Monday, March 02, 2009

(A scene from Wilde Irish Production's dramatic representation of Ulysses on Bloomsday )

The Myriad of Molly Blooms

At the very beginning of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly Bloom, the cuckolding wife of Leopold Bloom, appears to the readers as a common Irish lady of the twentieth century. But in the 60 pages of scandalous, scatological, sarcastic and disturbingly profound monologue that follow, she appears as a sex monster, a lusty, lewd, outspoken, witty, and self-aware woman, seducing young boys even though she is a married woman.

Molly’s frustration is being a married woman in a marriage that lacks the sexual freedom she needs. Molly fantasizes about her sexual desires and dreams because it is a human quality that she is not willing to suppress. And she makes no apologies for it. Some critics appreciate Joyce’s characterization of Molly as a step forward to paint a free woman in Western Literature

Joyce and Feminism

Richard Brown, the author of James Joyce and Sexuality writes: “Joyce constructed out of his own version of feminist literary tradition and its obtrusive sexual dimorphism is conceived as a vindication of, rather than an attack on, femininity” (Brown, 1985, p. 101). Brown found “obscured the relationship between contemporary feminism and his success (p91).” Brown added an interesting discussion of “sexual dimorphism (p96-97).” In support of his idea, he stated that for Bloom, the world is “full of analogies to sexual difference (97).” Brown sees Joyce as depending heavily upon a “strong sense” of difference between the sexes, using “Penelope” as an example of Joyce creating the “separate female character (98).” He does not see Joyce's portrayal of Molly and other female characters through the eyes of men as misogynistic, since many of the male characters “suffer the same fate” when seen through women's eyes, such as Bloom and Boylan. Brown concluded his discussion with a confirmatory tone that Joyce constructed Molly out of his “own version of feminist literary tradition and its obtrusive sexual dimorphism is conceived as a vindication of, rather than attack on, femininity (p101).”

Declan Kiberd writes in his Introduction to the 1992 Penguin edition of Ulysses, that Joyce ponders a life spent fitting pins into hair and clothing, or making adjustments to disorderly skirts under the protective coverage of a friend in the street. His fellow-feeling for women in the momentous labour of childbirth is accompanied by a similar empathy with the woman suddenly being taken short in a city whose lavatories, like its pubs, were notoriously built for men only. This empathy is nowhere more clear than in Bloom’s attitude to women who are caught in moments of disadvantage (Kiberd, 1992, pp. iii-iv).

Can Joyce be reclaimed for feminism? Suzette Henke tries to find psychoanalytical answers with the ideas of Freud, Lacan, and Kristeva. Henke argues that Joyce invokes gender stereotypes in order to “mock and subvert traditional notions” of gender, focusing on constructions of the “gendered subject” and touching on ideas of androgyny, bisexual fantasy, and motherhood. Discusses Molly's monologue as “steeped” in the languages of Edwardian pornography and “Victorian sentimental fiction.”

No doubt, Joyce was the prime figure to bring erotic sexuality to English Literature, and his experiments were not with writings, but with lives and people as well. His constant visits to prostitutes, his experiments with verbal sex, and persuasion to Nora for her active participations are the example how Joyce put importance of sexuality in his life and writings.

Brenda Maddox writes in her book Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce that Joyce was amazed at female sexuality when on his first date with Nora, she “unbuttoned his trousers, slipped in her hand, pushed his shirt aside and, acting with some skill (according to his later account), made him a man (Maddox, 1988, p. 42).”

Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce (1988) tells us that Joyce made Molly Bloom as the prototype of his wife Nora . A reporter once asked Nora if she was actually Molly Bloom from Ulysses. She replied, “I'm not -- she was much fatter.”

Nora : A Woman //A Character

Nora Barnacle met Joyce on June 10, 1904, but it was not until June 16, 1904 that they had their first romantic liaison. After only three months dating, they flew away to Trieste (at that time in Austria-Hungary) but they did not marry. Meanwhile, Nora gave birth to her first son Giorgio on June 27, 1905 and later to a daughter, Lucia, in July 26. A miscarriage in 1908 coincided with the beginning of a series of difficulties for Nora, which placed strain on her relationship with Joyce and made it increasingly conflicted. After 27 years of living together relationship, at last, they got married in 1931.

Nora and Joyce did not have a very happy life. Though at the beginning, they at least had very sensual romantic lives, later on, they remained in tension and Nora was often complaining about Joyce as a weak man and a neurotic artist. In her letters to her sister, Nora accuses Joyce of ruining her life and that of their children. She says he drinks too much and wastes too much money. As for his literary activity, she laments the fact that his writings are obscure and lacking in sense. She hates attending his meetings with other artists and admits she would have preferred him had he been a musician rather than a writer. Their marital life became hell when their daughter Lucia went mad and son Giorgio left for America after marrying an American lady.

