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Playing with “Bloom”: The Fluidity of Names and Identity in Ulysses

Related topics:

Irish History Transformed
Language and Linguistics
Native and Foreign
Race and Ethnicity
Union and Division

In literature, names are often assumed to be stable markers of character and identity; however, in Ulysses, James Joyce's treatment of names calls into question the very nature of identity. According to Stephen Dedalus, names are "impostures" (U 16.362-3). The various versions of Leopold Bloom's name throughout Ulysses constitute the most consistent thread of Joyce's "nominal play" (Culleton 4). Examples include the nickname, Poldy, and the pseudonym, Henry Flower, which appear many times throughout the novel, as well as unexpected transformations such as "Bloohimwhom" (U 11.309), "Booloohoom" (U 15.3045), and "Don Poldo de la Flora" (U 18.1428). According to Claire Culleton, nominal play is rooted in Irish satirical tradition, and transforming a name through truncation, misspelling, misprinting etc. is an act of "nominal sedition" (95-96). Thus, nominal play can have important personal and political implications. David Seed argues that the "distortion and obliteration" of Bloom's name represent a threat to his identity, and makes the larger point that the "fluidity of names" corresponds to a fragmentation of the self (49). Similarly, Ariela Freedman notes that in Ulysses, "the perpetual play with Bloom's name emphasizes the contingency of identity," contributing to a sense of the "anti-essential nature of character and self" (81, 84). In a broader sense, the fluidity of identity created by Joyce's treatment of Bloom's name also reflects the "anti-essential nature" of sexual, political, and religious identity. Nameplay points to Bloom as the novel's embodiment of the manifold and shifting nature of personal and political identity, helping to reveal Joyce's resistance against narrow, static conceptions of selfhood and nationhood.

An exploration of the name "Bloom" suggests that Leopold Bloom, a Dublin Jew of Hungarian descent, is neither essentially Irish nor essentially foreign. Seed points out that the variety of names in Ulysses, together with the seeming "foreignness" of the two protagonists, actually reflects the cosmopolitan nature of Dublin—raising the question, "What is nationality?" (48). A closer look at the Irish mythical echoes of Bloom's name, as well as the interplay of his name and his pseudonym, Henry Flower, reveals the near impossibility of aligning him entirely with one national identity. In an "effort to cast off Jewish origins," Bloom's surname was changed from Virag, but "Bloom" is also not a traditionally Irish-sounding name (48). Moreover, since Virag is Hungarian for "flower," in choosing Henry Flower as his pseudonym for his correspondence with Martha Clifford, Bloom's name comes full circle, ending where it began with the foreign Virag (49). Given this nominal return to foreignness, it might seem that Bloom's name signals his fundamental non-Irish status, and his alienation throughout the novel works to support this view. However, Maria Tymoczko points out that "Bloom" is the "English eponym of Slieve Bloom," the range of mountains in the central plain of Ireland, called Sliabh Bladhma in Irish, which appears in Irish mythic literature (121). Slieve Bloom appears twice in Ulysses (U 4.138; 12.1833). Thus, Bloom's surname simultaneously evokes his foreignness while being grounded in the geography and mythology of Ireland.

The many transformations of Bloom's name work to destabilize identity and desire, resisting a stable construction of character in such a way that mirrors the broader-scale critique of traditional modes of Irish nationalism and identity at work in the novel. According to Brook Thomas, "we tend to grant the connection between a name and its referent a privileged status. A name and an identity become one" (107). However, as Thomas observes, in Ulysses, the connection between a character's name and the "essential nature" of that character's identity is elusive (108). The distortion and transformation of Bloom's name throughout the novel points to the mystery that is his "essential nature" in terms of sexuality, nationality, and religion. Bloom's own anagrammatic play with his name suggests the fallacy of a name as a key to a static identity, lending an ironic edge to the brief parenthetical in "Eumaeus": "Bloom (properly so dubbed)" (U 16.1295). Further, Culleton points out that Bloom's anagrams in "Ithaca" are imperfect. Two of them are missing a letter—"Bollopedoom" an "l" and "Old Ollebo, M.P." an "o" (U 17.408-9; Culleton 40). Thus, these imperfect anagrams represent puzzles that can never be solved; no rearrangement of the letters will ever again yield "Leopold Bloom," just as a name in Ulysses cannot reliably encode a set of attributes that constitute a stable, reconstructable identity.

