Summary and Analysis
Chapter 18 - Penelope
In Homer's epic, Odysseus is reunited with Penelope after he has slain the numerous suitors. At first, however, Penelope does not recognize her husband; she is convinced that he is indeed Odysseus, her husband, only after he is able to describe to her the construction of their bed, a fact known only to the two of them. In Joyce, the scene for "Penelope" is the Blooms' bed, whose jingling sound has been heard, vocally foreshadowed, and developed through several motifs in Ulysses throughout this single day of June 16th, 1904.
Joyce's technique in "Penelope" is illustrated not so much by stream-of-consciousness narrative as it is developed by word association — that is, Molly's thoughts do not "flow" in a consecutive, narrative pattern; instead, in "Penelope," Joyce reproduces the seemingly random ideas of a sleepy woman in the wee hours of the morning. This technique suggests that Molly is infinity, whose symbol is a horizontal 8. Molly (Marion Tweedy) was born on September 8, 1870, and on her birthday, Molly recalls, Bloom once bought her eight poppies. Recumbent as she is in this episode, Molly's physical position suggests mathematical infinity — the "infinite variety" of womanhood. Countering this amorphous non-structure is Joyce's use of only eight sentences to compose and impose some measure of order on the episode. Also, "Penelope" both begins and ends with Molly's thoughts about Bloom. Beyond this, however, little can be said about any more stringent pattern. Joyce has said that "Penelope" revolves around "four cardinal points . . . the female breasts, arse, womb and . . . ." Later, however, he contradicted himself, implying that in "Penelope," he was trying to portray the untamed torrent of womanhood.
It seems more profitable, ultimately, to examine the character of Molly herself, for she is one of the most intriguing characters in all of fiction. She resembles, first of all, Chaucer's Wife of Bath. The key to Molly's character is perhaps best contained in her statement, her cry, really, to: "let us have a bit of fun. . . ." Also, as with the Wife of Bath, a current of melancholy runs through Molly's personality. She doesn't want to be used by Boylan; she wants to be loved, in a tender way. Molly wishes that some man, any man, would give her a long kiss while holding her lovingly in his arms. Molly Bloom is lonely, and she writes letters to herself; she has been rejected by her quirkish and often cold husband, who also writes letters to a chimera figure (Martha Clifford). But, basically, Molly is not a defeated woman — despite her disappointments in finding a man who is able to love her; like Chaucer's heroine, Molly is a survivor, and Molly knows all the feminine tricks. Today, for example, Molly's technique of wooing might be similar to "faking an orgasm": "I gave my eyes that look with my hair a bit loose from the tumbling . . . ." And her method of lovemaking has always been mingled with a touch of teasing fantasy. When she was very young, Molly told Lieutenant Mulvey that she was engaged to a Spanish nobleman, Don Miguel de la Flora — and, as it turned out, she did indeed marry a "flower," in the figure of Bloom (his pseudonym), and he is another person who fantasizes about his love life with his pen pal, Martha.
Another intriguing and major trait of Molly Bloom is her jealousy, her scorn of other women. She criticizes Mrs. Riordan (Stephen's tutor in A Portrait) for leaving money to have prayers said for the repose of her soul, instead of making a small bequest to the Blooms, who had befriended her. In addition, Molly fired the Blooms' maid, Mary Driscoll, on a fictitious charge of stealing oysters — simply because Bloom had taken a fancy to the girl. And Molly is still jealous of Bloom's old flame, Josie Powell, whom she thinks Bloom may have met at Dignam's funeral, and she makes up reasons for her feeling fortunate to have Bloom as a husband instead of her being married to the lunatic Denis Breen, whom Josie married. She has heard that Breen goes to bed in muddy boots, and she knows that he is now the laughing stock of Dublin. In addition, Molly resents her competitor, the singer Kathleen Kearney (who appears in the short story "A Mother" in Dubliners). Molly also takes pride in the fact that when she was a girl her hair was thicker than Hester's, her girl friend's, (and thus she reminds one of Hedda Gabler, who wanted to burn off her rival's hair in Ibsen's play). In addition, when Molly reminisces through the mists of years about her young lover, Mulvey, who she thinks is probably around 40 by now (1904), she imagines that he is married and takes pride in the fact that she had him first (masturbating him into a handkerchief).
Molly is refreshing, even when her scornful criticism is directed towards Joyce's other characters in the novel, for her observations shed new insights into their actions and motivations. For example, Molly assails the "boiled eyes" of Menton, the pompous lawyer. She wonders if Paul de Kock, the author of salacious novels, was so nicknamed because he was "going about with his tube from one woman to another . . . ," and she sees Simon Dedalus as both flirtatious and overly critical.
Likewise, Molly's skepticism is directed with special vigor towards the two men in her life, Boylan and Bloom. Boylan slapped Molly on the rump a bit too familiarly as he was leaving; afterward, she feels, and quite rightly, that she is not a horse or an ass. Neither did he show much manliness when, at her insistence, he withdrew from her in order to prevent pregnancy (the final time, though, he did complete the act). Nor is Boylan very sophisticated: He undressed in front of her so matter-of-factly that Molly was annoyed. Perhaps, she wonders, he was simply taking her for granted. Even while dreaming of becoming Mrs. Boylan, Molly knows that this union will never come about, and she wonders musingly how she can extort presents from her lover.
