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Like character actors or members of an ensemble drama, women are omnipresent in Joyce’s literary corpus. In Dubliners, for example, women are painted and developed within a variety of character framings. The reader is exposed to woman as sister (such as the sisters Moran in “The Dead”), as young girl (Eveline), as ethereal object of a boy’s first affection (like Mangan’s sister in “Araby”), as a not-so-innocent temptress (like Polly in “The Boarding House”), and as a figure devastated by heartache (Mrs. Sinico in “A Painful Case,” perhaps driven to suicide by an unrequited love). Because he follows what appears to be a taxonomy or veritable check-list of female archetypes, Joyce’s representations of women have led feminist critics, such as Suzette Henke and Elaine Unkeless in their work, Women in Joyce, to fault him for his “tendency to interpret women characters symbolically.” Although plentiful, these feminized “hats,” these various personas, are products of interpretation through a masculine lens. They are roles assigned by the dominant male “other,” or character profiles culturally exacted by the larger patriarchal framework at play. As universal images, these women are defined by how they act with or impress upon the men in their lives, sacrificed to their archetypal character function to serve a masculine figure.
For instance, Gretta Conroy suffers a profound emotional experience in “The Dead” when she recollects a painful memory, an incidence of lost love, of a cruelly fleeting window for happiness that went unrealized. Because it is so intensely charged with the burning flames of raw emotion, the moment elicits in the reader an immediate vicarious reaction paralleling Gretta’s profound despondency. However, this intimate insight into Gretta’s past, a chapter in the story of her development, is usurped by her husband, Gabriel. No longer an extension or defining event of her personhood, Gretta’s memory is purged of its sentimental significance as it relates to her. Rather, her surprising disclosure, as co-opted by her male counterpart, is reworked into a tool for his benefit, a revelation that launches his epiphany. The focus of the story and of the reader’s primary attention shifts from Gretta towards Gabriel, towards concerns for the possibility of his newfound personal growth, or for the tragic continuation of his emotional paralysis. As a result of this process, Gretta’s identity is effaced; removed from the context provided by her husband, she is a non-entity.
However, it is my contention that not all of Joyce’s female characters fall victim to this symbolic representation. In the works of James Joyce, the woman makes her greatest impression, where a reader is impacted more by her unique and authentic interiority, once she connects to and fully embraces her sexuality. If we trace Joyce’s character trajectory from an early figure such as Eveline, a girl frozen in a state of stunted personal, sexual and emotional growth, through to his epic novel Ulysses and its concluding voice in Molly Bloom, we begin to see a correlation between expression and ownership of one’s sexual nature, and the development of a distinct and powerful feminine personality.
In her eponymous episode in Dubliners, Eveline suffers from a sense of identity compromised by the suppression of a burgeoning sexuality. Eveline is a kind of mini-tragedy of the fully-realized individual. Solidity and stability do not yet exist with the sinews of Eveline’s interiority. She has not yet had the chance to be touched by the potent balm of life’s experiences, both by the good and the bad, the bitter and the sweet. Like healing waters, both the exciting rewards and painful disappointments inherent to risk-taking would wash over Eveline were she ever to take a leap into the unknown, mending her fractured interior, and adding substance to her being. A blank host, she has internalized the expectations imposed upon her by the patriarchal social context of her time and place. She has been forced to assume the role of the household matriarch upon the death of her mother, attending to the needs of her demanding younger siblings. She has been relegated to a typical profession, a fixture of Dublin society, and her position as a shop-girl offers her little in the way of gratification or stimulation: “she would not cry many tears at leaving the Stores.” Ready now to challenge the confines of this cookie-cutter life, this crippling existence, she is daring to explore “another life with Frank,” her lover.
Eveline is a girl on the verge of womanhood, on the threshold of defining and coming into her adult persona. In Frank and the life he would surely provide, in these symbols of new possibilities, of rebirth and liberation, lie the keys to Eveline discovering her authentic self. She was initially drawn to Frank because he presented a welcomed departure from the consuming staleness of her home-life. She saw in him something mysterious, something alluring and exhilarating in being so alien:
First of all it had been an excitement for her to have a fellow and then she had begun to like him. He had tales of distant countries….He took her to see The Bohemian Girl and she felt elated as she sat in an unaccustomed part of the theater with him.
