THE LETTER 35 (Autumn 2005) pages 79-83
While reading Ulysses with a group during the past year I was struck by how often the name of the Old Testament prophet, Elijah, appears in Ulysses and asked myself what significance he could have had for Joyce.
Joyce met and fell in love with Nora Barnacle and left Ireland with her. They soon had a son, so he was called on to fill the roles of husband and a father. What models had he for these roles? Joyce’s childhood in Dublin was marked by an alcoholic father which may have been the reason he was sensitive to the values of a different tradition to his own Catholic one, whose priests, he has Leopold Bloom observe, live off the fat of the land. There was a thriving Jewish community in Dublin at the time of Joyce’s youth. Speaking of Jewish people he told Frank Budgen, a close friend whom he met in Zurich, that he sometimes thought that ‘it was a heroic sacrifice on their part when they refused to accept the Christian revelation. Look at them. They are better husbands than we are, better fathers and better sons’} He retained influences from the Catholic faith he was brought up in saying ‘I love Dante almost as much as the Bible. He is my spiritual food, the rest is ballast.”
He identified with Jewish people because of their uncertain place in European society and questioned his Jewish friend, Ettore Schmitz about Judaism in which faith Elijah is seen as a prophet and herald of the Messiah. Elijah is also significant for Christians. He and Moses are the two figures who appear with Jesus in the scene of the transfiguration, as told in Matthew 17:1-9. After Jesus tells the apostles to say nothing of what had happened until ‘after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead’, they…