The nameplay in "Sirens" (U 11) points to the fluidity of Bloom's identity in terms of not only his public persona, but also the more private sphere of his relationships and desires. Near the end of the episode comes a sentence in which Bloom undergoes a quick succession of transformations: "Up the quay went Lionelleopold, naughty Henry with letter for Mady, with sweets of sin with frillies for Raoul with met him pike hoses went Poldy on" (U 11.1187-89). While Henry Flower is the name that Bloom uses in his sexual correspondence with Martha Clifford, Poldy is the nickname used almost exclusively by Molly, and "Lionelleopold" incorporates the name of the character in Martha who sings "M'appari," the song that Simon Dedalus sings in the Ormond Bar (Gifford 309). This cyclical union of Martha and Molly and the sequence of Bloom's nominal transformations typify Joyce's multi-layered nameplay, also revealing the pressure that Bloom's marriage and desire exert on his identity. Furthermore, the appearance of "Poldy" here is significant, as it is Molly's diminutive form of Leopold. Culleton points out that in Joyce's work, diminutives are very common with female names (Milly, Molly, Dilly etc), but not with male names (77-78). Thus, the nickname Poldy works to feminize Bloom, as do phrases throughout Ulysses that incorporate the common-noun form of his name, such as "full bloom of womanhood" (U 16.1427-30) and "womanly bloom" (U 14.676). The latter example echoes the moment in "Circe" where Bloom is declared "the new womanly man," (U 15.1798-99) just before his full transformation at the hands of Bello, who declares him "unmanned" (U 15.2965). Much of Bloom's anxiety clearly relates to the instability of his sexual identity, which is in flux throughout the novel, though most explicitly in "Circe," and constitutes its own vast area of inquiry. Bloom's flexible sexual identity mirrors the broad fluidity and uncertainty of his religious and national identity.

The play with Bloom's name in "Sirens" (U 11) reveals the expansiveness of his identity on a personal level and is also implicated in a subtle critique of traditional modes of Irish history and nationalism. According to Freedman, the novel's underlying "consciousness of change and inconstancy," which fuels the nameplay, crucially informs Bloom's own "skepticism about nationhood" (83). Near the beginning of "Sirens," the moniker "Bloowho" (U 11.86) anticipates the conversation about Bloom in the following episode in which Ned (presumably Ned Lambert) asks, "Is he a jew or a gentile or a holy Roman or a swaddler or what the hell is he...Or who is he?" (U 12.1631-32). This question of Bloom's identity haunts the novel. As Phillip F. Herring points out, Bloom "turns out to be a Protestant-Catholic-Jew, and yet none of these" (107). The impossibility of pinning down Bloom's "true" religious identity suggests the limited value of such labels in the world of the novel. Nonetheless, his Jewishness is certainly consequential, since it alienates him from the other Dubliners and makes him the object of their ridicule. His alignment with Christ throughout the novel is therefore somewhat ironic, and this alignment comes about partly through nameplay. Carl Eichelberger notes that the particular truncation, "Bloo," which appears a number of times in "Sirens," appeared for the first time in "Lestrygonians" (U 8), when Bloom's misreading of the throwaway pamphlet "associates him with Christ's martyrdom" (60). Looking at the pamphlet, he reads, "Bloo...Me? No. / Blood of the Lamb" (U 8.8-9). Thus, Bloom himself is responsible for generating this particular truncation and Christ association, which stands out in "Sirens" as Bloom's Jewishness comes to the foreground. Although the episode will culminate with the triumphant combined name "Siopold!" (U 11.752), it begins with a more sinister kind of confusion. The barmaids' disgust at the appearance of the "old fogey in Boyd's" (U 124-5), apparently also named Bloom, causes them to exclaim about his "greasy eyes" (U 11.169) and the horror of being "Married to the greasy nose!" (U 11.173). These exclamations evoke the offensive epithet "greasy Jew" but also, as Gifford points out, activate a pun through the Irish pronunciation of "grease" as "grace." This double association with the "fogey" carries over to Leopold Bloom, coincidentally passing by the bar, and for the rest of the novel, "greaseabloom" (U 11.180) and other appellations from this passage become attached to him as well.

