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  • The Molly Blooms of “Penelope”: Reading Joyce Archivally
  • Alyssa J. O’Brien (bio)

Positioned at the end of the book, after the radical innovations with representation and form in the later chapters of Ulysses, “Penelope” appears to confirm Hugh Kenner’s consideration of it as manifesting, “for once, no style.” 1 Long viewed in terms of what Karen Lawrence describes as “the sound of one mind thinking,” “Penelope” has seemed a retreat from linguistic experimentation. 2 Such interpretations are clearly informed by the visual presentation of words on the page: the stylistic crafting of the text creates the illusion of a flowing monologue emanating from a single female consciousness. Consequently, the critical history of this episode, beginning with the assumption that Joyce offers us a single, woman’s voice at last, has not been able to avoid imposing upon it what Derek Attridge calls “unexamined gender stereotypes.” 3 But a reconsideration of Joyce’s writing process for the episode challenges this premise and provides a way to re-evaluate the significance of “Penelope.”

If we consult Joyce’s manuscripts, typescripts, and proofs, we are compelled to question the common critical assumption that Molly Bloom signifies a knowable character with a transparent consciousness. Reading “Penelope” archivally, we find that it is not Molly who negotiates colonial and patriarchal discourses (as Brian Shaffer and others have argued), 4 but rather that [End Page 7] Joyce’s language continually ruptures the consolidation of a character who might signify a construction of such discourses. In other words, Joyce negotiates social scripts shaping Irish female identity not so much through one character’s subversive masquerade or mimicry, but rather through his refusal to capitulate to any cultural representation of gendered subjectivity. What is at stake in reading multiple Molly Blooms in “Penelope” is that we can see Joyce engaging with the sexual and imperial politics of early twentieth-century Dublin in a way that navigates the polarities between feminists and conservatives, cultural nationalists and colonialists. He offers an alternative vision of subjectivity, one fashioned through his experimentation with language.

In a small scribbled hand, Joyce added a phrase to the typescript of “Penelope”: “she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were like her.” 5 Although the line is often read as the sentiment of Molly Bloom, we might see the inserted phrase as pointing to a multiplicity of femininities, a plurality of possible women. This, in turn, suggests that Joyce may be advancing his vision of ontological mutability in the final, often reductively read episode.

Transformation, metamorphosis, and metempsychosis are clearly cardinal interests for Joyce throughout Ulysses. 6 Buck Mulligan’s parody of transubstantiation introduces the lietmotif of mutability; the theme is continued through Stephen Dedalus’s philosophical musings in “Proteus” (“God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain”), and through Bloom’s speculations in “Hades” (“If we were all suddenly somebody else”). 7 The later episodes actually embody in textual terms the ontological mutability pondered and presented narratively earlier in the book. In “Nausicaa,” Bloom becomes the hero of a popular sentimental romance, The Lamplighter, through Joyce’s use of the language of sentimental Victorian novels. In “Oxen of the Sun,” Joyce’s language causes characters to be repeatedly transported through centuries, into and out of different bodies and across various locations: Bloom transforms from a “wayfaring” man “[o]f Israel’s folk” to “sir Leopold” to “Master Bloom” to “Leop. Bloom” to “Mr Leopold” to “Mr Canvasser Bloom” to “young Leopold” to “Mr L. Bloom (Pubb. Canv.)” and, finally, to “old man Leo,” “Bloo,” and “Pold veg.” Joyce puts Bloom through what Joyce termed “five or six different [End Page 8] suits” in “Circe,” 8 yet the changes are more drastic than costume. Bloom transforms from mayor to sex slave; he grows a vulva and gives birth to eight yellow and white children. 9 In this fantastical Walpurgisnacht episode, all characters and objects mutate into different forms. Bloom’s and Stephen’s mothers are reincarnated to play a role, and even a bar...

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pp. 7-24
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