by Noah Warren & Jay Dockendorf
With its mannered dialectical mode, “Ithaca” can be read as a self-conscious attempt to explain, or rationalize, ‘universal’ themes such as the differences and similarities of perception, the cosmos, water, and adultery. Yet at its heels comes “Penelope.” The episode famously lacks punctuation; it substitutes instead eight massive ‘sentences, ’ a transcription of Molly’s thoughts as Bloom climbs into the sheets and asks her to serve him breakfast in bed. The episode is in no small way a rebuke to the ambitions of “Ithaca’s” catechism (impersonal) style, frequently revising insights it records as fact and, with palpable humanity, finally giving a voice to the novel’s most conspicuously mute and absent character, Molly Bloom.
“Penelope” opens with a characteristic denial of the confines of its physical setting, implicating immediately multiple past epochs and spaces: Bloom has “never [done] a thing like that before as ask…since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending…” (18.1-3). This request for breakfast launches Molly on an equivocal tally of Bloom’s habits, the civic hospitality she “likes in him” paired with the contemptuous detail that “if his nose bleeds youd think it was…” (18.16, 24). From the first, the reader sees Molly’s wholehearted embrace of physicality pitched against Bloom’s more complicated, sometimes fearful relation to the body. Molly, with this heightened corporal awareness, knows “by his appetite” that Bloom “came somewhere”—that is, she taps into a far more immanent (and correct) vein of truth than his circumspection and parallax ever reveal (18.34-5). Against the inherent novelistic bias to read the protagonist as exceptional, Molly fits her husband’s flirtations into the context of how “all men get…at his age” (18.51), and lays the day’s supposed infidelity alongside past waverings of his affections.
Molly then reveals that Bloom has subjected her in the past to a kind of erotic catechism (in contrast with the Bloomean consciousness that is “Ithaca’s” catechumen), asking her who she’d do “this that and the other” with (18.89). She identifies this impulse—“tell me who is it tell me his name”—as his “trying to make a whore out of me” (18.95-6). Here is a powerful answer to her figuration as adultress in the novel, and a strong plug for equivocality. Bloom, (and by proxy the reader, as the two perspectives have been closely allied) has spent much of the day mulling over Molly precisely in this stock role: meanwhile, she turns our attention to the fact that her prior silence, which has accomplished such a poignant rhetorical effect and such riveting suspense, has done so at the price of foisting her into the role of a flat character and into the grip of a sclerotic patriarchal morality. With such a protest she evokes strongly the Wife of Bath and her famous complaint.
Hence, she implicitly parallels this containment to the similar containment of confession, which becomes even more restrictive when sexualized by a (possibly) deviant priest. Yet another parallel is drawn with the bilboes of her social station, which limit even the kind of alcohol she drinks. This first ‘sentence’ then concludes with details from the afternoon’s tryst (Boylan is quite well endowed, “though his nose is not so big,” 18.145-6), moving to general reflections on the nature of sex, and how, after all, Bloom and Molly are not unfavorably matched, she remembering his notable beauty when younger.
In the second chunk of text, Molly remarks on the mainly sexual differences between men, remembering Boylan, Bartell D’Arcy, and Lt. Gardner, and relating the origins of her relationship with each. Despite her rejection of punctuation, Molly proves herself to be one of the novel’s most accomplished storytellers—it is by her voice that the reader learns not only the saga of her relationship with Bloom, but equally is inducted into the parallel world of Gibraltar: unlike Bloom, she seems barely limited by her present location. Again, she casts doubt on the primacy of his narration, noting that “he thinks nothing can happen without him knowing he hadn’t an idea about my mother…” (18.281-83). This mystery remains unexplained, but it stands alongside (against?) the recurrent theme of dubious paternity in the novel. In Molly’s mouth, however, that subjective anxiety (the son’s fear) becomes an objective uncertainty: that is, while Molly knows well her mother’s identity and is untroubled by it, the reader is forced to speculate, and is left with a perpetually incomplete understanding. Whatever her mother’s identity, Molly implies too that Bloom was unable to perceive what should have been a prominent otherness in his wife until he married her.
