The Books: “Ulysses” – the Penelope episode (James Joyce)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

ulysses67.bmpUlysses (The Gabler Edition) – by James Joyce.

So here’s where we are at so far:

Episode 1: The Telemachus Episode
Episode 2: The Nestor Episode
Episode 3: The Proteus episode

Episode 4: The Calypso Episode
Episode 5: The Lotus Eaters Episode
Episode 6: The Hades Episode
Episode 7: The Aeolus Episode
Episode 8: The Lestrygonians Episode
Episode 9: The Scylla and Charybdis Episode
Episode 10: The Wandering Rocks Episode
Episode 11: The Sirens Episode
Episode 12: The Cyclops Episode
Episode 13: The Nausicaa Episode
Episode 14: The Oxen of the Sun Episode
Episode 15: The Circe Episode

Episode 16: The Eumaeus Episode
Episode 17: The Ithaca Episode

TS Eliot wrote, of Ulysses, and this episode (the last in the book) in particular: “How could anyone write again after achieving the immense prodigy of the last chapter?”

I want to take a second to talk about Joyce’s impetus for writing the book, not to mention the fact that he chose to place the events of the one day in the book on June 16, 1904. Richard Ellmann in his biography of James Joyce describes what happened to Joyce himself on June 16, 1904:

The experience of love was almost new to him in fact, though he had often considered it in imagination. A transitory interest in his cousin Katsy Murray had been followed by the stronger, but unexpressed and unrequited, interest in Mary Sheehy. He shocked Stanlislaus [Joyce’s brother] a little by quoting with approval a remark of a Dublin wit, ‘Woman is an animal that micturates once a day, defecates once a week, menstruates once a month and parturiates once a year.’ Yet tenderness was as natural to him as coarseness, and secretly he dreamed of falling in love with someone he did not know, a gentle lady, the flower of many generations, to whom he should speak in the ceremonious accents of Chamber Music.

Instead, on June 10, 1904, Joyce was walking down Nassau Street in Dublin when he caught sight of a tall, good-looking young woman, auburn-haired, walking with a proud stride. When he spoke to her she answered pertly enough to allow the conversation to continue. She took him, with his yachting cap, for a sailor, and from his blue eyes thought for a moment he might be Swedish.

Joyce found she was employed at Finn’s Hotel, a slightly exalted rooming house, and her lilting speech confessed that she was from Galway City. She had been born there, to parents who lived in Sullivan’s Lane, on March 21, 1884. Her name was a little comic, Nora Barnacle, but this too might be an omen of felicitous adhesion. (As Joyce’s father was to say when he heard much later her last name was Barnacle, ‘She’ll never leave him.’) After some talk it was agreed they should meet in front of Sir William Wilde’s house at the turning of Merrion Square on June 14. But Nora Barnacle failed to appear, and Joyce sent her a note in some dejection:

60 Shelbourne Road

I may be blind. I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me — if you have not forgotten me!

James A. Joyce 15 June 1904

The appointment was made, and for the evening of June 16, when they went walking at Ringsend, and then arranged to meet again.

To set Ulysses on this date was Joyce’s most eloquent if indirect tribute to Nora, a recognition of the determining effect upon his life of his attachment to her. On June 16, as he would afterwards realize, he entered into relation with the world around him and left behind him the loneliness he had felt since his mother’s death. He would tell her later, “You made me a man.” June 16 was the sacred day that divided Stephen Dedalus, the insurgent youth, from Leopold Bloom, the complaisant husband.

Many many years later, after Joyce’s death, Nora – his wife and partner since that day in 1904, was asked by a reporter what other writers she thought were good. Her reply: “Sure, if you’ve been married to the greatest writer in the world, you don’t remember all the little fellows.”

