James Joyce’s Ulysses is, among countless other things, the story of a father (Leopold Bloom) in search of a son, and a son (Stephen Dedalus) in search of a father. That search is largely implicit and fruitless until the nightmarish Circe chapter, when the issues of fatherhood and the psyche of Bloom are turned inside-out. However, a number of events in the earlier chapters of Ulysses do establish a father-son relationship between Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. One of the most evocative such events comes in chapter 8, “Lestrygonians,” in the form of Leopold Bloom’s assistance to the blind stripling. As Bloom turns a Dublin corner, he sees a young blind man standing on the curb. Showing his compassion, Bloom decides to help the lad across the street.
Bloom’s act stands alone as an act of paternal benevolence, but amplifying the importance of this action is the fact that the stripling bears a few extremely interesting resemblances to Stephen Dedalus. Most obvious is the stripling’s blindness. In the third chapter, “Proteus,” Stephen closes his eyes while strolling upon Sandymount Strand in order to give himself the sensory experience of a blind person. He tells himself, “My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do.” By “they,” Stephen clearly means blind persons. In using his stick as a blind man’s cane, Stephen foreshadows the stripling’s use of a cane.
However, there is another similarity between Stephen and the stripling that I find even more fascinating. Stephen is an aspiring artist, who is clearly intelligent and has an amazing potential for literary creation. However, as of chapter 8, that potential is so far unrealized—instead, Stephen is a “mere” schoolteacher and “bullockbefriending bard,” a delivery boy for the old codger Deasy, who runs the school where Stephen teaches. His brilliant literary talents and capacities are thus cheapened and turned to their most mundane ends. Stephen’s situation is echoed in chapter 11 (“The Sirens”), when we learn the occupation of the blind stripling: he is a piano tuner, who happens to also be a wonderfully gifted piano player. Like Stephen, the young stripling possesses a startling potential for artistic talent. Also like Stephen, his potential largely goes to waste—piano tuning seems a mundane station for a talented pianist. The correlation between Stephen’s and the stripling’s artistic potentials and their actual occupations further links these two characters, and deepens the implied paternal solicitude Bloom has for Stephen.