“Neither one thing nor the other”:

Joyce’s Leopold and Molly Bloom as two examples of liminal consciousness

by Christine Hoff Kraemer


While the statement that form is part of content is true of every work of literature, in Joyce’s Ulysses style provides so much of the content that it is impossible to talk about plot or character without it. The novel’s eighteen episodes present a dizzying array of narrative styles and voices, from the sentimental ladies’ magazine style of “Nausicäa,” to the surreal, expressionistic drama of “Circe,” to the unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness of “Penelope.” Joyce uses these often excessive stylistic choices to provide structure for the book as a whole, as well as to reveal the nature of his characters and of the world in which they live. In the “Cyclops” episode, two styles dominate the prose – one expansive, hyperbolic, and positive, and the other reductionistic, dismissive, and mean-spirited. When alternated and juxtaposed, however, these two extreme styles open up the possibility for a third alternative, a moderating influence that is represented by Bloom. An outsider both in terms of his ethnicity and in his greater delicacy of personal feeling, in the coarse atmosphere of the local pub Bloom is a wild card, one who (for example) neither agrees with the citizen’s militant Irish nationalism nor wholly supports the English. In each discussion, where the other men would divide the world into a series of strict dichotomies, Bloom’s nuanced, thoughtful remarks demonstrate that he belongs to neither of the pub’s dominant ways of thinking. As in “Lestrygonians,” where he rejects both the crude, fleshly carnivores and the insubstantial, spiritual vegetarians in favor of a third option all his own, Bloom shows himself to be a kind of liminal figure who falls outside of the pre-existing categories of male Irish society. Interestingly, this position “betwixt and between” is shared in the novel by Stephen Dedalus (who at times also represents a “third alternative”), as well as by Bloom’s wife Molly, whose thoughts are rife with contradictions that she comfortably encompasses. The fact that Molly shows the other face of liminality – that of embracing both sides of a given dichotomy, rather than searching for a third, excluded position – may partially explain the deep and complex commitment that holds the Blooms so strongly together despite their marital difficulties.

            The Homeric parallel of the “Cyclops” chapter suggests both the “one-eyed,” narrow, and short-sighted discourse of the men in the pub, as well as the frustrated rage and violence that seethe just beneath the surface. Shortly after entering the pub, Bloom becomes embroiled in a discussion of Irish politics. Rather than listening to Bloom’s arguments, the thoughts of the reductive, mean-spirited first-person narrator take apart Bloom on an ad hominem basis.

And Bloom, of course, with his knockmedown cigar putting on swank with his lardy face. Phenomenon! The fat heap he married is a nice old phenomenon with a back on her like a ballalley. Time they were stopping up in the City Arms pisser Burke told me there was an old one there with a cracked loodheramaun of a nephew and Bloom trying to get the soft side of her doing the mollycoddle playing bezique to come in for a bit of the wampum in her will and not eating meat of a Friday because the old one was always thumping her craw and taking the lout out for a walk. And one time he led him the rounds of Dublin and, by the holy farmer, he never cried crack till he brought him home as drunk as a boiled owl and he said he did it to teach him the evils of alcohol and by herrings, if the three women didn't near roast him, it's a queer story, the old one, Bloom's wife and Mrs O'Dowd that kept the hotel. Jesus, I had to laugh at pisser Burke taking them off chewing the fat. And Bloom with his but don’t you see? and but on the other hand. And sure, more be token, the lout I'm told was in Power's after, the blender's, round in Cope street going home footless in a cab five times in the week after drinking his way through all the samples in the bloody establishment. Phenomenon! (305-6, 299-300).


The narrator criticizes Bloom for his personal appearance and Molly’s, as well as his large vocabulary (“Phenomenon!”) and moderating turns of phrase (“but on the other hand”). He believes Bloom’s relationship with the elderly Mrs. Riordan was motivated by a selfish desire to be written into her will. Bloom’s attempt at a good deed, to teach her young nephew the evils of alcohol by getting him drunk to the point of sickness, and which backfired after the young man took to drink in earnest, is remembered not as an example of Bloom’s kind heart but of his ineptness (Blamires, 126). The hostility of the narrator and the citizen toward Bloom, as well as their mutual disinterest in and perhaps inability to understand the relative subtlety of his arguments, is indicated in the citizen’s threatening toast to the revolutionary dead:

--The memory of the dead, says the citizen taking up his pintglass and glaring at Bloom.