Perhaps Eveline had aspirations of becoming Frank’s “Bohemian Girl,” of discovering other “unaccustomed parts” of the greater, cosmopolitan world lying just beyond the Liffey River.
However, at the crucial moment of action, of movement forward, Eveline retreats, gripped by her paralysis. She does not board the ship from Dublin, headed towards Buenos Aires, the “good air” city symbolizing hope and optimism. She does not honor the genuine desires Frank has stirred within her. Ironically, she inverts his image: once regarding him as her savior, Eveline beings to describe him as an agent of death and destruction: “All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her.” She verbally contradicts herself in other ways, betraying her anxious state of indecision and uncertainty. For example, the current life of mundane domesticity and hard work she so derided earlier starts to seem comforting in its familiarity: “It was a hard life…but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life.” Accounting for this difference in attitude is a toxic mix of panic, ambivalence, nervousness and guilt, as leveraged upon her by the tacit expectations of her sociopolitical environment. This cocktail of fears—a fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of sexual independence—poisons Eveline’s budding development from within.
The new emotions and urges Frank has triggered, the way Eveline has found herself “pleasantly confused” in his presence, are at once exciting and threatening, thrilling and unsettling. Because her opportunity to grow into a more secure, more fully-developed individual is occurring at this crossroads of sexual maturity, it is the very suppression or denial of her sexuality that confers upon Eveline a fractured identity, thwarting her from achieving freedom and wholeness of personhood. In order for Eveline to seriously regard herself as a sexual being, as a woman, she would have to define herself as an entity separate from her family unit. She would finally detach herself from the obligations associated with the haunting memory of her dying mother, from an archaic and obsolete promise to maintain the household in her stead. Eveline would finally defy the strict authority of her father, who “had found our the affair [with Frank] and had forbidden her to have anything to say to him.” Therefore, because she cannot honor her sexual feelings for Frank, acknowledge and use them as motivation towards change, she has no basis upon which to build her true self. Eveline’s insecurity, the socially constructed gender role that she both resents and preserves, obfuscates her ability to embrace the “specialization” of her identity as marked by her growing sexual nature. As a tragic consequence, she is locked, paralyzed, into a “symbolic” mode of identification. Because she does not express or connect to her sexuality, she will never break free from a representative existence. However, for a woman to fully own her genuine sexuality, she needs to do more than simply behave in a sexual manner. As illustrated by the prostitutes in Ulysses, the overt, pointed display of one’s sexual “disposition,” although in opposition to Eveline’s restraint, still fails to contribute to the cultivation of an achieved self.
In his epic Ulysses, most particularly the “Circe” chapter, James Joyce explores another dimension of the female-character profile. If Eveline is the symbolic virgin in her representation as a perpetual shop-girl, the prostitutes of Nighttown are the shop-girls gone astray. Another line-item in the taxonomy of the female archetype, these women are operating on the other end of the sexual spectrum. Figures such as Zoe Higgins, Florry Talbot and Kitty Ricketts are ostensible masters of their own bodies, aware and accepting of themselves as sexual creatures. They are well-versed in the explicit language of the vulgar, obscene sex associated with the brothel. Zoe speaks to Leopold Bloom in this manner, asking him “How’s the nuts”, or saying to him when he decides to abstain from the carnal pleasure she is offering:
Honest? Till the next time. Suppose you got up the wrong side of the bed or came too quick with your best girl. O, I can read your thoughts!
She is bold in her sexual conduct with Bloom: she “bites his ear gently,” “glides [her hand] near his left thigh,” and “links his arm, cuddling him with supple warmth.”
