Compare and Contrast Two or Three Episodes from Ulysses
James Joyce’s 1922 novel, Ulysses, is a recast of one of the most formulaic and fundamental plots of the Western canon, Homer’s Odyssey. The novel is divided into eighteen episodes, which is set on the 16th of June 1904 in Dublin. Joyce fills the lengthy novel with bathetic mythical parallels and exhibits mimesis with its main protagonist, Leopold Bloom, ‘othered’ in every sense from his classifications as Jewish and cuckoldry whose wife, Molly Bloom, ‘consummates’ an affair at approximately ‘four o’clock’. This essay will aim to discuss the positive representation of women within this modernist epic. As Callow cites in her work, ‘Joyce’s Female Voices in “Ulysses”’, Joyce’s relationship with ‘feminism’ remains undeniably ‘problematic’, receiving criticism from critics such as Carolyn Heilbrun and Mary Ellmann. The focus of this argument will center around the deviation of Leopold’s and Stephen’s narrative during the episodes ‘Nausicaa’ and ‘Penelope’.
Not only his novels but Joyce, himself, has come under criticism from feminist theory, with Suzette A. Henke even claiming Joyce ‘apportioned’ womanhood to its ‘sexual aspects’ with Molly Bloom. However, to read the entirety of ‘Penelope’ and only deduce the sexual aspects of Molly’s character can only fit into a radical feminist opinion upon sexuality. Her governess and sexual agency assert her as one of the main vehicles driving the plot forward in the novel, she is in no manner passive. The lack of a strong female voice in the history of literature has led to feminist literary theory seeking to examine old texts within literary canon through a new lens. Anette Kolodny, a theorist of feminist interpretation, cites that it is ‘her right’ to choose which features of a text she takes a ‘relevant’. Within this notion of feminist literary theory framework, this essay will analyze the contents of the two female narrated episodes of Ulysses, ‘Nausicaa’ and ‘Penelope’.
Joyce granting Molly Bloom, the novel’s initial obscure object of desire, contrasts the throngs of male-dominated canon novels, which leave their women voiceless subjects seen only through limiting masculine narrative. Secondly, as Hugh Kenner notes, ‘Penelope’ is the only episode in which Joyce does not ‘interrupt’. This idea of her interrupted soliloquy working in contingency with the episode’s form, ‘outside the fixed language of androcentricism’ moves in steps towards an empowering feminine language which alludes to feminist, Hélene Cixous’s theory of écriture féminine, rebuts Henke’s criticism of the representation of Molly Bloom. Gerty McDowell’s the subject of Bloom’s attention within Nausicaa, autonomy cannot be denied as it is her perspective and interpretation of the subsequent of the episode which even on the surface layer move her from a passive character into an active one, as it is her who guides the readers.
Contained within Molly’s infamous ending soliloquy, the flow of the narrative showcases the transience of emotional process as they occur, deviating from conventional narratives with afterthoughts. Free of punctuation, Molly’s ideas and thoughts progress naturally, without interruption, with her mind free of constraint, she is finally granted her own say on her own actions and subsequent events, in which she ruminates Leopold must have ‘came’ somewhere due to his ‘appetite’. Her narrative encapsulates her husband, subjecting her to her own criticism and also gives her autonomy through fleshing her out as a person, no longer limiting her character through observations made by the men in the book. The writing style ties into notions theorized by French feminist Luce Irigaray, who surmises ‘feminine’ writing is ‘always fluid’.
