Nostos and the Wandering Jew: The Significance of Judaic Themes in Ulysses

Prominent in James Joyce’s Ulysses are Judaic themes. These themes are not peripheral—as are, say, themes of music, Shakespeare, distorted language, all of which come and go within the stream-of-consciousness narrative—but feature centrally at the heart of the novel. Bloom, of course, is a Jew, and, as the novel’s main character, injects within Ulysses a strong Judaic sensibility. Indeed, the sheer bulk of Judaic imagery within the novel is staggering: we have allusions to kosher and to Passover, to Torah and to Hebrew, to Moses and to King David, to the three forefathers and to Elijah, to the Promised Land and to Zion, and, even, to the coming of Joseph ben David, the Messiah. This strong Jewish presence is not accidental, nor is it merely one of the many minor themes with which Joyce shapes certain chapters. Rather, this presence is deliberate, and one with a wide-ranging impact on the novel. We see its effect on Bloom’s subconscious—our narrative guide for a great deal of the novel—which views the world through the lens of a deeply Jewish spectrum: “Aleph Beth Ghimel Daleth Hagadah Tephilim Kosher Yom Kippur Hanukah Roschaschana Beni Brith Bar Mitzvah Mazzoth Askenazim Meshuggah Talith”(15.1629). We see its effect, too, not just on Bloom’s internal world, but on the world in which he lives: the place of the Irish-Jew—and, really, of the Jew, in general—engulfs much of the novel, climaxing in Cyclops, in which Bloom, in fighting anti-Semitism, struggles, as he does throughout the whole of Ulysses, to find his own place.

James Joyce, 1926
James Joyce, 1926

The function of these Judaic themes is interesting to consider. That Joyce did not make the main character of his novel Irish is puzzling; more puzzling, though, is that this character—who, in theory, is Joyce’s modernized Odysseus—is Jewish. That Joyce chose specifically to make Bloom Jewish, to overload Ulysses with uniquely Jewish images—more so than with Christian images, or, for that matter, with Odyssean images—cannot be insignificant.

Perhaps the function of these Judaic themes is satiric. If Joyce is highlighting the difference between the Homeric and the modern, if he is building the anti-Odysseus, the anti-hero, then he is belittling Bloom by making him Jewish. Should this be true, Ulysses takes on a sharp-edged anti-Semitism, and the preponderance of Judaic imagery becomes disparaging: if Joyce is rendering Bloom a comic hero, then he is rendering Judaism shameful and lowly, incompatible with the beauty of the Homeric. Such a reading explains the strong presence of anti-Semitism with which Bloom is faced: Judaism, for Joyce, is to be mocked, is to be persecuted, is to be stripped of all sacredness and meaning.

Yet, to view Ulysses in this way—that is, to read Joyce as anti-Semitic, and the inclusion of Judaism in the novel as but a comic device—would be a severe misreading. That Joyce is mocking Judaism is rather unlikely: Joyce was known to be a friend of the Jews—Frank O’Connor, Irish writer and literary historian, called him “the greatest Jew of all”—and it seems rather far-fetched that Bloom, though certainly flawed, is intended to be dismissed on the basis of his Judaism, and not taken seriously as the main character. The question, then, remains: why make Bloom Jewish?

Joyce’s decision makes sense on a literary level: how better to recast Odysseus—“man of twists and turns”(1.1), “long an exile”(7.1)”—than as the Wandering Jew, the archetypal exile? Who better to appreciate Odysseus’ loneliness, his ethos of suffering, than Bloom, who, as a Jew, endures a timeless persecution, carries an ancient tradition as a burden? Indeed, many of the descriptions of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey resound with Judaic ideals. Like the Jew, Odysseus, “more than all other men,” was “born for pain”(3.106), for exile: “how far away I’ve been/ From all my loved ones—how long I’ve suffered!”(7.180). This Odyssean theme of suffering tethered to the divine—“Whom do you know most saddled with sorrow?/ They are the ones I’d equal, grief for grief./ And I could tell a tale of still more hardship,/ All I’ve suffered, thanks to the gods’ will”(7.246-9)—is strikingly Jewish. The nostos of Odysseus’ journey—“it is not his fate to die here, far from his own people./Destiny still ordains that he shall see his loved ones,/ Reach his high-roofed house, his native land at last”(5. 127-9)—rings with a profoundly Judaic quality, too: the yearning for Zion, for the end of exile, for the rebuilding of the Temple, for, as Bloom would say, “Moses and the promised land”(7. 1061).

Why, exactly, Joyce deems it important for his modern hero to bear the Judaic heritage—wandering, suffering, enduring persecution—is critical to consider. The answer, it seems, is a matter of scale: by making Bloom the modernized Odysseus, Joyce exchanges the unattainable Homeric for modern realism. As opposed to the grandeur of the Homeric hero, Bloom is flawed, but is, in a way, heroic precisely because of, and not in spite of, such flaws. Reading Joyce’s decision to make Bloom Jewish in this way does not degrade modernity—that is, to view, rather nihilistically, the death of the Homeric as the death of heroism, to believe that Joyce seeks only to demonstrate just how much Bloom pales in comparison to Odysseus—but embraces it. Joyce, it seems, wants the modern reader not to merely accept that which makes a modern man “heroic,” but to appreciate and identify with such characteristics. Indeed, Joyce demands a comparison between Odysseus and Bloom not to disparage Bloom—or, for that matter, to disparage Judaism or the modern condition—but to ask of the modern reader whom it is we most appreciate: a Bloom, or an Odysseus? This question, itself, is markedly Jewish: Nahmanides, in his commentary on the twelfth chapter of Genesis, famously depicts Abraham not as perfect, but as flawed. For Nahmanides—and, really, for Joyce, in his effort to pull Bloom from the ashes of Odysseus—it is important that Abraham be humanized, that he emerge not as an unattainable figure, a Homeric Odysseus, but as a man relatable in his flaws, as a Bloom.