The pervasive nameplay in "Sirens," which distorts, transforms, and combines the names of all the characters at the bar (not just Bloom's) creates an atmosphere of flux, ambiguity, and blurred boundaries that opposes the "tendency of historical points of view to converge and dissolve in the absolute logic of a master discourse" (Castle 307). In this episode, the traditional master discourse of Irish history and nationalism is particularly on display when Ben Dollard sings "The Croppy Boy," a nationalist ballad about a young Irish rebel in the 1798 Rebellion who is murdered by a British officer disguised as a priest (Gifford 293). The other audience members at the Ormond bar, which includes Stephen's father Simon Dedalus, respond emotionally to the ballad with patriotic nostalgia and pity. Bloom, however, demonstrating his "heterodox and multiplicitous historical worldview," responds critically to the scene (Castle 315). According to Bloom, their pity and sentiment—"The thrill they itch for"—is misplaced (U 11.1083). He reflects, "Thrill now. Pity they feel. To wipe away a tear for martyrs that want to, dying to, die. For all things dying, for all things born. Poor Mrs. Purefoy. Hope she's over" (U 11.1101-03). Bloom transfers the audience's pity for the dead Croppy Boy, a martyred champion of "old Ireland" (U 6.930), onto the living Mrs. Purefoy, whose long and difficult labor represents a more immediate and individualized suffering in the present day. Here, "greaseabloom," the undesirable alien at the Ormond Bar, resists the "nostalgic recuperation" and "monumental distillation" of a bloody history (Attell 127). As a Jew in Dublin, "greaseabloom" would be routinely excluded by a traditional, reductive narrative of Irish history based on a narrow conception of Irish identity.

Bloom's subtle resistance against the traditional modes of nationalism in this episode culminates at the very end, where "greaseabloom" reappears, this time along with "Seabloom" (U 11.1284), viewing the last words of the Irish nationalist Robert Emmet: "When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth then and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done" (Gifford 310). These words, however, are punctuated by Bloom's farts: "I have. / Pprrpffrrppffff / Done" (U 11. 1292-94). This farcical ending serves, on one level, as a not-so-subtle critique of the conventional constructions of Irish nationalist identity present in the episode, but the language also suggests a more sophisticated critique that reflects what Tymoczko sees as Joyce's vision of Ireland as transcending the "crabbed, insular, prejudiced, political framework to reach out to the asserting the Greek and Jewish and the sensual Mediterranean elements of the Irish heritage" (51). The "sea" in "Seabloom" may be viewed as that which separates but also spans the distance between nations, or more specifically, between Ireland and the rest of the world. Immediately preceding "greaseabloom," which has become so suggestive of Jewish persecution and Bloom's alienation, "Seabloom" may be read as another alternative label for Bloom, contained, too, within "greaseabloom," casting his foreignness and Jewishness in a more cosmopolitan sense, rather than a strictly negative sense. Thus, in this context, Ireland "taking her place among the nations of the earth" entails not just a narrow nationalistic view of independence, but also Ireland reaching "beyond Ireland and beyond England to the wisdom and experience and morality of all Europe and the wider world" (Tymoczko 51). When the real political discussion unfolds in the following episode, "Cyclops," Bloom reflects this broader worldview when he claims: "Persecution...all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations" (U 12.1417-18). Bloom's understanding of persecution is a global one, rather than a strictly Irish one. He continues, "And I belong to a race too, says Bloom, that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant" (U 12.1467-68). That is, persecution is not unique to the Irish, and it is not static or grounded in one historical moment. As an Irish Jew, Bloom demonstrates how the Irish experience of persecution aligns Ireland with other nations and creates a correspondence between Jewish and Irish identity.