Before Joyce, Nora had only three affairs in her teenage years. She fell in love with a teenager named Michael Feeney, who died soon after of typhoid and pneumonia. In a dramatic but unrelated coincidence, her second lover died in 1900, garnering her the name of "man-killer" from her friends. It was rumored that she sought solace from her friend, budding English theatre starlet, Laura London, who also introduced her to a Protestant named Willie Mulvagh. In 1903, she was sent away after her uncle learned of the affair and dubious friendship. In a later period, besides Joyce, Nora had no other relationship as Molly Bloom had, but Joyce was always suspicious with the thought that Nora might have been unfaithful to him. Joyce thus had in his mind a strong link between Nora’s sexual allure and death (because two of her teenage fianc├ęs’ death ), and he focused on this morbid love theme in poems such as “She Weeps over Rahoon” and his best-known short story from the Dubliners, “The Dead.”

So, we don’t find any similarities in Molly Bloom with Nora if we overrule the three of teenage love relations she had. It may be fact that Nora became pregnant with Joyce at her first dating, but that was not a proof of her infidelities.

Is Molly a free woman ?

Molly is a woman who knows what drives a man crazy and how to seduce him at the drop of a hat. Even though she is a married woman, she does not forget how to seduce men because she has the frustration of being a married woman in a marriage that lacks the sexual connection she wants. Molly not only does it but needs the art of fantasy because it is a human quality that she is not willing to suppress. Molly fantasizes and makes no apologies for it. It shows that Molly is a rebellious by nature. But is she a free woman actually?

If Molly were truly sexually free, she would not go to church for confession of her guilt. She feels regrets about her infidelities and blames Leopold. “Its his own fault if I am an adulteress,” she says. If Molly were a free woman, she would not give Leopold the credit for turning her in to an "adulteress,” nor would she use the word “adulteress” because that word has a very negative connotation which implies guilt and shame. If Molly were a free woman, she would not feel terrible about the infidelity and the betrayal to her husband. Molly invokes God for creating Eve as the first sin of the Creator. By invoking that religious belief, she subconsciously proves the classic notion of patriarchal ideas that women are sinful by nature. If Molly had been guilt-free of affairs, she would have invoked poetry, pagan goddesses, humanly body pleasure, but not the creation of woman by God.

Molly also refers to one of Leopold’s pen pals as a “little bitch.” Molly Bloom’s jealousy of her husband’s infidelities and her anger toward Leopold are also indications that she is deeply hurt by their failing relationship and lack of sex.

Actually, Molly represents the common European female characteristics of that time, which the contemporary writings lack. As a very common woman, Molly is also tied down to the fears of aging and loosing her sex appeal, which she manifests in her fantasies about seducing Stephen. Molly is not actually after the sex, but rather, an emotional bonding. “I wish somebody would write me a love letter” she cries, showing her desperation for a lover who will fulfill her emotional needs.

Was Nora really Molly Bloom?

It is difficult to say whether or not Nora was the Molly Bloom of Ulysses because except the three premature affairs as a teenager, Nora sticks to her relationship with Joyce. But Joyce had a double-standard on women’s sexuality. Joyce was traditionally masculine in terms of sexual jealousy, possessiveness, and stereotyping of his ‘love.’ Joyce was extremely jealous of Nora’s fondness for anyone but himself, including her own father and children. As Maddox puts it, Joyce “could tolerate no thought of a rival for Nora’s affections” (Maddox, 1988, p. 23) and he felt irrationally betrayed that her cousins could co-exist with her love for him.

When courting Nora the summer of 1904, Joyce began to become possessive, and his jealousy revealed his insecurity. According to Maddox, “As the summer wore on, and he became more and more attached to Nora. Joyce showed the first signs of suspiciousness. She had three free evenings in a row that he could not account for (Maddox, 1988, p. 47).” Sexually, Joyce held Nora to a double standard; though he had consorted with prostitutes and had at least one “bout of venereal disease” (Maddox, 1988, p. 48) prior to meeting Nora, “doubt continued to torment Joyce" (Maddox, 1988, p. 70) about whether Nora had been a virgin or not before having sexual intercourse with him. He could not stand the thought of her having been with another man, even before she met him. As Maddox states, “Joyce never conquered his fear of Nora’s old loves (Maddox, 1988, p. 131),” which is why her old Galway beaus, such as Willie Mulvagh, had their names and/or actions immortalised in the obsessiveness of Joyce’s writing.

