A black cat yawns

Introducing Leo Bloom, Courtesy of His Cat

Leopold Bloom is the protagonist of Ulysses, yet he doesn’t show up until page 55. And even then, he’s not the first to speak in his own chapter. James Joyce gave that honor to Bloom’s unnamed cat.

Scholars have long noted that Joyce was a cat lover and that he may even have preferred their company to the company of people. No word, no allusion, no phrase in Ulysses is accidental; it’s not for nothing that Leopold is so closely related to leopard and leonine. In this opening scene, Bloom is wearing black, as is the cat. He’s heading to a funeral later that morning; she’s merely a black cat without much choice in her attire. They both have the goal of getting back into bed with Molly Bloom, and they’ll both eventually achieve it, though the cat gets there first.

Bloom is making tea for Molly when the cat comes in and “walk[s] stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.” My own black cat Gurley, being a Manx cat, has a two-bone stub of a tail, yet she is able to perform this same action, her tiny tail quivering with the effort.

It’s at this point in the novel that Bloom’s cat announces herself: “‘—Mkgnao!” Joyce wrote exactingly and precisely; relying on the conventional spelling “meow” would not do here. He knows cats, and he knows how they sound when they want breakfast. A 2020 study found that “the vocal repertoire of the cat is wide, and up to twenty-one different vocalizations have been described in the literatures. But it is more than probable that the repertoire contains more types of vocalizations.” The same study showed that cats developed these sounds in order to communicate with humans; they do not meow at each other. (Tavernier et al., 1) There’s a hitch in Bloom’s cat’s voice when she’s demanding food, a faint growl in the middle of the sound that isn’t there when, say, she might be petted on the sofa in the middle of the afternoon. That happy meow is frictionless. The breakfast mkgnao carries a threat.

“‘O, there you are,’ Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.” Cat people recognize immediately the conversational tone he takes with her. It’s also clear that she arrives in the same way at the same time every morning, that while he wasn’t waiting for her to arrive, he was expecting her. They have a breakfast ritual.

She mews back, keeping up her end of the conversation, and again marches around the table leg. “Just how she stalks over my writing table. Prr. Scratch my head. Prr.” From monks in the scriptorium to Substack newsletter writers working at the dining room table, it is a known fact: cats cannot stand the attention humans give to writing. They are jealous. They bat at the quill. They bite the pen. They track ink across the manuscript. They oisdfsdioa huioooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo on the keyboard, and if you’re lucky, they post that nonsense to your followers or send it in an email to your editor. Joyce endured it, so Bloom endured it, so any reader who has ever attempted to write in the presence of a cat will recognize it.

As she stalks and purrs around the table leg, Bloom eyes her “curiously, kindly” and gives her a once-over: shiny fur, clean butt, bright eyes. It’s the basic checkup many cat owners perform at least once a day, including the butt part, though we don’t always tell people about it. Bloom and butts, however, is a theme in the novel, so Joyce is giving the reader a gentle tipoff about what’s coming.

Bloom bends down to get closer to her little cat face and offers “pussens,” as he’s nicknamed her, some milk.

“‘Mrkgnao!’ the cat cried.” Milk seems to be a word she knows, or at least this is a part of their morning routine that she recognizes. She urges him, again with the glottal catch in her throat, to get on with it. “The best recognized meow” by humans, according to another 2020 study of cat vocalizations, “was that emitted while waiting for food.” (Prato-Previde et al., 1-2)

Bloom has already assessed her physically; he now takes the time to consider her mental state. “They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to.” He goes so far as to wonder what he looks like to her, and thinks about the fact that she could jump over him if she wanted to. Throughout the novel, Bloom extends this level of curiosity and compassion to animals he encounters, from cattle headed to slaughter to seagulls he feeds by the water.

Before getting to the promised cream, Bloom makes fun of the cat, saying that she’s afraid of the chickens—“chookchooks,” he calls them—and that she’s stupid. He’s just thought to himself that cats are not as stupid as people think. He’s merely making fun of her, a little ribbing between friends. If anyone else called his cat stupid or said she was afraid of the chickens, he would almost certainly leap to her defense. He then muses on the cat’s cruel nature after being mockingly cruel to her himself.

“‘Mrkrgnao!’ the cat said loudly.” She does not care for his jokes or his tardiness. There are two r’s in that sound, adding a trill of impatience to the glottal threat. Joyce is very aware of the twenty-one minimum sounds a cat can make as well as their sounds of escalation. She blinks at him and, surely not accidentally, bares her fangs. He finally gets the morning’s fresh milk and pours some in a saucer then “set[s] it slowly on the floor.”

“‘Gurrhr! she cried, running to lap.” This is one of Gurley’s go-to sounds too. It is a very satisfied sound, as if the vibration of her whole happy body were producing it. It’s almost always performed at a trot, as she’s running toward a bowl of kibble or the outstretched hand of a friend or—and this is a red-letter day—a small bowl of water drained from a can of tuna.

Before he takes Molly her tea, Bloom watches his cat lick at the milk and considers the uses of her whiskers. He wonders “if its true if you clip them they can’t mouse after.” It’s probably good that for all his scientific and pseudoscientific musing throughout the novel, Bloom doesn’t carry through on any experiments. He thinks first that the tips of cat whiskers might shine in the dark before settling on the more correct idea that they act as feelers.

Using the familiar actions and sounds of a cat asking for breakfast, Joyce gives the reader a lot of basic information about Bloom. He has a routine, he respects animals, he has a subtle sense of humor, he’s observant and curious and scientifically minded, even if he gets his facts wrong sometimes. No matter how weird things get over the next seven hundred pages—and they do get weird—the reader has a solid sense of Bloom as a man, thanks to his conversation with his cat.


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