Ulysses Blog: Episode 18, Penelope
Blog07 June 2021
“There can be but few women in literature that do not look sickly in their virtues and vices alongside Molly Bloom. She has neither vice nor virtue. She is neither mysterious vamp nor sentimental angel.”1
“But the force of this long, unpunctuated meditation, in which a drowsy woman’s vagrant thoughts are transferred in all their naked candour of self-revelation on to the written record, lies precisely in its universality.”2
This closing episode of Ulysses, known as ‘Penelope’ (wife of Odysseus in Homer) belongs from start to finish to Gibraltar-born Molly Bloom, whose birth name was Marion Tweedy. Everything in these pages happens within her fertile, fractious mind.
One influence on this part of the novel may well be Nora Barnacle Joyce, the woman James Joyce first dated on June 16th 1904, an otherwise ordinary Dublin day on which he decided to situate Ulysses. Frank Budgen, a close friend of Joyce during his time in Zurich and Trieste, wrote approvingly of Nora.
“Mrs Joyce was a stately presence, but what was most impressive on acquaintance was her absolute independence. Her judgements of men and things were swift and forthright and proceeded from a scale of values entirely personal, unimitated, unmodified. ... What do you think, Mr. Budgen, of a book with a big, fat, horrible married woman as the heroine?”
For Mary Colum, Nora “was not only beautiful but vivacious and humorous. Though she had but little education, she had natural aptitudes, among them a love and understanding of music.”3
It is difficult to believe that Joyce could have created a character like Molly without reference to the woman he had lived with for all of 17 years by the time he wrote ‘Penelope’, but Molly is not Nora. Joyce’s characters are almost invariably composed of elements from real life seasoned by his literary imagination. Whatever Molly’s provenance may be, Joyce’s creation is certainly one of the most intriguing characters in all of literature
In planning Bloomsday events around the world as part of what I call ‘literary diplomacy’, one of the essential tasks that always had to be addressed was ‘finding a Molly’! In Berlin, a friend, Dulcie Smart, a German-based New Zealand actor, played Molly in German and English at a Bloomsday function held at the historic Mendelssohn House. During my time in London, I was able to call on the wonderful Angeline Ball, star of The Commitments (1991) and Bloom (2004), in which she played Molly. In 2019, Irish actor Lisa Dwan delivered a terrific rendition of those famous lines at our Washington Residence.
The last few pages of Ulysses are up there with the closing passage of his short story ‘The Dead’ as examples of Joyce’s writing at its very best:
“yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are all flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him .. “.
Molly’s monologue continues in rapturous vein until its famous last words “yes I said yes I will Yes.” This is definitely the book’s ‘Yes’ episode for that word bookends its pages and pops up a lot throughout. Joyce saw ‘yes’ as a female word.4
Joyce was pleased with what he had achieved with ‘Penelope’, but he realised that he was pushing the boat out with the explicitness of this closing episode, and there are certainly parts of it that are unbridled in their candour. As Joyce wrote:
“Though probably more obscene than any preceding episode it seems to me to be perfectly sane full amoral fertilisable untrustworthy engaging shrewd limited prudent indifferent … ”.
It is indeed all of that – and more.
Molly has already appeared in Episode 4, where her husband served her breakfast in bed before setting off on his wanderings around Dublin. She surfaced again in the ‘Circe’ episode as part of one of Bloom’s hallucinations, and we have seen her briefly in ‘Ithaca’ where she and Bloom have a brief exchange. The rest of the novel is replete with references to Molly as Bloom broods about her infidelity and other characters make sometimes uncomplimentary remarks about her. For instance, she is described as “a fat phenomenon” with “a back on her like a ball alley”. Given what we learn about Molly in ‘Penelope’, she would surely have been able to give as good as she got in the insults department.
Here we learn a lot more about Molly and especially her memories of her upbringing in Gibraltar where her father, a British officer, was stationed. Molly is forthright, irreverent and thoroughly independent-minded. She is definitely her own woman and has no time for killjoys like Mrs Riordan:- “let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathingsuits and lownecks”. She is confident about her own allures and supposes that’s what God intended “or He wouldnt have made us that way so attractive to men”. She even fantasises about being a man “for a change”.
