Episode Eighteen: The Female Perspective in Joyce’s Ulysses
James Joyce’s Ulysses is unlike any other novel. With a variety of characters, a stream-of-consciousness narrative, parodies, allusions, and obscenities, Joyce’s eighteen-episode novel illustrates only a single Dublin day. While the first thirteen episodes present a substantial number of questions, confusion, and comedic relief, the remaining five experiment with alternative narrative techniques. From the form of a play script in Episode Fifteen to the question-and-answer narrative in Episode Seventeen, Joyce explores various methods, challenging the conventional modes of storytelling. The final episode, Episode Eighteen (also known as “Penelope”), delivers the novel from the female perspective of Molly Bloom. Molly Bloom, Leopold Bloom’s sexually flirtatious wife, narrates her feminine viewpoint on assorted events and her relationship with Bloom in an eight-sentence, 37-page collection of lethargic, unpunctuated words, thoughts, and opinions. Through this episode, Joyce displays an eccentric form of literature, creating an epic culmination to his legendary masterpiece. Additionally, Molly Bloom’s feminine expressivity illustrates Joyce’s perception of women and fully encompasses their role within the novel.
While the great majority of Ulysses is documented through a stream-of-consciousness technique from the viewpoints of primarily Stephen or Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom’s Episode Eighteen is drastically different from all of the others. First, without the presence of periods, commas, or evidence of punctuation in general, this incidence of stream-of-consciousness is unparalleled. It is almost inaccurate to even describe Molly’s soliloquy as her stream of consciousness; a more precise explanation might label this eight-sentence episode as Molly’s exhausted compilation of various words and opinions. For instance, a brief segment from Molly’s first sentence, discussing Mrs. Riordan, demonstrates her opinionated thoughts and uttering of words: “she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathingsuits and lownecks of course nobody wanted her to wear them I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice” (608). Joyce’s lack of punctuation throughout this episode imitates an actual flooding of thoughts, while also further exaggerating the familiar stream-of-consciousness technique. While this method makes for a frustrating read, Joyce is forcing the reader to visualize Molly’s constant ramblings and contemplations. Without periods or breaks in the monologue, Joyce produces a sense of exhaustion, parallel to Molly’s fatigued state. Therefore, the absence of punctuation amplifies the stream-of-consciousness technique, while also defining the tone of the episode as equivalent to Molly’s own emotional and physical condition.
In addition to the irregular style and methods Joyce uses throughout Episode Eighteen, the choice to employ this technique from the perspective of a female character is significant. While the lack of punctuation creates an unstoppable flow of words and thoughts, it also exhibits a liberated approach to the English language and grammar. As Joyce chooses to use Molly as the narrator for this episode, he is deliberately demonstrating her independence from the expectations of confined society. For instance, throughout the novel leading up to this episode, Molly has gained a promiscuous reputation — one that we find out is not necessarily true. Although Bloom rants about her various suitors, Molly asserts that Boylan was her first and only infidelity, after a sexless ten years with Bloom.
Regardless, Molly chooses to express her sexuality and femininity without fearing a man’s judgment. She refuses to be confined by social norms, just as Joyce chooses to create his own literary techniques outside of the established scholarly methods.
In addition to Molly’s sexual freedom, she also takes a liberating approach within her marriage. At the opening of this chapter, Bloom has asked Molly to serve him breakfast in bed, attempting to reestablish his dominant male role within the household and their marriage. Molly is annoyed and curious about this request, thus convinced that her husband partook in unfaithful activities earlier in the day. While this curiosity implies that Molly is not the only one being adulterous within their marriage, it also demonstrates Molly’s independence. Unlike the majority of women during the early 1900s, Molly is not subservient to her husband’s wishes and demands. She lives her life as she pleases, whether it is in a respectable manner or not. Molly is a strong character, as described through her actions and displayed through her appearance. While Joyce uses a liberated female to exercise his unconventional modern techniques, the parallels drawn between Molly’s persona and Joyce’s writing style are undeniable.
Furthermore, Joyce makes a conscious decision to conclude the novel with Molly, a female voice — the only chapter in the novel with a female narrator. Although this may appear to attribute a considerable amount of significance to Molly’s point of view and opinions, as with the remainder of the novel, Joyce implies the characters’ fallibility in regards to their perception and judgment of other characters and events within the novel. For example, Molly fantasizes about Stephen, creating an exaggerated and incorrect perception of his character. She imagines, “Im sure hes very distinguished Id like to meet a man like that… hed be so clean compared with those pigs of men I suppose never dream of washing…” (638). While Molly’s view of Stephen is highly inaccurate, as he is often described as anything but clean, Joyce is demonstrating a character’s personal opinion rather than a factual identification. There is no true, honest narrator in Ulysses, only a vast array of opinions and the consistent passing of judgments. Therefore, while Joyce implements a female narrator to conclude the novel, he is further exploring an atypical technique, rather than giving Molly the authority to close the novel with her opinions and final judgments as the ultimate truth.
In addition to its unusual form of stream-of-consciousness and the implications of a female narrative, Episode Eighteen is the only instance when Molly expresses her feelings and opinions regarding her marriage with Bloom, as well as her other relationships. While Molly admits that she was initially attracted to Bloom because he understands how a woman thinks, her unfaithful actions and their continuous marital problems have resulted in a challenging and rather unconventional marriage. She describes the initial days while courting Bloom, detailing how she once found his appearance quite attractive. Although the spark in their relationship has diminished and the initial feelings have weakened, Molly will always be affectionate toward Bloom. Even her extramarital affair with Boylan and her suspicions regarding Bloom’s unfaithful activities could not permanently terminate their marriage.
Lastly, throughout this chapter, Joyce attempts to imitate a woman’s thought process and the female perspective, often leading to stereotypical generalizations and exaggerations. For example, Joyce illustrates Molly’s character as a strong feminist, yet with one fixation: sex. Female critics have disapproved of Joyce’s inaccurate female characterizations: “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 men in our lives, then you’ve got another think coming!” (Shmoop). In addition to labeling Molly’s character in this manner, in Episode Thirteen, Joyce also displays Gerty MacDowell as an overly sexual being. In both instances, Joyce is stereotyping the women, making them objects of sexual desire as well as implying that their primary thoughts revolve solely around sex. While Joyce makes a valid attempt at creating the female perspective, his view of the female gender is slightly tainted and flawed.
As the finale to James Joyce’s Ulysses, Episode Eighteen encompasses a number of themes and ideas while also exploring unconventional literary techniques. Through Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, the reader is introduced to new opinions, personalities, and scholarly methods. As the journey of Ulysses concludes in this unusual fashion, the introduction and exploration of alternative forms of style and technique defines Joyce’s authentic literary approach and purpose.
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