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Leopold Bloom is a 38 years old Jewish advertisement canvasser. He is Joyce’s modern counterpart to Homer’s Ulysses. He is alienated from home and religious community. He is a man of disorganized notions, discarded religious beliefs and bygone political allegiance. A man of no particular attainments, he is generally presented in a comic light. Joyce presents him in unsparing physical close-up. He is a veteran cuckold (a man whose wife has proved unfaithful.) He is a husband deprived of force. Naturally, his wife Molly carries on with her love affair with Boylan. He is as much indifferent to his daughter Milly’s love affair with Alec Bannon as he is to his wife Molly’s love affairs. He is a bungler. He is a slightly pathetic and slightly absurd sociable misfit.
Bloom suffers from sexual perversities. He corresponds regularly with a lady called Martha Clifford under the assumed name of Henry Flower. Rapt in erotic meditations he sups at the Ormond Hotel. In the butcher’s shop he admires a neighbor’s servant girl standing in front of him in the queue. In the Nausicaa episode Bloom looks at Gerty instead of seeing the fireworks.
Despite these faults, Bloom is a man of benevolent impulses. He offers practical assistance to Stephen and others in distress. He shows himself capable of charitable deeds and acts of kindness. Without his benevolent impulses, no contact could have been established between him and Stephen. His real gift is the gift of personality and his power to endure.
Stephen Dedalus is an aspiring young artist who feels estranged from the world around him. He has been already presented to the reader by Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He had already been summoned from Paris by a telegram informing him that his mother was dying. In Ulysses Stephen lives with Haines, an English man from Oxford and Buck Mulligan, a medical student as his friend. At the beginning of the novel the estranged Stephen leaves the Mortello Tower. He is racked by guilt at the thought of his dead mother and alienated from his disreputable father. The materialistic envious outside world presents a more powerful threat to his peace of mind in the person of Mulligan. He outshines his acquaintances in literary debate. The milk woman reminds Stephen rightly that it is his destiny to forge the uncreated conscience of Ireland. His alienation is further seen in his professional life. Mr. Deasy rightly prophesies that he will not continue long as a teacher.
Stephen’s aspiration in his life is to blossom into a brilliant creative artist. He is endowed with a capacity for contemplation, which enables him to explore the protean nature of reality. He is not able to fulfil his aim of becoming a creative artist because he is weighed down by guilt caused by a number of things. As a young man he was to become a priest. He was not suitable for it, since he was obsessed with sexual thoughts. He rejected the Roman Catholic Church. He refused to pray for his dying mother. He borrowed money from the poet A. E. and spent it on a prostitute. Though he smokes Haines’s tobacco, he has nothing but contempt from him. He is indifferent to the poverty of his sisters.
There are certain disadvantages to which Stephen is subject. His views on Shakespeare are not taken seriously by others. He is not invited to a literary meet at the residence of George Moore. Even George Russell hesitantly agrees to print Deasy’s letter handed over by Stephen in his magazine. Only a spiritual birth can save Stephen. It is in the maternity hospital that a chance of spiritual birth is extended to him when he finally meets Leopold Bloom. He misses this chance on account of certain failings on his part. He gets drunk and starts walking unsteadily at Nighttown. He is knocked down by the British soldier Carr. Thanks to the intervention of Corny Kelleher, his arrest is averted. Even Bloom is forced to remark that Stephen wastes his time on drifters and prostitutes, when he ought to use his talents constructively by conducting a musical tour or by teaching Italian.
Stephen’s rebirth becomes possible when Bloom takes him to his house. He has now to learn to appreciate Bloom. He has to enter his feelings. He has to see him for what he is. In the process he will have gained access to his own pent-up humanity and found his true subject as a writer.