Monday, May 9, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Eighteen: Penelope

[Link to previous chapters here]

With "Ithaca," Joyce achieved such breadth of language, so infinite, so microscopic, that you'd be forgiven for thinking the book was over. Where else can he go? It is at that point that the author addresses the one missing link, the one area not covered in his melting pot of language, perspective and dimension and the one that, if deleted, would render Ulysses the most broken and incomplete: the input of a woman.

I read "Penelope" one sentence at a time, to which some might say, "Yes, well done, Jake. Hope you didn't get any headaches." But do please keep in mind that there are eight sentences in this chapter. The chapter is 42 pages long. There are no periods, and my edition only has paragraph breaks in-between the 8 sentences because some kind soul followed the schema and inserted them later. Otherwise, I'd be left with nothing but un-punctuated block text for 42 pages. You'd be amazed how appreciative a person can be for 8 presses of the tab button.

So, after building up Molly to be a sort of mythic figure, hanging over the novel and Bloom's entire trek around Dublin, Joyce finally lets her have a say. And dear Lord, does she have a lot on her mind. If "Ithaca" pulled back into objectivity to capture the scenario with clarity and scientific precision, "Penelope" is all about emotional truth. It's about the full-on churning whirlpool of feelings, private thoughts and trivial concerns that goes on within each of us, but Molly's thoughts bear the added weight of having been dammed up so long, not only by Joyce but Bloom himself.

In short order, she slices our vision of Leopold to ribbons. Even if you've noted the inconsistencies in his fretting over his wife's infidelity as he sends naughty letters to Martha Clifford or reminisces about prostitutes, it's difficult to prepare for the force of Molly's demolition of the double standard. Where Bloom forgives Molly for her affair, she simply disregards his flirtations with bitterness. Just as Poldy figured out Boylan's intrusion from her hidden letters, so too did she figure out Bloom was trading post with another woman, though she assumes the lady wants Bloom's money; "no fool like an old fool," she thinks. Molly notes that men can get away will gallivanting all night with impunity but women get hounded at every step by the same men who demand their freedom to go and do as they please.

She's suffered for her husband. Molly too had to contend with the death of her child (and we learn that she, like Leopold, never wanted to conceive again because of the pain of that loss), but he cannot break from it and therefore prevents her from recovering as well. Bloom comes off as feminine in his walk around Dublin, what with his passivity and calm response to the drinking of the Irish Catholics around him -- Molly shares in Joyce's disgust of them, by the way; "they call that friendship killing and then burying one another," she practically spits inside her skull. But now we see how classically masculine and manipulative so much of his thinking and behavior has been and how he's as patriarchal as anyone else.

Mingled in with these big feminine thoughts are simpler stream-of-consciousness rants. In her rambling monologue are farts, menstruation concerns and a graphic comparison of size, performance, payload of her husband and her lover. In-between grandiose ruminations on men and gender roles, she gets annoyed that she can't pass wind because her husband sleeps with his head by her feet, which in turn makes her worry that he'll have a spasm in the night and kick out all her teeth. This all just drops into the prose, never broken up by so much as a comma.

But as dark and forceful as her gales of repressed feelings can be, Molly also finds her own grace. She reflects approvingly on Bloom's kindness and generosity, as well as noting that Boylan is rude and tactless in comparison and cares only for sex. She cannot find someone who can give her balance, Bloom's consideration and Boylan's physical care. In this sense, her frustration and anger is understandable, but it gives way to moments of quieter sadness that are quite affecting.

After the scientific minutiae of the previous chapter, Joyce uses what might technically be his simplest language yet -- in terms of construction, at least. But if the words aren't as heady, what the language conveys is as complex as anything yet demonstrated even in the novel's most difficult sections.

It is important at this point to note the influence of Joyce's wife Nora on this. For a great collection of starter information on their relationship and how it affected Ulysses, check out Sheila O'Malley's piece on this chapter (and by the way, HUGE props to Sheila for helping me through this book, not only with her chapter-by-chapter pieces with background info and wonderfully guiding analysis but a bunch of Twitter chat that made reading this all the more enjoyable and rewarding). Joyce set the book on the day of their first "date," which, thanks Jimmy, way to make anniversaries impossible for the rest of us. All those post-WWII American ex-pats must have hated every anniversary. "Oh Zelda, what did Scott get you? A feather boa? Oh, that's cool. Me? Not much, just the dedication of the towering literary achievement of the 20th century. Bu seriously, that boa is sick."

Nora wasn't anything like Joyce. She wasn't particularly well-read, didn't delight in his intellectual analysis of language and, like Bloom did Stephen, wondered why her husband couldn't use his incredible singing voice to get money and do his little tomes on the side. Their poverty, transience and the developing schizophrenia of their daughter strained their relationship, but they stayed together until Joyce's death. Supposedly some of Nora's private letters to her sister reveal brutal assessments of her husband and his talent, but she never strayed from the equally dedicated Jimmy.

