Books Magazine

Ulysses, Chapter Eighteen: Penelope

By Jake Cole @notjustmovies
[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 of others across years and (in some cases) decades to parse 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 wen 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.

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