Matriarchs of Modernism: Molly, Addie, and the Surprising Optimism of the Joycean Worldview

For all the stereotypes and characterizations that modernism and its literary masters bear, any kind of overwhelming optimism is seldom cited among the accusations. Often summarized as a movement conceived in the wake of the horrors of the first World War, modernist literature rarely betrays much optimism in its depictions of the abject disillusionment of a post-war landscape. It may seem incongruous, then, to anyone with even the most basic familiarity with the tenets of literary modernism to accuse the author of one of its most canonical texts of presenting – in that very text itself – an optimistic worldview. That remains, however, precisely the intent of this paper.

This is not, of course, an entirely unprecedented position, one perhaps best represented by Stuart Gilbert in his assertion that, “It is significant for those who see in Joyce’s philosophy nothing beyond a blank pessimism, an evangel of denial, that Ulysses ends on a triple paean of affirmation” (qtd. in Harris 388). Also staking the argument on Molly’s famed “Yes,” this paper offers for comparison the interior monologue of another modernist matriarch, William Faulkner’s Addie Bundren. While both the monologues and their respective speakers have much in common, Molly’s is ultimately one of acceptance, while Addie maintains an impenetrable rejection. The reading suggests a parallel between the Lacanian world of the symbolic and the post-war world of the modernists, with both representing worlds based on separation, difference, and a departure from an earlier state of perceived unity. Identifying the essential division between Molly and Addie as their respective acceptance and rejection of the Lacanian order, each woman is presented as the vehicle for her author’s worldview. While Addie’s caustic rejection of the symbolic world propels As I Lay Dying to an abject, absurd conclusion, condemning the Bundrens and the Faulknerian world to decay ever further into the grotesque, Molly’s resurgent, melodic affirmation signals her willing acceptance not only of the symbolic order, but also of the inevitable absurdity of the modern world. Through Molly’s “Yes,” Joyce affirms that even in a world of post war disillusionment, life can still be accepted, celebrated, and avowed.

Criticism has long noted similarities between these two powerful modernist forces – Faulkner, called “the quintessential Southern modernist,” and Joyce, often referred to alongside similar epithets usually not requiring a second qualifying adjective (Koch 55). Critics attempting to draw on these similarities, however, are often faced with the task of first addressing a significant obstruction placed by Faulkner himself: his own repeated denial of them. Craig Werner notes that in 1932, Faulkner told Henry Nash Smith that he “had not read Ulysses when he wrote The Sound and the Fury” (242). Faulkner seems to have carried these protestations to his deathbed. When asked about Ulysses in a 1962 interview with Vida Markovic mere months before his death, Faulkner said only, “It is interesting, but I probably did not like it, for I never went back to it. One goes back to the books one likes” (465).

Despite Faulkner’s best attempts at discouraging comparisons with Joyce, his denouncements ultimately carry little weight against the overwhelming evidence of Joyce’s influence on his work. Between a shared use of stream of consciousness narrative techniques and both writers’ dedication to regional representation – Faulkner, in his faithful portrayal of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, can be said to have done for the American South what Joyce did for Dublin – the undeniable similarities between the two writers leads Craig Werner to the confident assertion that Faulkner “not only knew Joyce’s works but adapted Joycean techniques to his own voice” (242).

Werner goes on to present Faulkner, through his use of these Joycean techniques, as a solution to the problematic “realistic-romantic dichotomy” of American fiction (243). Werner argues that Faulkner, particularly in his later fiction, succeeds “as Joyce had done twenty years before in Ulysses, in reconciling the realistic and romantic modes” (257). This paper, however, seeks to argue against this claim, citing Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying as, ultimately, a failure to achieve the realistic and romantic balance of Ulysses. While Joyce’s transcendence of the realistic-romantic dilemma plaguing American literature “support[s] his vision of the possibility of human equilibrium within a hostile environment,” Faulkner neither blends nor transcends the realistic and romantic in As I Lay Dying, instead leaving them to mingle in an unsettling, ironic cacophony in which the modern world appears all but uninhabitable. Aware of but unable to accept the post-war world Ulysses so expertly transcends, Faulkner must instead render it grotesque, an uncanny caricature of itself.

Despite significant discrepancies in length, both As I Lay Dying and Ulysses are in some sense modern retellings of Homer’s Odyssey. However, while both quest narratives pay tribute to the epic, Joyce illustrates the ways in which Homer can be remodeled for the modern world, while Faulkner ultimately points out the ways in which it cannot. If Ulysses is the Odyssey rewritten for the twentieth century, As I Lay Dying is its grotesque inversion, asserting that the heroic epic can have no place in the modern world.

