The Penelope Episode of Ulysses presents a full picture of Molly Bloom, one told through her own sleepy thoughts. In "Penelope," Molly emerges as a thoroughly real person: freely accepting her sexual self, jealous of other women, sometimes melancholic, demanding when dealing with a lover, and completely knowledgeable about her husband's eccentricities.
Yet Molly is also a symbolic figure, and her characterization in the entire novel contains several tiers of meaning. Molly is, first of all, an embodiment of archetypal womanhood. She reminds the reader of the Pagan Mary whom Stephen saw standing in the water at the close of Book Four of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At that point, Stephen resisted the temptation offered by a fully sensual but limiting person — that is, someone who might comfort him with her flesh but divert him from pursuing the more intellectual goal of becoming an independent writer. In A Portrait, Stephen's "dream girl" had traits of a mermaid, as a trail of seaweed fastened itself upon her body. Molly, too, is both a mermaid and in "Calypso," she is a symbol of the enchantress who kept Odysseus away from Ithaca for several years. Molly's retort to Bloom's definition of "metempsychosis": "O, rocks!" establishes her as a siren (Molly is of course a concert singer) whose song may well lead mariners to deadly shoals. Also typifying her universal womanhood is her menstruation, which links her with Milly Bloom and Martha Clifford. Again, Molly's image as woman-temptress is seen in the role of Kitty O'Shea, who was instrumental in causing Parnell's downfall: like Molly, the wife of Captain O'Shea was a "fine lump of a woman"; and, as did Parnell, Bloom is now struggling to establish Home Rule, not so much political independence for Ireland as sovereignty for himself at 7 Eccles St. Finally, Molly has all the elements of the Blooms' mysterious, enigmatic cat, who warmly stretches itself in the Blooms' house and is reluctant (as Molly seems to be) to leave the building. When Bloom wonders why mice don't scream when being devoured by cats, he may well be thinking of his own situation.
Although Molly is Joyce's equivalent of an earth goddess, one for whose warm flesh Bloom longs, she is an aging and very hefty beauty who has a "reputation" (deserved or not) in Dublin. Jack Power's ambiguous query about "Madame" in the carriage on the way to Glasnevin Cemetery paints her as a symbolic whore mistress, though that is not, of course, Power's intention. Lenehan feels free to tell M'Coy (in the ninth section of "The Wandering Rocks") of taking liberties with Molly, describing her "milky way," during an evening in 1894 while Bloom was pointing out the stars as the group returned from the "big spread out at Glencree reformatory. . . ." (Apparently, ten years later, Molly still has her "name.") Molly is a topic of conversation in "The Cyclops" as the acid-tongued narrator, the Nameless One, the Citizen, says of Bloom, "The fat heap he married is a nice old phenomenon with a back on her like a ballalley." And the picture of Molly that Bloom shows an indifferent Stephen in "Eumaeus" is outdated: In the cabman's shelter, Bloom is desperately trying to recapture a vision of Molly as she once was.
Molly is an earth goddess, then, but a fading one; she is also a Calypso who is herself held captive in a loveless marriage. Her lover, Boylan, is crass and insensitive, and her husband, uxorious, almost masochistic. Bloom makes her breakfast exactly as she demands, sends Milly away to facilitate the Blazes-Molly affair, relinquishes his key to the house (and to the marriage) through his fear of awakening her, brings her Boylan's letter of assignation, orders skin lotion for her and is desperate when he forgets to return to Sweny's to pick it up, rents the pornographic Sweets of Sin for her, and he ends the day by kissing her rump. It is no wonder that Molly's sexual fantasies sometimes contain hints of her own masochism; for example, one of her favorite books is Ruby: The Pride of the Ring, which is about a naked woman who is seduced by a sadistic male. And adding to the pathos of Molly's situation is Bloom's inability to tell her how he really feels about her. In "The Sirens," the reader knows that Bloom has chosen Molly over the platonic Martha, and it is unfortunate that Molly does not know of his decision.
Joyce suggests in Ulysses, however, that all the marital pain experienced by Molly and Bloom may eventually be turned into joy of a sort. By the end of her soliloquy in "Penelope," Molly has all but written off Boylan as a possible future husband. Also, she will probably accede to Bloom's demand for breakfast in bed — and her last thoughts are of him. One must not forget the Bloomsday date of Ulysses, almost certainly the day on which Joyce himself knew that he was in love with Nora Barnacle. Preoccupied as he was with the concept of marital infidelity, perhaps Joyce placed the affair of Blazes and Molly on this date to suggest a gleam of hope for the future. Having seen through Boylan's facade, perhaps Molly will once again unite meaningfully with Bloom.