You see that in Molly. She's a simple lass: she doesn't even like the sultry romance novels Bloom brings her because they're too fantastical and lofty. Some of her thoughts are literal to the point of hilarity: she muses on how breasts drive a man wild but comments upon the grotesque nature of the penis and that it's no wonder Classical art displays bared breasts but covers male genitalia with leaves. But simple doesn't inherently mean stupid, and Joyce's humanism finds its zenith in the expression of her unfiltered fantasies and ruminations. He's knocked every other pedestal down, and the feminine is the highest of them all. By bringing it down, he gets to experience the full power of the unsuppressed woman.

At times this chapter can be scary. It's almost as if Molly has read the previous 17 chapters and has seen what her husband has been able to get away with by hoodwinking the audience. She also responds to the typing of the Madonna in Nausicaa and the whore in Circe. Complicated as those characters were once studied, they pale in comparison to Molly, who is the only one of the three to truly have her story told. She's so incensed that even her more supportive thoughts of her husband and his endearing quirks carry an acidic edge. It's up to her to provide a well-rounded woman that does not fit into a type, and those frightening bursts of loathing -- she thinks near the end how easily she could humiliate her husband with open acknowledgment of her affair -- are a means of chaotically reestablishing balance. In the Scylla and Charybdis episode, Stephen takes note of a mother's love being perhaps the only true constant in this world and how telling it was that the Church built its foundation upon the vague and controlling bedrock of patriarchy. But the book too has confined its vision to Bloom's paternal views, and here at last is the maternal voice.

That side of Molly is reflected in Joyce's repeated use of the word "yes." It's positive, an affirmation instead of a denial or resignation. If read in a certain light, the entire chapter comes off as the slow buildup to an orgasm. This becomes unmistakably clear in the final run, in which Molly flashes back in thoughts to Bloom proposing to her and the language builds with such passion, beauty and quick, panting repetition of thought that the handful of recorded readings I've listened to all make obvious that she's masturbating and climaxing not to one of her many fantasies or the thought of Boylan and his huge package but her husband's loving, respectful and romantically intoxicated request for her hand. It's a shattering moment of coital literature as erotic as anything in Sweets of Sin, I'd wager and the final, hopeful touch that proves both husband and wife, for all their issues, really do have that connection they always did. If Bloom's humanistic acceptance of the situation seemed the mature, collected approach, Molly's wild session could provide the force needed to get this marriage going again if she only knew how much Bloom still loves her.

So where, in the end, do I stand with Ulysses? It's awkward to even offer my own opinion, given how much I've relied on the efforts who have spent years (in some cases, decades) parsing out the mysteries and language of the book. I don't know that I had any one entirely original thought with this book; I had to rely so much on those other sources to figure out what as going on that even my fleeting bits of interpretation were all built off someone else's point. But I really do feel changed by this book. Once it seeped into my system, I couldn't stop. It took me three months to read this, but if I'd not been so busy when I first started and could have gotten deeper into the book than I did before hiatuses set in, I think I could have read it all in only a few weeks. It's that addicting. It challenged my approach to characters, my preferences for prose style and, frankly, my patience. Furthermore, I think the fact that I had to consult so many others taught me a lesson in humility: I'm so used to trying to analyze movies and albums and such that I forget that sometimes, you need a helping hand, and it's better to admit that and continue with something that can change you than to quietly slip out the back and pretend you never started tackling something.

For a book that required me to read as much about every chapter as the chapters themselves, Ulysses gutted me, and the relief I thought I'd feel for finishing it was instead supplanted by a mild regret that it's over and a mind buzzing with questions over what happened to the characters. I'd actually begun to enjoy cross-referencing my own confusion with plot summaries and analytical readings, finding whole new ways to read the book that altered everything I thought I'd figured out about the style of a chapter or the meaning of a particularly dense passage. I'm done now, but I want to follow these characters some more, and that's the best praise I can offer for a book that already devoted 732 pages to what is essentially one long dick and fart joke.


  1. I have been reading along with you as you go through this book and it's been so fun to hear your thoughts. You make me want to read it again!

    I love your thoughts here on how much all else that came before is upended by Molly's monologue. It is a great humanist act. If we didn't get to hear Molly's side of things the book would not be the great masterpiece that it is. The funny thing is: Molly's monologue looks so daunting - no punctuation - just huge blocks of text for forty run-on-sentence pages - but when I've heard women read it out loud, it all makes sense - and it's HILARIOUS. Heartbreaking at times, too - but funny, biting, sarcastic, realistic ...

