Lectures/Literary criticism/James Joyce/Feminist interpretations of Molly Bloom
This lecture will focus on the history of the reception of Molly Bloom, a major character from James Joyce's Ulysses, with critics and how various aspects of Molly have been treated according to various critical ideologies.
In terms of feminism in general, Joyce was not involved directly in any feminist movement or inspired any feminist movement. Instead, the only mention of Joyce in early feminism was in passing. To early feminists, like Kate Millet, Joyce merely stated what most primitive men stated. Later feminists, like Marilyn French, believed that Joyce looked down on women in general. Although Richard Brown points out that Joyce did have a place within the development of feminism, it seems that feminists spent more time dealing with critical interpretations of Joyce than with the text itself (Brown 89).
Our major encounter with Molly is a raw exposure to her mind in "Penelope". Many critics have argued over her representation of the feminine within the novel, but there is a major consideration to keep in mind when discussion her portrayal--it is early in the morning and her statements could be completely incorrect.
The chapter itself was seen as voyeuristic and pornographic by early critics. This was intentional, and even Molly's name is associated with whores. However, part of this deals with the connection of the work with a long tradition of male written works about women revealing the private matters and thoughts dealing with women (Van Boheemen pp. 267-8). Some early critics accepted the work as artistic, others just outright dismissed it, and this started a long debate within criticism as to how the chapter, in its portrayal of Molly's sexuality, effects the judgment of Ulysses. However, the problem with interpreting Molly's character is that so many critics have their own version of Joyce's intention while dismissing previous critics version of Joyce's intention (McCormick 18).
In discussion correspondence between Miss Weaver, Scott points out: "'Penelope' she described as 'pre human,' to which Joyce responded, 'Your description of it ... coincides with my intention-if the epithet 'post human' were added. ... In conception and technique I tried to depict the earth which is prehuman and presumably posthuman.'"(Scott 96) These statements suggest that Joyce believed that the female monologue was an "indispensable countersign" (Scott 156). She is connected to various female figures from Homer, Christianity, and womanhood in general both virtuous and sinful. (Scott 156)
Molly as an "Earth Mother"
Mark Schechner points out that critics view her as either an "earth mother" or a "satanic mistress". (Scott 157). Joyce's writing on the subject and evidence within the work supports an "Earth Mother" view. To Weaver, Joyce continued in the above quote to claim, "I have rejected the usual interpretation of her as a human apparition--that aspect being better represented by Calypso, Nausikaa, and Circe, to say of pseudo Homeric figures." (Scott 157) However, Joyce's statements to Budgen represent a view of female from a male perspective when Joyce claims that the section "begins and ends with the female word yes. It turns like a huge earth ball slowly surely and evenly round and round, spinning, its four cardinal points", which were aspects of the female anatomy, "expressed by the words because, bottom [...] woman, yes. Though probably more obscene than any preceding episode it seems to me to be perfectly sane full amoral fertilisable untrustworthy" (Scott 157-158).
Gilbert believed that Molly was an "Earth Mother" with an emphasis on the reproduction aspects of the figure (Scott 158). Rebecca West viewed her as an "Earth Mother" counterpart to the masculine figures in the book (Scott 160). It is possible that this emphasis was not to discuss the work itself, but to promote "Penelope" and all of Ulysses to a more important state by demonstrating Joyce's intelligence. Furthermore, this "Earth Mother" image was used to suppress the outrage about Molly's sexuality by justifying her sexual nature within an acceptable classification (McCormick 20).
Molly as a "satanic Mistress"
Hugh Kenner believed that Molly was a "satanic Mistress" and claims that the "yes" "kills the soul that has darkened the intellect and blunted the moral sense of all Dublin." (Scott 159) In this view, Molly's sexuality brings death and that women without the work are threatening. This was emphasized later by critics pointing out Molly's infidelity, but, as Scott points out, this was a reason based more on male bias than the text. To Scott, the 50s generation of valuing a passive woman devoted to her husband were the reason why Molly's sexual independence was attacked (Scott 159-160). Mark Shechner believes that the male critics were able to only see Molly in terms of courtship and appreciate her or protest against her (Scott 160). As such, it is common among these critics to attack Molly as a whore but also to see something alluring in her sexuality (McCormick 21).
The early attacks on Molly's character coincide with post-WWII antifeminism. It is possible that the negative views of Molly's sexuality as response to the "Earth Mother" idea were only able to resurge after Joyce's reputation was guaranteed (McCormick 21). When later criticism focused on the battle between the sexes within the work, some critics placed Joyce along side of the 50s and 60s generation of male critics. To the later feminist critics, Joyce believed that women were constantly acting intrusive in the lives of men and "Penelope" served to do the same thing back to women. As such, Joyce, and the chapter, treat Molly more as a country to be conquered and occupied (Van Boheemen 269).
