On Identification, Representation, and Ulysses
Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.” —James Joyce, Ulysses
Oh my God. This is me. A dead white guy is describing me, I thought as I read the opening lines of Ulysses. In the back-and-forth between Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus, I saw myself and my friends, not so much in the characters themselves, but in the way they spoke, the pace of the words, the irreverence of the jokes, their easy familiarity. The scene reminded me of countless early-morning conversations I’ve had with my roommates, and I recognized that Joyce’s words were a record of a long acquaintance.
I think that is why I like novels, because all of them are about me. For a short time, I identify with a character in a novel so much that I become them, involve myself in their fictional fate, and invest my time and energy into finding out how the story ends. And so, I go on vicarious journeys of self-discovery, acquire language to describe my experience, learn a useful lesson or two, get a happy ending, or at least slay a dragon. Plus, I’m a rather self-absorbed person, and I like it when things are about me.
Ulysses, however, is not about me. Unfortunately, Ulysses is mostly about an ordinary man called Leopold Bloom who spends his day on a Nostos, an epic sailing adventure á la Ancient Greece, even without setting foot on a boat. Even though Bloom is unheroic and uninspiring, through Joyce’s insistence on describing Bloom’s day in terms of the Odyssey, even Bloom can become Odysseus-like. And so, through the commutative magic of literary reference, the mere day Bloom spends wandering around Dublin has the same weighty Homeric quality of Odysseus’s ten-year quest. Ulysses proves that boring and idiosyncratic people can have epic quests without doing anything too important or magical —that it is enough to be human to have adventure.
As I read, I was troubled by the way the book intertwined life and art, including accounts of nose pickings and defecation, but assumed that life and art are male, leaving out a female nostos, a female everyman, a female artist. Unsurprisingly, in Ulysses, the precondition required to participate in a nostos is gendered. The women of Ulysses generally stay inside and so lack the experience or education to create art. As usual, the female and the domestic are conflated, and male Telemachus/Stephen and Odysseus/Bloom wander around Dublin while female Molly/Penelope stays at home and waits—granted, while having an affair with the suitors/Boylan. While many of the book’s female ensemble are out on the streets (Katey and Boody Dedalus, the unnamed Shopgirls, Gertie McDowell, and assorted female pedestrians), most of the significant female characters (Miss Kennedy and Miss Douce, Bella Cohen and Zoe, Calypso, and Mrs. Purefoy) stay indoors, and then interact with the male wanderers who come to visit them.
As a whole, Ulysses is rather dismissive of minds encased in female bodies. Dilly’s attempts to learn French are hailed as pathetic, there are no women interlocutors in the national library, and the other women encountered are generally only considered in relationship to their skirts and reproductive ability. And, to add insult to injury, Bloom even has the gall to think about “the deficient appreciation of literature possessed by females.”1 This dismissal of the female mind, of the female adventure felt like a dismissal of female art, as if we weren’t quite human, as if our experience should be forgotten. The lack of female representation in Ulysses is an indirect statement on whose life is valuable enough to be framed by art, and who belongs and does not belong in literature. After all, if Bloom can identify with Odysseus, and the modern everyman can identify with Bloom, then who are women left to identify with?
The answer the text suggests is Molly Bloom, as “Penelope” is the only large portion of text narrated entirely from a female perspective —with the exception of Gerty McDowell’s frivolous description of her clothes and underwear in “Nausicaa.” Nevertheless, having Molly Bloom stand in for womankind is troubling as she is a good deal more embodied and sexualized than the other narrators. In chapter nine alone, Molly thinks about:
- her first encounter with masturbation: “…after I tried with the Banana but I was afraid it might break and get lost up in me somewhere”;
- her desire to experiment with male sex: “God I wouldnt mind being a man and get up on a lovely woman” or “always I wished I was one [a man] myself for a change just to try with that thing they have swelling up on you so hard and at the same time so soft when you touch it”;
- and most often, her body, including (but not limited to) planning anilingual intercourse with Bloom, the desire to be raped by a sailor, repeated description of her breasts and bottom. 2
Molly’s sexuality does not just extend to her self-image, but the way she exists in Dublin. In “Eumaeus,” Molly is described by an unnamed narrator as a “large sized lady with her fleshy charms on evidence in an open fashion as she was in the full bloom of womanhood in evening dress cut ostentatiously low for the occasion to give a liberal display of bosom, with more than vision of breasts, her full lips parted and some perfect teeth.” Even though Joyce breaks the identification of youth with beauty and chastity with womanhood, Joyce still indicates the female as physical, and not mental or artistic.
Furthermore, Molly’s sexuality is prohibitively soft, white, and pliant. Even though Molly is described as “Quite dark, regular brunette, black” by Bloom, every time Molly appears in the text, her whiteness, softness, and roundness is noted. 3 For instance, outside 7 Eccles street, the narrator shows a “A plump bare generous arm shone, was seen, held forth from a white petticoatbodice and taut shiftstraps.” 4 In “Penelope,” Molly thinks that a “womans body were so round and white for them [men]” and bets that “he [Bloom and/or Boylan] never saw a better pair of thighs than that look how white they are the smoothest place is right there between this bit here how soft like a peach easy.”5
Others see Molly in the same way. In “Wandering Rocks,” Lenehan and M’Coy are casually conversing about an evening spent with the Blooms. Lenehan describes Molly as “a gamey mare” and describes how “Every jolt the bloody car gave I [Lenehan] had her [Molly] bumping up against me. Hell’s delights! She has a fine pair, God bless her. Like that” and concludes“—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.” In describing Bloom, Lenehan describes how Bloom can name the stars, and ends with a comment “He’s a cultured allroundman, Bloom is, he [Lenehan] said seriously. He’s not one of your common or garden . . . you know . . .There’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom.” Lenehan’s comment highlights the disparity of who counts as artist. Bloom works in newspaper advertising and Molly is a professional singer. Indeed, it is far less of a stretch to call Molly an artist, and yet, she is only considered in terms of her body.
