The denouement of Ulysses has been much disputed. What seems to end the book is that Bloom, who nodded off at the end of the “Ithaca” episode, and his more wakeful wife Molly both snore away in the arms of Morpheus, or as Joyce puts it, in the arms of Murphy. But is this really the end? Did Joyce have no future in mind for his characters? The question is particularly likely to be asked because A Portrait is often said to find its sequel in Ulysses where Stephen appears after an interval of about two years. But A Portrait seems self-contained, it celebrates the birth first of Stephen’s body and then of his soul, it brings him from inchoate to real selfhood, from possibility to decision. If he reappears in Ulysses, and I won’t deny that he does, he is there for a different purpose, not to present his further adventures.
What then does happen to Bloom and Stephen? One critic declares that Stephen goes out into the night and writes—Ulysses. But Ulysses is not the work of Stephen, any more than Hamlet is the work of Hamlet; it issues from that mind of which Stephen, Bloom, Molly, and even Mulligan and Boylan are only aspects. Two other critics regard the ending as proleptic, but the events they foresee are not the same. William Empson remembers that Stephen, after refusing to stay the night, agrees to exchange with Mrs. Bloom Italian for singing lessons, and proposes that Stephen returns on June 17, or anyway in the next few days, with his grammar book. The mutual instruction then takes a predictable turn. Bloom tolerates the affair, Empson feels, because he wants desperately to have a son, even if through the agency of another man.
On a practical level, this theory offers a number of difficulties. Apart from Molly’s impending concert tour, which will make other alliances than with Boylan complicated for her, Empson leans heavily upon what appears to be a mere gesture of politeness on Stephen’s part. Having been rescued from a jam, and having turned down an invitation to stay the night, he avoids twice refusing his host point-blank by appearing to accept a vague and unscheduled exchange of lessons. But Bloom recognizes—and Joyce at once underlines the recognition—that Stephen’s return is “problematic.” That Molly dandles the idea as an erotic fancy does not make it more likely. The notion of a Stephen-Molly affair outside the book is so skimpily supported that it becomes a nineteenth-century parlor game, like “Describe Desdemona’s girlhood” or “Fortinbras’s reign in Denmark.”
The other theory for June 17 is exactly opposite. According to it, Bloom, instead of relaxing further his marriage tie, tightens it and becomes a proper husband. Edmund Wilson proposed this idea some years ago in an uncharacteristic burst of optimism. He contended that Bloom’s request for breakfast in bed proved that Bloom was once more becoming master in his own house. A difficulty with this oatmeal theory is that it rests heavily upon the notion that not to make breakfast himself is Bloom’s assertion of male authority. This in turn would be more convincing if Bloom had seemed put upon when he made breakfast on the morning of June 16, but actually he likes cooking and doesn’t feel degraded by it. Moreover he has apparently done it, except when ill, during the whole of their married life, including the period when they enjoyed complete conjugal relations. Need he feel degraded? After all, if cooks are always women, chefs are always men. His request for breakfast may be just what it appears to be, an expression of fatigue after a late night which is most unusual for him. Molly indicates that she expects to return to the usual pattern after one morning’s exertions.
At any rate, it seems an unwarranted assumption that breakfast in bed will restore anyone’s marriage to normalcy. It is harder to reject Wilson’s theory than Empson’s, but both suffer from a vestigial desire to detain the characters a little longer in their fictional lives. Yet a warning must be taken from Eugammon of Cyrene,* who two centuries after Homer tacked his unfortunate sequel onto the Odyssey.
Joyce declared in his aesthetic notebook that the excellence of a comedy depended upon its joy, which in turn depended upon its fulfillment of desire. To the extent that a work of art was not sufficient in itself, it was deficient in joy. He could scarcely then have intended to encourage speculation about the future of his characters. He meant what he said in a letter, that in the “Ithaca” episode Bloom and Stephen become like the stars at which they gaze, and that in “Penelope,” Bloom and Molly with him are off to eternity. The conjugal future at 7 Eccles Street no longer interests him, any more than future doings of Odysseus and Penelope interest Homer or those of Dante and Beatrice interest the author of The Divine Comedy. Joyce leaves possibilities at the end like dangling threads, just as Homer leaves an unfulfilled prophecy of Tiresias, but he has his mind set on other things.