Molly is ambivalent about her husband. On the one hand, she likes the fact that “he is polite to old women like that and waiters and beggars too”, but is suspicious of his dalliances with other women (although we know that his activities during the day were more innocent that she imagines). She complains that he can never explain things simply and is irked by his odd habits like sleeping with his head at the bottom of the bed and his feet in her face! He is so convoluted that she thinks he should be “in the budget”. Yet, she resents the way some of his fellow Dubliners criticise him behind his back (as we know they do). And she’s insistent that “theyre not going to get my husband again into their clutches if I can help it”.
Molly recalls her first encounters with Bloom when they “had the standup row over politics”. Molly doesn’t think much of what she calls “them Sinner Fein” (the original Sinn Féin, an advocate of a dual monarchy for Ireland along Austro-Hungarian lines, was founded in 1904/05), or of their leader, Arthur Griffith. Bloom sees him a coming man, but Molly says “he doesent look it” (When Ulysses was published in February 1922, Griffith was President of Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s independent parliament). She is also dismissive of Bloom’s “blather about home rule and the land league”. If I had to guess, I would say that Molly’s leanings were broadly pro-British in a city where opposition to Ireland’s political union with Britain ran deep. After all, she seems to have a fondness for military men and the pomp and circumstance of military life.
Although, like Bloom, she accepts that things had never been the same between them since the death of their son Rudy, Molly blames Bloom for the difficulties in their marriage due to his patchy employment record and failure to keep her in the manner to which she aspires. She even attributes responsibility for her own behaviour to Bloom and absolves herself with the thought that there are worse things in life than infidelity:
“its all his own fault if I am an adulteress .. O much about it if thats all the harm ever we did in this vale of tears God knows its not much ..”.
By way of exoneration, Molly wonders “what else were we given those desires for” if not to indulge them. She admits to wanting to be embraced twenty times a day, and not necessarily by her husband. She’s a complicated soul, this Molly.
As for her paramour, Blazes Boylan, she is attracted by his physicality, but doesn’t like his excessive familiarity when he had the temerity to slap her behind – “Im not a horse or an ass am I”. The ever-candid Molly observes that “its all very well a husband but you cant fool a lover”! Part of Boylan’s attraction to her is that he has money and she believes she can charm expensive gifts out of him. Ultimately, however, she derides Boylan as “barefaced” and “vulgar”, with “no manners” and “no refinement”.
Her religious outlook is eccentric and she has no time for “atheists or whatever they call themselves” nor for her husband’s religious scepticism. But nor does she like the roundabout way Father Corrigan presses her in the confessional about the scope of her erotic experiences - “O Lord couldnt he say bottom right out and have done with it”. And then she weighs up the advantages of having an affair with a priest or a bishop because they’re so careful about themselves.
Two of Molly’s past paramours seem to mean a lot to her – Mulvey, a naval officer she met in Gibraltar, and Gardner, an officer in the East Lancashire Regiment, “a lovely fellow in khaki”, who died of enteric fever during the Boer War. Characteristically, Molly holds this against the Boers, “killing any finelooking man were there with their fever”.
Towards the end of her monologue, she develops a curious preoccupation with Stephen Dedalus, who had just left Eccles Street, having declined Bloom’s offer that he stay the night. Molly ruminates about serving Stephen breakfast in bed and worries that she might be too old for him. She thinks it would be great “to have an intelligent person to talk to about yourself”. Indeed.
As her monologue roars to its climax, it’s her husband who inhabits Molly’s dream thoughts:
“the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me”. This same memory occupied Bloom’s thoughts earlier in the novel.
As she kindles memories being with Bloom sixteen years earlier on Howth Head, she confusedly refers “to how he kissed me under the Moorish wall”. This must be a reference to Mulvey as I doubt there is a Moorish wall anywhere on Dublin’s Howth Head!
Although the novel ends with Molly reliving her first sexual encounter with Bloom, given what we have learned in these pages about her outright free-spiritedness I would not like to wager too heavily on the further course of the Blooms’ marriage. In Ulysses, however, the last word is directed at Leopold Bloom – and it’s a yes with a capital Y. An unheroic, imperfect Odysseus has won Penelope’s good graces. Yes, for now!
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States
1Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses, p. 266.
2Stuart Gilbert, James Joyce’s Ulysses, p. 385.
3Mary and Padraic Colum, Our Friend James Joyce , p. 11.
4Richard Ellmann (ed.), Selected Letters of James Joyce, p. 285