- Joyce:Marital & Extramarital Relations
Despite its short length, this book fully examines the marital and extramarital relations across the corpus of James Joyce's works. Janine Utell focuses her exploration around the seemingly simple question: "Why does Joyce write about adultery over and over again?" The simplicity of the question belies a rather complicated answer. Utell approaches this question by way of a postmodern ethics and a vocabulary borrowed from the philosophy of love. Specifically, she draws on [End Page 120] the ethics proposed by Emmanuel Levinas to reclaim marriage and love from that which restricts and stifles desire to that which works beyond cultural scripts—however painful—to permit mutual "flourishing." Utell demonstrates that even though Joyce imagined marriage to be an idealized space for two people to come together, his works actually reveal that "union is impossible." Instead, she argues that marriage—and adultery, a crucial aspect of the marital matrix—becomes a site for confronting and recognizing the otherness of the beloved, that is, acknowledging that the other person in the we of the couple is autonomous, separate, and ultimately unknowable. Only then can we love "ethically."
One of the strengths of this book might be considered its weakness (though very minor), as Utell tends to repeat the characteristics of "ethical love" throughout her study. While this can be a bit tiresome, it does contextualize her careful readings of Joyce's texts and how and when they diverge from this concept, which further reveals how complicated the answer is to Utell's initial question. Her argument moves beyond what others have written concerning Joyce's use of the marriage narrative as a way to subvert a larger cultural narrative by first examining how Joyce's style and perspective "puncture and twist those [cultural] scripts," and more interestingly, how he reveals that those scripts "and our getting caught up in them is ethically suspect."
Before diving into Joyce's fictional texts, Utell further situates the historical context and theoretical arguments put forth in the introduction by focusing her first two chapters on biographical "portraits" of people who were influential to Joyce's fictional works. Chapter one examines Joyce's relationship with his "companion/wife" Nora Barnacle and his infatuation with Marthe Fleischmann through the medium of the love letter. This chapter grounds Utell's study of Joyce's "sexual/ textual" ethics for the rest of the book, as the love letter paradoxically connects the lovers through a shared, creative exchange, yet, by its very nature, points to the unbridgeable distance between the lover and the alterity of the beloved. Utell shows how the letter exchange between Joyce and Nora is a collaborative process through which they each can strive to learn more about the other person. However, the title of the chapter, "Nora and Marthe," is a little misleading, since Utell devotes the majority of her discussion to the letters exchanged between Joyce and Nora, reserving only the last two pages for Joyce's letters to Marthe. But to be fair, there are only four surviving letters from Joyce to Marthe, as opposed to the numerous letters exchanged between the [End Page 121] Joyces. As we will see throughout her project, form reflects content; Utell claims there is no knowledge gained through or from these letters to Marthe, since she remains an erotic object and "there is no story to tell." Although the chapter ends rather abruptly, when it is taken as a whole, Utell is able to ground Joyce's ethics of love in his educative epistolary relationship with Nora, which is privileged over the voyeuristic one with Marthe.
Chapter two examines the alternative union between Charles Stewart Parnell and Katharine O'Shea. Although other critics have noted how Parnell was an influential figure for Joyce, especially regarding themes of "betrayal, heroism, and exile," Utell fills a lacuna in the criticism by focusing on the linkages between Parnell and adultery. How Katharine and Parnell defined the boundaries of "marital love" is crucial to seeing how Joyce would offer a new understanding of what...