What is the feminine perspective in the "Penelope" episode of Ulysses by James Joyce? 

What is the feminine perspective in the "Penelope" episode of Ulysses by James Joyce?


Expert Answers
liesljohnson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It’s important to note here that although I’ll attempt to discuss the feminine perspective in this episode, we would really need an entire book (or at least a master’s thesis) to give this material the attention and depth it needs.

The Penelope episode illustrates the emotional complexity of marriage and faithfulness; the tension between romance, intimacy, and sexual desire; and the struggle for status, beauty, and control over one's own body.

All of these issues run through Molly's mind throughout this episode, undimmed by her apparent lack of education, and her internal voice provides a meaningful and insightful feminine perspective as she dwells on thoughts, memories, and plans for the near future throughout Episode Eighteen.

She juggles her various identities (as a mother, a wife, a lover, and both a physical and emotional being) and ultimately reveals that the feminine experience is a constant stream of internal and external negotiations.

Let’s look at some of the details as this struggle plays out in Molly’s interior monologue.

1. On the emotional complexity of marriage and faithfulness:

All of Molly’s thoughts run through her mind while she shares the bed with her husband, Bloom, and yet she’s often thinking of her lover, Boylan, as well as other men she’s been with long before she was married.

She thinks of how Bloom has been unfaithful to her and how they once loved each other, and of how unskilled and awkward he is in bed, but at the same time, she ponders how manly he is and how handsome he used to be.

Molly struggles to balance her own desires with society’s demand that she be a faithful wife.

2. On the tension between romance, intimacy, and sexual desire:

Molly craves romance and intimacy and reflects on previous sexual and emotional experiences that pleased her and those that failed to satisfy her. Her memories and desires run together in a confusing stream, and she’s unsure from one moment to the next what or who she wants. Her husband seems to turn her off in the present time, but her memories of him and how attractive he once was seem to stir more desire in her. But she hopes that her lover will send her a romantic letter.

Molly invariably objectifies men (thinking about their ridiculous-looking body parts) even as she is annoyed by their objectification of her, a hypocrisy which characterizes Molly as complex and both frustrating and frustrated. Men see her as fragments of a body: as breasts, as fetishized feet, or as a bottom: “and then the usual kissing my bottom was to hide it.”

She’s not sure how to engage in a meaningful, intimate relationship and yet her feelings of desire are incredibly strong: “…and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

3. On the struggle for status, beauty, and control:

Keep in mind that up until Episode Eighteen, we’ve thought of Molly as having an unsavory reputation—other characters think of her as sexually loose or, in plainer terms, a whore. But Molly’s own thoughts reveal that her reputation has been exaggerated. She’s only had one lover outside of her marriage, and it was after years and years of being trapped in a marriage that lacked love and intimacy. The fact that her reputation is negatively affected by hearsay and exaggeration is a common feminine struggle.

But again, Molly reveals her hypocritical standards as she thinks ruthlessly of other women’s poor reputations:

  • “…I hope Ill never be like her a wonder she didnt want us to cover our faces but she was a welleducated woman certainly and her gabby talk about Mr Riordan here and Mr Riordan there I suppose he was glad to get shut of her…” 
  • “…take that Mrs Maybrick that poisoned her husband for what I wonder in love with some other man yes it was found out on her wasnt she the downright villain to go and do a thing like that…”

Molly struggles not just for her own reputation but also for status within her own marriage. She’s irritated, at the beginning of this section, that her husband wants her to bring him breakfast in bed, as if she’s the subservient member of the marriage: “Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs…” By having her affair, she’s asserted her right to do as she pleases in her marriage, but the request to be served breakfast really rattles her and makes her feel insecure about how much power she has in her relationship with her husband.

She struggles, too, to project an image of feminine beauty, and worries that she doesn’t have enough money to dress nicely enough and that she needs to lose some weight.

4. On the coexistence of various identities (mother, wife, lover, physical/emotional being):

Molly briefly steps into her role as a mother as she recalls her deceased son with bitter sadness and seems to purposefully try to stop thinking about him, wrapped up as she is in her thoughts of more immediate desires and plans.

She thinks of herself as Bloom’s wife and Boylan’s lover at the same time and thinks of what she’ll do with each of them soon.

Physical concerns often intrude on Molly’s thoughts; she interrupts her own thinking to focus on her body’s demands to expel gas (“…that was a relief wherever you be let your wind go free…”) and to menstruate (“…I bet the cat itself is better off than us have we too much blood up in us or what O patience above its pouring out of me like the sea…”) and she is worried about whether or not she can become pregnant again. Her physical self is in tension with her emotional self, as her thoughts return immediately to more mundane emotional concerns after her bodily concerns are addressed (“… I dont want to ruin the clean sheets I just put on I suppose the clean linen I wore brought it on too damn it damn it…”)

In sum, though we’ve barely scratched the surface here, Molly’s thoughts reveal the complexities and tensions of the feminine experience. The fact that her thoughts are presented under the title of “Penelope” is probably the author’s way of ironically comparing the uneducated, unfaithful Molly to the intelligent, faithful Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey, emphasizing Molly’s human, feminine faults and the unrealistic standard against which people probably judge her.