Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

Inside Leopold Bloom

Our journey begins with a cat. Leopold Bloom's and Llewyn Davis’s wanderings are driven by their respective felines: Bloom’s introduction in "Calypso" (U 4) is marked by his interaction with his cat, and Davis’s misadventures begin when the cat of his hosts (the Gorfeins) escapes their apartment. The cat then is the impetus by which both Bloom and Davis are kicked out of their homes and forced to drift through their adventures. Additionally, the escaping cat resonates with each protagonist’s desires. Thinking his cat wishes to go outside, Bloom opens the door, only to find that the cat does not go outside, as expected: "Ah, wanted to go upstairs, curl up in a ball on the bed" (U 4.468-469). In this way, the cat mimic’s Bloom’s own desire to join his wife in bed, a desire that is not fulfilled until the end of the workday. Similarly, the cat of Inside Llewyn Davis also acts out the hero’s desire: by running away from home, it parallels his own itch to leave the confines of his go-nowhere existence, bogged down by an incompetent agent, his "careerist" and "square" contemporaries, and a family that "Just exist[s]" (ILD).

Now that the cats are out of the bag, their purposes in both works become clearer. Several sources quote the Coens as joking about the cat’s purpose in the film: "the directors joked the cat had been included to make up for a lack of plot" (an observation fittingly noted by journalist Hannah Furness). On a basic level, the film shares with Joyce’s novel this sense of mundanity and plotlessness. However, the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis also provides an opportunity for a more intricate Ulyssean path of analysis. To begin, the cat’s presence has been viewed as a sly jab, specifically directed at the "Save the Cat!" template of screenwriter Blake Snyder: "Blake Snyder . . . is best known for Save the Cat!, a screenwriting guide that, depending on your point of view, either lays bare the mechanics of movie storytelling, or reduces them to an idiot-proof template . . . It’s a scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something—like saving a cat—that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him" (Rose).

As screenwriters, it would follow that the Coens would have at least some familiarity with Snyder’s famous formula. If this is true, then the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis is not just a plot-padding device, but also a subversive joke about the art of screenwriting: While the cat technically helps drive the story, Llewyn loses it multiple times, can’t remember its name or gender, and possibly kills it towards the end of the film. If "saving the cat" helps define the hero of a film, then Llewyn’s troubled relationship with and failures surrounding the cat undermine the formula and, perhaps, reflect the writers’ own struggle to hold onto the film’s narrative.

Interestingly, Snyder’s film formula for a sympathetic hero fits Joyce’s introduction of Leopold Bloom. In "Calypso" (U 4), we are introduced to Bloom through his interaction with his cat: he feeds it, talks to it, and muses about it in ways that are indicative of his characteristics. In this way, even before we see Bloom encounter any humans, "we have already learned through the ways in which he gazes at his cat that he is compassionate, empathetic, full of folk nonsense and scientific proclivities, capable of misreading behavior, and inclined toward at least mild masochism" (Rando 534). Just as Davis’s relationship to the cat can represent the Coens’ subversion of screenwriting norms, so too can Bloom’s interaction with his cat represent Joyce’s experimentation with literary norms. For example, borrowing from Staten’s "The Decomposing Form of Joyce’s Ulysses," the cat’s "Mrkrgnao" serves as an example of how Joyce’s onomatopoeias deconstruct traditional forms of representation (Staten 386). In this way, Bloom’s interaction with the cat guides Bloom (and readers) into the Joycean world of abstract realism, challenging and obliterating expectations associated with the novel form. If Inside Llewyn Davis "is all the better for not playing by the rules" and instead "points them out, and tells us we shouldn't fall for them" (Rose), the same can be said of Ulysses. Through their respective felines, the Coens and Joyce are not only able to characterize their protagonists but also challenge the traditions of their medium.

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