Joyce and Nora had their first “date” on June 16, 1904 – a date which consisted of walking around Dublin (it wasn’t a time when men and women really dated – certainly not in Ireland) – and there was probably some kind of sexual encounter between them (Joyce references it obliquely, from time to time.) A couple of months passed, the relationship intensifying – and Joyce began to grow desperate to leave Ireland. He applied for a job in Europe -with the Berlitz school – and began to be convinced that Nora had to come with him. They had to be together. They could not live freely in Ireland. On September 16, 1904 – shortly before his departure date, he wrote a letter to Nora which still, for me, trembles with passion as I read it:

“When I was waiting for you last night I was even more restless. It seemed to me that I was fighting a battle with every religious and social force in Ireland for you and that I had nothing to rely on but myself. There is no life here — no naturalness or honesty. People live together in the same houses all their lives and at the end they are as far apart as ever … The fact that you can choose to stand beside me in this way in my hazardous life fills me with great pride and joy … Allow me, dearest Nora, to tell you how much I desire that you should share any happiness that may be mine and to assure you of my great respect for that love of yours which it is my wish to deserve and to answer.”

When it came time for him to leave, she jumped ship with him. They left a wake of scandal and debt behind them – Yeats bailed him out financially, Joyce’s brother was trying to sell his books for more cash … and of course, he and Nora did not get married … so it was an unbelievable scandal. James and Nora did eventually get married – in 1930 – and that was long after they had had two kids, and had spent almost 20 years together as a couple. It’s a great love story. Chaotic, and very much their own. Joyce was a jealous man … and jealous of Nora’s affections for other men. He wondered if he were distinct to her. One of the things that really bothered him was her use of pronouns. She would say “he” and that “he” could mean anyone – him, another man, her father, a man from her past … It made him feel like men all blended together into one being, for her … that nobody “stood out”, nobody was “named”. Joyce uses this in Molly’s monologue in this last episode – where sometimes it is a struggle to figure out which person she is talking about. She refers to her husband, Leopold, as “Poldy” – but more often than not, he’s just “he”. And Blazes Boylan is also just “he”. She does not distinguish. She does in her heart – she’s comparing and contrasting the two constantly … but her language remains opaque. Joyce found this fascinating, infuriating, and very very female. So he used it. After the book came out, Nora was asked if she were the model for Molly Bloom. Her answer was blunt: “I’m not — she was much fatter.”

How much do I love Nora Joyce.

The Penelope episode is 40 pages long, and I think it only has 5 sentences in it. I actually went through once, trying to locate the periods. For the most part, it is a run-on sentence. Molly lies in bed, Leopold lies next to her – and she thinks out loud. About her life, her men, her rendesvous with her lover, her dead son … but more than that: it is the ruminations of an insomniac, frayed by sleep, letting her mind off the hook that it needs to be on during the conscious daytime … and going from topic to topic … memories coming up, receding … Molly is hugely witty. She has a healthy contempt for people … she’s not at all a romantic. She thinks men are rather silly. She thinks women are silly, too – but the silliness of men affects her more personally. She compares Boylan’s fucking to Bloom’s fucking … you know, Joyce’s worst nightmare (many men’s worst nightmare) … but she’s not a vicious person. She’s just truthful. The chapter is the only time in the book when a character is alone … with herself … and the darkness. The rest of the book is highly social – interactions with the human race left and right. But here, now, 3 a.m. … it is dark, and Molly lies in the dark, unselfconsciously being with herself and her thoughts. It’s a shockingly open look at womanhood – taking it off its pedestal, certainly. She muses in an annoyed way about how chamber pots are obviously created with men in mind … because they’re not convenient for women. She muses about her period (which has at that moment). The cramps, etc. You know … this kind of stuff was just not talked about back then! And Joyce isn’t talking about it in a grossed-out way, or anything … It’s just simple and truthful. In the same way that a man, lying in a tub, looks down at his penis, and contemplates it … and other men would understand that, and know they have done such things … the mystique of the genitalia does not exist in such casual moments. We deal with our private parts on a daily basis, it’s not big deal. It’s a big deal when we want to SHARE ye olde private parts … but when you’re taking a bath, or strolling around naked in a non-sexual context … it’s just another body part. Well, the same is true for women as well – and Joyce shows that, by putting us inside Molly’s head. This is rather revolutionary, if you look at the literature of the time. And because there is no narrator in the Penelope episode – we are 100% inside Molly’s head – Joyce makes a demand on us, the reader: If you judge Molly, or if you say “Ewwww”, even to yourself, at some of the things she thinks about – then you are missing so much. You are missing not just her humanity, but your own.