--Ay, ay, says Joe.

--You don't grasp my point, says Bloom. What I mean is . . .

--Sinn Fein! says the citizen. Sinn fein amhain! The friends we love are by our side and the foes we hate before us.


The citizen’s toast divides the world strictly into two categories: friends, who are supporters of Irish nationalism, and foes, those who are against. As he glares at Bloom, it is clearly implied that in his mind, Bloom is of the class of foes, though Bloom is hardly against the idea of Irish national sovereignty (in fact, we know he is very much for it from “Penelope,” where Molly remembers, “and all the Doyles said he was going to stand for a member of Parliament O wasnt I the born fool to believe all his blather about home rule” [771, 755]). In the black-and-white world of the Cyclops-like citizen, there are no shades of grey; he is unable to grasp that there might be alternatives to simply being “for” or “against” the Irish revolution.

            The toast is followed by a description of the execution of a revolutionary, written in the melodramatic, inflationary style that contrasts so strongly with the reductiveness of the citizen and the first-person narrator. Like the earlier passage which listed Captain Nemo, Tristan and Isolde, Ludwig Beethoven, Adam and Eve, Gautama Buddha, Lady Godiva, and the Queen of Sheba as “Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity” (296-7, 290-291), the passage is hyperbolic to the point of absurdity. As Harry Blamires writes, “It cuts deeply into contemporary pretentiousness and hypocrisy, especially at the official and ceremonial level; also into the false sentimentality and sensationalism of current journalism” (126). More importantly for our discussion, the passage also demonstrates the other aspect of the militant nationalism Bloom encounters in the pub. The reductionism of the citizen and first-person narrator, which is leveled at outsiders and “foes” such as Bloom, is paired with a blind and sentimental love for Ireland as epitomized in the overblown journalistic description. Both the reductionistic style and the expansive style, though very different in tone, are actually both expressions of the same one-eyed, narrow point of view.

            The tension in the pub comes to a head as in the discussion, Bloom is goaded into implicitly defending the English, and then to identifying the Irish with the Jews as an oppressed race, in the process identifying himself explicitly as a Jew to a crowd of obvious anti-Semites. David Hayman suggests that Bloom is driven to this point by a combination of his genuine concern for justice and his preoccupation with Molly’s adultery, and adds emphasis to the following paragraph to prove his point:

Robbed, says he. Plundered. Insulted. Persecuted. Taking what belongs to us by right. At this very moment, says he, putting up his fist, sold by auction off in Morocco like slaves or cattle. (332.36) [Hayman’s italics]


We know what is being taken by whom ‘at this very moment’. We also know that Morocco and things Moorish are invariably associated with Molly. . . . Under the circumstances, how ambiguous and yet how admirable is his reply to Alf, “Love . . . I mean the opposite of hatred’ (333.14). He has in fact turned the other cheek. (251)


Pushed to agree that force in response to force is the only alternative to submission and defeat, Bloom responds with a third alternative, which is love. His response is ambiguous, as it clearly springs not just from his humanitarian political beliefs, which he also elaborates on in “Ithaca,” but also from his thoughts about Molly. Just as he believes that “it’s no use . . . Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s no life for men and women, insult and hatred,” with regards to both the Jews and the Irish (333, 326), he sees that neither force nor hatred is the appropriate response to Blazes Boylan and Molly’s tryst – that to respond that way would be “the very opposite of what is really life.” To preserve his relationship with Molly, who is the primary object of his devotion and the center of his life, only love will suffice.