The Return of Odysseus
The Return of Odysseus

Making Bloom a Jew also affords Joyce the ability to link Bloom to Charles Parnell, and, more broadly, to the Irish cause. Indeed, the Bloom-Parnell allusion is widespread throughout Ulysses; take, for instance, the mob’s complaint against Bloom:

THE MOB: Lynch him! Roast him! He’s as bad as Parnell was! (15.1762)

In Bloom—and, really, in the Jews, as a nation—Joyce sees deep political parallels with Parnell and with the Irish plight: who better to understand an intensely nationalistic people’s yearnings for liberation from enslavement than the Jews, whose own enslavement in Egypt and yearning for a Promised Land so frames the focus of their religion? Intensifying this connection are the allusions to the Bloom-Moses link— “What’s his name? Ikey Moses? Bloom”(9.607)—which allow Joyce the ability to render Parnell a Moses, leading the Irish from British bondage, the ability to tether the fate of the Irish to that of the Jews, and the ability to inject within Ulysses a strong Messianic quality. That Joyce, in forging the Judaic theme within Ulysses, lends a Mosaic stature to Parnell and aligns the Irish cause with the cause of the Israelites—giving his people hope, a savior and, perhaps, eventual redemption—is well-documented. Less obvious, however, is the importance of the Messianic in Ulysses. Joyce presents us with a number of clear-cut Messianic figures: Parnell, as a Messiah to the Irish; Moses—who, in wandering the desert for forty years, is a modernized Odysseus of his own—as a Messiah to the Jews; Odysseus, as a Messiah to Ithaca in his return. In Bloom, though, the Messianic connection is more muddled: Bloom is, at once, a redemptive figure—“A VOICE: Bloom, are you the Messiah ben Joseph or ben David?”—and a figure in need of redemption. Layering Ulysses with obvious Messianic overtones and figures, and then providing us with Bloom, it seems, is Joyce’s way of testing the reader: does Bloom ultimately attain some nostos, some sense of redemption through his wanderings, or, in the end, in failing to find a surrogate son in Stephen, in losing his grip on Molly, in the wanderings of his day, does his nostos remain unrealized?

That this idea of nostos may be the essential question of Ulysses is, perhaps, the most important reason for making Bloom Jewish: the value Judaism places in nostos. Nostos may be fundamentally Greek, but it is a concept central to the Judaic tradition. Indeed, deep-rooted within Judaism is a fervent, constant yearning: for closeness with God, for the Promised Land, for the end of exile and suffering and persecution, for the rebuilding of the Temple, for the Messiah, for a final redemption. If Ulysses is Joyce synthesizing that which is Homeric with that which is of the modern man, then Joyce’s decision to make Bloom Jewish is fitting. For Joyce—an Irishman with a deep sense of nostos, and someone within whom exists a nationalistic appreciation for the Judaic heritage—a Judaic ethos is the ideal correspondence for the Odyssean vision of nostos and the blueprint for modern man, who, like the Jew, should have a moral genome ingrained with nostos. Nostos, then, is not a lost ideal, confined to Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, but an ideal very much alive within the modern man, just as nostos, for the Jews, is not confined to the Biblical, but vivid in daily ritual. Joyce, it seems, sees within nostos deep value, less for the actualization of such nostos, and more for the yearning it engenders. That Bloom emerges from Ulysses in ambiguity—are we to embrace him as a modern hero, heroic in his non-heroism, or are we to reject him for his many flaws, to be disgusted by the precipitous plunge that is the fall from Odysseus to Bloom?—does not tear down Joyce’s vision of Bloom, but affirms it. Here is a man who is, perhaps, just as uncertain of his nostos as are we: is he broken by Rudy’s death, by Molly’s infidelity, by Stephen’s rejection, by his sexual urges, by the persecution of his religion, by his suffocating monotony, or are his wanderings just as beautiful as those of Odysseus, even with the dramatic shift in scale? Our final image of Bloom—and his lonely, harrowing “where?”(17. 2331)—resounds with our most poignant image of Odysseus, unable to recognize Ithaca after his long return:


I wandered on,

my heart forever torn to pieces inside my chest

till the god released me from my miseries at last…

Tell me the truth now,

have I really reached the land I love? (13. 363-373)


This is a question Judaic by nature—a question Jews have asked exile after exile, in Egypt, in Babylon, in Rome, in Syria, in Spain, in Europe—and the question Joyce, a Dubliner in exile, wants his modern hero to ask. It is the question Bloom, as a Jew, as Joyce’s modern heir to Odysseus, essentially asks at the conclusion of the Ithaca episode:   “have I really reached the land I love?” This nostos, this constant, Judaic sense of yearning, is, for Joyce, the ideal for modern man. For Joyce, ours is not an era in which Odysseus returns to Ithaca in unblemished Homeric glory, but an era in which Bloom, humanized in his flaws, wanders Dublin, yearning for home.


Works Cited:

Homer. The Odyssey. Ed. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1997

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Vintage Books, 1986

O’Connor, Frank. A Short History of Irish Literature. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967