Readings of James Joyce’s Ulysses make a lot of the book’s structural coherence, but even people like me who love the book have to admit that its structural coherence isn’t one of the most lovable things about it. In the eight section of the book, sometimes referred to as “Lestrygonians” after the episode in the Odyssey that it parallels, Leopold Bloom, very hungry, goes into the Burton restaurant on Duke Street, but is put off not only by the sight of the eaters but also by the smell of ‘spaton sawdust, sweetish warmish cigarette smoke, reek of plug, spilt beer, men’s beery piss, the stale of ferment.’ In so doing he also notes to himself ‘Hungry man is an angry man’, a sentiment amplified 50 years later in Bob Marley’s ‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’: ‘A hungry mob is an angry mob.’ (I’d add a YouTube link to that song but I don’t want this post to suddenly be all about Bob Marley.)
Over the course of a page, Bloom’s fastidiousness recoils from the spectacle in the Burton, and in the end he leaves without ordering anything, to go down the street and have a relatively ascetic cheese sandwich and glass of Burgundy in Davy Byrne’s. However, his reason for leaving the Burton has been misstated, at least once, I forget by who. Somebody somewhere noted this bit:
Mr Bloom raised two fingers doubtfully to his lips. His eyes said:
–Not here. Don’t see him.
Out. I hate dirty eaters.
They took this statement of Bloom’s eyes, and the rather hammy gesture with the fingers, to be connected with Bloom’s off-and-on almost-meetings with Blazes Boylan, the guy who’s taking the afternoon off to shag Bloom’s wife, Molly. The implication is that Bloom has noted that Boylan isn’t in the Burton. But why would Bloom even care? He doesn’t want to meet Boylan, today of all days, because he knows what Boylan is going to do, or has already done. The only thing on Bloom’s mind at this moment is food and eating, and the point of this section is in part to establish his fastidiousness in the mind of the reader.
No, the point of Bloom’s little mime with fingers and eyes is to establish his moral fastidiousness, as well as his physical. Bloom doesn’t like to offend or annoy people, and the reason why he does a little pretence of failing to see someone is so that the staff in the Burton, or anyone else, won’t think that he’s leaving the place because he’s disgusted by it, but because the person he (fictionally) hoped to meet there hasn’t shown up. It’s the slow and steady accretion of tiny moments of thoughtfulness like this that go to establish Bloom as the undoubted hero of Ulysses. Bloom hardly ever does anything conventionally heroic, and when he does — as when he confronts the Citizen’s anti-semitism — it backfires, because the citizen just explodes and throws a biscuit tin at him. He just generally does the right thing, when there’s no particular reason why he should.
The great Flannery O’Connor, somewhere in Mystery and Manners which I’ve since lost, talked about how in Ulysses you were floundering around in the inner worlds of various unsavoury characters, but I think that episodes like the above can be read as Joyce waving a flag for his hero. I realise that there’s no way to prove this. I just throw it out there because, you know.