Mays relates how while visiting Dublin without Nora in 1909, Joyce “became obsessed with the thought that Nora might have been unfaithful to him" (Poems and Exiles, Ed. J. Mays, London, Penguin Books., p. xxxvi)” with Vincent Cosgrave.

This obsession made its way into Joyce’s poetry, his play Exiles, and Ulysses, not to mention some raving and accusatorial letters to Nora. Joyce was quick to believe Cosgrave’s words about his sexual relations with Nora before even hearing Nora’s version of events, and it took the word of two males, Joyce’s friend J. F. Byrne (the model for Cranly in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”) and his brother Stanislaus, to convince him that Cosgrave had lied to him about Nora (Maddox, 1988, p. 125).
Even so, he remained so suspicious and bitterly jealous of Cosgrave, his former friend and possible precursor of Nora’s affections, that he lampooned and abused him as Lynch in Ulysses and enjoyed hearing about his early demise and unsuccessful career (Maddox, 1988, pp. 320-1). None of this is the behaviour of a man who really believes in free love and open relationships. Nora’s experimental enthusiasm for sex and, as Brenda Maddox’s book explains, the fact “that Nora could release such fervour only three weeks after initiation left him with a lasting sense of awe at the banked fires of female desire (Maddox, 1988, p. 79).”

Why did Joyce metamorphose Nora in to Molly Bloom ?

Art is not what you see but what you make others see. What is important is how one views life as a whole and hence, the reader's psyche has indeed a lot to do with how the work is interpreted. I don’t blame Joyce, as some feminist critics did, for being unjust to Nora. Writing is a total difficult and complex process. An author has to make himself/herself a multi-winged personality -- one goes above the surroundings and canvas so that the author him/herself could observe everything with full objectivity. Another enters into the character. And the third one assimilates an author’s self with the character.

So, when Joyce tries to paint Molly in Ulysses and Bertha in Exiles, we find not the Nora, but the Joyce with his ‘manly woman’ personality. As Richard Brown explains about Molly, she “surely does represent a new kind of fictional woman: massive, potent and self-possessed. Though few modern feminists have wished to avail themselves of that image of femininity, it was evidently one which Joyce constructed out of his own version of feminist literary tradition, and its obtrusive sexual dimorphism is conceived as a vindication of, rather than an attack on, femininity (Brown, 1985, p. 101).”

I have no allegation on Joyce. Above all, I appreciate his feelings, as I am not only a feminist but a writer in my soul, always.


  1. Dear Sarijini,
    Congratulations! You have conclusively and convincingly proved that Molly Bloom is not the alter ego of Nora. You have also proved that Molly is not a free woman but, to quote your own words, "a common European female characteristc of that time." As novels are highly fictional there is no meaning in seeking comparison with reality and truth. You being expert in law,logic and rhetorics your reasoning and judgement are foolproof commendable. I say, this blog is worth reading and cherishing.
    K. V. Dominic,
    Indian Journal of Postcolonial Literatures,
    Kerala, India.

  2. Joyce's Ulysses was first published in The Little Review about 1920 thanks to Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (the "Mother of Dada")m who prefaced and introduced Ulysseus.

    Baroness Elsa IS the model for Molly and was very close to Djuna Barnes ...

    check out Irene Gammel's "Baroness Elsa
    gender, DADA, and Everyday Moderninity "


    Rene Steinke's Holy Skirts!

  3. Molly presents several gender problems, but it is a mistake to consider her attributes as a character as Joyce's personal thesis on women in general. She is, as Stephen might say, a what-woman of all-woman. While not exactly flattering, as a character she demonstrates the extreme complexity of Joycean characters, which, I suppose, is feminist in-so-far as she is not a sketch -- the way Kurtz' wife is portrayed in Heart of Darkness, say. What I find to be more problematical, from a feminist point of view, is Joyce's portrayal of female thinking in the style of Molly's narration. Portraying Molly's thoughts as loose, jumbled, free-form, stream-of-conscious thinking versus the extremely ordered thinking of a character like Stephen may infer that female psychic structures are inherently jumbled and as a consequence female command of language is impaired. But as we know from Wollstonecraft mere et fille and Jane Austin among many, many others, that is simply untrue.

  4. This is quite interesting, especially in its discussion of Joyce's and Molly's complex beliefs and behaviours around sexuality. I have one minor quibble -- you suggest that "Joyce was the prime figure to bring erotic sexuality to English Literature"... I think that "crown" might belong to DH Lawrence. In my view he was not as accomplished a writer, but I suspect more people read his books soon after their publication than was the case with Joyce.