The fluidity of ‘Penelope’ with its lack of punctuation and formless stylization feeds into écriture féminine, a previously mentioned theory, which Henderson cites ‘anticipates’ the feminist theories of Irigaray. Écriture féminine is a theory which is associated with French Second Wave Feminism, and looks at the ‘inscription’ of the female body and the difference in text and language, to cite Showalter’s definition.Henderson continues to theorize that this anticipation of écriture féminine deconstructs patriarchal structures, formally put in place in the novel. Molly’s ramblings flesh out her character, and while sexuality underlay much of her musings, she is always in control of the situation, harnessing her physicality to become the controller of situations, such as the one with the lieutenant Jack Joe Harry Mulvey, whom she teases by opening her blouse while disallowing him permission to touch her anywhere. In comparison to ‘Nausicaa’, which presents a complex narrative, with some critics such as Arthur Power deducing that nothing occurred between Leopold and Gerty MacDowell, however, this essay will reject that idea as it undermines Gerty’s feminine voice and takes on the events, setting the episode in a patriarchal structure. Gerty MacDowell, influenced by Victorian popular culture, mirrors some of Flaubert’s Emma Bovary’s ‘libidinal desires’.
This can be observed in her pleasure garnered from Leopold’s infamous masturbation on Sandymount. Emma Bovary and Gerty MacDowell, are two women whose circumstances are determined by the position of women in their respective eras. Gerty, while physically lame and vulnerable, she also occupies a vulnerable position of early twentieth century Dublin, where she is female, unmarried and poor. She comes from a low-income social context which limits her mobility within society, paired with her disability from an accident coming down ‘Dalkey hill’, places Gerty’s position precariously in society. Both women, Molly and Gerty feel the effects of their patriarchal society which dictates the specific roles of mother and wife for them to fill. Notably, both women fail at both of their roles, which deconstructs the Victorian feminine ideal of an angel in the attic, a literary trope critiqued by feminist Virginia Woolf. Gerty is unwed and childless, while Molly is adulterous with a dead child, who she refuses to allow make her upset anymore during ‘Penelope’.
Victorian’s popular culture has a weighted influence on ‘Nausicaa’s’ Gerty, with much of her interior monologue focuses on such, showcasing how Victorian culture has shaped her behavior, conditioned her perception on chastity and obsession with image. ‘Nausicaa’ can be interpreted as a criticism of how Victorian society has wronged its women, molding Gerty in such a way she is pliant and accepting of Leopold’s sexual perversion. In ‘Prostitution, Incest, and Venereal Disease in Ulysses’ “Nausicaa”’ cites the jarring juxtaposition of Gerty’s section to Bloom’s section, suggests a parallactic perspective – a common motif running throughout Ulysses – which acts as a ‘satirical’ take on both femininity and masculinity. Molly also shares Gerty’s ‘penchant’ for the ‘romantic’, as observed in her final musings on how Leopold deemed her ‘flower of the mountain’.
Molly’s soliloquy ends in rumination of a romantic setting of her and Leopold among the ‘rhododendrons’ of Howth head, which contrasts sharply with her earlier topics including her adultery with Boylan and the death of Rudy. This softer side of Molly is reminiscent of Gerty’s quixotic narrative, showcasing the humility of the two characters, marking them as human above female.
‘Nausicaa’s’ female language encodes and deconstructs Victorian patriarchal confinements by giving a voice to a young women’s silenced experiences, by showcasing how Gerty must operate within society if she is to succeed. Gerty, while influenced by popular culture is aware of her position in society and knows that marriage is the only way to elevate her status. She desires a husband who will go out ‘to the business’ so to provide for her.
While feminist critics will condemn women relying on men, within the context of Ulysses’ society, Gerty is attempting to utilize what prowess she exerts over men, her sexuality, in order to receive stability from them. In contrast to Molly, who was the active agent in her and Leopold’s relationship as it was her who chose him because she could ‘always get around him’, thus showcasing Molly’s control, Gerty does not have such privileges due to her disability.
Questions stemming from Gerty’s true identity, hint at the position, through her links with Cissy Caffery, Edy Boardman, and Bertha Supple, all of which, citing Mark Shechner’s psychoanalytical reading of the text, make an appearance in the hallucinatory brothel scene. Within this reading, Gerty can be viewed as much more than her hyperbolic language and deemed as the ‘second most important’ female character in Ulysses’
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