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Joyce’s Perspective on Women in Dubliners, Portrait, and Ulysses

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Joyce’s depiction of women is characterized by a high degree of literary self-consciousness, perhaps even more so than in the rest of his work. The self-consciousness emerges as an awareness of both genre and linguistic expectations. contrasting highly self-conscious, isolated literary men (or men with literary aspirations) with women who follow more romantic models, even stereotypes. In Dubliners, Joyce utilizes a clich餠story of doomed love ending in death-physical or spiritual-in “A Painful Case” and “The Dead.” The former holds far more to these conventions and can be read as a precursor to the more sophisticated techniques in the latter, which draws the reader’s attention to the cliché ¯nly to redirect it. Nevertheless, it is Joyce’s handiwork here, his subversion of genre, that takes the main stage, and the women in the stories do fade into the background. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he again literalizes a stereotype, the Madonna/whore binary, showing women as nuns, long-suffering wives, or prostitutes. But this division also serves to highlight one of Stephen Dedalus’s primary battles, between Ireland and exile, family and freedom, which results in a call to writing away from domestic responsibility. Ulysses, and especially “Penelope,” seems to escape these because it is precisely against genre-there was no preexisting “in-bed monologue” genre-but it is the most conscious and critical of feminine linguistic construction. “Female” words (through letters to Bloom) are the constant aural background in Bloom’s mind, but he fixates on them precisely because of their “bad writing” (4.414), as Milly writes to him. Molly has the last word in Ulysses, but it is not so clear who authorizes that word, as we shall see.

“A Painful Case” is built on cliché³® The story of a misanthropic bachelor who meets an emotionally frustrated wife, develops a bond, then recoils at intimacy could not be more formulaic; she even dies of “sudden failure of the heart’s action” (114). The irony is clear-the suddenness really took place four years earlier. Joyce wrote Dubliners to appeal to both a mass audience and scholars, and “A Painful Case” seems particularly driven to the popular reader and, with its tale of unrequited love, to female readers. James Duffy is skeptical and irritated by exactly this kind of bland, superficial writing: “She asked him why did he not write out his thoughts. For what, he asked her, with careful scorn. To compete with phrasemongers, incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds? To submit himself to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen and its fine arts to impresarios?” (111) Joyce both launches into self-criticism and evades it; by critiquing the method he employs, he demonstrates a self-awareness that lifts his work beyond this “middle class” production. Duffy, too, practices this self-awareness in conjunction with Joyce. At the end of a token biographical paragraph, all delivered in the third-person past tense, we learn this tidbit: “He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. He never gave alms to beggars and walked firmly, carrying a stout hazel” (108). Just in case the reader doesn’t understand that the first sentence is itself an instance of this habit, Joyce repeats the information with a sentence that typifies this kind of “autobiographical habit,” giving the reader information about a character’s relationship to money and his gait, two cliché³ of fiction. Who, exactly, is writing this paragraph, Joyce or the stifled Duffy who so clearly wants to write? The story continues this self-awareness-the newspaper article telling Duffy of the woman’s death takes up a substantial portion of the text, and is set apart from the rest of the text in its entirety. This unmediated information draws us again into another popular medium that purposely skirts any subjective treatment, just as sentimental fiction has difficulty plunging deep into its characters despite its goal to do just that: “The threadbare phrases, the inane expressions of sympathy, the cautious words of a reporter won over to conceal the details of a commonplace vulgar death attacked his stomach” (115). The story ends with a flood of cliché³ that drown themselves out. Duffy twice considers himself an “outcast from life’s feast” (117). He then sees a train, the vehicle that marked their last meeting and her death, a clich餠symbol ever since Anna Karenina of life’s inexorable fate and romantic doom: “It passed slowly out of sight; but still he heard in his ears the laborious drone of the engine reiterating the syllables of her name” (117). This is what Mary Sinico (we only learn of her first name through the newspaper) is reduced to, the mechanical repetition (even “reiterate” is repetitive; “iterate” means “to repeat” without the “re-” prefix) that mimics the mechanical cliché³ Joyce has deployed. She is only sound, not physicality-“she had become a memory” (116)-and this memory is preserved only through the text of the story and its sentimental legacy.