Joyce said he wanted to end the book with the most positive word in the English language – which gives you some idea of his thoughts on the book as a whole. It’s a comedy.

And Molly – who has been unseen and yet omnipresent thru the entire book – suddenly takes center stage. We have been totally on Bloom’s side throughout … why is she cheating on him? Why is she making him a cuckold? She is shaming him! Is she a whore? I don’t LIKE her.

But then. She takes over the book. Joyce lets HER end the book – which seriously, is so amazing when you think about it. The ascendancy of the female … the real female: not the whore of The Circe episode, not the sweet virgin of The Nausicaa episode … but the wife. The human being. The flawed human being … who loves Leopold Bloom, and whose heart has broken since he distanced himself from her following the death of their son. She is a vibrant funny philosophical woman, with much forgiveness towards menfolk (even with her sharp observations about how unfair much of life is for women) – she lies in bed, and aches for her marriage. Aches for the Bloom who had made love to her on the hills at Howth (a memory that he has already shared with us, the reader) … She remembers how his mouth felt, and her breasts, and the way the rhododendrons were … It is the sweetest most loving memory she has.

I don’t want to really say anymore – because the episode is, in a weird way, even with all its bathroom humor, bodily functions, casual marriage-bed behavior … it’s quite delicate. It’s a run-on sentence. You have to work hard to make sense of it and find the punctuation on your own. I’ve read it out loud … and it’s much much easier when you read it aloud. The sentences, even without periods and commas, just fall into place.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus has returned home and has killed all of Penelope’s suitors. And at first, Penelope does not even recognize her husband. She only believes it is him when he describes their bed to her.

The voice of Molly, in this chapter, is not rambling, or incoherent. But it has something in it of a doubling-back, a word-assocation – puns leading to other thoughts, jokes made to herself … sudden swoops of romanticism, punctuated by menstrual cramps. So: she is everything. She becomes – oddly enough – the entire human race, in all its messiness, beauty, pettiness, and physical limitations. But her voice itself is hypnotic, almost scary at first … we are so deeply inside her, and up until this point in the book we have only heard things about her, and judged her behavior … and Joyce does not prepare us for what happens in the last episode. He does not set us up carefully so we will be ‘ready’. He throws us in. here: swim.

Joyce felt that women were, essentially, wild. Their bodies were wild … way more out of control than men’s – they bled, they had babies, their bellies swelled and fell … Men were much more static, linear. Women ebbed and flowed. That was why ‘they” could not use proper punctuation. Their thoughts did not line up neatly, into grammatical structures.

Molly is most commonly compared to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, with her great mix of sadness and laughter. Joyce, by letting her end the book, gives the Blooms, in a way, their only shot at saving their marriage. Bloom, with his idiosyncrasies, his insecurities, is a tough man to live with. Molly knows that well. But she accepts them, even if she makes fun behind his back or to herself – because that’s what marriage is all about. He sleeps with his head at the foot of the bed, so his feet are beisde her face. That’s weird. But that’s what he likes. He’s almost kicked her teeth out in his sleep … but she accepts it, even though he’s a weirdo. There are numerous examples in her long speech, of moments like that … where we see Bloom in a completely different light … because it’s her perspective. She reminsices about making love with him – and thru the book we have just read, he’s seemed so passive, and … impotent, basically. So to have her raving in her memory about their great fucking in the past … redeems Bloom so much. We realize (and it’s one of the most important realizations a human being can ever have) that we have under-estimated Bloom. We have judged him on too little information. In the same way that Molly now needs to be taken into consideration in a differnt way. We have had all kinds of opinions about her, and about women who cheat on their husbands. This needs to be re-examined.