While any number of parallels present themselves between the two quest narratives, perhaps none is better representative of the works as a whole than that drawn between the novel’s respective matriarchs, Molly Bloom and Addie Bundren. Both women function as the unsung heroes – or antiheroes – of their narratives, silently driving the action surrounding them. While Addie’s death incites the comically futile series of misadventures that befall the Bundrens on their journey to Jefferson, Molly’s infidelity is – however unwittingly – the force behind much of Bloom’s day-long odyssey throughout Dublin. Both women surface as the weary, much put-upon matriarchs of their families, who – in carrying the immense burden of providing the entire motivation behind the plot of their narratives while each receiving only a single opportunity to voice their own perspectives – are ultimately no less put-upon by their own creators. Molly and Addie, “the women who motivate action while remaining motionless themselves,” each narrate only a single chapter of their respective narratives, managing in that time to define the ultimate worldview represented by each novel (Werner 252).

Both dissatisfied wives and mothers, Molly and Addie discuss marital and sexual discontent at length. Addie’s cavalier, dismissive recollection of Anse’s marriage proposal recalls Molly’s memory of “the day I got him [Leopold] to propose to me,” with both women seeming to suggest that they took a more active role in that decision than the passive, nervous husbands they accepted likely recall (Joyce 18.1573). While Molly ultimately makes her decision based on the rather flippant conclusion, “As well him as anyone else,” Addie shows a similar indifference with the brief and unemotional, “And so I took Anse” (Joyce 18.1604; Faulkner 98). In terms of sexual dissatisfaction, Molly’s discussion is considerably more blatant, with her multiple obtuse sexual references obscured only by the occasional inscrutability of her meandering stream of consciousness narrative style. While Addie’s reflections on sexuality are perhaps more nuanced than Molly’s, they address similar notions of dissatisfaction, with Addie’s reference to being “violated by Anse in the nights” reflective of Molly’s summary of marital intercourse as “simply ruination for any woman and no satisfaction in it pretending to like it till he comes” (Faulkner 99; Joyce 18.98).

Similarly, both Molly and Addy refer specifically to a dissatisfaction with the inherent vacancy of female sexuality dictated by the female sex organ itself. While Molly questions her body blatantly, asking, “whats [sic] the idea making us like that with a big hole in the middle of us,” Addie’s reference is vague and elusive – “The shape of my body where I used to be a virgin is in the shape of a ” – referring to her vagina only as a physical gap in the text (Joyce 18.151; Faulkner 100). While the comparison of these passages arrives at an important conclusion for feminist criticism – with both women identifying womanhood and female sexuality as something inherently lacking, ultimately defined by absence – it is here that the psychoanalytical implications of their narratives differ. Addie’s inability to represent her body verbally aligns her sexual dissatisfaction with her dissatisfaction in language, articulated in her earlier assertion that “Words are no good; words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at” (Faulkner 99). Addie’s denunciation of language evokes a rejection of the Lacanian world of the symbolic, one Molly’s “yes” – both a sexual and verbal affirmation – clearly dismisses.

The Lacanian significance of Addie’s narration is perhaps best explained by Doreen Fowler in “Matricide and the Mother’s Revenge.” Fowler’s reading makes a case for seeing Addie’s hatred of language as a rejection of the Lacanian theory that dictates that “for a child to acquire language, to enter the realm of the symbolic, they must become aware of difference,” and thus must terminate “the imaginary dyadic relationship with the mother in which they find themselves whole” (Fowler 317). Thus, as Fowler summarizes, “Addie hates language because it is based on separation and difference” (320). Quoting Lacan directly, Fowler further explains Addie’s plight with the assertion that “there is no woman but excluded by the nature of words” (qtd. in Fowler 320). Accordingly, Addie resents the institution that symbolically necessitates her death, condemning language and the word as merely “a shape, a vessel… a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame” (Faulkner 100).

While Addie fights in vain against the Lacanian symbolic, Molly accepts if not transcends it altogether. Both beginning and ending with the word “yes,” Molly willingly frames and defines her narration by the linguistic sign of affirmation, thus signaling her unreserved and ultimately quasi-orgasmic acceptance of the symbolic order. Moreover, Molly’s absolute acceptance of the symbolic in conjunction with the visual formlessness of her narration seems to transcend the order altogether. In rejecting traditional prose form and refusing to conform even to normal sentence and paragraph breaks, Molly’s thoughts appear as as an almost entirely uninterrupted, shapeless wall of text. In this way, Molly’s relationship with the symbolic seems to present a triumphant counterargument to Addie’s condemnation of language as a “significant shape profoundly without life.” Molly transcends the boundaries of the symbolic, ultimately managing to convey meaning even in the absence of shape. Where Addie can only see an empty door frame, Molly conjures the opposite, conveying meaning profoundly without shape.