In “The Dead,” however, Joyce takes a similar storyline and explores more meaningful connections between music and memory, space and time, exile and patriotism. Greta’s generic love story is lost in the midst of these ideas which preoccupy Gabriel. Gabriel’s position as an outsider looking in is magnified through his linguistic disconnection from his people (later capitalized on by Miss Ivors as she shouts a Gaelic goodbye, “Beannacht libh,” in her final verbal jab at Gabriel); indeed, music and song, two highly mnemonic cultural essentials, are foreign elements to his ears throughout the novella: “Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece…the piece she was playing had no melody for him” (2014 ). His domain is speech, a far less memorable and emotional medium than music, yet even his poetic allusions, he fears, will fall flat and exaggerate his intellectual separation from the other guests: “He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they could recognize from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better…He had taken up a wrong tone” (2010). The wrong tone is not just in the ostentatious reference, but in the actual currency of the speech, adjectives and transitive verbs over octaves and tonal variations. Even in an old love letter, he acknowledges language’s relative paleness: “Why is it that words like these seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?” (2030)

Muted but lingering music is the untapped reservoir of memory for the characters in “The Dead,” though for Gabriel his words must suffice for harmony: “Like distant music these words that he had written years before were borne towards him from the past” (2030). The absence of music in present-day Dublin hints at the emotional coldness sweeping over the city and its inhabitants. It is an old Irish ballad, The Lass of Aughrim, that triggers the reminiscence of a girlhood love for Gretta. Music’s association with vitality is explicated in her recollection, but phrased ironically to highlight Furey’s death: “He was going to study singing only for his health. He had a very good voice, poor Michael Furey” (2034). Gabriel’s inability to connect on this sonic level is exemplified by one of his literary reviews, recalled just before Aunt Julia restores her own youth through song: “One feels that one is listening to a thought-tormented music” (2018).

Gabriel shelters in cramped quarters that oppose the notion of an expansive past: “‘Listening to-night to the names of all those great singers of the past it seemed to me, I must confess, that we were living in a less spacious age. Those days might, without exaggeration, be called spacious days” (2024). In contrast, Gabriel’s earlier positions were confined, as in the small pantry, where even his coat harbors some frigidity from outside: “…a cold fragrant air from out-of-doors escaped from crevices and folds” (2009). It is in these situations that Gabriel cannot reconcile past and present, and he exits the pantry at the end of the party much the same way he entered: “Gabriel advanced from the little pantry, struggling into his overcoat” (2026).

Further binaries-cold and hot, soft light and harsh lights-divide the past and present. By the time Gabriel experiences his epiphany, it is clear that it is a “thought-tormented” one, a predictable usurpation of the story’s own narrative “past” that exemplifies his new ambitions to unite past and present. His violent lust preceding the epiphany-“He longed to cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her” (2032)-is balanced by his later tears which signify to him his epiphany: “He had never felt like that towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love” (2033). This calibration of feeling is another self-conscious gesture that reminds the reader of the generic implications which mask Greta’s story. She is only the conduit for Gabriel’s epiphany, and her clich餠story produces his clich餠change; the only part of the story that is not stereotyped is Joyce’s temporal imagery. He, in the end, produces the only substantial and original ideas. The epiphany is the product of self-consciousness-Gabriel finally sees himself through other’s eyes-and is related to the self, not to the catalyzing women. The author-reader relationship functions in the same way; Joyce wants his reader to grow aware of the author’s own self-awareness and through that expand his appreciation of the stories, and Joyce seems to make this easier for his male readership, who are not as likely to be drawn in to the overt sentiment of his stories.

This break is more clearly seen in Portrait, which pits the domesticity of family against writing. Joyce made a similar choice in his life, swimming far from his drowning Dublin clan to make his own way in the world. The “narrative,” older Joyce holds an ironic attitude towards the redemptive power of women his younger counterpart esteems them throughout the early part of the novel: “He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did know where to see it or how but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any act of his, encounter him…They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured. He would fade into something impalpable under her eyes and then in a moment, he would be transfigured” (54). The purposely unclear pronouns-he meets an image, the two are now a “they,” but “they” are also contradictorily “alone”-underlines that Stephen is not fully looking for a woman so much as himself. His desire to “fade” away under the gaze of the woman is ridiculed by Joyce; though silence will become one of Stephen’s survivalist traits, it is a self-willed silence, not a passive one. The pomposity is quickly met by Joyce’s ironic subversion; Stephen is literally transfigured in the next scene as his family is evicted once again.

Later, we are given a description of another passive surrender to a woman, this time in an actual physical encounter: “He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips. They pressed upon his brain as though they were the vehicle of a vague speech; and between them he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour” (86). In this supposedly non-conscious state, Stephen’s verbal facilities are highly attuned-the constant alliteration (“vehicle…vague,” “swoon of sin, softer than sound”) alludes to the sonic that displaces the physical; even the “unknown and timid pressure” is an oblique reference to the erection and orgasm through similarly “vague speech” that masks the vulgar physicality with elevated language. The “them” in “between them,” then, may not be Stephen and the woman (who barely carries a name as one of the interchangeable desire-objects Stephen encounters, much like the nearly anonymous Mary Sinico in “A Painful Case”), but the woman’s two “parting lips” (yet another example of verbal ambiguity), which transfer their power to Stephen’s lips and allow him to make the final alliterative rush: the orgasm is replaced by epiphany, the physical explosion by the verbal one. Stephen’s departure sets a course for this sensation away from the earthy, physical shackles of Ireland, and his final diary entry to “O father, old artificer” (219) is to his own father, his country as a paternal figure, and to artifice, to writing.

