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"Ruby pride of the on the floor naked": Fetishizing the Circus Girl in Joyce's Ulysses

From: Joyce Studies Annual
Volume 2009
pp. 125-158

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One of the stranger metempsychoses in Ulysses is Bloom as "Mademoiselle Ruby, pride of the ring" (U 15:716).1 Under the spell of the brothel-owner Bella Cohen in "Circe," Bloom transmogrifies into the role of Ruby, a simpering, almost obscenely girlish indentured servant, in a sadomasochistic scene. The scene is not completely unexpected given Bloom's erotic interests, which can be traced through other cuckolding and punishment fantasies in the style of Sacher-Masoch. He dreams of sexualized thrashings at the hand of "several highly respectable Dublin ladies" (Mrs. Yelverton Barry, Mrs. Bellingham, and the Honourable Mrs. Mervyn Talboys), the semi-reluctant Martha Clifford, and his reluctant wife. In each of these fantasies, inspired by narratives in real erotic correspondence columns in popular British newspapers and cuckolding fantasies in pornographic novels Joyce owned, Bloom wishes to be subordinate to a dominant female.

However, the Ruby transformation is different. Here Joyce transgenders Bloom at a moment of climax in the novel, introducing gender as a variable in Bloom's sexual identity. The novel Ruby: The Pride of the Ring, from which the fantasy in "Circe" is derived, is Molly's pleasurable reading material, not her husband's, and it does not involve the themes of female-dominant cuckold fantasies that so often occupy Bloom. Instead, the Ruby transformation is one moment in which Bloom becomes what transgender activists would now call a "female-identified man": an individual who is born a male but lives as a female, instead of as his quotidian "male-identified man" self. He performs this feminine identification in exaggerated drag that highlights stereotypical characteristics assigned to women. Yet this transgendered Bloom is not the androgyne figure that modernism has invested with special creative power and that Joyce critics have explored in relation to taxonomies of desire. Furthermore, "Mademoiselle Ruby" is unlike any of the other women in Ulysses. She is made up and dressed for the stage, undergoing in rapid succession stylized versions of all of the greatest hits of feminine suffering. Bloom-as-Ruby is an ineffectual fantasy persona—a campy, exaggerated version of femininity that he seems to reject as quickly as he dons it. The fantasy begins when whoremistress Bello emasculates Bloom immediately after dubbing him "Ruby Cohen," a "thing under the yoke" wearing a "punishment frock" (U 15:2965–7). Bloom's attire transforms him into the lowliest maidservant/whore. More important, the pretty undergarments hurt him: "You will be laced with cruel force into vicelike corsets . . . restrained in nettight frocks" (U 15:2975–8). Bello assigns Ruby-Bloom unpleasant tasks, such as laundering "smelling underclothes" (U 15:3065) and emptying chamberpots, under the discipline of physical punishment and extreme feminization. She must wear jewelry, four-inch heels, and "fortythreebuttoned gloves newpowdered with talc" (U 15;3079). Bello repeatedly stresses the market value of the ultra-feminine attire and of Bloom's services as a maid. Miss Ruby's tasks are also clearly marked as performative. She learns from Bello that the "scanty, daringly short skirt, riding up at the knee to show a peep of white pantalette, is a potent weapon," as are stockings and high heels (U 15:3115–16). The costume can be manipulated with motions of the body in walking and bending to provoke men with "powers of fascination" that "[p]ander to their Gomorrahan vices" (U 15:3121–2). Instead of trying to run away or expiring in exhaustion, as the source text's Ruby does, Bloom's Ruby merely poses as a modest innocent, simpering and hiding her face after Bello rapes her, brands her, and sets her on the auction block. The absence of any expression of pain or dismay compromises a reading of this scene as a serious catalogue of injustices against women.

What meaning, then, does the Ruby cross-dressing fantasy produce that differs both from Bloom's earlier fantasies about dominant women and from the sympathies he demonstrates toward women elsewhere in the novel, as carefully shown by feminist critics such as Christine Froula and Suzette Henke?2 Bloom's transformation into the circus girl is not a typical masochistic fantasy in the style of Sacher-Masoch but a particularly thrilling...

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