First, let's do our best to settle a long-held debate over "Penelope:" Joyce is not a woman. In the years after Ulysses was published, a lot of people observed Molly's sexual frankness and thought that Joyce had just created Bloom's wife as a prostitute. With time, they came to appreciate just how nuanced Molly's thoughts were and they sort of stepped back and revised their earlier opinions. But with the growth of feminist criticism in the 1970's, the debate was taken up again. The problem, the critics pointed out, is that this is known as a big feminist moment in literature: look at James Joyce open up the female perspective. The critics said, "That's not the female perspective! If you men think that all we think about at night is sex and how we're seen by the men in our lives, then you've got another think coming!" Point taken.
Joyce is not a woman. He doesn't know how women think, but he's trying. It's well known that Molly was modeled on Joyce's wife Nora Barnacle, who he was married to all his life and with whom he was passionately in love. Nora was from the west of Ireland, and in contrast to Joyce's historic erudition, she was a very down to earth woman who didn't even think Joyce was much of a writer. As she put it, he should have stuck to music.
Now at one point there was a rumor going around Dublin that Nora had slept with an acquaintance of Joyce's early on in their relationship. It drove Joyce nearly mad with jealousy. More likely than not, it was nothing but a rumor, but for Joyce it became an incredible neurosis. For all of his genius, one simple thing he couldn't imagine was having the person you love most sleep with someone else. In his 1909 letters to his wife, he is at first harsh and accusatory, but gradually becomes more honest and reveals just how vulnerable and helpless he feels.
So one way to think of the end of this book is that Joyce is making an effort to imagine his wife's point of view in the worst of all possible worlds (the one where she actually is having an affair). These last few chapters – where Bloom resigns himself to Molly's affair – could not have been easy for Joyce to write. It's as if he is taking his jealousy and turning it inside out, using it as a weapon against itself, as if he's using his jealousy in order to imagine how a woman could cheat on her husband and still love him. Now whether or not he succeeds in blowing open a female perspective is, we admit, a matter of debate. But it's important to note that this is an honest try, and that the effort probably says as much about the male point of view (or attempts to overcome the male point of view) as it does about the female.
That said, this episode is spicy. Molly really is extremely frank about sex. She compares the size of Boylan's penis to Bloom's and talks about her orgasm in great detail (plus a lot of other stuff that we won't go into here). If you think that's pretty straightforward sex talk in the 21st century just take a second to imagine how it would have come across in extremely Christian Dublin almost a hundred years ago.
But Joyce has an aim here. If you take a look at the 1909 letters, you'll see that in the blink of an eye Joyce will go from talking about Nora as if she were the Virgin Mary to telling her in graphic detail what he wants to do to her in bed. What he is trying to do is to explode a common preconception about what women have to be. Part of the typical feminist critique of masculine culture is that it is founded on the division of "woman/ mother/ prostitute" (Froula, Modernism's Body, 88). Meaning that the only way women could attain respectable social status was by marrying a man or by being pure. For men, by contrast, one could grow to old age as a bachelor who pops into the brothel on a regular basis and still expect to function in polite society. Joyce is here trying to lasso this prejudice against women, to reveal Molly as a virgin (in the sense that Bloom worships her as if she were a goddess), a mother, and a "prostitute." As with Bloom, you can't come to an easy judgment about Molly. You have to accept all of her, good and bad, attractive and ugly, saintly and debased.
We'll take a second to note that the above could probably be boiled down into one of the take-home messages of Ulysses: "Don't be ashamed of your body or what you do with it. It's natural."
We've noted that Joyce at least tries to open up the female perspective. Remember that Homer never did. In the Odyssey, Penelope has told the eager suitors that she will choose one of them after she finishes weaving a shawl for Laertes, Odysseus's father. Except that she has just been sitting up in her room weaving and then unweaving the shawl waiting (she assumes in vain) for Odysseus. When her nurse, Euryclea, tells her that Odysseus has returned, Penelope does not believe her and thinks it is a god in disguise. She isn't convinced until Odysseus reveals his knowledge of the secret construction and immovability of their marriage bed (which only the two of them know about). They move into bed together and tell stories to each other. Odysseus gets up the next morning with an aim to pacify the island.
Now as in "Ithaca," this is one of those episodes that is more notable for its contrasts to the Odyssey than it is for its correlations. Here, Bloom doesn't exactly return home triumphant (or it wouldn't seem that way at first). Molly has slept with her false suitor and is reflecting back on it with pleasure. Plus the whole thing is from Molly's (i.e., Penelope's) point of view. Penelope is the missing perspective from the Odyssey: how does it feel to wait at home for your husband for seven years with no idea about whether or not he's going to return?
In Ulysses, as we read through Molly's bedtime thoughts we are forced to constantly revise our earlier conceptions of her. Up until the final episode, we've mainly heard other men gossip about her beauty and her promiscuity. Though Bloom thinks of her fondly, we get the sense that she is being incredibly cruel to her poor husband. Here, we learn that Molly suspects Bloom has been carrying on a number of little affairs and liaisons, and that he has not slept with her in over ten years. We add to that the fact that Boylan is her first actual affair in all of this time and that Bloom often acts cold and affectionless toward her. Given her own guilt over the death of their son Rudy, Bloom has not been the most ideal and sympathetic husband imaginable. By the end of the episode, we can begin to see things from her point of view: "its all his own fault if I am an adulteress" (18.780).
That's not to say that this is the right way of seeing things, that everything we've read so far has been incorrect. But Ulysses forces us to imagine a wide variety of points of view, to make us realize that any given event can only be understood when looked at in a variety of ways. As readers, we've got our critical light bulbs turned on and we're struggling to figure out what's correct, to come to one coherent judgment on the events. Joyce is determined to frustrate us, to make us realize that we've only seen one day in the life of the Bloom's. Who can judge people after only one day of knowing them?
In the last few pages of the book, Molly's thoughts turn to her husband and the time that he proposed to her on Howth's Head. This is often read as a small triumph for Bloom. Despite the fact that Molly is having an affair, her affections are ultimately still for her husband. The way we read this, the triumph is not just a small one for Bloom – it is a triumph of life over death, of affirmation over negation, of language over silence.
The prose in the last few pages of Ulysses is breathtakingly beautiful. Throughout Bloom's day, we've been forced to see all the banal unattractive parts of life: boredom, hunger, despair, the need to go to the bathroom, broken trust, small-mindedness, unrealizable dreams, apathy, our own insignificance. Joyce gives us a lot of very good reasons to think that life is a pretty tiny and horrible thing. Of course, we read this and we think that our life isn't going to be like Bloom's. I mean, he's one pathetic guy, our life will be infinitely better than Bloom's. But, truth be told, we have no way of knowing what our life is going to be. It's quite possible that one day we'll find ourselves in Bloom's shoes, in a marriage based more in fondness than in romantic love, in a place where most of our dreams are stretched out behind us rather than laid out in front of us. And for all that, Joyce is telling us: Do not despair. He's telling us to say yes to life, to swallow it whole, to find happiness wherever we can.
In the words of Molly Bloom, "I thought well as well him as another 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).