            Hayden is right to identify Bloom with Christ by saying that he turns the other cheek. Joyce himself makes the identification obvious at several points in the episode. On the page where Bloom first appears, the citizen points out Bloom through the window, to which Alf responds, “Good Christ! . . . I could have sworn it was him” (302, 296), setting up a certain ambiguity as to whether “him” refers to Christ or to Bloom. Later, Joyce has Bloom quote the gospels with “Some people . . . can see the mote in others' eyes but they can't see the beam in their own” (326, 319). Bloom’s speech throughout is infused with charity and compassion for others – in fact, he has come into the pub on a mission of charity to help the recently bereaved Dignams. After his pronouncement about love, he makes a quick exit, perhaps sensing he has gone too far, but the citizen’s sarcastic jibe sums up Bloom’s message fairly well: “A new apostle to the gentiles . . . Universal love” (333, 326). At the close of the chapter, when the citizen’s misdirected rage finally overflows at Bloom, Bloom consciously identifies himself with Christ, saying,

-- . . . Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.

Gob, the citizen made a plunge back into the shop.

--By Jesus, says he, I'll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I'll crucify him so I will. (342, 335)


In his anger, the citizen himself identifies Bloom with Christ again by threatening to “crucify” him. In fact, this comparison is very apt. When we consider Jesus within his historical context, we see that like Bloom, he too offered a third alternative that had not previously been part of the political discourse. Against the revolutionary groups of Israelites who expected the messiah to lead them in an uprising against the oppression of Rome and create a sovereign Hebrew nation, Jesus advocated resistance to oppression through a revolution of the heart and soul. The kingdom of God would be created not on earth, but within (Luke 17:21). By rejecting force as an option for combating injustice in either the world or in his own life, Bloom takes on a Christ-like aspect not only in his ethical beliefs, but in the persecution he faces for them.

            Bloom’s problematic liminality is a great part of what makes him so fascinating a character. Though he identifies here as a Jew, we know that he has converted to Christianity in the past, and is able to quote the words of Jesus as a response to the violence and prejudice advocated by the citizen. Though he also identifies as an Irishman, he is able to see the merits of English civilization and defends them. By refusing to see the world in terms of strict, black-and-white dichotomies, Bloom excludes himself from the well-defined categories the other men are accustomed to. Bloom is devoid of the excesses of both the expansiveness and reductiveness of the dominant voices in this episode, and his moderate and charitable tone sets him apart as belonging to neither discourse, just as he belongs neither to the class of carnivores nor that of vegetarians. As a liminal figure, Bloom is able to imagine other possibilities for his marriage than violent revenge or emasculating submission, choices implied by the citizen’s analysis of colonized Ireland’s political situation. (Indeed, Fr. Robert Boyle’s argument that Bloom deliberately arranged Molly’s opportunity for adultery in order to win her forgiveness and/or to put himself in a better position to ask for changes in their sexual relationship suggests that Bloom’s ability to find unusual third alternatives might be considerable indeed [419-420]).

            In “Penelope,” Molly’s shows herself to be an appropriate partner for Bloom as a representative of liminality’s other face – rather than excluding herself from the dichotomies she sees in her life, she aggressively makes them and then includes herself on both sides. James Van Dyck Card argues that, with the help of prepublication materials, we can see Joyce building explicit contradictions into Molly’s thoughts (39). He cites specific examples:

In general, expressions of contempt or disgust for her husband are followed by contrary feelings: “he was quite right so he was hes so pigheaded” (748), “still he knows a lot of mixed up things” (742). . . . Others get the same treatment. Boylan’s virility is praised, “still he hasnt such an amount of spunk in him” (742). . . . Women are flowers all a woman’s body” (782) but not at all times: “damn this stinking thing anyway” (771) and “this bloody pest of a thing pfooh” (781). . . .

