Penelope: In Search of the Feminist in James Joyce
Ulysses is an oeuvre in rebellion against society’s standards of race, class, and religion, against traditional images of sexuality and gender. Its final book, “Penelope,” is a reflection of this rebellion, however its true feminist character has been an issue of contention among critics. A more grounded vision of Joyce’s feminism can be found through an understanding of the two main cultural influences that shaped him: Irish-Catholic views on the feminine and Victorian morality. Joyce rebelled against their repressive attitudes toward sexuality and social relationships as evidenced in his unconventional relationship with Nora, his reshaping of the idea of “woman,” the female artists and intellectuals that formed his inner circle, and his support of their movement.
This break from tradition is a central quality in Ulysses. Molly Bloom is not the two-dimensional caricature many have suggested. She is so much more than that. Molly rebels against her traditional domestic role, is a voice for female emancipation, an example for feminine power, and the embodiment of unified sensuality and spirituality. These untraditional qualities have led some critics to accuse Molly of being a mere projection of the male psyche, without a real voice of her own. These criticisms ignore the powerful way in which Molly challenges commonly held beliefs about female sexuality. Despite the hint of the creator’s voice in his creation, Molly is presence unto herself, Joyce’s definitive statement of women as powerful, sexual beings.
When James Joyce wrote Ulysses, it was a rebellion against everything Christian Europe held as moral and true. He questioned traditional beliefs about race, nationalism, cultural identity, class, religion, and, of course, sexuality. Ulysses’s last book, “Penelope,” was, in Joyce’s own words, written to be “the clou of the book,” beginning and ending with the female word “yes.”1 A rejection of society’s standards, it is a bold, sensual, lusty, obscene stream-of-consciousness narration, an intimate journey into the mind and heart of Joyce’s heroine, Molly Bloom. Perhaps even more than Ulysses’s other books, “Penelope” is a dramatic challenge to the very idea of a societal convention.
“Penelope” invites much examination on the part of feminist critics of Joyce. However, the task of defining Joyce’s feminist character is one yielding many conclusions - there is nothing approaching consensus in modern Joycean scholarship. This is no surprise considering how enigmatic and open to interpretation “Penelope,” and indeed the whole of Ulysses, is. Kate Millet pronounces Joyce, “guilty of naive participation in the ‘cult of the primitive.’”2 Even more condemning is Marilyn French’s assertion, “It seems certain that Joyce had a contempt for women.”3 Given the nature of “Penelope,” this kind of interpretation is both understandable and...