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Women In Joyce's Ulysses Essay

5232 words - 21 pages

Joyce is often credited with an inward and celebratory presentation of 'woman.' What do you think of his achievement in that respect?Close analysis of the role of women in Ulysses reveals something of a dichotomy. The aggressive, promiscuous Molly Bloom appears to represent Joyce's delineation of a self-confident, uninhibited 'new woman.' In many respects, Joyce's presentation of 'woman' is ahead of its time - Ulysses provoked outrage on its release for the frankness of Molly's sexual thoughts in the final 'Penelope' episode. However, other readings (and readers) draw attention to Joyce's inability to truly understand the female psyche, and criticise his depictions of women as flawed and unbalanced. This essay will outline and attempt to reconcile these conflicting observations, and examine the extent to which Joyce succeeds in celebrating females and femininity in Ulysses.One of the most common criticisms levelled at Joyce is the two-dimensional nature of the women he writes. Richard Ellman asserted that his female characters inevitably fit into the virgin/whore stereotypes originating in Catholicism, and this has become a widely accepted perspective. However, whilst the reader may notice such an inclination in Ulysses, Joyce neither condones 'virgin' as virtuous nor condemns 'whore' as shameful. In fact, if one compares the manner in which he mocks Gerty MacDowell's romantic aspirations with the freedom of thought apportioned to the voracious Molly Bloom, quite the reverse appears to be the case. With this in mind, one must ask whether Joyce can be criticised for 'classifying' women in Ulysses. Indeed, such broad labels as 'untouched virgin' and 'defiled prostitute' may be unavoidable in a work in which the author attempts to uncover the deepest workings of the female psyche. Joyce wrote the Penelope episode not specifically to shock, but to illustrate his theory on the female thought process; based, claims Ellman, on '[his] theory of [Nora Barnacle's] mind.' However, it is hard to imagine today the disbelief with which many readers received Molly Bloom on the book's publication. Indeed, the US Customs Office banned the book's importation for fifteen years on the grounds that it was obscene.According to Suzette Henke, Joyce did aim to include a sense of dichotomy in Ulysses as far as its women are concerned, though it was that of 'narcissistic virgin and phallic mother - between the untouchable ingénue and the experienced maternal female.' Here we find two models into which the characters of Gerty and Molly fit far more readily. Indeed, after such a consideration, labels such as 'virgin' and 'whore' become too blinkered and narrow-minded to encompass Joyce's modernistic and radical notions of 20th century sexuality and gender.This virgin/mother contrast reveals the key difference in Joyce's mind: sexual experience. As Joyce wrote, sexuality was considered an absolute taboo. Catholic Irish society at the turn of the century was based...

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