- Speak, Suck, Bite … KissMother–Son Love in Joyce
You must remember this: A kiss is just a kiss
What does it mean for a mother to kiss her child? Common sense would have us believe that a parent’s kiss is the most natural display of affection. And yet, in the child’s consciousness, is a kiss really just a kiss? Joyce poses these questions about mother-son love, and his vision is heavily influenced by Irish Catholicism. In Joyce’s work, parental love is complicated in the boy’s mind by the competition of religious feeling and prurience, as well as by the unconscious identifications and motivations of mother figures. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the young boy Stephen worries and deliberates over expressions of maternal love, particularly when his friends taunt him over the dilemma of a good-night kiss. And in Ulysses, the adult Molly mingles memories of her dead child, Rudy, with romanticized recollections of the boy Stephen as he grew into adulthood. Molly layers these maternal memories with a peculiar fantasy of sucking the cock of the statue of a little boy. Love, questions of devotion, eroticism (and fear of it), and death (and grief from it) all trouble the boundaries of Joyce’s mother-son relations. Joyce casts these issues as either problems or pleasures—sometimes explicitly—and in doing so, he brings to light taboo aspects inherent even in Christianity’s most iconic depiction of mother-son love—the Pietà.
Chapter I of James Joyce’s Portrait, and the final chapter of Ulysses, form bookends in the development of Joyce’s stream of consciousness technique, but Molly’s monologue also repeats portions of Stephen’s story in Portrait. As she recalls earlier interactions with him, Molly catalogues Stephen’s maturation. Taken together, the beginning and ending of the [End Page 206] two novels make an odd couple of Stephen and Molly: Joyce begins his stream of consciousness experimentation with the child Stephen’s fragmentary language of sensate impressions, and this technique reaches an apogee in the free-flowing associations of the adult Molly. Moreover, Joyce specifically invites us to consider the two as a psychosexual pair because in her soliloquy Molly thinks of the young man with erotic interest. She muses that she is qualified as a potential consort of Stephen’s because she is “not too old for him if hes 23 or 24” despite the fact that she recalls watching him grow up (U 18.1328).1 She reminisces about seeing Stephen as “an innocent boy” at age eleven “and a darling little fellow in his lord Fauntleroy suit and curly hair like a prince on the stage … he liked me too I remember” (U 18.1311–13). Molly’s mental matchmaking of herself and her spouse’s young guest brings her into a peculiarly imagined bodily proximity with Stephen at the end of Ulysses.
Thus, the last chapter of Ulysses works as a complement to the opening of Portrait through the trope of physicality’s connection to the ephemeral, or what Joyce calls the Word made Flesh. That is, Molly’s imaginings of bodily connection between herself and the “young man” help remind us that there is also a linguistic connection between the texts. Accordingly, when Molly conjures Stephen at the end of Ulysses, she helps make the case for a consideration of her thoughts and speech acts alongside Stephen’s. The over-arching mysteries of transubstantiation and incarnation lie at the heart of this comparison: Stephen’s and Molly’s relationships to words—how the two are shaped by, and in turn, shape linguistic systems involving a variety of signifiers and signifieds—helps us reevaluate gender-based readings of Portrait and Ulysses. Stephen famously expresses his own vision of his quasi-mystical relationship to processes of signification in Portrait through the metaphors of transubstantiation and incarnation, imagining himself as “a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life” (P 221).2
The semantic structures and systems in the two novels have much to do with gender and childhood, and Joyce...