- Joyce's Modernist Woman:Whose Last Word?
Passing through the black hole of "Ithaca" into infinite time and undetermined space, readers of Ulysses finally collide with the novel's obscure object of desire: we are in bed with Molly Bloom.1 The text and its ending are designed to please an audience of heterosexual male readers, especially those who perceive themselves as "womanly," sensitive, post-Dedalian, those for whom Leopold Bloom can stand as Everyman. Certainly Joyce recognized this pleasure of the text, having created a private code that equates the chapter's four key words with parts of a woman's body that excited him sexually. With characteristic irony and suggestiveness, in Finnegans Wake he even parodies the response his feminine ending may provoke in that difficult audience, the male scholars:
lastly when all is zed and done, the penelopean patience of its last paraphe, a colophon of no fewer than seven hundred and thirtytwo strokes tailed by a leaping lasso—who thus at all this marvelling but will press on hotly to see the vaulting feminine libido of those [End Page 517] interbranching ogham sex upandinsweeps sternly controlled and easily repersuaded by the uniform matteroffactness of a meandering male fist?(FW 123.4-10)
Who indeed? But whose libido is vaulting? The artist is hardly sitting back and paring his fingernails if his hand is clenched; this "male fist" is not just the closed hand traditionally symbolic of logic but a shape of violent as well as errant ("meandering") self-assertion, the author "sternly" connecting his "strokes" to control female experience. At least Joyce frankly acknowledges this desire through his parody, unlike some Joyceans who unwittingly parody themselves when extolling or repressing the sexuality of this reading scene.
As the male scholars "press on hotly" then, what is a female scholar to do?2 A split personality in Joyce's scene of reading, she may find her response tempered by her anomalous perspective. Adopting Elaine Showalter's "hypothesis of the female reader," both "marvelling" and skeptical of this inscription of the female voice, I propose to re-view Molly and "Penelope" with a double-take. For it is in the gap between Molly and her epic significance, a gap Joyce toys with, that gender functions with rich and disturbing complexity.
First, Molly. The power and success of her representation create for me a cautionary tale, directing us to remember the problems inherent in characterizing a "feminine voice" or "écriture féminine." In the theater female impersonation tends toward exaggeration but also, when it is very well done, toward a disturbing because deceitful erasure of actual bodily difference through superficial similarity. Joyce's textual impersonation of a woman's voice likewise may provoke an uncomfortable, uncanny response through its similarity—at least on the surface, where the creator's body does not appear—to what Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray laud as the feminine signature.
Although "Penelope" takes place in the Blooms' bedroom in the early morning, Molly's thoughts move freely through time and space. Few events or sensations impinge to organize her thoughts, and Joyce as narrator does not overtly interrupt her; as Hugh Kenner has noted (in a discussion of Molly as Muse rather than woman), this is "the only episode with not one narrative interruption" in all of Ulysses. He adds that "This is a voice in the dark, cut off from sensory experience save for bodily functions and the distant wail of a train: the voice of the pure composing faculty . . ." (98-99). Irigaray states that the feminine in writing "is always fluid" (79), and certainly Molly's speech is fluid in its unpunctuated, unimpeded riverrun, a torrent of words moving away from the "patriarchal [End Page 518] order" of syntax and sentence toward linguistic extremes, to the single word and the giant paragraph. In so doing, Joyce goes farther than merely removing punctuation marks in surface imitation of a vision of women's (specifically his wife Nora's) writing that anticipates Irigaray. He also transfers much of the burden of communication from normative syntax to associative thought; the logical connections usually created through "patriarchal" sequence become...