However, brazen sexual behavior does not necessarily engender the construction of a complete, independent woman. For these girls, their sexuality is still in possession of the male other, defined and structured through a masculine viewpoint. It is leveraged as a tool still outside the woman herself. The whore is not a person. She is, as Bloom states, “a necessary evil,” both valued and derided as currency to be used in the transactions and negotiations of the male world of sexual commodification. Clearly objectified, putty to be manipulated in the image of the patriarchy, the women of Nighttown do not own their sexuality because they do not pick and choose when to exercise it, or discriminately select with whom to share their bodies. They are locked into a job, the “world’s oldest profession,” where sex is simply a means by which to earn a living. Sexuality is not an expression of individualism and is not incorporated into a profile of self-identity. Here, sexuality is merely a strategy for survival.
For the prostitutes of Circe, their identities are lost to their positions as pawns (as opposed to the designers or premium-setters) of a lucrative marketplace. Zoe, Florry, Kitty, and the stereotyped female they represent, are not figures of sexual liberation. Ironically, the one female character within Circe who is granted sexual freedom, or the ability to dominate and have her needs served, is Bella Cohen, the head mistress of the brothel. Although a participant in a sexualized economy, Bella is not hocking her own market goods. Rather, she is framed within a masculine context as regulator, as administrator, of this trade. Therefore, Bella is a non-womanly woman, a point reinforced by the fact that she is transformed into a man during one of Leopold Bloom’s hallucinatory episodes. As Bello Cohen, Bella is privileged with the freedom to be sexually demanding, to play with her sexuality and wield it to gratify her/his inner desires. S/he is master, dominator, within the sexual exchange, and as the feminized-male, Bloom fills the “submissive” role. In this way, Bella is not gendered as “female” and is not subject to the same character expectations–she need not conform to the same patriarchal standards–as the prostitutes she oversees. Only through the form of a male, stripped of her feminine trappings and her identity thusly compromised, can Bella/o claim ownership of sexuality. Because the prostitutes of Circe do not reconcile their sexuality with their femininity, because they are simply performing the part of a sexualized object in order to satisfy a socially-mandated obligation, their chances of forming a fully-achieved self are fatally limited.
The portrayals of female archetypes in Dubliners and Ulysses, such as Eveline and the ladies of Nighttown, highlight the importance of perception in the process of shaping and establishing identity. As defined by the dominant-male critical lens, the “female” is simply a by-product of ideology. The reader is given very little of her interior monologue, and, when inner thoughts are revealed (as in the case of Eveline), they so closely echo patriarchal beliefs that they read like a soundtrack to a social context rather than the genuine expression of desire and emotion. In Ulysses, settings and situations are skewed masculine, the majority of the “action” of the narrative occurring in the male arena, in such distinctly-gendered microcosms as a bar (the sphere of leisure), a frantic newspaper office (the sphere of the workplace), a car filled exclusively with men (the sphere of community), and a late-night brothel (the spheres of commodification, economy, and sex combined). Because the inner thoughts of the Circe girls remain silent and hidden, the only powerful statements they make, the only character framings available to the reader, are dictated by the impressions of the male-other. There is no opportunity or room allotted for the development of the authentic female-self because we, as audience members, are being offered a character projection, rather than a fleshed-out portrait. It is not until the reader can view, or experience, a Joycean woman from the inside out that interiority is established. It is not until we are witness to thoughts and opinions so outside the confines of social acceptability that their very incongruity arouses surprise, that we come to regard an inner monologue as honest and true. As soon as the window of perception is given over to the female, sexuality becomes integrated with personhood. Master and sole owner of her sexual nature, this “new manly woman” is so confident in her possession that she carves and reinforces the strength of her own identity, as best exemplified by Molly Bloom and the “Penelope” chapter of Ulysses.
Within the “realm of the masculine” that functions like a textual backdrop for the course of the novel, the reader is initially limited to an understanding of Molly as sex incarnate. She is introduced to the reader as a figure comfortably sprawled out in her bed, a clear symbol of sexual intercourse. Because Bloom associates sounds resembling the way “the loose brass quoits of the bedstead jingled,” such as the “jingle of harnesses” (which causes “a warm human plumpness” to settle “down on his brain” ) or the “jingling, hoofhuds” heard on Grafton Street, with Molly, her very character becomes fused with “bed” imagery. Because the figure of “Molly-in-bed” is so pervasive in Bloom’s thoughts, and because his is at least the co-dominant perspective though which the novel is being filtered, this sexually-charged presentation becomes Molly’s defining schema.