Bloom's subtle resistance against narrow, prejudicial modes of Irish identity is reflected in his own self-directed "nominal sedition" and his inability, or unwillingness, to precisely define himself. Sara Crangle uses the expression "get a handle" to characterize names in Ulysses, arguing that names, like handles, are "the means by which...something...or someone...can be controlled, approached, or known" (51). Thus, by withholding, truncating, or misspelling his own name, Bloom contributes to the difficulty of "getting a handle" on his identity. Bloom's incomplete anagrams, mentioned earlier, are one example of this self-directed, though unwitting, "nominal sedition." An earlier instance occurs at Paddy Dignam's funeral in "Hades" (U 6) when Bloom contributes to the misprinting of his name in the paper as "L. Boom" (U 16.1260), by responding to the question "What is your christian name" with just "L" (U 6.880-82). Here, when asked to align himself with Christianity, Bloom fails to provide a complete identifier. Similarly, Bloom refuses to identify himself with any certainty as a Jew in "Eumaeus," as he recalls his encounter with the citizen: "I without deviating from plain facts in the least told him his God, I mean Christ, was a jew too and all his family like me though in reality I'm not" (U 16.1083-85). By appending this denial of his Jewishness to the end of his statement, Bloom continues to elude a stable religious identity. In keeping with the notion of "handles," the message that Bloom writes with a stick in the sand in "Nausicaa" (U 13) also represents a failure or refusal to pin himself with any stable markers of identity. Bloom's message begins, "I...AM A," before he throws the stick away (U 13.1258; 1264). As Crangle points out, this "self-defining left incomplete" (65). The impossibility of determining what Bloom would have written (Jew? Cuckold? Irishman?), had the message been completed, points to the impossibility of distilling his identity into one reductive signifier or statement by which he might be "controlled" or "known."

Throughout Ulysses, Joyce's treatment of names, and Bloom's in particular, reflects the novel's larger framework of fluid identity and contributes to the struggle against narrow, static conceptions of Irishness that threaten to alienate individuals like Bloom. The distortion and transformation of Bloom's name reflects Joyce's attempt in Ulysses to capture the expansiveness and multiplicity of individual identity, in order to preserve the "life" of his characters; that is, "a life which exceeds their representations" (128). Joyce's representation of fluid, multi-faceted identity is a major part of what appears to be a project to redefine Irishness in broader, more cosmopolitan and inclusive terms. Stephen's pun on "subject" in "Eumaeus"—"We can't change the country. Let us change the subject" (U 16.1171)—points to the goal of this project: to transform and broaden the notion of the Irish "subject" to include a greater diversity of backgrounds and beliefs.

Citations and Related Sources

Attell, Kevin. "Of Questionable Character: The Construction of the Subject in Ulysses." Joyce Studies Annual 13, no. 1 (2002): 103–28.
Castle, Gregory. "Ousted Possibilities: Critical Histories in James Joyce’s Ulysses." Twentieth Century Literature 39, no. 3 (October 1, 1993): 306–28.
Crangle, Sara K. "Stephen’s Handles." James Joyce Quarterly 47, no. 1 (2009): 51–69
Culleton, Claire A. Names And Naming In Joyce. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994
Eichelberger, Carl. "‘Words? Music? No: It’s What's Behind.’ Verbal and Physical Transformations in Sirens." In International Perspectives on James Joyce, edited by Giaser, Gottlied, 59–67. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1986.
Freedman, Ariela. "The Metamorphoses of Ulysses." Joyce Studies Annual, 2010, 67–88
Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Second revised edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Herring, Phillip F. Joyce’s Uncertainty Principle. Princeton University Press, 1987.
Seed, David. "Naming in Pynchon and Joyce." In James Joyce: The Centennial Symposium, edited by Beja, Morris, Herring, Phillip, Harmon, Maurice, and Norris, David, 47–56. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Thomas, Brook. James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Book of Many Happy Returns. Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Tymoczko, Maria. The Irish Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

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