But Joyce doesn’t stop to intellectualize any of this – mainly because Molly never would.

We just lie there, in bed with her, and follow the torrent of her thoughts.

I just can’t bring myself to excerpt the final and famous last paragraph … it really needs to be saved, for when it is in context with the whole.

But here’s an excerpt from earlier in her monologue.

James Joyce wrote, in a letter to his brother Stanislaus:

Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance betwen the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do? I mean that I am trying … to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own … for their mental, moral, and spiritual uplift.

And so you have, Jimmy. And thanks. Thanks to everyone who has read these excerpts, and commented and emailed me about them.

EXCERPT FROM Ulysses (The Gabler Edition) – by James Joyce – the Penelope episode

yes because he couldnt possibly do without it that long so he must do it somewhere and the last time he came on my bottom when was it the night Boylan gave my hand a great squeeze going along by the Tolka in my hand there steals another I just pressed the back of his like that with my thumb to squeeze back singing the young May Moon shes beaming love because he has an idea about him and me hes not such a fool he said Im dining out and going to the Gaiety though Im not going to give him the satisfaction in any case God knows hes change in a way not to be always and ever wearing the same old hat unless] paid some nicelooking boy to do it since I cant do it myself a young boy would like me Id confuse him a little alone with him if we were Id let him see my garters the new ones and make him turn red looking at him seduce him I know what boys feel with that down on their cheek doing that frigging drawing out the thing by the hour question and answer would you do this that and the other with the coalman yes with a bishop yes I would because I told him about some Dean or Bishop was sitting beside me in the jews Temples gardens when I was knitting that woollen thing a stranger to Dublin what place was it and so on about the monuments and he tired me out with statues encouraging him making him worse than he is who is in your mind now tell me who are you thinking of who is it tell me his name who tell me who the German Emperor is it yes imagine Im him think of him can you feel him trying to make a whore of me what he never will he ought to give it up now at this age of his life simply ruination for any woman and no satisfaction in it pretending to like it till ( he comes and then finish it off myself anyway and it makes your lips pale anyhow its done now once and for all with all the talk of the world about it people make its only the first time after that its just the ordinary do it and think no more about it why cant 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 sometime when hes there and kiss me in his arms theres nothing like a kiss long and hot down to your soul almost paralyses you then I hate that confession when I used to go to Father Corrigan he touched me father and what harm if he did where and I said on the canal bank like a fool but whereabouts on your person my child on the leg behind high up was it yes rather high up was it where you sit down yes O Lord couldnt he say bottom right out and have done with it what has that got to do with it and did you whatever way he put it I forget no father and I always think of the real father what did he want to know for when I already confessed it to God he had a nice fat hand the palm moist always I wouldnt mind feeling it neither would he Id say by the bullneck in his horsecollar I wonder did he know me in the box I could see his face he couldnt see mine of course hed never turn or let on still his eyes were red when his father died theyre lost for a woman of course must be terrible when a man cries let alone them Id like to be embraced by one in his vestments and the smell of incense off him like the pope besides theres no danger with a priest if youre married hes too careful about himself then give something to H H the pope for a penance I wonder was he satisfied with me one thing I didnt like his slapping me behind going away so familiarly in the hall though I laughed Im not a horse or an ass am I I suppose he was thinking of his father I wonder is he awake thinking of me or dreaming am I in it who gave him that flower he said he bought he smelt of some kind of drink not whisky or stout or perhaps the sweety kind of paste they stick their bills up with some liquor Id like to sip those richlooking green and yellow expensive drinks those stagedoor johnnies drink with the opera hats I tasted one with my finger dipped out of that American that had the squirrel talking stamps with father he had all he could do to keep himself from falling asleep after the last time we took the port and potted meat it had a fine salty taste yes because I felt lovely and tired myself and fell asleep as sound as a top the moment I popped straight into bed till that thunder woke me up as if the world was coming to an end God be merciful to us I thought the heavens were coming down about us to punish when I blessed myself and said a Hail Mary like those awful thunderbolts in Gibraltar and they come and tell you theres no God what could you do if it was running and rushing about nothing only make an act of contrition the candle I lit that evening in Whitefriars street chapel for the month of May see it brought its luck though hed scoff if he heard because he never goes to church mass or meeting he says your soul you have no soul inside only grey matter because he doesnt know what it is to have one yes when I lit the lamp yes because he must have come 3 or 4 times with that tremendous big red brute of a thing he has I thought the vein or whatever the dickens they call it was going to burst though his nose is not so big after I took off all my things with the blinds down after my hours dressing and perfuming and combing it like iron or some kind of a thick crowbar standing all the time he must have eaten oysters I think a few dozen he was in great singing voice no I never in all my life felt anyone had one the size of that to make you feel full up he must have eaten a whole sheep after whats the idea making us like that with a big hole in the middle of us like a Stallion driving it up into you because thats all they want out of you with that determined vicious look in his eye I had to halfshut my eyes still he hasnt such a tremendous amount of spunk in him when I made him pull it out and do it on me considering how big it is so much the better in case any of it wasnt washed out properly the last time I let him finish it in me nice invention they made for women for him to get all the pleasure but if someone gave them a touch of it themselves theyd know what I went through with Milly