The impressions of the various characters, a veritable motley crew of men, work in tandem with each other to reinforce this biased, male-sexualized picture of Molly Bloom. In Book 10, Lenehan recalls a memorable moment with Molly. Driving with her and Leopold after a dinner affair, Lenehan was all too excited to be in close quarters with the voluptuous Molly. Lenehan’s dialogue and gestures clearly indicate that he regards Molly as an object, and that her value rests in the arousal-potential of her bodily goods:
Every jolt the bloody car gave I had her bumping up against me. Hell’s delights! She has a fine pair, God bless her. Like that. He held his caved hands a cubit from Him, frowning: I was tucking the rug under her and settling her boa all the time. Know what I mean? His hands moulded ample curves of air. He shut his eyes tight in delight, his body shrinking, and blew a sweet chirp from his lips. She’s a gamey mare and no mistake.
Lenehan is one of many men to be “lost” or enraptured of Molly’s “milky way.” The nameless Citizen of the “Cyclops” chapter, for example, also comments on her physicality, cementing her identity as an almost pornographic object d’art: “The fat heap he (Bloom) married is a nice old phenomenon with a back on her like a ballalley.”
However, Molly Bloom shatters the glass cage of female archetype to which her male spectators would have her relegated, to which her literary predecessors have been consigned, precisely because she asserts what her counterparts fundamentally lacked. Although she is spoken about like a play-thing, like fodder for the benefit and arousal of men, Molly is no object. She is not an empty vessel for the perpetuation of traditional gender roles, or a tool in service of the dominant male. Hers is a self-concept that is motivated from within, and not conditioned by patriarchal ideals, as marked by a potent sexual awareness and freedom of expression. Molly is aware of the effect she has on men, and is a conscious, autonomous, equal participant in the ongoing sexual-power game. She has had enough experience with men to know the way they think, act and feel when in the throes of sexual desire, and has developed an arsenal of her own tricks to heighten their arousal. Her “intelligence a kind of cunning and intuition that can see through the pretensions of men,” she is wise to the games they play, because she engages in similar sexual strategies. For example, as she figures to herself during her wonderfully intimate and revealing soliloquy at the end of the novel:
….you want to feel your way with a man they’re not all like him (Boylan) thank God some of them want you to be so nice about it I noticed the contrast he does it and doesnt talk I gave my eyes that look with my hair a bit loose from the tumbling and my tongue between my lips up to him the savage brute…
Molly is open with herself about the enjoyment she gleans from sexual encounters with men, and is unapologetic about her behavior and her need for sex, as suggested by the candid, blatant manner in which she recalls her experiences:
I wish he (Boylan) was here or somebody to let myself go with and come again like that I feel all fire inside of me or if I could dream it when he made me spend the 2nd time tickling me behind with his finger I was coming for about 5 minutes with my legs round him I had to hug him after(.)
Molly can pick and choose when to assert, or exert, her sexuality–she can be fun and playful with this side of herself. She does not need to perform sexual acts out of obligation, locked into it as a “profession” the way the prostitutes of Circe are, or helplessly, slavishly adhering to the demands of a particular social paradigm. Rather, sexuality is an extension, a reflection, of Molly’s complex, multi-dimensional interiority. It is the outlet through which Molly’s distinct identity comes flooding though, for it is the one exercise of personhood that most particularly attends to her genuine interests and desires.
Critics have argued that Molly is herself a stereotype of female sexuality, a projection of a male fantasy describing the seductive, sexually-voracious woman. For example, Bruce Williams, in his article, “Molly Bloom: Archetype or Stereotype,” writes:
Molly Bloom is the embodiment not of what woman is, but of what man, at least in a sexist society, would like her to be–a warm body lying in bed and moaning “yes.” She represents a kind of wishful thinking that men do when confronted with the disturbing facts of woman’s humanity to convince themselves that humanity is peripheral and not essentially “feminine.” Joyce has created not so much a real woman…as he has a reflection of a thousand smoking car stories. Molly is the perennial masculine fantasy, the insatiable woman–the sexual gold mine waiting only for the lucky prospector to sink his shaft.