Subsequently, Molly mentions in passing that the watch Bloom has given her “never seems to go properly” (18.345). This can be read as a justification for the protean nature of her narrative: not only has Bloom (or, male society) tried and failed to enforce temporal regularity on her, in the guise of a gift, but the watch operates by an inherent spatial metaphor, “go”—an equally ill-suited metric, since Molly does not leave the house and, narrating, barely moves at all. Once again, the standard benchmarks of narrative convention prove to be deeply masculine fetters.
Molly then imparts the intelligence that Boylan has lost twenty pounds on the day’s race –“tearing up the tickets and swearing blazes” (18.424, emphasis added; noting the solipsism/vanity of both disappointment and adultery) –and then reflects on her material desires, for nicer clothes and a smaller waist, which seem to be primed by her reflection on Boylan and subsequent arousal. Throughout, as with the case of Mrs Langtry, Molly has a tendency to contextualize her own life against folk wisdom and pieces of sensational journalism, drawing what approaches, at times, a temper of regret from the fates of famous adulterers. Molly expresses, as the ‘sentence’ closes, a desire for Bloom to quit his itinerant position and take a more remunerative post in an office, with all the inevitable Homeric allusion.
Her third ‘sentence’ opens with a reflection on the discrepancy between what Molly perceives as the aesthetic satisfaction of breasts—“titties” per Boylan—and the awkwardness of a man’s “two bags” (18.536, 542). There is a parallel to Bloom’s narcissistic reflection on his penis as a “floating flower” in “Lotus Eaters,” but Molly, if an adulterer, is not a narcissist: her thoughts follow from the desire to satisfy another, to please Boylan. After remembering the frequent exhibitionism of Gibraltar sailors, and then Bloom’s sometime idea to get Molly to pose naked for money, she complains, “…he came out with some jawbreakers about the incarnation he never can explain a thing simply the way a body can understand…”(18.566-67). Hermeneutics are, once again, fundamentally physical: there seems to be a parallel between not being clear to one’s interlocutor and breaking that person’s jaw; Molly’s popular metonymy of “a body” merely reinforces this. Finally, in a semi-serious, semi-affectionate tone, Molly recalls Bloom’s eccentricities—putting breast milk in tea—and proposes to write a book out of it, “the works of Master Poldy,” if only she “could remember the 1 half” (18.579-80). Her musing echoes Bloom’s frequent economic schemes, but unlike his largely municipal ideas, she proposes to bring together the quotidian, the deviant, and the literary—a bent of mind strangely akin to Joyce’s own.
Her fourth ‘sentence’ begins as a train rattles past, and Molly, thinking on its strength, is prompted to recall men, heat, and thus her childhood in Gibraltar. She recollects her entry into sexual awareness—“hardly recognized myself” (18.647-8)—and considers the transiency of one’s acquaintances. This passes into a series of thoughts on letters—the ultimate evidence of Molly’s boredom on the Rock turns out to be her posting letters to herself with “bits of paper in them” (18.699). Thence, she is miffed when she considers how Milly has written Bloom a letter, and her merely a card. Indeed, this seems to be a characteristic of the novel in toto: whereas Bloom’s narrative is allowed to unfold in time, as a letter, Molly’s is both timeless and atemporal, as a card. It reifies the essential binarism Roman Jakobson set out in Fundamentals of Language: namely, that while a novel unfolds in time, metonymically, the pressure of an ending (figuratively, death) compresses it into an essentially metaphoric beast. In this light, too, Molly’s posting of bits of paper to herself seems an anxiety also of a different sort, as she is eager to legitimize her experience in letters, but, so young, she has only a blank sheet to rip up. Finally, this anxiety over entering into language is enacted when, even in her freeform, stream of consciousness Molly stutters and is forced to break up the word “precipitancy” to spell it correctly: an example of ‘masculine’ linguistic convention intruding on the rhythm and flow of her thought (18.743-4).
