Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Published June 13, 2004
Joyce's beloved Nora lives on in his major female characters
CAROLE E. BARROWMAN Special to the Journal Sentinel
On June 16, 1904, in a seedy area of Dublin, James Joyce has his first sexual encounter with Nora Barnacle, the woman who remains at his side for 37 years. With her soft caresses, she immortalizes the day for Joyce and for readers all over the world.
A misogynist, an inadequate provider, a poor father and a demanding lover, Joyce epitomized the kind of scoundrel one would expect to seduce a young woman from the Irish countryside, force her to abandon her homeland and spend a lifetime wandering Europe nurturing his writer's ego and feeding his complicated appetites. Instead, Nora seduces Joyce and wanders willingly.
According to Joyce's biographer, Richard Ellmann, "to set 'Ulysses' on this date was Joyce's most eloquent if indirect tribute to Nora."
"No human being has ever stood so close to my soul," Joyce writes of Nora. Therefore, it is not surprising that a part of Nora exists in all of Joyce's significant female characters. From Gretta Conroy's memories "full of tenderness and joy" in "The Dead," to the modernist characterization of Molly Bloom in "Ulysses," Nora Barnacle was much more than Joyce's muse. In the early 20th century, Ireland was a place of puritanical piety, extreme poverty and sexual repression. Women were expected to conform to the ideal of the Virgin Mary or be damned. Literally.
An old Irish ballad says, "Sure 'tis the women are worse than the men / They were sent down to hell and were thrown out again." For men caught in the moral vice of Irish Catholicism, sin was always the woman's fault.Then and now women of wealth can more easily challenge social mores, but for Nora and other Irish working-class women there was little hope of breaking free of Ireland's cultural chains. There was little energy left to defy authority with a baby on your breast, another at your hip, and a toddler scrambling at your feet. As a result, the strength of Irish women was in their ability to cope with life's overwhelming challenges.
Joyce watched his mother die under the weight of Irish patriarchy. "My mind rejects the whole present order," Joyce writes, "the recognized virtues, classes of life, and religious doctrines . . . when I looked on her face as she lay in her coffin . . . I understood I was looking at the face of a victim."
According to Brenda Maddox, whose biography "Nora" is subtitled "The Real Life of Molly Bloom," nothing prepared Joyce "for the frankness and directness of Nora's sexual approach. Instead of losing respect for her, he fell in love for life."
In Molly Bloom, the most significant female character in "Ulysses," and perhaps one of the most provocative in Western literature, Joyce created a woman free of Irish guilt about her sexuality and her place in the world, a lusty, lewd, outspoken, witty and self-aware woman, a woman just like Nora.
Molly's voice is the last one a reader hears in "Ulysses." Her monologue is scandalous, scatological, sarcastic and disturbingly profound. She speaks of her day's events, of her husband and her fear he is having an affair, "I'd know if he refused to eat the onions," her lovers and her sexual fantasies, "there's nothing like a kiss long and hot down to your soul," her memories of childhood in Gibraltar, her relationship with her daughter Milly, the death of her infant son Rudy, and the books she remembers reading.
Her monologue is constructed in eight sprawling unpunctuated sentences flowing from Molly's heart and soul. The perspective is achingly feminine because it is not romanticized or idealized.
"Even in its appearance," Maddox argues, the monologue "mimics Nora's writing style." But the similarities of both women go beyond the aesthetic.
"Both women hated umbrellas and liked roast chicken," continues Maddox. Both "read pornography and believed in God." And both lost a baby and "feared having another." Even Nora's "dirty letters" to Joyce are considered to be rough notes for the novel's final pages.
Not all readers have been kind to Molly. One critic characterizes her "as foul, frank, and conspicuously obscene." In fact, she is all of these things and more. She reminisces about the joys in her past and she worries about the ugliness that has leeched onto her present, but despite her long exaggerated lament over her husband's infidelities and his male idiosyncrasies, her monologue ends in a hopeful place, embracing her husband and her marriage.
"Ulysses" is after all a comic epic where every ordinary daily human activity from nose-picking to defecating is exalted and mocked. To focus on only those elements is to blunt the point of Joyce's pen. And to hold Joyce's failures as a human being against him, and there were many, is to deny the power of his imagination and his literary legacy.
Through Molly Bloom and the other female characters in the novel, the mothers, the lovers, the barmaids, the girls on the streets and the girls frolicking on the beach, even the prostitutes and their madam, Joyce removes women from their high pedestals, and although he does not stand them directly next to men, he does bring them closer to the ground.