However, I believe that Molly does indeed demonstrate a well-delineated humanity and multi-layered character. Because she does not embody singular traits, because she does not simply capture the extremes reinforced by female stereotypes, Molly is not someone the reader can easily dismiss. The words (or thoughts) she is voicing are original, and legitimated by sobering wisdom and heartfelt emotion. A palpable sincerity runs like an undercurrent through the deluge that is her final “sexual soliloquy,” conferring a hefty significance to her experiences and muting the hyperbole of her overt sexual expressions. In this way, Molly avoids the pitfall of becoming a caricature, the silly, substance-less image of her male companions’ boastful recollections. For example, she wonders:
(…) why can’t you kiss a man without going and marrying him first you sometimes love to wildly when you feel that way so nice all over you you cant help yourself I wish some man or other would take me sometimes when hes there and kiss me in his arms theres nothing like a kiss long and hot down to your soul almost paralyzes you then(.)
While acutely aware of the way in which men objectify her, Molly is not complacent playing into this subordinated role when she truly cares, when it is more than her body that is invested in the relationship. She confesses that she was disappointed when Boylan treated her in this crude way, for she “didn’t like his slapping (her) behind going away so familiarly in the hall,” and insists that she is “not a horse or an ass.” Longing and anguish stir beneath Molly’s hypersexual exterior; Molly needs her heartstrings to be soothed as much as she requires gratification of the flesh.
Although her attitude towards the men that have mattered to her most, that have moved her to cry “yes I said yes I will Yes” may have been “as well him as another,” she is not as random, as unfeeling and arbitrary, as this sentiment ostensibly suggests. For companionship, whether lasting or brief, Molly has had her pick from a smattering of men; she is the seat of power in the sexual dynamic. Nevertheless, Molly is discriminate in her choices. There is a reason why she married Bloom, there is a reason why she has decided to commit adultery, although perhaps presented with the option in the past, with Boylan. Ultimately, those reasons are Molly’s and Molly’s alone. She embraces her sexuality, and her sexual behavior reflects a rich, tightly-woven (as oppose to frayed) interior tapestry not seen in previous portrayals of Joycean women. Although working within a clearly-defined social paradigm, Molly is relentless in asserting her uniqueness. It is her very connection and complete ownership of her sexual nature that allows her to achieve a fully-formed sense of self.
With the conclusion of Ulysses, because Joyce decides to give Molly, his most sexually mature female character, the final word, one is left with an impression of this figure. Her words resonate, finding rhythms and expressing emotions firmly locked within the psyche of the every-reader. As a result, she insinuates herself into the collective consciousness of a readership, her identity so developed, so alluring, that we are compelled to keep her safely tucked in the recesses of our memory and imagination.
As evidenced by the progression in character portrayal from the “primordially” feminine Eveline, through to the more robust, self-assured Molly Bloom, the female in Joyce transcends archetype once she acknowledges, expresses, and unapologetically affirms full ownership of her inner sexual nature. She is complete, whole, individualized, once she reconciles her sexuality with the rest of her person. Not only does she not suppress her sexuality, denying its presence or keeping herself from developing it out of fear and guilt, she is also not simply overtly sexual. Like Molly, she must remain master of her sexuality, able to use it as a tool or force to effect change and fulfill desire, at her own discretion. Accessory to no one, defined not by contextual framing but by inner desires and motivations, the achieved woman in Joyce is one who can play with her sexuality and adjust the volume controls at will. She owns it not only because she can sell it, but because she uses it while simultaneously exhibiting additional aspects of her person. Her sexual nature is not a mask, but a part of who she is. Her sexual nature is a core defining–but not sole–characteristic that imparts on the Joycean woman a self-awareness essential to the continuing development of a nuanced, female identity.
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