Molly’s flat declaration that her “first” (first what?) was Lieutenant Mulveys, who is also referred to later as “Mulvey”, casts her thoughts back to the morning of their dalliance. The Tweedy’s housekeeper Mrs. Rubio brings an oblique “it” to Molly (18.749). Confirmation of the true nature of “it” is delayed by a mockery of Rubio’s ugliness and pathetic luck with men, facetiously connected to Gibraltar’s religious customs. That Mulvey “signed” “it,” apparently a letter she keeps near her breast throughout the day, causes Molly to burst ecstatically with love (18.762). She remembers how later that day Mulvey crushed flowers on her bosom under a firtree. They almost fully consummate their passion, but Molly worries about disease or pregnancy and masturbates him into her handkerchief instead. Nostalgically, Molly realizes she has forgotten his first name even. He could be dead, she thinks, remembering how they had promised each other that, regardless of future circumstances, if one ever found the other again and said “firtree cove,” they would reunite in coition (18.824). Molly remembers how she wanted to fire his gun (with attendant Tiresian overtones). Instead, he gives her his peak cap, which her priest decries from the altar as an example of women lately ignoring their “higher functions” (18.838). This triggers an association with Bloom, whom she asks God to “send … sense and me more money” (18.839-40). Her taken last name, she supposes, is better than most, prefiguring the concluding sentiment that “as well him as another” (18.1604-5). The ring that Mulvey gave Molly she later gave to a man whom she is certain was killed in the Boer war. Love is associated with fatality. The train bellows again. Molly realizes she was fortunate with men in her youth in ways that others, like the ignorant girls she calls “sparrowfarts” were not. With that word, Molly’s linguistic subconscious realizes something she herself doesn’t; because not until she reflects on that afternoon’s four or five rounds of sex with Boylan does she realize she has gas, which she releases while hearing the train once again.
Molly remembers the Gibraltar winters of her childhood, when she used to “love [her]self” (18.922-23). Worried that Leopold might have fallen in with the hard-living medical students in order to imagine he’s young again, Molly is doubly irked that, like a “king,” he’s asked her to make him breakfast in bed (18.925-6, 931). Meanwhile, she seems not to notice that her own actions are heavily driven by a similar search for youth.
Molly wonders what kind of book he bought her (Sweets of Sin) and reflects on how they’ve sent Milly to photography school over Molly’s objection that she should be a typist. A hint of jealousy for Milly’s fresh youth arises as Molly thinks, “they all look at her like me when I was her age of course,” which is thereby connected to her jealousy of Bloom’s ever-wandering eyes (18.1036).
The topic of sex is broached again (“I never came properly till I was what 22 or so” 18.1050-51), along with money (“its his fault of course having the two of us slaving here instead of getting in a woman long ago am I ever going to have a proper servant again” 18.1078-80) and death (“well when Im stretched out dead in my grave I suppose Ill have some peace” 18.1103-4). This strong triple association continues until (or, as?) Molly notices her period has arrived and wonders what Boylan will think on their much-anticipated Monday reunion. The possibility of any hindrance to her happiness temporarily darkens Molly’s reflections so much that she decries womanhood altogether. Something is always wrong with us “5 days every 3 or 4 weeks” (18.1109), she laments, finally rising from the bed (the first time and only time she moves in Ulysses) and relocating to the commode. It’s too much — “what between clothes and cooking and children this damned old bed too jingling like the dickens.” (18.1130-1131). As water and blood flow into the toilet, she wouldn’t mind being a man and even having sex with “a lovely woman,” she thinks to herself (18.1147). She echoes unconsciously the whoremistress Bella/Bello’s transformation in “Circe,” projecting her strong female authority across gender lines and back to the classical Tiresian tradition.
Love letters that Leopold once sent to Molly invoke Keats’s Endymion: Leopold once imagined everything connected to Molly’s “glorious Body… a thing of beauty and of joy for ever” (18.1177-78). (Either Bloom misquotes or Molly does; in the process, the word “Body” is privileged over the original “a thing…is…,” subordinating it.) But then Bloom’s socialist and patriotic political leanings are scornfully derided as a bunch of hot air. Will she be on this chamber pot forever, she wonders? Evoking Freud, Molly reveals Leopold’s vaguely fetishistic and positively uncomfortable habit of sleeping with his feet, “this stinking thing,” at her head (18.1206). Molly hopes “theyll have something better for us in the other world”, and the clock strikes two (18.1210-11).
