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Joyce's Noises
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Joyce's Noises

Molly Bloom is lying restlessly in bed, her head next to her husband's feet, counting the days until she will next be with her lover, Blazes Boylan: "Thursday Friday one Saturday two Sunday three O Lord I cant wait till Monday" (Joyce, U 18.594-95).1 The next item we see on the page—one can hardly call it a word—is a bizarre string of letters: "frseeeeeeeefronnnng" (U 18.596). All in lower case, it begins the fourth of the so-called sentences of the final episode of Ulysses. Its challenge to our reading of the episode is multiple: it is unpronounceable, at least according to the norms of the English language; it is meaningless; and it is hardly conceivable as part of Molly's thought processes in the way that everything in the chapter up to this point has been. Joyce does not leave us mystified for long, however: the verbalized thoughts that follow this strange irruption explain what it is doing here: "train somewhere whistling the strength those engines have in them like big giants" (U 18.596-97). Distant train whistles may more usually evoke associations of travel, separation, nostalgia, or longing, but Molly's response is clearly colored by her active desire for the man she has just called, with obvious relish, a "savage brute" (U 18.594).

Are we to take this series of letters as representing the actual sound of a train whistle—perhaps on two notes, higher then lower—as it penetrates the bedroom of 7 Eccles Street? (The train is too distant, I think, for the double tone to be a product of the Doppler effect.) Would it be legitimate for an audio version of the book to substitute for the reader's voice at this point a recording of the real sound? Surely not: although one could argue that the succession of e's and the subsequent o do mimic the higher and lower notes of the whistle, and that the prolonged nasal of the second syllable imitates a change in timbre in the second note, Joyce's choice of letters can hardly be said to aim at exact representation. The spelling is connected in some way with Molly's own perception of the sound. Is this how she would write it down if she felt the need to do so? (As I've argued elsewhere, there are many suggestions in the episode that the apparent flow of uncontrolled thoughts is constantly mediated by the constraints and characteristics of writing).2 This supposition is strengthened by the sudden change of tack in Molly's ruminations: "… like big giants and the water rolling all over and out of them all sides like the end of Loves old sweeeetsonnnng" (U 18.596-98).

Given the obvious association between the imagined steam locomotive and Boylan's thrusting masculinity, we may well misread "like the end of …"; then, as so often in "Penelope," we have to correct our interpretation, as we realize that the comparison Molly is making is between the sound of the train whistle and one of the songs she'll be performing on the forthcoming concert tour with Boylan (and has probably been singing to him earlier). (Molly herself, of course, is in no doubt about what is like what; it's only the reader who may find a grosser meaning in "end." The result of Joyce's removal of punctuation in this episode is not, as is often thought, a more accurate rendition of mental processes, but a game of constant guessing and reassessment that has little to do with Molly's subjectivity.) The "onnnng" of the train whistle, it turns out, is there less as an attempt at mimesis than as an indication of the already forming connection with the "onnnng" of the song. (That the word of the song in question is "song" is, of course, another Joycean joke.) The implied downward change in pitch in the move from e to o is what links this sound in Molly's aural imagination to the singing of "sweet song."

The strength of the association between sound and song is made clear...