The lines in praise of women (778) are undercut by “no wonder they treat us the way they do” (779), an addition to the fourth galley that is strengthened by “we are a dreadful lot of bitches” on the final proof. Bloom’s decision for Milly’s trip to Mullingar, “such an idea for him to send the girl down there” in the Rosenback MS (766), is turned around by “its as well he sent her where she is” on the final proof (766). “Im sick of Cohens old bed” (780) and the second galley addition “O I like my bed” (772) are plainly antithetical. (39-40)


Whereas Bloom’s liminality is of a neither/nor variety, Molly’s is both/and. Blamires compares Molly’s thoughts to a “flowing river” while also noting that she was born on the Rock of Gibraltar (246) – Molly is both flowing river and steady rock, her consciousness one that is dynamic and constantly in motion, yet simultaneously grounded and centered by its ability to encompass the opposites she vacillates between. As Joyce wrote of the episode, “it begins and ends with the female word Yes. . . . . It turns like the huge earthball slowly surely and evenly round and round spinning. Its four cardinal points being the female breasts, arse, womb and . . . expressed by the words because, bottom . . . woman, yes” (quoted in Blamires, 246). Molly represents the successful union of opposites, the product of a dynamism that resolves into stability.

            As with Bloom, Molly’s liminality may well hold the key to the preservation of her marriage. Though she expresses contempt for Bloom at times in the chapter, this contempt is balanced by the jubilant “yes I said yes I will Yes” that closes the episode, articulated in response to the memory of Bloom’s proposal of marriage to her sixteen years ago (783, 768). Joyce’s image of Molly as a surely and evenly turning planet suggests that even as she turns away from Bloom, it is inevitable that she will turn toward him again. Though their marriage has seen difficult times, the pattern of Molly’s stability-in-motion suggests that her association with Homer’s faithful Penelope is appropriate. In this context, her adultery may well be seen as part of a cyclic pattern that will yet bring her attentions back to Bloom.

            Bloom and Molly are exceptional figures in the middle-class world of early twentieth-century Dublin in a way that is similar to but less obvious than that of Stephen Dedalus. All three figures refuse compartmentalization into well-defined categories; all three have a least “a touch of the artist” about them, though Bloom’s active imagination and Molly’s investment in her singing are both very different from Stephen’s sophisticated literary aspirations. It is perhaps their subtle liminality, and their resulting status as outsiders to varying degrees, that allows Joyce to associate each with the powerful mythic figures of Homer and make the parallels work. Though Bloom and Molly are not the dramatic, larger-than-life figures we find in The Odyssey, they each possess a fascinating and profound inner beauty powerful enough to lure the reader all the way through Joyce’s nearly eight hundred pages of difficult prose. In the figures of Molly and Bloom, Joyce gives us proof of exactly how exotic and unusual the consciousness of two “ordinary” people might be.

Works Cited

Blamires, Harry. The Bloomsday Book. London: Methuen & Co., 1966. Blamires is particularly useful for his plot summaries and explanations of Homeric parallels. He sees the extreme styles of “Cyclops” as “gigantic inflation[s] of the one-eyed approach,” and follows others critics of the mid-twentieth century in portraying Molly as a kind of earth goddess and her final affirmation as being without irony.


Boyle, Fr. Robert, S.J. “Penelope.” James Joyce’s Ulysses. Ed. Clive Hart and David Hayman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. A nuanced view of Molly as a complex, flawed, and very human woman. Believes that Molly was created as deliberately ambiguous and that any judgment of Molly will be based largely on the critic’s personal point of view.


Card, James Van Dyck. An Anatomy of Penelope. London: Associated University Presses, 1984. Card develops his argument based on the text at various stages in development. He sees Molly as being highly contradictory and criticizes interpretations that selectively focus on her more negative statements in order to paint her as immoral, a bad mother, or a whore.


Hayman, David. “Cyclops.” James Joyce’s Ulysses. Ed. Clive Hart and David Hayman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Hayman portrays Bloom as a weak, clownish figure set against much stronger forces of Cyclopean rage. The courage he finds in the encounter heartens him and is a turning point in his wanderings, suggesting he may yet recover his manhood.


Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage International, 1990.



Works Consulted


Barger, Jorn. IQ Infinity: the unknown James Joyce. <http://www.robotwisdom.com/jaj/index.html> 4 April 2003.


Gifford, Don. Ulysses Annotated. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.


Pearce, Richard, Ed. Molly Blooms: A Polylogue on “Penelope” and Cultural Studies. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.




Copyright (c) 2003 by Christine Hoff Kraemer