Thus, while Molly successfully transitions from the world of the imaginary to the world of the symbolic, Addie remains caught in opposition between the two, mirroring Craig Werner’s understanding of Joyce’s transcendent union of the realistic and romantic conflict that continued to plague the American novel. While Joyce defines modernism in a seamless blending of realism and romanticism, “drawing his power from his refusal to attempt to separate them,” Faulkner, like Addie, remains trapped between the two (Werner 245). Along a similar line of thought, Benjamin Koch also sees Faulkner paralyzed between two worlds. While Werner focuses on the realistic-romantic dichotomy in the American novel, Koch paints the Faulknerian dilemma in terms of the modern and Victorian, explaining Faulkner as “leaning heavily in a modernist direction, but unwilling to forego his more Victorian musings altogether” (63).

Thus, this paper also presents Faulkner in a conflict between the modern and pre-modern, paralleled against that between the Lacanian symbolic and imaginary. In his overview of Lacan, Robert Dale Parker summarizes the distinction between the two realms, explaining, “While in the imaginary there is no difference and no absence, in the symbolic, difference and absence reign” (139). This description is also illustrative of the difference between the modernists’ perception of the pre and post-war worlds. After the fall of the perceived unity and wholeness of the previous era – the imaginary – the modernists were left to cope with a world in which difference and absence reigned. Thus, through Addie’s rejection of the symbolic, Faulkner signals his rejection of the horrific remains of the post-war world. Meanwhile, Molly’s radiant, lilting acceptance of the symbolic signals Joyce’s acceptance of post-war life, finding value even in a world seemingly without meaning.

Struggling against Addie’s attempted rejection of the symbolic, the remaining Bundrens repeatedly attempt and fail to replace her, leaving in their wake a grotesque collection of inadequate replacements – bananas, false teeth, a dead fish. Through Addie, Faulkner condemns the Bundrens and the modern world to an ironic, unsatisfactory conclusion. As Fowler summarizes, “the Bundrens vainly attempt to plug up the gap at the center of their being with substitute after substitute, metaphor after metaphor” (328). Molly, too, complains of a gap at the center of her being, “that big hole in the middle of us.” However, her attempts to “plug it up” are ultimately not in vain, as the novel comes to a triumphant close with the ringing of her orgasmic affirmation. For Faulkner, the linguistic affirmation is ironic and distorted, with Molly’s “yes” rendered grotesque and given to the voice of a madman. Darl’s cacophonous “yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes” rings out in jarring discord as the novel descends into its absurd conclusion (Faulkner 146).

Faulkner’s perverse appropriation, however, can do little to diminish the resounding glory of the triumphant conclusion to which Molly’s “yes” brings Ulysses. Though no less aware of the abject state of the modern world than Faulkner, Joyce ultimately reclaims the value of life, even in the face of a world potentially devoid of meaning. Through Molly, Joyce asserts that even in the wake of post-war absurdity, life can be accepted and celebrated. Thus, Joyce emerges as the Sispyphean hero of modernism, avowing that even a world stripped bare of all illusions is “neither sterile nor futile,” for “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart” (Camus 80). As Camus says of Sisyphus, we must imagine Joyce happy.

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. 1955. Microsoft Word file. Pp. 5-80. Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. Edited by Michael Gorra. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Faulkner, and Vida Markovic. “Interview with Faulkner.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 5, no. 4, 1964, pp. 463–466. Web.

Fowler, Doreen. “Matricide and the Mother’s Revenge: As I Lay Dying.” The Faulkner Journal 4. 1&2 (1991). Print.

Harris, Wendell V. “Molly’s ‘Yes’: The Transvaluation of Sex in Modern Fiction.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 10, no. 1, 1968, pp. 107–118. Web.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Edited by Hans Walter Gabler, New York: Random House, 1986. Print.

Koch, Benjamin. “The French Quarter Apprentice: William Faulkner’s Modernist Evolution.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 48, no. 1, 2007, pp. 55–68.

Parker, Robert Dale. “Psychoanalysis.” How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. Pp. 137-146. Print.

Werner, Craig. “Beyond Realism and Romanticism: Joyce, Faulkner and the Tradition of the American Novel.” The Centennial Review, vol. 23, no. 3, 1979, pp. 242–262. Web.

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