But women receive a voice of their own in Ulysses, or at least in one who comes to speak for all women, flexed “in the attitude of Gea-Tellus” (17.2313). In the two instances of women’s writing, Milly’s and Martha’s letters to Bloom, Joyce condescendingly showcases their weak grasp of language, spelling, and grammar. Nevertheless, their words (especially Martha’s) echo in his head for the remainder of the day, and later Bloom thinks of the ingenuity of Molly’s pun of Ben Dollard’s voice-“a base barreltone” (8.116)-as a clever reworking of Ben’s voice, body, and drinking proclivities. “See? It all works out” (8.123) Bloom tells himself, and us, as a defense of her raw intelligence.

That raw intelligence appears unmediated in Molly’s dialogue, but its commitment to paper alone signifies Joyce’s hand. Bound to her room, deprived of the external stimuli that parade through Stephen’s and Bloom’s minds, Molly’s life on June 16th is restricted to a mnemonic and private retelling. She attempts to bridge the chasm between memory and writing by reveling in how Lieutenant Mulvey’s current wife, if she exists, has no idea about their affair twenty years ago “in the sight of the world you might say they could have put an article about it in the Chronicle” (18.829-830). “World” echoes Martha’s mistake in her letter to Bloom-“I called you naughty boy because I do not like that other world. Please tell me what is the real meaning of that word?”-especially since Molly relates the event to a possible newspaper piece; the word creates a world, much as a newspaper informs its readers of current events and thus helps form their conception of the world (5.244-245). Because her secrets exist in the mind and not on paper, Molly sees nothing wrong in withholding them from Bloom-in fact, she takes pleasure from this: “I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of” (18.1582). When Bloom’s mysteries exist on paper, however, the concealment raises her hackles: “Ill see if he has that French letter still in his pocketbook I suppose he thinks I dont know deceitful men all their 20 pockets arent enough for their lies” (18.1235-1237). She is jealous of the palpable and pulped, but her own efforts to write are thwarted. She is certainly a natural storyteller, as when she spins a salacious yarn for an old friend: “I used to tell her a good bit of what went on between us not all but just enough to make her mouth water” (18.214-216). But when trying to relate her feelings after a courtship kiss from Bloom, she says “I couldnt describe it simply it makes you feel like nothing on earth” (18.330-331). The equivocal sentence captures her inarticulacy-either she cannot “describe it simply,” or she “cannot describe it; simply, it makes you feel…” The former falls back on cliché ¤espite her promise of complexity, while the latter accepts her fate of simplistic writing (and both recall the word/world fusion with “on earth”). Molly only aspires to be a muse to Stephen and will not attempt to realize her own potential as a poetess: “they all write about some woman in their poetry well I suppose he wont find many like me where softly sighs of love the light guitar” (18.1333-1335). Even when she does sing, she is only a singer, not a songwriter.

Is it truly inarticulacy, the spastic linguistic contortions her mind goes through, that prevents her from writing and makes “Penelope” difficult on the eyes? Molly’s is above all a typographical episode, as evidenced in this line, when Molly discusses her aversion to writing condolence letters: “no stops to say like making a speech your sad bereavement symphathy I always make that mistake and newphew with 2 double yous” (18.729-731)? Why the two crossed-out letters and abbreviated “2,” yet a spelled-out “double you”? As with the final capitalized “Yes,” Joyce is shooting Molly’s words from his can(n)on into eternal by making us aware of their textuality. Molly may only silently pronounce “newphew” in her mind, but Joyce gives us the visual accompaniment. His intervention is one of patriarchal domination, as with his one-to-one codification to female body parts of “Penelope”‘s recurring words “because,” “bottom,” “woman,” and “yes.” The same can be said for Joyce’s puns, but many of his/Molly’s puns attack male aggression: “he was awfully stiff…but I could see him looking very hard at my chest” (18.527, 18.529).

In the midst of her period Molly cries out “O Jamesy let me up out of this pooh sweets of sin” (18.1128). It is generally accepted to view this as a call to her creator, but why should she then bring up the pornographic novella “Sweets of Sin”? Joyce knew many would consider Ulysses, and especially “Penelope,” pornography (and perhaps he wanted this), and Molly’s quick connection confirms this view and the literary trappings that accompany it. She at one point wishes she could transcribe her adventures with Bloom: “if I only could remember the 1 half of the things and write a book out of it the works of Master Poldy” (18.579-580). Again, the “1 half” orthography heightens our awareness of the text and, of course, someone has written about Bloom (even if she wrote it, Molly would designate authorship to “Master Poldy,” not to herself). We are reading about him as Molly thinks about him in the present and, most importantly, well after Joyce wrote about him, in the eternal lines of “Penelope.”

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Joyce’s Perspective on Women in Dubliners, Portrait, and Ulysses. (2018, May 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from
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