Bloom’s eccentricities grow stranger, and Molly feels objectified by them: when she won’t let him “lick her,” she feels she is “nothing any more”–which, fascinatingly, prompts the chapter’s most fragmentary thought, “man man tyrant as ever” (18.1244-46). It seems to Molly that Leopold is always thinking of his own pleasure, but this is contextualized for the reader. The pathos of him sleeping “on the floor…the way the jews used when somebody died” (18.1246-47) shows the essentially metempsychotic nature of his fetishes, implicating Rudy’s death and moving beyond the pleasure principle, as it were. She imagines cowardice is why he wants her and Boylan to have their fun–again, imagining Bloom imagining himself as Boylan. Furthermore, Molly assumes he has someone floozy on the side for himself. This perverse justification (to be continued later in the chapter) matches Bloom’s odd foot-to-face sleeping habits: They are indirect reactions to the same problem, the total absence of sexual chemistry within the Blooms’ marriage. Next, what would seem to have been merely a tame flirtation with Simon Dedalus is recalled (18.1290).
Thoughts of the father lead to thoughts of the son: Stephen Dedalus’s learning and sexuality is concentrated on at some length. He studies Italian like Molly. She could take lessons, she muses. Stephen’s ambition to become a writer calls to mind the husband that once wrote poetry imitative of Lord Byron for her. And the thought of poetry triggers a loud response; she could still inspire poetry! A vision of Leopold’s youthful beauty (his eyes, in particular) and what she once believed was a vast intelligence return to her mind. But what might be considered as Molly’s sex drive pushes her thoughts back to Stephen. She fantasizes about secretly giving him fellatio and then about memorizing some Italian, “so he wont think me stupid” (18.1362). If only she knew which writer she should memorize! Unfortunately — Molly remembers as the sentence ends — she’ll have to do something “about him though” (18.1366-67).
He is not Bloom but Blazes Boylan. Because Molly didn’t call him “Hugh” he spanked her, she remembers. He has “no manners nor no refinement nor no nothing in his nature,” she thinks (18.1368-69). Again she reflects on the pleasurable construction of women’s bodies and wishes she were a man, and specifically had a penis. Is this an allusion to Freud’s penis envy component of sexuality? She remembers the dirty set-up to a clean joke and how the only place Bloom will kiss her is her “expression”-less bottom (18.1403). But despite his oddities, it’s sentimentally recalled that Molly is the only person who understands his strange ideas.
Women in general, she figures, desire copious embraces to make them continually feel young. Thence, she imagines strolling the waterfront at night and seducing sailors. Women should govern the world because they know where to stop and eschew violence, gambling and drink. She thinks of Stephen again, and the deep sorrow of her miscarriage surfaces–her thought operates by a kind of eschatological understanding of masculine error. It wasn’t her fault, she tells herself, that she was not able to “make [Rudy] one.” (18.1445). She knew she would never have another and thinks how their relationship has never recovered. Then, almost dialectically, her thoughts grasp the inverse of her previous idea of women. Via an image of Bloom and Stephen as friends talking late into the night, she realizes that women, “a dreadful lot of bitches” (18.1459), lack substantive friendships and contemptuously resent men for their social abilities.
The sexuality of Molly’s previous Stephen-related musings proceeds to be overwritten with a maternal affection and desire for intellectual companionship. She fondly ideates a future where Stephen would live in Milly’s old room, working and writing and helping Molly with her Italian while she helped him with his Spanish. Leopold would make the breakfast. From here, Molly lays out what is basically a last-ditch comeback plan to win over Leopold’s sexual affinities. Leopold’s to blame if she’s an adulteress, she thinks, but Molly conspires to dress in front of him in her best new underwear (the profound materialism of sexuality will be addressed later). If that fails, she wants to tell Bloom that he’s a cuckold and make him party to further adultery. If that, too, fails, she wants to let Bloom fantastically indulge in his desire for her bottom.