After all, is being female is enough to make me want to identify with everywoman Molly? Indeed not; we are too different. I donated most of my “wavyavyeavyheavyeavyevyevyhair un comb:’d” when I was fifteen and decided that I would never, ever, let it grow past than my shoulders.6 I am certainly not generously endowed or particularly curvy like Molly, and generations of colonization, immigration, and miscegenation have suspended me indefinitely between whiteness and non-whiteness. A year spent as a backpacker, and a life spent playing soccer have beaten out whatever softness I may have been born with. I am generally perceived as “smart” before “pretty,” don’t have a good singing voice, and very little desire to get married. Even though I am the rather proud owner of brown eyes, full lips, and perfect teeth, I don’t think these are quite enough to turn me into a Molly.
Besides, the biggest difference between is us are the places we inhabit. Like Stephen, I live mostly in my mind, not my body, have punctuated thoughts, and am more likely to say, alongside an old fogey from the National Library, “Upon my word it makes my blood boil to hear anyone compare Aristotle with Plato” than, alongside Molly, “I wouldn’t give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why don’t they go and create something.”7
If then, Molly is not a good mold for me, if I, too, am to belong to Ulysses, to invest in it, to make it about me, to have a place within the novel, I am probably closest to fitting the mold of a Milly, Leopold and Molly Bloom’s daughter, described as “Young student. Yes, yes: a woman too. Life, life.”8 She, at least, is not entirely a domestic creature, but her absence looms large. I wondered why Joyce could not have linked her, a young photographer trying to figure out a way to integrate thought and life, with Telemachus. The closest I got to her was secondhand memory or two, a brief letter she wrote to Bloom, and a stage direction in “Circe” that described her “fairhaired, greenvested, slimsandalled, her blue scarf in the seawind simply swirling, [who] breaks from the arms of her lover and calls, her young eyes wonderwide.”9 And yet, despite the similarities, so much of who I am sticks out from Milly’s mold. I am a brunette, own no green clothing, hate open-toed shoes, and am hopelessly bad at photography.
However, as different as I am from Molly and Milly, I think there is something to be said for their representation of my experience, as being confined to my home because of the Covid-19 pandemic has made me turn toward memory more and more. I think that this is the beauty of Ulysses, that even as alienated an annoying as the text can be times, there is something in it for everybody. Maybe it is a book about me, after all. In a sense, it’s a book about the adventure of being human, and every human —regardless of their gender—can identify and be the protagonist of the book, if they so choose. Molly would say that I, being very young, like Milly, “cant feel anything deep yet” and would dismiss my experience as simply “the usual girls nonsense and giggling.”10 Perhaps she is right.
Furthermore, being back home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I am constantly assaulted by my family’s memories of younger versions of me. Like the memories of Milly, I have suddenly become the kind of person who needs to be “tucked up in beddyhouse” and once “dreamed of having had an unspoken unremembered conversation with a horse whose name had been Joseph.”11 Confronted with photographs of old family vacations and mementos of childhood, I remember my Latin American childhood. Like Molly, I smiled at the Spanish phrases “kiss the feet of you senorita,” “dos huevos estrellados,” “como esta usted muy bien gracias y usted,” “Calle las Siete Revuelta,” “criada,” and “pesetas and the perragorda,” thrown in without even the decency of italics to warn of their foreignness. 12
And so, I decided that as boring and female as I am, I, too can have a Nostos without setting foot on a ship. And I did, at least, during the months I spent reading Ulysses. The book was my constant companion, as I read in between things, standing in line at the grocery store, commuting to work, or waiting for a friend at a coffee shop. During these weeks, I wandered through New York with the book in my backpack as the characters wandered through Dublin. Somewhere during chapter ten, “Wandering Rocks,” the Covid-19 epidemic became a global pandemic, NYU went remote, the dorms were shut down, and I returned to my hometown of Bogotá. Of course, Bogotá is also grinding through a global pandemic, so I am no longer allowed to wander about my beloved city, pay my respects to my friends, or revisit my favorite haunts. Instead, I was given family responsibilities, on top of the ones that came with taking eighteen credits on Zoom. But I adapted, because I could not leave. Colombia’s borders closed four days after I arrived, and even if I manage to exit the country—or even my home—I have no place to go. Like Odysseus and Bloom, I am drawn ineluctably to my home and must re-learn to be the person I was when I left.
Even sheltering in place for months on end, my quests to and from the grocery store, or even my balcony, take on Homeric qualities. After all, who’s to say that I, as female and domestic as I am, can’t write an epic about my new confined life?
Bogotá – New York
- James Joyce, Ulysses, “Ithaca” Project Gutenberg EBook, August 1, 2008.
- Joyce, Ulysses, “Penelope.”
- Joyce, Ulysses, “Eumaeus.”
- Joyce, Ulysses, “Wandering Rocks.”
- Joyce, Ulysses, “Penelope.”
- Joyce, Ulysses, “Sirens.”
- Joyce, Ulysses, “Scylla and Charybdis”; “Penelope.”
- Joyce, Ulysses, “Hades.”
- Joyce, Ulysses, “Circe.”
- Joyce, Ulysses, “Penelope.”
- Joyce, Ulysses, “Lestrygonians”; “Ithaca.”
- Joyce, Ulysses, “Penelope.”