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6 Responses to The Books: “Ulysses” – the Penelope episode (James Joyce)

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  4. Wren Collins says:

    And once again thank you for these posts! Honestly- I think so much of the book would have been impenetrable to me without them (or at least I would have missed a lot of stuff that you brought to my attention).
    Finished it earlier. Holy crap, is all I can say- ‘Penelope’ blew me away. Loved ‘Circe’ (androgyny! extravagant sexual fantasies! kisses turning into birds!). Will admit that at a couple places in ‘Oxen of the Sun’ I felt myself glazing over- getting lost in the sheer mazelike density of some of the prose- only to be jerked awake by a hilarious segue into gothic melodrama (‘The black panther! His flesh crept on his bones,’) or something equally insane. ‘Sirens’ really appealed to me- all that beautiful imagery and the wonderful rhythm. & I just about punched the air at Bloom finally standing up for himself in ‘Cyclops’ (like, there you are!) On the other hand, I think ‘Aeolus’ went very, very much over my head.

    I’ve had a lot of fun with it, anyway. Off to read ‘The Passion’ now…

  5. Chris Good says:

    Thank you for these commentaries, this one on Penelope in particular. I came away from the last chapter frustrated at Joyce. So much of the book is a soaring literary masterpiece, but I was thinking that Penelope was just cheap misogyny. I thought Molly simply came off like a self-centered bitch, full of petty jealousies of other girls/women, and inflated memories of her sexual effect on men in her youth.

    You’ve helped me consider it in a different light. Thank you.

    • sheila says:

      Happy to hear that!

      The book wouldn’t be a soaring literary masterpiece without Molly. The whole book was leading to her. The woman.

      and “inflated memories” – hmm. She enjoyed sex. Men liked having sex with her. Most memories of anything are “inflated” in some way. Happy childhood, perfect parents, whatever … Sure she may be an unreliable narrator but no more unreliable than any other character in the book. Having good memories of sex – especially when you are estranged from someone you still love – especially when you suffer from loneliness or when you reach the stage when you become invisible to men – is a powerful experience, and very healing too. It helps you remember you’re alive, you’ve still got blood flowing in your veins. Kind of like “Oh God member when I still had it? Member how amazing it was to know a man was checking me out?” It’s part of growing older, mourning the kind of sexual power that has to do with youth. Sex is really important!! Even the memory of sex! Joyce knew that.

      at any rate, thanks for reading! I am happy to hear my words might have shifted your response a little bit!

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