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

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 15, Number 3, Fómhar/Autumn 2011
pp. 151-153 | 10.1353/nhr.2011.0037

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In this engaging monograph, Janine Utell takes a bold position in the current academic climate: she analyzes literary representations of love without cynicism, and reads marriage as having positive transformational potential. However, lest skeptics think that she idealizes Joycean love as all about romantic first kisses under the Moorish wall in Gibraltar or the swapping of seedcake between lovers' mouths (both memorable incidents from Ulysses that factor into her dis-cussion), Utell grounds her study in a genuinely radical argument. Proceeding from the question of why Joyce explores and even affirms the institution of marriage throughout his works—despite denouncing it in his personal life—Utell shows how Joyce "seeks to puncture and twist" the "ethically suspect" cultural scripts circumscribing marriage in early twentieth-century Ireland that he saw as constraining individual autonomy, and which blamed for his own mother's premature death.

Joyce's vision of ethical love requires giving up the fantasy of two people merging into one, and recognizing instead the alterity of one's beloved; the most provocative consequence of such love is that it must include acceptance of adultery. Only by "accounting for erotic desire beyond the bonds of marriage, but within the world of two," according to Utell, can Joyce's lovers achieve the necessary "commitment to mutual flourishing and recognition, even in the face of the pain of infinite distance and separation that comes with love."

As Utell acknowledges, her contention that Joyce's oeuvre constitutes an ongoing ethical project is heavily indebted to Marian Eide's 2002 book Ethical Joyce. Though less groundbreaking than that study, Utell's application of Eide's argument as it relates to the subject of love provides an exemplary model of one scholar extending another's work in an unexplored direction. After laying out terminology drawn from the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, Utell begins by looking at Joyce's love letters from 1904 and 1909 to his companion and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle. These letters serve as a literary-erotic testing ground where Joyce's initial frustration that he can never possess or merge with Nora gives way to a more productive dynamic in which the lovers' epistolary exchanges allow desire to circulate between them, with each assuming responsibility for affirming the other's pleasure and thereby acknowledging the fact of the other's difference.

In the second chapter, Utell departs from analyzing a strictly Joycean text to read Katharine Parnell's 1914 memoir of her relationship with Charles Stewart Parnell—a book that Joyce owned. Joyce's lifelong obsession with Parnell's downfall is well known, but Utell examines it from a fresh angle, suggesting that Joyce's ethics of love may have been influenced by the struggle Katharine Parnell faces in her memoir "to reconcile adultery and marriage, the passion of illicit and unknown with the mundanity of everyday love, the known." As Utell shifts to considering Joyce's literary works, she continues to defy predictability by focusing on his little-discussed play, Exiles, and his notebook of prose poems, Giacomo Joyce. Her readings of these works set the stage for the book's strongest section: its account of ethical love in Ulysses. Through a compelling analysis of key episodes, Utell shows how Leopold Bloom moves from viewing his wife, Molly, in largely objectified terms to recognizing and accepting her as a desiring subject, a consequence of grappling with the reality of her affair with Blazes Boylan. The cogent reasoning and lucid prose in this section should enlighten hardcore Joyceans and general Ulysses admirers alike.

Utell's decision to conclude with a chapter on Finnegans Wake is also quite welcome, for too many scholars still ignore that shaggy beast—though her brief discussion of it proves anticlimactic. Utell writes that in Joyce's reworking of the Tristan and Isolde story in the Wake, "adultery becomes a site not for passion nor a rejection of the constraints of marriage, but a means by which members of a couple forgive and redeem each other, strengthening the bond beyond and between themselves in a radical recognition of the other's alterity in love." This is a fascinating claim, but the mere six pages that follow it offer minimal...



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