    Joyce was always more romantic that his wife Nora, who was kind of a wisecracker - and he saw something universal in that, something that goes beyond the stereotype (of woman being mushy and romantic, and men being firm and practical). He called bollocks on that. Bloom, in the beach scene where he spies on Gertie and then masturbates shows how women were seen at that time (and I suppose, to some degree, now) - kind of delicate, coy, womanly, and complete objects. No way of entry into their psyches. Completely 'other'. Joyce was susceptible to that mindset as well - but he lived in such close proximity to a woman that he just couldn't accept it as true. I think many men (especially in literature) are never able to bridge that divide. They instead remain BAFFLED that women do not act like the women in the romance novels. It's like they're disappointed when women are human. Joyce blasts all of that to bits by imagining himself so fully into this particular woman's experience that when I've seen it read out loud, women through the audience howl with laughter in recognition of themselves. It's just amazing!!

    And yes, (i said yes I will yes) the orgasm buildup is one of those things that becomes immediately apparent when you read it out loud. Joyce is one of those guys who seems to NEED to be read out loud. Bastard. He demands you work to understand his effects. But as the "yes" starts to repeat itself, you can feel her starting to build up and bring herself there ... I mean, this just wasn't done at the time in literature! And there's nothing dirty about it - she's not fantasizing about her lover, she's propelling herself into loving memories of her husband ... It's another stereotype blasted to bits. I mean, masturbation is a commonplace, obviously, everyone does it - we walk around in life out in public, and we all know we all do this private thing, but you know, you don't walk around talking about it. It's one of those weird things. it certainly wasn't discussed then, especially not from the female side of things.

    After spending the entire book judging Molly for her infidelities - that last section almost DARES you to keep judging her. And if you do decide to keep judging her, then it is as if you are making the decision to turn your back on compassion/humanity/life. Joyce demands that we see ourselves in Molly. There's no other way it could work.

    Just phenomenal stuff.

    Jake, I have loved reading all of your essays about this book - so well thought out and well considered - and it has given me a shot of vicarious excitement to watch you discover this great book. And yes, hahaha - it's totally one long dick and fart joke. Classic!!!

  2. This is great stuff, Sheila. I think you're spot-on about how Joyce tries to get beneath the reductive (even unintentionally so) views of women in literature; I totally forgot to mention the line when Molly thinks about a bunch of romantic poets and thinks "they all write the same woman in their poetry." Even the noblest and most loving of Romantics still doesn't really get women.

    I thought about that last night when I FINALLY got the chance to see CERTIFIED COPY on the big screen. It's an arthouse in Alabama, so obviously the place wasn't packed, but I'd say there were about six women and four other men. ALL of the women laughed throughout; they laughed at Binoche acting like a harpy wife from the start (and I didn't realize that she basically starts playing her "game" as soon as Shimell gets in her car and they discuss his book) and then kept laughing when she forces him to be childish. The men just coughed and cleared their throats. I was DYING.

    Kiarostami, like Joyce, knows that he doesn't and can't fully understand women because he's a man, but they show how women are not simple, one-sided characters. Molly is even more contradictory than Bloom and a lot more emotionally complex, and all the simple views of her are thrown out the window.

  3. If you tell me that you've read and liked "Finnegans Wake," I'll never be able to look at you the same way again.

  4. Meredith, Finnegans is on my to-read list, but I can't overload on Joyce like that all at once. My next "big" read is The Brothers Karamazov. I went back-and-forth between that and Moby Dick, but at least I've read pieces of Moby Dick so Dostoevsky won out.

  5. Finnegans Wake is awesome, too! But I had to read it out loud to really understand it. It's a work of genius - but it;s all puns and references and inside jokes - it's insufferable in many ways, but taken as a whole one of the towering works of the 20th century.

    Speaking of Nora Joyce - after her husband's death, reporters would always ask her about Ulysses - she commented once, "Why do these men keep asking me about Ulysses? Finnegans Wake is the really important book."

    I'm inclined to agree with the Galway girl.

  6. Sheila, have you heard of the "remaster" (that almost seems the best word for it) of Finnegans Wake being done by Houyhnhnm Press -- with a name like that, who could resist? I think you can buy it now, but it's only in special editions that run either $410 or $1200, and I'm sorry, for that kind of money Joyce better come to me in a dream and explain what the fuck is happening. But I believe a paperback might be coming out after the UK copyright expires. Supposedly they made a bunch of alterations, but those who've praised the changes have been effusive. At the very least, it might make for a more readable version for a first-read before tackling the unedited version.

  7. Yes - I did a post on it when I first heard about it. I'm not wacky about the idea - but I'll have to see. Once I started reading it out loud the whole thing makes sense. It is IMPOSSIBLE to "figure out" - not unless you learn Hindu and Danish and ... oh, I don't know ... ancient Druid dialects ... Joyce was nuts. There is no way I can ever "catch up" with Joyce, but I've been to public readings of it and it reads great - it's hilarious. Kinda dumb in many ways - just pun after pun after pun ... but his felicity with language is what stuns. Off the charts.

  8. Like Sheila, I've also been reading your blog as I plow through Ulysses. Along with your insights into each chapter (which helped immensely), I've found myself turning to your blog during those painfully slow moments of reading. Thank you for helping me get through!

    It's funny that Brothers Karamazov is the next book on your reading list--it happens to be mine as well. Hope you start posting about it!