The remembrance of her period sends Molly’s mind in other directions; as Molly conceives a plan to buy flowers tomorrow in case of Stephen’s return, her thoughts barrel into the last segment of the sentence and novel: Leopold’s proposal, or the conception of their marriage.
The thought of flowers and nature lifts her to thoughts of a rose-filled heaven with mountains and a sea and oats and “all the fine cattle going about” (18.1561). The word “yes” appears more in her language. Leopold is symbolically associated with cattle throughout the novel (Dockendorf, 2010)–and both he and they are touchingly present in the multiple imagined spaces of Molly’s mind, as she shifts easily between the Rock of Gibraltar and Dublin the hillside where Leopold proposed to her. Briefly, Molly proclaims her belief in the existence of God and shuns those that would claim to deny it. They convert on their deathbeds, she thinks. Molly then loosely attacks the idea that one cannot prove the non-existence of God: “…ah that they don’t know neither do I so there you are they might as well try to stop the sun from rising tomorrow…” (18.1570-71). From there, she relishes in the memory of Bloom telling her on the hillside sixteen years ago that the sun shined for her and that she was like a flower (18.1576-78). God’s love is like the sun, which parallels the pleasures of her memory, invoking furthermore the promise of happiness, perhaps in marriage. Molly remembers giving him a bit of seed cake from her mouth, a symbol of generosity and unification without and before language.
Leopold, she recalls, told her she was like a flower of the mountain and that all women are flowers and part of one body for which the sun shines. This, Molly thinks, is the only true thing he has ever said: Leopold understood and felt what a woman is, and Molly believed, then, in her ability to “always get round him” (18.1579-80). For the wave of color and ecstasy it unleashes within Molly, this last memory is clearly the most moving and indelible part of her self, and the thought that makes her happiest.
Rhapsodically, she remembers how Leopold then asked her to marry him; how she said nothing, but, looking out over the sea and sky, thought momentarily of her past loves. She conjures memories of men and animals from her girlhood: birds flying, the Greeks, the Jews, the Arabs and all the other people from the rest of Europe living in Gibraltar, tired donkeys, men in cloaks asleep in the shade, large-wheeled carts of bulls, “the old caste thousands of years old,” and handsome Moors; and, with an increasing attention to the color red, she remembers places: Rhonda and its lattice windows, the patrolling policemen in Algeciras at night bearing lamps, a virtuosically “crimson” sea, the Alameda gardens and the fig tree, and “Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain” like in Andalusia where the girls wore flowers in their hair. Should she wear a red rose, she asks herself, remembering how he kissed her under the Moorish wall and how she thought she might as well marry him as any other man and then, with nearly every phrase of thought interrupted by the word “yes,” she remembers telling him to ask her again with her eyes, him asking once more, calling her a mountain flower, the smell of perfume, the beating of his heart, and her answer of Yes.
Xenia and Exchange
Molly’s reflections on her infidelity with Boylan or those she suspects of Bloom do not confine themselves to the corporal plane. Indeed, it soon becomes explicit that each relationship described is scaffolded by a discussion of what objects and money change hands between the parties. She fears any tramp will “wheedle money out of [Bloom]” (609); contemplating a proposed excursion with Boylan, she says “well he could buy me a nice present up in Belfast after what I gave theyve lovely linen up there or one of those nice kimono things…” (617). Looking to Homer, this exchange of heterogenous gifts finds its clear precedent in the practice of xenia (ξενία), that is, the guest-friend relationship that loads Odysseus and Telemachus with bowls and cups wherever they go. (This accumulation of gifts parallels their intellectual and spiritual growth.) Molly’s action in this episode, then, seems to be to replace the distances between Greek islands with the distances between sexual partners; the gift of conversational presence, and often the news/stories that the foreigner provides (in the Odyssey) becomes the gift of bodily intimacy and sex. Her materialism, which often glosses as shallowness or frippery, has its roots in a classical tradition unknown to her.
Going one step further, we might contrast this emphasis on mutual exchange with the form Molly frequently uses to talk about the female condition: namely, her understanding of women having been “given” (639, 621) their anatomy, or “made” (642, etc). Whereas the former exchange motif she accepts as meet and right, we might liken this latter emphasis to Bloom’s gift of a watch: though it comes, or is phrased in the form of a gift— “desires,” her “name,” or the way she’s “made…so attractive to men…” –these one-way gifts seem by far the more constrictive, whereas exchanging objects for sex must make an implicit valuation of equality: the woman, and her affections, are vested with real world worth.
