Analysis: the story of Ulysses unfolds through the food Leopold Bloom eats as he travels around Dublin by day and night

By Flicka Small, UCC and Dr Máirtín Mac Con IomaireTU Dublin

James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses tells the story of a day in the life of a city. The city is Dublin in 1904 and the main protagonists are Leopold Bloom, an advertising canvasser with the Freeman’s Journal; his wife Molly, a singer who is having an affair with concert promoter Blazes Boylan; and Stephen Dedalus, a young teacher and writer. Each chapter of the novel is represented by a bodily organ, which gives life to the city, and an allotted hour of the day.

Meals chart the progress of time and the story of Leopold Bloom unfolds through the food he eats during the day. Breakfasts bookend Bloom’s waking and his falling asleep. At 8 o’clock on the morning on Thursday June 16th, Bloom talks to his cat as he lays up Molly’s breakfast tray and contemplates what he will have for his own breakfast. "Ham and eggs", he thinks, but there is a drought and the hens are not laying, a mutton kidney then? He likes eating the "inner organs of beasts and fowls", but Thursdays are not a good day as there is no fresh meat in the shops due to the religious observance of abstinence from meat on a Friday, the next day. He sets out along Dorset Street to Dlugacz’s, the Polish butcher, and buys a pork kidney.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drama On One, Calypso, Episode 4 of Ulysses, in which Bloom has breakfast 

From burnt kidneys, in the episode known as Calypso, to cannibalism in Lotus-Eaters, corpses and cheese in "Hades" are followed by the food-bloated chapter of Lestrygonians. The corporality of the clergy, Bloom’s aversion to men and meat, his recourse to a cheese sandwich, and his erotic memories of shared seed-cake spittle on Howth Hill, are all in this latter episode. The interlude of "Wandering Rocks" draws together some extra-circumstantial events that are necessary to appreciate preceding and proceeding events, such as Boylan's seduction food-hamper.

At last in Sirens, Bloom has a good square meal. All day long, he has had a craving for liver and bacon, and after his unsuccessful attempt in the Burton Hotel. he assuages his hunger with a gorgonzola sandwich in Davy Byrne’s in Duke Street. Now, in the Ormond Hotel, eating liver slices and mashed potatoes in gravy in the company of Richie Goulding, Collis, and Ward, he nevertheless feels lonely in their company, subsiding into melancholia at the thought of his lost infant son, his father taken by suicide, his faltering marriage and an unconsummated love-affair, all represented and embodied in the last sardine, left languishing under the sandwich dome.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drama On One, Sirens, Episode 11 of Ulysses, in which Bloom finally gets some decent grub

Cyclops begins with a description of the Dublin Corporation fruit, vegetable and fish market in Mary's Lane (later to be used as a template for the "Nova Hibernia" of the future – a shining palace with a crystal roof, built in the shape of a huge pork kidney) and lists the gargantuan bounty of Ireland’s fields and livestock. The episode proceeds to the orality of the barflies in Barney Kiernan’s public house, where the main consumption is of words and bile, bringing Bloom into conflict with the bigoted Citizen, because of his espousal of Jewishness, and cultural identification with Christ, Mendelssohn and Marx. Bloom is eventually evicted from the pub with an assault from an empty biscuit tin thrown by the Citizen.

In Nausicaa, he must regroup and regain some semblance of self-respect only to be excited by a titillating glimpse of knickers. He masturbates into a handkerchief accompanied by the noise of shrieking fireworks, whilst Gerty MacDowell, the subject of his arousal, is fantasising about the domestic comforts she would provide for Bloom if he was her husband: griddle cakes done to a golden brown hue and Queen Ann’s pudding of delightful creaminess. The home Bloom would like, his home of "ultimate ambition", is an eponymously named Cottage, at Saint Leopold’s, Flowerville, which has parallels with Gerty’s vision of "hominess".

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drama On One, Circe, Episode 15 of Ulysses, in which Bloom heads for home

In Circe, all the foods of the day come back to haunt and assault him, beginning with a barrage of cabbage stalks. He arrives at the brothel breathless, with a stitch in his side, his pockets crammed with the edible hands and feet of animals and a bar of chocolate. Exhausted and spent, he rescues Stephen and they repair to a temperance coffee hut provided for the sustenance of late-night cabmen, where they buy stale buns and drink inedible coffee, later rescinded by cocoa and a secular communion of minds in Bloom's actual home in Eccles Street. Evidence that Blazes Boylan has been consorting with Molly in the afternoon are evident in the remains of the lovers’ feast on the shelves of the dresser alongside the dishes of sour milk and fresh steak.

As Bloom climbs into bed he compares Molly’s buttocks to melons, and her breasts to pears. Molly, teetering on the edge of sleep from post-coital drowsiness is reminded of past events in her life that link sex to food, and food to Bloom. She reimagines many of her sexual encounters through the language of food, and circuitously returns to Bloom, with her reminiscence of the shared seed-cake, and her present feigned outrage at Bloom’s request for breakfast in bed on the morrow.

Flicka Small is a PhD researcher in the School of English in UCC whose thesis is on the Semiotics of Food in James Joyce's Ulysses. She is also a lecturer on food and literature. Dr Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire is Chair of the MA Gastronomy and Food Studies in TU Dublin


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