While James Joyce’s Ulysses may be the archetypal work of Irish literature, its main character, Leopold Bloom, is identifiably a Jew. Howard Jacobson examines why this great modernist author would choose a Jew as the hero of a novel loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey and set in Dublin:
The great joke at the heart of the novel is that its Ulysses is no epic hero capable of withstanding the greatest privations and temptations, but Leopold Bloom, a peaceable, middle-age, masochistic, forgetfully Jewish advertising salesman, with a voraciously unfaithful wife and an inordinate appetite for the very gizzards of beasts and fowl which he would know his religion prohibited if only he knew anything about his religion.
Bloom wears his Jewishness, as he wears most things, including his masculinity (his wife jokes that bloomers were named after him), lazily and half-heartedly, his mind forever wandering from one encounter, one moment of recall, one memory of insult, to another. A visit to the pork butcher’s leads to Bloom’s eye alighting on a page from a newspaper about a model farm in Palestine on the lakeshore of Tiberias, which he thinks about as he follows a girl with “strong hams” out on to the street, which in turn reminds him of one of his wife’s affairs, which leads him back to thinking about Sodom and Gomorrah, and then it’s back to his wife’s “ample bedwarmed flesh.”
Homeric he is not; but a hero for our time he is. Ulysses is first and foremost a comedy of exile. Joyce wrote it while living in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris. . . . Behind the epic figure of Odysseus, in this novel, looms the shadow of the mythical Wandering Jew who, for having jeered at Jesus on the way to the cross, is doomed to roam the earth until the end of human time. . . . Those who are not let in, must find somewhere else to go.
This has been in large part the Jewish story for 2,000 years. . . . And for many novelists in the ensuing years, the Jew would become the perfect protagonist, the very model of humanity in extremis—homeless, tragic, patient, funny. But James Joyce got there first.