The Web and Sexuality
Joyce’s technique for the chapter, “Web,” refers to the Shroud of Laertes, the project that Penelope shrewdly told the suitors prevented her from making a choice between them. The synthetic pattern of Molly’s thoughts and the woven texture of the language are Joyce’s most obvious manifestations of his device. Often Molly will start a thought, move away from it to develop another thought, and then return to the first thought to develop it. This is readily apparent in the circuitous opening of sentence 5, which meanders around the details of Molly’s first important sexual encounter with Lieutenant Mulvey (624 – 625), loosely in a A1 B1 A2 B2 C1 etc. pattern if A, B, C etc. are ideas or topics. The formal elements of the language—long sentences of mostly small phrases that run together with no punctuation of any kind—likewise mirror the expansive physical properties of a woven cloth. Of course, Molly dreamily connects her lengthy scroll of thoughts to a variety of events, characters and themes introduced earlier in the novel; the massive scale of her recapitulation is, too, like a web.
But Molly’s sexual appetite is also web-like for its voracity and interrelated parts. “I’d like a new fellow every year,” Molly thinks in the throes of lust for Boylan (625). Her internal monologue touches on numerous fantasies and several actual encounters that trace her sexual history from servicemen in Gibraltar to Boylan; to more memories of Gibraltar; back to Leopold Bloom; then to Boylan again; to Simon Dedalus; to Stephen Dedalus; to Leopold and then to a host of previous partners remembered as she contemplates whether to say yes back to Bloom on the last page. The dialectical pattern of distance and contraction would seem to resolve itself in the imagined arms of her husband. But their actual reunion the following morning is not guaranteed. The dense tangle of Molly’s fantasies will have to be carefully extracted into a densely tangled reality of a failing marriage. Will Molly have the nerve, will she remember? Can straighten out her feelings for Leopold after her desires have wrapped themselves around so many other male figures? Lastly, the last two pages are misleading: While it’s far from explicit, the final moments phantasmagorically take place in two places at once. Molly, remembering Bloom on Howth head hill, also seems to be remembering “how he kissed me under the Moorish wall” (643). The “he” is ambiguous but might reasonably be assumed to mean Lieutenant Mulvey. While the “he” that proposes is certainly Bloom. Does this entanglement call into question the purity of the novel’s ending? It certainly wraps the chapter in mystery until the last sentence. That, an unapologetic paean for Molly’s love of Leopold, is the closest thing in the chapter to a true and pure thought.
Joyce also seems to draw the evident parallel between Penelope’s web and Klytaimnestra’s. Molly straddles both roles: her adultery aligns her with Klytaimnestra, but her ultimate affirmation pulls her towards Penelope. Both women’s types are defined by how they use a web: whereas Penelope distances and delays by her weaving, Klytaimnestra’s final action is to throw a web over Agaememnon in his bath, trapping him before slaughtering him brutally (cf. Yeats’s Leda and the Swan). Molly’s web synthesizes these functions: there is an indubitable contempt for Bloom at times, and a sexual tenebrity, but all, somehow, concludes with an affirmation.
Irony and Correspondence
At the conclusion of The Odyssey, Odysseus and Penelope are “mingled in love” in their bed. Ironically, at the conclusion of Ulysses Leopold and Molly only sleep together in Molly’s mind. Their reunion is hypothetical. In contrast with the prototypical man and wife, material objects and Molly’s preoccupation with them rather derails good love or sex between her and Leopold. It seems a deliberate effort by Joyce to associate one with the other: “here we are as bad as ever after 16 years,” Molly thinks on page 624, “how many houses were we in at all Raymond terrace and Ontario terrace,” whereas her happiest memories take place outside and among nature. For Molly and Leopold, the giving and receiving of gifts, the house itself, the history of poverty and jobs are a basic shared good to which they return again and again, dejected and disappointed.