Some critics believe that Molly may represent a poetic aspect that is connected to naming and language. Instead of being procreative, she is an embodiment of desire, which is an component of creativity (Scott 161). Christine Van Boheemen argues that "the last chapter of Ulysses, characterized by its unpunctuated flow of feminine speech, is the locus of the invention of what we now call 'gender,' the understanding of sexual difference as inscription and style, rather than an ontological essence." (Van Boheemen 267-268)
During the 1970s, critics analyzed Molly as if she was a real individual and focused on her various relationships. Elaine Unkeless compared Molly to stereotypes of females and saw in Molly "lethargy, passivity, narcissism, and irrationality" (Scott 161). Other critics believe that Molly is treated in the same was as an "other" and with any of her feminine aspects being those connected to the male perception of females (Scott 161).
Molly as a woman
Scott believes that Molly is not a feminist or a great woman. She has aspects connected to various female figures, but each identity is complicated by her background or actions. According to Scott, "Her habit of contradicting herself is not merely a female foible, but a useful representation of how an individual's attitude is affected by time and mental association. Molly's ability to play so many roles, and to range in attitude from conventional matron to liberal feminist makes her a useful representative of the spectrum of female types. At the same time, Molly is intensely female, a factor that makes her relevant to real women only if she is taken as a concentration of specific elements that, in any real woman, would be mixed with asexual and male identity elements." (Scott 162)
Her lack of accomplishment is possibly related to Joyce in that he too could have followed a similar path if he would have stayed in Dublin. However, pregnancy and bad management of her career by males figure into some of her failure. Some males, such as Blazes Boylan and Bartell d'Arcy try to use their positions in furthering her career to gain sexual favors from her, which Molly accepts but in a manner that she is not dominated by them. Instead, her acceptance represents her own sexual freedom, and she still retains an independence from the figures when she mocks d'Arcy while also keeping it all secret from Bloom. Her biggest restraint in achieving professional accomplishment is her socially engrained lack of drive, which was cultivated only in boys at the time (Scott 162-163).
When Molly compares herself to other women, she focuses on her looks and her sexual experience as verifying that she is better. Molly uses her body to gain popularity, and, when Mrs. M'Coy tries the same thing, Molly attacks the other woman. Molly is insecure, and this reflects a cultural bias around women's looks. The only focus on intelligence within her character is associated with sexuality. As such, she is a stereotype of women as stupid and almost comically, especially with her idea of impressing Stephen Dedalus while possibly exchanging instructions and sex with him (Scott 163-164).
In terms of the education Molly wishes for Milly, Molly wants to send her daughter to a school that will teach her to work as a secretary. This could be a way for Molly to control her daughter while also expanding the family's income. Bloom, on the other hand, wants Milly to become a photographer's apprentice. However, both focus on Milly's sexuality and possibly controlling it to fit their own desires (Scott 165-166).
Molly is deeply concerned with both marriage and motherhood. Although she was sexually independent, she was preoccupied with the idea of marriage and always thinks of dates in terms of their distance from her wedding. As a mother, Molly is proud of Milly and saddened by the loss of Rudy. She views mothers as an essential part of male development. However, her sexuality is still the important force of her life. She indulges in sex or fantasizes about sex. This allows her to both be free and restrained. In terms of the whole book, all of the characters are unable to find fulfillment. Although Molly adopts various female roles, she denies the role of taking care of the sick and doing housework (Scott 167-168).
In the end, Scott believes that there is strong evidence to suggest that Joyce saw Molly as an "Earth Mother" figure. To her, "Molly should be seen as more than a principle of fertility, or desire. She is desired, but not just as mother she is sought as an alternate to structures that have been granted undue sovereignty." (Scott 183) Her monologue "can be interpreted, as Colin MacCabe does, as a shattering of phallic male modes of discourse, including their systems of rational authority and linear patterning of knowledge. Although Molly Bloom is not a common individual woman, a feminist woman, or a goddess, she serves all three. Although still an overconcentrated, male-projected entity, Joyce’s female voice has changed literature and aroused criticism. Perhaps it may still serve a return to woman’s self-ordered place in literature and life" (Scott 183).
- Brown, Richard. James Joyce and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- McCormick, Kathleen. "Reproducing Molly Bloom" in Molly Blooms, ed Richard Pearce, 17-39. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.
- Scott, Bonnie Kime. Joyce and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
- Van Boheemen, Christine. "Molly's Heavenly Body and the Economy of the Sign" in Ulysses-En-Gendered Perspectives, ed. Kimberly Devlin and Marilyn Reizbaum, 267-282. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1999.