Perhaps no female narrative has divided feminist critics more than Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Joyce’s ventriloquy has been read alternatively as mindless misogyny and as “one of the most tremendous summations of life that [has] ever been caught in the net of art.” 1 Yet the approaches taken to Molly’s text by both its detractors and proponents are strangely similar. The central “event” of the narrative for both is Molly’s menstruation, and both find that for Molly “thinking and menstruating are similar and concomitant processes. She can no more govern the first, by sentence structure or punctuation, than she can the second.” 2 The conflation of the mouth and vagina was read as patriarchal “linguistic puissance” by the first wave of feminist critics, as “linguistic jouissance” by those inspired by French psychoanalytic theory. 3 Thus, Gilbert and Gubar find Molly’s narrative obscene, evidence that “for Joyce, woman’s scattered logos is a scatologos” while Christine van Boheemen sees Molly’s blood as “the flow of the fertility of life which is obliquely seen as a symbol for a language, a textuality and a perverse form of writing against the grain.” 4 Molly’s narrative, although authored by a man, is now commonly read as a rare example of écriture feminine, woman writing her own body.
This insistence on Molly’s artlessness is curious in light of Molly’s progenitor—Penelope, one of the greatest artificers in Western literature. Even those critics who have taken Homer’s weaver into account agree that “Joyce’s use of the Penelope figure is, in the first place, ironic.” 5 For if Penelope is faithful and chaste for nineteen years of waiting, Molly can scarcely contain herself until she next meets her current lover. If Penelope proves herself her husband’s intellectual equal through the cunning with which she fends off her suitors, Molly makes Leopold look like a genius with her relative ignorance of philosophy, language and punctuation. But such comparisons are based on the false assumption that we can ever determine what Molly is. As James Van Dyck Card has argued so persuasively, “any discussion of Molly had best be careful in an analysis of her character, her habits, or her opinions.” 6 Molly is both amoral and fiercely religious. She alternately likes and despises her bed, other women and the male body. Like [End Page 757] Card, I can find little value in any discussion of Molly which finds her “merely crude, sluttish, unmaternal, narcissistic, an Earth Goddess [or] the symbol of the eternal feminine.” 7 While Card, however, is content to leave Molly as a mass of unresolved contradictions, I will use these contradictions to argue not for who Molly is, but for how her project echoes Penelope’s. I will read her soliloquy as the textual performance of Penelope’s back-stage activity of weaving in order to unweave, of doing in order to undo, arguing that Penelope’s four-year ruse is reflected in the artifice of both the language and structure of Molly’s narrative. Even the experiences of orgasm and menstruation are unwoven and revealed as pretense.
Although we tend to remember Penelope as faithful and cunning, there have been through the centuries as many interpretations of her conduct as there have been of Molly’s. In some versions of the myth, Penelope, after prostituting herself to her suitors and giving birth to the monstrous god Pan, is banished by her husband. Joyce’s Zurich notebooks show that he was familiar with these alternative interpretations. The notations he made about Penelope from a lexicon of Greek and Roman mythology include “banished by U to Sparta,” “what kind of child can much fucked whore have,” and “sits smutty talking amg the Freiers.” 8 If classical scholars differ, the modernists were no less divided as to Penelope’s character. On the wall beside Joyce’s desk hung
a photograph of a Greek statue of Penelope, seated and looking at her raised forefinger. “What is she thinking about?” Joyce asked. “She is weighing up her wooers,” Budgen suggested, “trying to decide which one of them will make the most manageable husband.” “To me,” said...