day in the lives of Bloom, a Jewish Dubliner, and Dedalus, a young teacher, who often pass by one another in Dublin before meeting up near the book’s conclusion. Ulysses is famous for its use of stream of consciousness to illuminate what the characters are thinking and feeling. Through humor, Joyce makes his protagonist Bloom a sympathetic character the reader can root for.
The book's humor springs from the author’s observations about the life of the church.
In the book’s early episodes, Bloom misunderstands Catholic teachings and practices, and it is his own ignorance—or what ignorant Catholics have told him—that set up the humor. Bloom attends Mass, and we see him thinking to himself “murmuring all the time. Latin... Good idea the Latin. Stupefies them first” (Gabler edition, 5.349-50). He misses the point of the tradition of celebrating Mass in Latin and inserts his own reason for the use of this archaic language. Later during the Mass he misunderstands the Eucharist itself. “Something like those mazzoth: it’s that sort of bread: unleavened shewbread” (5.358-59). Bloom confuses the Passover matzoth with the loaves of bread ancient Jewish priests placed on the altar each Sabbath.
Studying the priest’s vestments, Bloom struggles to remember the acronym embroidered on the back, IHS, as well as the inscription INRI affixed to Jesus’ cross. “Molly told me one time I asked her. I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is. And the other one? Iron nails ran in” (5.372). At the end of the Mass, Bloom confuses the opening question in the confessional with the Eucharist. “How long since your last mass?” (5.422). Readers familiar with the tropes of Catholicism may laugh at Bloom’s mistakes over what Catholics well know, but they may also sympathize with him. We all misremember things and try to fill in answers that seem to make sense. There is something childlike and endearing about Bloom’s errors.
“Latin,” Bloom murmurs to himself at mass, “Good idea the Latin. Stupefies them first.”
Soon after the Mass, Bloom attends the funeral services of Paddy Dignum at Prospect Cemetery in the town of Glasnevin. As he listens to Latin he does not understand, Bloom’s thoughts trail away. He thinks he hears the priest say, “Dominenamine” when he has really said, “In nomine Domini” (“In the name of the Lord”). Bloom’s mind begins to wander again, and when the priest speaks of the resurrection, Bloom recalls a pun on Jesus’ words Come forth: “Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job” (6.679). Although Bloom is not part of the Catholic community, witnessing his wandering mind and mishearing of Latin during Mass can make Catholic readers feel as if Bloom is one of their own.
After Dignum is buried, Bloom goes to the newspaper office where he works as an ad salesman. He tries unsuccessfully to place an ad for Alexander Keyes, one of his work clients. Bloom explains to the newspaper’s foreman that the ad’s image of the crossed keys is a pun on Keyes’ last name, without recognizing their close resemblance to the keys in the Vatican’s insignia.
The chapter continues its jesting in a discussion about spiritual and temporal dominion. A small group of Dubliners brought to the newspaper on different errands, including Stephen Dedalus, are talking about politics, history and the British and Roman Empires. A professor declares to Stephen, “Domine! Lord! Where is spirituality? Lord Jesus? Lord Salisbury?” (7.557-8). The professor points out that Christ and a member of the British nobility have the same title despite their vast difference in importance.
“Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job.”
At one point, Dedalus, who was also the hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, recounts a Parable of the Plums. Unlike the parable of the scattered seeds in St. Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus compares spreading the word of God to sowing seeds, two middle-aged women spit plum pits from atop Nelson’s Pillar (a real monument that used to stand on O’Connell Street in Dublin until the I.R.A. blew it up in 1966). None of the women’s plum seeds land on fertile ground—and from the street, it appears that the English Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson is spitting on the Irish.
After work Bloom goes to a pub for a meeting, where he runs into a character known only as The Citizen. Soon after they begin to talk, they get into an argument about what constitutes a community, and who can claim membership in one. The Citizen argues more or less from an “Irish and Catholic first” mentality. He buttresses his points by drawing on the history of religious communities from Ireland’s distant history up to the present. Bloom replies that “Christ was a Jew like me.” The Citizen, based on the real-life Irish nationalist Michael Cusack, throws a tin of cookies at Bloom. The Citizen perceives Bloom as “other,” even though Bloom was born and raised in Ireland.
The episode ends with the chapter’s narrator shouting out like a biblical prophet: “And there came a voice out of heaven, calling: Elijah! Elijah! And He answered with a main cry: Abba! Adonai! And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah.” (12.1914-5) Although Bloom doesn’t know Catholic history or practice the faith, he comes off as more Christian than The Citizen, because he is sympathetic to unpopular people, to those who don’t fit in. The Citizen’s argument is made ridiculous by its presentation as a run-on sentence that nearly fills a page in the book (and he himself is made ridiculous by his childish toss of the cookie tin). Prophets like Bloom are never appreciated in their hometowns. In Joyce’s eyes, though, Bloom is the victor and the author praises his hero in biblical tones, albeit with a comic edge.
Bloom replies that “Christ was a Jew like me,” and has a tin of cookies thrown at him.
Walking home, Bloom fails in his attempt to have an intellectual conversation about the soul with the drunken Stephen. Eventually the two of them are finally able to have a coherent conversation about spiritual matters. Joyce wrote the chapter in the style of the catechism, and it is intentionally difficult to read.
Stephen inquires about “the problem as to whether the divine prepuce, the carnal bridal ring of the Holy Roman catholic apostolic church, conserved in Calcata, were deserving of simple hyperduly or of the fourth degree of latria accorded to the abscission of such divine excrescences as hair and toenails” (17.1205). Stephen’s questions are silly; he asks how much veneration the relic is due depending on whose hair and toe nails they are. The catechetical style in the chapter is taken very seriously, and the whole scene comes off as absurd when juxtaposed with the ludicrous nature of Stephen’s questions. At the end of a day where other people spoke in an unfamiliar language, like the priest’s Latin, or willfully misunderstood him, as The Citizen did, Bloom finds in Stephen a sincere companion with a similar sense of of humor. It is the shared jokes that, in a way, bring his journey to a resolution.