by James Joyce
Marion (Molly) Bloom
An Absent Adulteress
For seventeen of the eighteen episodes in Ulysses, we don't get anything but a fleeting glimpse of Mrs. Molly Bloom. In "Calypso," she asks Leopold about the word, "metempsychosis." He tries explaining it in highfalutin terms, and she says, "O rocks! Tell us in plain words" (4.116). But other than that brief flash of her humor and her charm, Molly becomes confined to the words and thoughts of others.
In the men's gossip about town, we quickly learn that Molly is attractive. The general consensus seems to be that her marriage to Bloom is a tragic case of disproportionate beauty, so to speak. John Henry Menton remembers how beautiful she used to be, and wonders why she married a "coon" like Bloom. Often, men offer up an off-color remark about Molly. Lenehan takes it the furthest, when he claims to have groped Molly in a carriage while Bloom was seated just across the way. Later on in "Penelope," we learn that Lenehan's boast is blatantly untrue.
We learn the most about Molly, though, through Bloom's thoughts of her. To an extent, he worships her. He thinks she is a much better singer than the wife of M'Coy, and he romanticizes her childhood in Gibraltar, and her cultural background. The dominant tone, though, is one of sadness. Bloom is tormented by the fact that Molly is going to cheat on him later that same day. Out of sympathy for our protagonist, we can't help but view Molly as an unsympathetic adulteress – how could she do this to Leopold?
Interestingly, in the last episode, we find that Molly herself is very in tune with how she is perceived. In her soliloquy before she nods off to sleep, she turns many of our assumptions inside out.
A Prostitute or a Feminist Voice?
Prostitute is an ugly word. We know. But that's the word a lot of people picked to describe Joyce's portrayal of Molly Bloom after the book came out. Her bluntness about sexual matters – from different positions, to the sensation of her orgasm, to the pros and cons of oral sex – shocked many readers. More importantly, perhaps, it seems that she organizes her entire life in terms of the men that she has known. At first glance, it can almost seem as if Molly doesn't exist separate from one romantic pursuit or another.
Molly may love her husband, but her thoughts about their sex life can be off-putting: "pretending to like it till he comes and then finish it off myself anyway" (18.740). Her concern for her own sexual pleasure comes through in her erotic thought, "I can feel his mouth O Lord I must stretch myself I wished he was here or somebody to let myself go with and come again like that I feel all fire inside me" (18.754). Of course, one must remember that these are supposed to be Molly's private thoughts, that she wouldn't imagine readers poring over them almost a hundred years later.
But it has been extremely disconcerting to many feminists that these words were put in Molly's head by a man. Often women readers and critics are displeased with Joyce's portrayal of a woman's inner life: "If you think that all we think about all day is men and sex, you've got another thing coming."
These readers and critics have a point, especially considering that Ulysses is Joyce's attempt to blast open the female point-of-view, the point-of-view missing from the Odyssey and much of the male-dominated literary world. In her soliloquy, Molly does spend a lot of time thinking about the hypocritical nature of male-female relations. At one point, she thinks, "They can go on and get whatever they like from anything at all with a skirt on it and were not to ask any questions but they want to know were you where are you going I could feel him coming along skulking after me" (18.746). For the most part, though, Molly has been rejected as a feminist voice. And we think it makes sense that the real blasting open of the female perspective should come from a woman (e.g. Virginia Woolf).
Yet Molly is a remarkable character, and one possible way to get past the feminist/anti-feminist debate might just be to accept the fact that she is a male creation. In 1909, an acquaintance of Joyce's, Cosgrave, suggested to him that when he (Joyce) had first begun seeing his wife, Nora that Cosgrave had also been "seeing" her. The suggestion drove Joyce mad with jealousy, which is now documented in the letters that he sent to his wife. At first, they are furious, but they gradually become more honest and reveal just how vulnerable Joyce felt.
So one way to think of Molly's soliloquy is as Joyce's attempt to imagine how his wife might have reasoned through the worst of all possible worlds: the one in which she is having an affair. It's a masochistic task, but it's also an attempt to empathize with his wife, to overcome his sexual possessiveness of her. Through Molly, one might say that Joyce tries to turn his jealousy inside-out, to use it against itself in order to imagine his wife's point of view. There's no doubt that Joyce's own sexual neuroses find expression in Molly's sexual cravings – as if he's lashing himself for being so envious of her. We're not saying this is the right or the only way to read "Penelope," but it is one way of moving beyond some aspects of the feminist/anti-feminist debate.
Whether or not Joyce nails it, his portrait of Molly is his honest attempt to capture (as a man) the female point of view.
The Blunt Muse
Molly's monologue forces us to reevaluate a lot of earlier ideas about what's going on in Ulysses. In particular, we have to reevaluate Leopold Bloom. Until "Penelope," we've been sympathetic with the cuckold husband. Here, though, Molly voices her suspicions that Bloom has been messing around on his own. She reveals that not only has he been unable to have sex with her for over ten years, but he has also been cold and affectionless. As Molly thinks, "its all his own fault if I am an adulteress" (18.780).
This upheaval in our judgments and thoughts about the book reveals the extent to which Molly has been a hidden presence in the first seventeen episodes. We spend a lot of time noticing how characters are perceived in their own minds and in the minds of others. (This is, for example, a major preoccupation of Stephen's.) In "Penelope," we find that Molly has a very acute sense of how she is perceived by others. It's as if this sensibility underlies all the careful distinctions made between one's inner and outer life that shaped the book.
Molly is also a singer, and as the book moves on, the prose becomes more and more musical. "Sirens" is the most obvious example, but in other parts the literal meaning of words seems to get a back seat to the melody and play of their sounds. It's like Molly's musical voice began to pervade the pages of the book long before we explicitly encountered her point of view.
Thinking of Molly as the muse of the book also gains credence when one acknowledges that she was based on Joyce's wife, Nora Barnacle. Nora was from the West of Ireland, and in contrast to Joyce's erudition, she was relatively uneducated. She didn't even think much of her husband's writing. In her opinion, he should have stuck to music (Ellmann, James Joyce, 169).
Yet Joyce was fascinated by her. She had a simple and frank manner that captivated him, and she seemed to be much more natural than he himself could ever hope to be. One can get a glimpse of this frankness when Molly derides the supposed learning of the men about town. She thinks, "as for them saying theres no God I wouldn't give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why don't they go and create something" (18.782). Molly is not Nora, but one can see Joyce's obsession shine through as he tries to follow Molly's wandering thoughts through eight sprawling sentences.
A final point, but the last words of the book are reserved for Molly. Within them, she re-affirms her commitment to her husband by remembering his proposal on Howth's head. The fact that this is a memory is complicated, but here's one way to think of it: the book turns inside itself.
What we mean by this is that we've been set up to expect all sorts of things from the action in the book. We want Stephen and Bloom to become great friends, and we want Molly to renounce Boylan and to throw her arms around Bloom instead. All of these expectations get thwarted, but it's through memory, through the recollection of what's already there that the book reaches its happy conclusion and its resounding note of affirmation. Whereas we had been expecting the future as the province of happiness, we now find that happiness was here already if one could only remember it. In the thoughts of Molly
"and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes." (18.783)