James Joyce, from Ulysses [Penelope] (604-610)
The exposition describing this poem states that this episode depicts Molly's sexual desires. She refers to a penis as a "thing long" and a vagina as a "thing hairy" as opposed to using the proper terms (604-605). She also notes how men have more privileges than women, saying that "men...can pick and choose what they please a married woman or a fast widow or a girl for their different tastes," almost like a man can choose whatever woman he wants for whatever mood he's in. Ew. I can tell she struggles to find desire from within when she complains about turning into "an old shriveled hag" while she's been with Leopold Bloom. She has also dealt with grief after losing her child, and has not engaged in sexual activity since. Similar to postpartum depression, I think women hold too high of expectations on their sexual desires and stable happiness. Molly romanticizes that her sexual encounters with Leopold will hold true for the rest of their marriage when she’s blissfully transformed through thought to the moment he proposed to her. Life gets in the way, and the perfect sex life is not ideal. I also find Molly to be brutally honest, saying her group of female friends are a "dreadful lot of bitches," blaming their "snappy" attitude on their "troubles" they have associated with men (606). She also carries the attitude, though, that women truly run the world and are responsible for bringing balance to the unruly behavior men pose. Molly judges men to be so frivolous and wasteful with their time based on the lack of presence their mothers have in their life (606). In this case, mothers (women) are also responsible for raising men to be proper, giving more significance to the woman’s role in the world.
Throughout reading Molly's account, I felt transported through her wild, reaching thoughts that stretch to every emotion. There are several epiphany-like moments that distract her from real life, especially those rooted in nature. This relates to Joyce's ability to reflect English society that was becoming more secular. With how difficult it is to understand the phrases and the lack of punctuation, Molly’s soliloquy reflects how lost women felt with their gender role, as well as how difficult it is to grasp a woman’s sexuality and her understanding of the world (or anyone’s for that matter). The abrupt shifts also suggest that a woman’s sexual desire toward any one person can fluctuate. Molly feels a lot of guilt from cheating on Leopold, but if this adulterous, sexual desire were more flexible and openly respected, then she wouldn’t have so many conflicted feelings towards her marital betrayal.
In relation to the controversy of whether Molly is vulgar or pure of spirit, I believe this curiosity comes from a misjudgment of her witty sense of humor. She’s pretty funny to read, and I think, while she’s uneducated, she is smart enough to be able to play as different characters in the multifaceted roles she must fulfill. While she chooses to look down upon men without maternal guidance and prostitutes without morals, she is able to get away from the harsh, obligatory reality of having to get married by investing her thoughts in the beauty of nature and really honing in on her sexuality. This sense of self shows that she is very aware of her feelings, and I don’t get a sense that she’s unwavering about her sexuality or her view on having multiple partners. Similar to judging experiences of a World War I soldier, to judge Molly of her adulterous choices and slanted opinions is only a small representation of who she is as a person. This style of soliloquy doesn’t leave anything out. Every single thought is spilled across the page without punctuation to signify that she has a lot of life left to discover, and she wants to make every decision one step at a time.
Watch video below for penelope reading starting on pg. 604 of our textbook.