Celtic Junction Arts Review

Ruminations on the Penelope Episode of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”

By Mary K. McCormick

"Ulysses" by James Joyce, book cover

In Prof. Patrick O’Donnell’s recent class on James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” we learned that Joyce, while writing his novel, urged his wife Nora to have an affair, in order to enhance his writing about jealousy.  Singer Molly Bloom, the wife of the main character, Leopold Bloom, has an affair with her concert promoter. Joyce felt entitled to try to orchestrate a real-life affair for Nora for his own literary gain. Nora, no doormat, promptly nixed that idea.

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle
James Joyce and Nora Barnacle

Joyce, the oldest child of ten, whose father was an alcoholic, also had a vengeful streak.  A brilliant intellect, he presumably found normal existence quite boring, and felt a need to create drama around himself.  

"Poldy" a sketch by James Joyce
Leopold “Poldy” Bloom by James Joyce – From a page of Joyce’s notes. Public Domain.

For the last class, we read the final chapter, called the Penelope episode, where Leopold returns home late at night after a long day perambulating Dublin on June 16, 1904, which echoes, on a mundane, mock heroic level, the wanderings of the classic Greek hero, Ulysses, and his ultimate return to his wife Penelope.

The Penelope episode consists of forty-four pages of the unbroken, unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness reverie of Leopold’s wife Molly as she lays in bed, her husband lying asleep beside her, with his head by her feet.  

The final episode rewards the reader for making it through a long, difficult book.  Joyce said, “I put enough puzzles in ‘Ulysses’ to keep the professors busy for at least 300 years.”

Molly’s thoughts tumble over each other—flashbacks to her lonely childhood in Gilbraltar as the daughter of a widowed army officer, numerous amorous encounters with men, her singing career, flash forwards to what might happen in the near future, and sexual fantasies.  We learned in class that some critics consider the Penelope episode Joyce’s revenge on Nora for refusing to have that affair.

As I read the river of words, I began to wonder how many reflections and trenchant turns of phrase Joyce had borrowed directly from his wife Nora.  Molly Bloom the character has a distinctive voice, that of a sensual, half-Spanish woman who prides herself on her allure and the relative unattractiveness of other women.  But part way through the episode, I began to hear another, more mature voice on top of that, what I imagined to be the voice of the real-life Nora herself—skeptical, acerbic, disillusioned.  You might call it a first-wave feminist voice.

By Chiri - https://www.flickr.com/photos/chiri_dr/188665328/, CC BY-SA 2.0
Statue of Molly Bloom – Alameda Botanic Gardens, Gibraltar

Here are just a few of many instances where I heard the Nora voice emerge, assert her humanity with wit and verve, and take some of her own back against the patriarchy:

“…trying to make a whore of me what he never will he ought to give it up now at this age of his life simply ruination for any woman and no satisfaction in it…one thing I didn’t like his slapping me behind going away so familiarly in the hall though I laughed Im not a horse or an ass am I…”

“…where does their great intelligence come in Id like to know grey matter they have it all in their tail if you ask me…”

“…all the things he told father he was going to do and me but I saw through
him telling me all the lovely places we could go for the honeymoon Venice by moonlight with the gondolas and the lake of Como he had a picture cut out of some paper of and mandolines and lanterns O how nice I said whatever I liked he was going to do immediately if not sooner will you be my man will you carry my can he ought to get a leather medal with a putty rim for all the plans he invents then leaving us here all day…”

That last bit of disillusionment, I thought, might well be taken from real life—those dreamy images may have been some of Joyce’s own inducements that he used to persuade Nora to leave Dublin with him for Italy in 1904.  In Trieste, strapped for cash, he was forced to teach Berlitz English classes to support his family.

Midway through, I began thinking that I’d heard that tart Nora voice somewhere before.  Then, a few pages before the end, the following phrase called to mind a voice from my childhood:

Mary "Maymie" Colleran portrait
Mary “Maymie” Colleran

“…serve him right its all his own fault if I am an adulteress as the thing in the gallery said O much about it if that’s all the harm ever we did in this vale of tears…”

“Vale of tears.”  A favorite phrase of Granny Dittman, my maternal grandmother.  When she came to our house and sat with my mother, after they finished updating each other on the latest small-town gossip, they would sigh and say, “Life is just a vale of tears.”

Printed with permission of the author.
John Dittman posing in his WWI uniform

Granny’s maiden name was Mary Kathryn Colleran, “Maymie” to her friends.  She was very lace curtain Irish, a proper and self-possessed woman who kept a tidy house.  She was small of stature, but had a sardonic, cutting wit. Born in 1900, she only completed eighth grade.  She never said anything to us directly, but it was clear that she regretted marrying my German-American grandfather when she was 19 and he was 29.  Looking over old photos after my mother died, I surmised that he had looked good to her in his WWI uniform.

Printed with permission of the author.
Michael Colleran and his horses
Printed with permission of the author.
Young Mary Colleran in a fur coat.

Granny’s father had been a prosperous farmer—there were photos of him with his handsome horses–and he had doted on her.  There were photos of her in her late teens, looking pleased with herself in fancy dresses and furs. One faded, torn, but vibrant photo was of Granny and her childhood friend Gertie Hayes, carefree smiling pre-teen girls dressed like men in jackets and hats, squinting into the sun. Granny has a riding crop slung over her shoulder.

Printed with permission of the author.
Gernie Hayes, Rose Hayes, Maymie Colleran

She ended up married to a husband without much gumption, raising three children on a small, isolated farm.  They barely survived the Great Depression.  She kept a large coop full of chickens and sold the extra eggs for “egg money,” so she could afford a nice hat and coat for Sunday Mass.  

Not long after Grandpa died, one of their contemporaries, a short Irish farmer named George Leary, lost his tall wife Ethel.  We grandkids teased Granny that she should go out on a date with George Leary. “Oh!” she burst out. “That old rooster!”  She was having none of it.

She never mentioned anything about her forebears, except that her mother’s name was Catherine Moran, and one of her grandmothers was a Kennedy.

Several years ago, when I was on my first trip to Ireland, I asked the walking tour guide in Dublin where the Collerans might be from.  He said it was a rare Irish name, and that the Collerans were all from County Galway.

James Joyce’s wife Nora was from Galway.  Nora Barnacle and Mary Colleran were both Galway girls, disinclined to be doormats.

Mary McCormick

Mary K. McCormick has been taking Irish literature and history classes at CJAC’s Irish College of Minnesota for the past two years.