But such an irony appears in nearly every correspondence of the Chapter. The reversal or revealed shallowness of Bloom’s homecoming includes finding that his wife was disloyal, that his Telemachus doesn’t love him, and that no one seems to want to sleep with him would be almost laughable if the pain and struggles of these characters wasn’t wrought so realistically.
Gibraltar and Ulysses
On the novel’s penultimate page, Molly is remembering how Leopold asks Molly to marry him as the sit on Howth head near Dublin. But her mind is back in her girlhood home, and the internal monologue weaves between Ireland and Gibraltar. The significance of Gibraltar would not be lost of Joyce: In antiquity, it was regarded as one of two mythical Pillars of Hercules, two rocks seperating the Mediterranean from uncharted seas. Their metaphorical significance, however, was as the limits of the western known world. By extension, they represent the nec plus ultra of antiquity; or, where the classical tradition leaves off. Ulysses, in Dante’s Inferno XXVI, relates to Virgil from hell how he dared to explore beyond them to gain knowledge of the unknown. Sailing to past the pillars, he and his countrymen encountered “the highest peak [he] had ever seen” (Inferno XXVI.135). “We leaped for joy — it quickly turned to grief,” he concludes, as a terrible wind sinks them before they get any closer to Purgatory.
At line 1580 of “Penelope”, Molly remembers how, waiting to answer Bloom’s proposal on Howth head, she looked at the sea and sky and was brought back to memories of Gibraltar. She “thinks of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope…” (643). The polysyndeton of that follows is a stream of nouns unknown to Bloom that ends with the Moorish wall. Metaphorically, beyond this lies Molly’s new life, a life of marriage but not necessarily one of happiness. And like Ulysses sailing past the Pillars of Hercules, when Molly “thought well as him as another,” she plunged herself into the unknown. And again like Ulysses, she “leaped for joy” at the thought of moving beyond girlhood infatuation into marriage and no regrets the loss of what she once had (e.g. “friends” on 640). (Of course, the connection of Molly with the Romanticism of the flower pulls the center of the thematic narrative somewhat outside this metaphor; when she is associated with something natural, something one with God’s light, Molly seems the happiest.) And the reader is too sailing into the unknown, leaving these characters behind as the novel ends, not knowing how or if the conflicts of the Bloom’s marriage will be resolved. An association of Dublin with Purgatory glimmers (Dante, Inferno XXVI, ). Learning and careful reading is the key to disappointment: Like the realization that the ambiguous man Molly kisses beneath the Moorish wall, who could theoretically be Bloom, is most likely Mulvey, these dispiriting connections are tentative and accessible mostly to readers well educated (overeducated?) in the Western Cannon.
As in the Odyssey, the narrative of Ulysses snakes back to cross over itself. The book ends where the marriage is conceived. Has Molly traded her happiness for a dull and unhappy Purgatorial existence in Dublin? Did the Lord Leopold cunningly abduct Molly from Gibraltar to Dublin, like Zeus dressed as a bull wrenching the maiden Europa away from Phoenicia to Crete? Molly would seem to have more agency than Europa. Certainly the ethos of Gibraltar, a place of youthful awakening, sunlight, and nature, is fundamental to Molly’s character. But is she doomed to suffer Leopold’s eccentricities, obliviousness, and impotence unhappily forever?
