Summary

Episode Eighteen: “Penelope”

Summary Episode Eighteen: “Penelope”

In her seventh sentence, Molly climbs quietly back into bed and thinks back over their frequent moves, a result of Bloom’s shaky financial history. Molly worries that he has spent money on a woman today, as well as the Dignam family. Molly thinks of the men at Dignam’s funeral—they are nice, but Molly resents their condescension to Bloom. Molly recalls Simon Dedalus’s vocal talent and wonders about Simon’s son. Molly remembers meeting Stephen as a child and fantasizes that Stephen is probably not stuck-up, just young enough, and appealingly clean. Molly plans to read and study before he comes again so he will not think her stupid.

In her eighth sentence, Molly thinks of how Bloom never embraces her, weirdly kissing her bottom instead. Molly reflects on how much better a place the world would be if it was governed by women. Considering the importance of mothers, she thinks again of Stephen, whose mother has just died, and of Rudy’s death, then stops this line of thought, for fear of becoming depressed. Molly imagines arousing Bloom tomorrow morning, then coldly telling him about her affair with Boylan to make him realize his culpability. Molly makes plans to buy flowers tomorrow, in case Stephen comes. Meditating on flowers and nature, the products of God, she thinks lovingly of the day she and Bloom spent outdoors on Howth, his marriage proposal, and her resoundingly positive response.

Analysis

In Episode Seventeen, we saw Bloom-Odysseus return home and slay his opponents with magnaminity. Episode Eighteen, as the final third of the “Nostos,” both calls this triumphant ending into question and ultimately ratifies it. If we read Bloom’s final request for breakfast in bed as his reassertion of control of his household, then Molly’s indignant reaction to his request unsettles this patriarchal closure. Yet Episode Eighteen also depicts Molly going through the same trial of meeting the suitors-opponents that Bloom enacted in Episode Seventeen. And Molly seems to discard them one by one for Bloom, confirming the triumph of Bloom-Odysseus with her final affirmative “yes.”

Early readers of Ulysses—preoccupied by the supposed obscenity of Molly’s monologue—viewed Molly as the archetypical whore. However, recent focus on the realistic quality of the monologue shows that Molly’s character comes across as believably contradictory and nuanced. Her thoughts reveal her to be extremely self-centered, yet she is also shown to be charitable and potentially sympathetic toward others, such as Josie Breen and Stephen. She comes across as uneducated but clever, opinionated, and refreshingly frank. She is hypocritical and self-contradictory but also highly perceptive—she ratifies our negative judgments of some characters, such as Lenehan. Finally, Molly’s monologue is highly entertaining—she has a sense of humor and a gift for mimicking the speech of others.

Molly’s monologue contains facts and emotions that force us to revise our previous perspective of her and her marriage. For example, Bloom’s mental list of Molly’s infidelities in Episode Seventeen is here shown to be wildly incorrect—Boylan is Molly’s first sexual infidelity, and it has occurred only after more than ten sexless years (and perceived lack of affection) with Bloom. Molly’s thoughts offer a new perspective: it is Bloom who has been compromising her, and his own infidelities call his easy judgment of Molly as unfaithful into question.

However, though Molly gets the final say, her perspective is also dramatized as fallible, specifically through her meditations on Stephen, which are misinformed and idealized. Molly fantasizes about Stephen’s humility, friendliness, and cleanliness—three characteristics that do not apply to Stephen as we have seen him. This technique does not demonstrate Molly’s individual misperception, as much as the lesson of perspective in Ulysses: no single character’s perspective will be sufficient to pass judgment. Though Molly’s feelings toward Bloom oscillate wildly throughout her monologue, as the episode comes to a close, her thoughts center more on Bloom and Stephen-Rudy and less on Boylan and other suitors. The sexual desire prevalent through her monologue becomes more evidently underwritten with a compatible desire for the intimacy of the family structure. Molly’s mental return to the scene on Howth that Bloom has also thought of several times today shows the power of memory to provide a source of continued intimacy between them, even if her final yes may be in reference to Mulvey or Bloom. This uncertainty is characteristic of Joyce’s endings, and it serves to remind us that we have witnessed only a single day in the lives of the Blooms—progress may have been made in their estranged marriage, but there certainly was not a complete turnaround. On the other hand, the unrestrained affirmation and joy of the final lines cannot be denied.