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James Joyce and the Revolt of Love: Marriage, Adultery and Desire (review)

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 58, Number 2, Summer 2012
pp. 417-420 | 10.1353/mfs.2012.0046

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Marriage is hard. Anyone who has ever been married can attest to this. For Joyce, though, marriage—at least marriage the way it was constructed by the late Victorians of his formative years—was also an unethical practice. Although promulgated, of course, as a blissful oneness by the cultural milieu around him, Joyce rejected this unrealistic and ultimately oppressive practice, spending his adult life with Nora Barnacle, but not married to her. We all know this. However, Utell asks the inevitable question that arises from this set of circumstances on the first page of her introduction: "If Joyce found the institution of marriage to be so problematic, why does he continually explore it, even affirm it?" (1). It is this question that drives the production of Utell's slim volume.

Examining evidence from Joyce's letters to Nora during their courtship, the political and personal fallout from the Parnell-O'Shea affair, his unpublished, "deeply flawed" play Exiles (52), the "short notebook of prose poems" called Giacomo Joyce (60), and most importantly, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Utell closely traces Joyce's struggle with marriage, adultery, and desire in order to carve out some modicum of understanding of Joyce's ongoing intellectual problem about marriage and how (or whether) it can be conducted/engaged in ethically. The late-nineteenth-century notion of marriage is wildly overblown and overladen with cultural values and expectations of the negation of the self, especially for the wife; this is presented as foundational fact for Utell's study, and she does not spend any time rehashing that well-trodden ground. Instead, she starts in the empty space beyond that to suggest that Joyce presents adultery "not only as part of the world of two"—a piece of the marriage puzzle either ignored, rejected, or denied by the culture of the time—but also as "potentially transformative" (1). So although adultery has always been viewed as the ultimate threat to the sanctity of marriage, Utell claims that Joyce, based on the evidence in his writing, saw adultery as the way toward a re-envisioning of marriage as a more ethical practice.

What seems antithetical, even oxymoronic, Utell explains clearly, and she provides ample evidence from Joyce's work to convince even the most skeptical of readers. Utell shows how Joyce's letters "allow [him], and us, a space in which to consider the meaning of love and how Joyce defines it; the nature and narrativization of the love story and how we tell and retell it; the place of desire within and beyond marriage and other social conventions meant to regulate that desire; and the ultimate impossibility of bridging the separation between lover and beloved" (17-18). That impossibility is key to her argument. Utell focuses on the Other's ultimate unknowability, or her "alterity"— the state of being radically alien to the conscious self or a particular cultural orientation. Not only, then, is the Other essentially unknowable; she is also radically different from what her culture has led her partner to expect, and many times, even different from the selfhood she is consciously aware of. If she does not fulfill cultural expectations, and she does not even truly know herself, then what hope does her husband have?

This is what ultimately prevents the "oneness" that is supposed to be at the heart of a union between husband and wife. This is also, in the final analysis, what must be given expression for a marriage to be ethical. Since oneness is impossible, then the only other option is for the male partner to allow the female partner her agency, whether that agency is expressed with her husband or some other partner. But Joyce does not arrive at this conclusion easily, or quickly. He works it out, sometimes painfully, over the course of his life, through his writing and within and without his partnership with Nora. Through his letters, readers see his struggle with his feelings of desire for and his desire to possess another human being, desires that disturb him in their power, but also disturb him by acknowledging how his desires would impact her life.

From the Parnell-O'Shea affair, Joyce could see the power...



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