Aesthesis and Identity
Hints at the answer to such a question lie in the intertextual connections buried in “Penelope.” The recurring question of which rose to wear, Molly’s jealous comparison of her past beauty to Milly’s, and Molly’s constant evaluation of her appearance all suggest an excessive concern for what Molly understands as the perennial insufficiency of beauty. Her uncertainty of whether to wear a red or white flower points to Molly’s frustration with Bloom’s impotency. According to Gifford, it refers a song by H. S. Clarke and E. B. Farmer called “Shall I Wear a White Rose or Shall I Wear a Red?” But what the song knows that Molly does not “by the third stanza the girl-speaker realizes that if her beloved truly loves her, she won’t need to be decorated” (Gifford, 620). Seemingly unaware of the third stanza, Molly proceeds to her own drum. In other instances, Joyce seems to use Molly’s ignorance of these cultural materials as a key to pathos, an elevation that carries feminist undertones. That she is no longer beautiful is one obstacle, but that she is uneducated, unskilled and sequestered poses a second hurdle. Stephen’s arrival prompts Molly to express a desire to make herself smarter. But she doesn’t know how to begin: “if he comes out Ill read and study all I can find or learn a bit off by heart if I knew who he likes so he wont think me stupid” (640). The Don Giovanni quotation she sings on p. 641 (“ma fa pieta Masetto… presto non son piu forte”) is lyrical conversation that between a male character telling the female voice to “Come, my pretty delight! … I will change your fate.” Molly is singing her consent but gives no indication that she does consciously (Gifford, 632). Does she know what she sings? In this instance, as with her partial knowledge of sensational journalism and liminal grasp of Bloom’s fixations (met-em-pike-hoses), Molly seems to be stuck with the protasis of an unfulfilled conditional sentence. Joyce extends the possibility that if she possessed a more complete understanding of the lessons implicit in these songs, stories, and traditions, she might behave otherwise. Still, that understanding seems to become a barrier to action for Stephen and Leopold, and the reader is forced to doubt its didactic value in daily life.
Is This Madness
At the end of Ithaca, the catechist asks “How [has complete corporal liberty of action been circumscribed]?” In response, the catechumen informs him, “By various reiterated feminine interrogation concerning the masculine destination whither, the place where, the time at which…” (606) The passage asks us to define for ourselves “masculine” and “feminine,” whether we read them as ‘the male’s’ or, rather, averring an intrinsic masculine quality of “the place where”. Reading these propositions as gendered, the second option, launches a gendered poetics of space and time that picks up on then tendency throughout “Penelope” for men to insist on factual appositives, as when Bloom assaults Molly with his “tell me who,” trying to color her a “whore”.
There is also a complicated spatial element to Molly’s narrative. “Penelope” is, appropriately for a homecoming, the only episode that involves no movement whatever (excepting Molly’s visit to the chamber pot). Interestingly, though, her location on the second floor of the house evokes strongly the ‘madwoman in the attic’ cliché, current since at least Jane Eyre (The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar). Though the Odyssey’s spaces are also heavily gendered, Molly must confront, and synthesize, the Victorian expectation that a woman serve as the moral anchor of a household–a madwoman, or, an adulteress, removes that reference point and plunges the household into what would be, for the Victorians, a nightmare of moral relativism. Her manner of speech too sets her apart from the ‘sane’ men’s world. One might, read, then, “Penelope” as the account of what happens when Bloom finally confronts the lingering strangeness that has been in his own household all along, the hippopotamus in the novel’s room. Doing so, he loses his privileged narratorial bias, and is deconstructed to his habits and associations in the hands of a powerful female voice. The detail Molly refuses to reveal about her mother, too, emphasizes the extreme intimacy of this strangeness.
Less explicit is the resonance of these spatial poetics with Molly’s origins in Gibraltar. Similarly, its marginal physical location—perched at the very nipple of the Iberian peninsula—is utterly at odds with its strategic worth and outsize significance. It is a foreign body on staunchly Spanish soil, defined by the altitude of its dramatic rock. Whether there or on Eccles Street, Molly is the central character that somehow ends up constantly inhabiting a room in the attic. Going one (tentative) step further, one might liken this ascension to the attic and the embrace of the Other found there to the Jakobsonian dualism addressed earlier, between metonymy and metaphor. Going up to that room would be in that schema a thanatological instinct, the drive for an ending: as for Bloom, it marks his end as an active, speaking presence. But Molly’s sheer power of voice refuses to allow the novel to collapse into metaphor: the strength of her convictions and her tightly daedal prose force one to accept “Penelope” as a chapter that unfolds both in time and timelessly, and likewise the novel.
Dante Alighieri and James Finn Cottard, The Divine Comedy.
Don Gifford, Ulysses Annotated.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic.
Roman Jakobson, Fundamentals of Language.
James Joyce, Ulysses.
All Yale Modernism Lab in-text citations of Ulysses have been formatted in the following style: