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Nuvoletta and the “Dantellising Peaches”: Dante, Femininity, and the Poetic Intertexts of Issy in Finnegans Wake

From: Joyce Studies Annual
2012
pp. 208-241

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When critics discuss the feminine in Finnegans Wake, Anna Livia Plurabelle tends to receive most of the attention. She is the most dominant, demanding, and persistent of the book’s many manifestations of the feminine, the “total … female presence,” as David Hayman puts it, the maternal archetype whose existence is felt in “the noncoherence of every page of the Wake.” She is everywhere and she is unavoidable, her centrality within Finnegans Wake arguably rivaled only by HCE himself. Given this centrality, and the close connections that have been drawn between her and other dominant manifestations of the feminine within Joyce’s work (such as Molly Bloom), it is not surprising that most critics studying the feminine within the Wake have focused their attention upon ALP, to the detriment of her daughter Issy. This is not to claim, of course, that Issy has been entirely overlooked or ignored by scholars—far from it; rather, I am suggesting that she has primarily been viewed through her relation to her parents, and rarely given sufficient scrutiny as a character herself. Indeed, whether addressing her orientation toward the male figures of the family within the context of the narrative and the textual dynamics of incest, or examining her relationship with ALP through the narrow lens of Freudian maternal anxiety, the critical fascination with Issy’s relation to her parents has led to her being seen primarily as ALP’s daughter. Such a view risks missing the complex and troubling portrait of femininity that Joyce drew independently in the youngest member of the Wake’s central family.

One possible way to redress this ALP-centric attitude, and to redirect critical attention toward the figure of Issy herself as an embodiment of femininity, is to consider her intertextual relation to Dante. The importance of Dante to Finnegans Wake has been a subject of study and discussion ever since Samuel Beckett wrote his seminal essay “Dante … Bruno. Vico … Joyce,” and it has been considered most profitably by Lucia Boldrini, who examines the impact of Dante’s theoretical and literary-critical writings on the book. Dante’s own conception of the feminine was complex and dual-sided. The view of femininity that arises from such works as the Commedia, the Vita Nuova, and his critical writings embraced the spirituality of figures such as the Virgin Mary, St Lucia, and, of course, Beatrice—the so-called tre donne benedette (Inferno 2.124), the trinity of heavenly ladies who dispatch Virgil to rescue the Dante-pilgrim protagonist from the “dark wood” at the opening of the Commedia, but Dante’s conception of the female also includes the heightened eroticism of “stilnovist” love poetry. Given Issy’s presentation as both child and sexual temptation, as a figure of both innocence and experience, this dual-natured Dantean femininity seems a uniquely appropriate concept through which to consider the daughter of the Wake. In order to explore the possible impact of Dante’s notions of the feminine on Joyce’s conception of Issy, I will consider two particularly Dantean sections of Finnegans Wake: the Nuvoletta passage at the end of the story of the Mookse and the Gripes (FW 157–9), and one of Joyce’s most famous direct references to the poet in a passage from “The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies”: “turning up and fingering over the most dantellising peaches in the lingerous longerous book of the dark” (FW 251.23–4). In these passages both Dante and Issy herself have a particularly strong textual presence. While Issy appears throughout the book, it is relatively rare to find her as the focus of the narrative, and within both the “Nuvoletta” and “dantellising peaches” passages, Issy functions as the singular representation of the feminine.

In the course of exploring the presence of Dante within the “Nuvoletta” and “dantellising peaches” passages, I will not only reveal a range of hitherto overlooked Dantean intertexts for Finnegans Wake, but will also illuminate the fundamentally intertextual construction of Issy’s feminine identity, showing how Joyce wove her femininity out of a range of poetic material, primarily the work of Dante but also incorporating later, Dantean, poets. In this respect, we will be able to...



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