But it is Molly's portrait of Bloom that is most crucial to an understanding of Ulysses, for in her thoughts about Bloom, we can see that Molly's adultery was triggered, basically, by the failings of two people. We sympathized with Bloom throughout the novel; now, in "Penelope," we hear Molly's side of the story.
Bloom is quirkish in many ways — apart from his sexual abnormalities. Although Bloom can be pleasant to beggars and waiters, he is often irascible with others, especially employers, and Molly wonders when he will lose his present job because of his know-it-all ways. Bloom's glib commonplace that Christ was the first Socialist made the sensitive Molly cry. And Molly is aware that while Bloom pretends indifference to pretty girls, he is often ogling them with a sly eye. Bloom really does not like to work (despite all of his moralizing to Stephen in "Eumaeus"); instead, he would rather stay around the house all day, getting under Molly's feet. Bloom is a bit of a faker; once he pretended to know how to row, and he almost drowned himself and Molly. Another time, he thought that he heard a burglar, and he came down the steps trembling, making enough noise to scare off any possible thief. Additionally, Molly can't stand Bloom's way of sleeping: if he jerks his feet, she might lose her teeth; and how can she even break wind with him at the foot of the bed? Bloom is so parsimonious and suspicious that he locks his checkbook away, and Molly has been tempted, on the few occasions when he left the dresser drawer open, to forge his name on a number of checks and cash them.
But it is Bloom's sexual habits that have, most of all, alienated Molly, as they would most people. Once, Bloom asked Molly to walk in horse dung, revealing his revolting perversion for coprophilia. He also begged her once to give him a snippet of her underwear. He has written her dirty letters, and Bloom once proposed that he take naked pictures of her to sell. After the birth of Milly, Bloom asked, since Molly's breasts were still expanded, that he milk her into the tea. Molly feels that the cold feet that Bloom lays on her in bed reflect his cold heart. Molly has truly become over the years a victim of the "loveless Irish marriage," pointed out by Synge, among others, in his In the Shadow of the Glen. Molly, to some extent, resents Bloom's bringing Stephen home (although she fantasizes about Stephen's future existence in the Blooms' house): Perhaps Bloom wants Stephen to make love to her, a point cited by some critics who have detected a hint of homosexuality in Bloom's sometimes obsessive relationship with Stephen.
It is Molly's own sexuality, however, that has inspired so much critical acclaim and so much denunciation. Some critics think of Molly as a "pig"; others see her as Joyce's symbol of the Blessed Mother, finding an aura of sacramentality in her combining menstrual blood and water (urine) in a cracked chamber pot. The truth is probably somewhere in between these two extremes: Molly is religious, insofar as she accepts God and His manifestations in physical nature. She is also completely human in her total acceptance of the body, with all of its joys and pains. Through Molly, Joyce revealed what Irish women were really thinking when their subconscious gates were flung open on a warm June night in 1904.
Many of Molly's thoughts touch on subjects simply not discussed in the literature of 1922 — at least not outside of a psychoanalysts office — and Joyce reveals great insight into the physical aspects of the female personality. The variety of sexual experiences that Molly touches upon is astounding: the kinky habits of Mrs. Mastiansky's husband, for example, who made his wife "stick out her tongue as far as ever she could . . . ." There is also flagellation, as well as exhibitionists who pretend that they are urinating in order to expose themselves; in addition, there is female masturbation (complete with banana); a wish to exchange places with a man to see how sex feels from the male viewpoint; a desire to make love to boys and sailors, even though the latter might be diseased; and a stray thought of having sex with Boylan in front of Bloom in order to punish him — these thoughts, plus many more, crowd her mind and flow from it.
What "Penelope" concerns most, however, is Molly's frank acceptance of herself, and most of what Molly thinks about is scarcely "abnormal" by late 20th-century standards: for example, the shape, in detail, of the male sex organ; Boylan's stallion-like sexual prowess (it seems that he had at least four climaxes); a woman's vaginal irritation before a period; rough sex hastening a period; and the physical enjoyment of using a chamber pot (note Bloom's delight in defecation).
With all of Molly's untutored insights into the human condition, her full acceptance of the fun of life, one question remains for the reader of Ulysses: what is to be the future relationship between Molly and Bloom? Although the question is ultimately unanswerable (for anyone), Joyce does provide several clues or workpoints that argue to a possible reconciliation. The breakfast in bed that Molly will probably cook for Bloom later in the morning of June 17 and her memory of the encounter on Howth Hill, when she led Bloom into proposing to her, are the bookends of this chapter. Both of them contain symbols of rebirth: if the breakfast is to be cooked, it will consist of eggs, usually a symbol of rebirth in Joyce; and Molly's thoughts of the younger, more handsome Bloom include the moment when she passed into his mouth "the bit of seedcake," another hint of rebirth.
The real "evidence" of a future for the Blooms, however, is to be found in how well she knows him. As was noted earlier, Molly is on to all of his tricks. She knows of his pornographic collecting, of his eating habits when he has a crush on a new woman, of his blotting out a letter (to Martha), of his particular susceptibility to maneuvering females (since he is almost 40), of his avoiding the house when he is guiltily in love, and of the fact that other people make fun of him behind his back. Yet she is still able to remember what he was like, and her ending memories present a much better and less farcical Bloom than we have seen throughout the rest of Ulysses.
And is it possible for a timid advertising salesman ever to break up with someone who knows his faults so well — and who accepts them in her own peculiar way?