If Joyce had wanted to, he could certainly have given the book either Empson’s or Wilson’s conclusion: to please Empson he might have let Stephen stay the night; to please Wilson he could have had husband and wife resume complete sexual relations for the first time in eleven years. He does neither of these, though in Homer Telemachus presumably sleeps in the palace, and Odysseus and Penelope share a bed. Instead of sexual intercourse in the present, Joyce has Molly think of a sexual scene in the past. He did so neither to promote speculation about the future nor to follow Flaubert’s prescription that the writer should never draw a conclusion. Joyce had a conclusion in mind.
He said himself that “the last word (human, all too human) is left to Penelope. This is the indispensable countersign to Bloom’s passport to eternity.” Beyond eternity his characters could scarcely be expected to go. The episode was, he said, the book’s clou, the nail that drove it into place. In a jocular mood he said also that “Ithaca” was the true ending of the book because “Penelope” had neither beginning, middle, nor end. But it is not so formless as that, since it begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop. It would be more accurate to say that the form of “Penelope” is ungirdled than that it is nonexistent. Molly’s countersign may be deciphered, and an explanation given for what at first may seem mere improvisation. In particular, answers can be sought for the questions, Why does she begin her monologue with thoughts about Mrs. Riordan, an elderly widow now dead? Why does Joyce represent her as menstruating? Why does she end with recollections of her adolescence on Gibraltar?
Coming after the dry, impersonal, and pseudo-scientific order of most of the “Ithaca” episode, the final monologue offers a personal, lyrical efflorescence. It is the only episode to which Joyce assigns no specific hour—the time is no o’clock, or as he said in an Italian schema of the book, it is the time indicated mathematically by the lemniscate or figure eight lying on its side—∞—the number of infinity and eternity. It might be more exact to say that the ruins of time and space coexist with the mansions of eternity and infinity, at least until the very end. Molly presents herself without portentousness as spokesman for nature. Like the Wife of Bath, she contends that God has not endowed us with sensual proclivities if these are not to be indulged. “Nature it is,” she insists, falling into the fallacy of identifying virtue with what is natural that Hume had criticized.
Joyce too knew it was a fallacy: Richard Rowan in Exiles, confronted by his antagonist with a “law of nature,” retorts, “What is that to me? Did I vote it?” Yet Molly’s nature is not indiscriminate; as she sees and represents it, nature is choosy—Darwin thought it choosy too. Still she is acceptant enough to plant the almost desert globe of the “Ithaca” episode with vegetables and people and curious objects. Most of all, she covers it with flowers, she fleshes out the previous chapter’s dry bones.
Stephen had recalled earlier the medieval legend that Aristotle was enticed by a “light o’ love” to let her bit, bridle, and ride him, and Molly’s nature, so much more earthy, trivial, sexualized, and lyrical than Aristotle’s or Hume’s, appears as a final penetration by the wisdom of the body of the wisdom of the mind. (Molly’s only acquaintance with Aristotle is the apocryphal and semipornographic Aristotle’s Masterpiece; she malaprops his name into “some old Aristocrat or whatever his name is.”) “Ich bin das Fleisch das stets bejaht,” Joyce says of her, confirming her as the opposite pole to Mulligan’s denying spirit. But her yea saying is mixed with much nay saying—until the very end of her monologue “Yes” and “No” (with a great many “knows” for good measure) are rivals for pre-eminence. Her final affirmation is a victory over strong resistance.
Molly Bloom’s birthday is September 8—she shares it with the Virgin Mary as if to confront the Holy Family with the secular one—and in tribute to this anniversary, and to the symbol of eternity-infinity, Joyce writes her monologue in eight sentences. “It begins and ends,” Joyce wrote Budgen, “with the female word yes. It turns like the huge earth ball slowly surely and evenly, round and round spinning, its four cardinal points being the female breasts, arse, womb, and cunt expressed by the words because, bottom (in all senses bottom button, bottom of the class, bottom of the sea, bottom of his heart), woman, yes. Though probably more obscene than any preceding episode it seems to me to be perfectly sane full amoral fertilisable untrustworthy engaging shrewd limited prudent indifferent Weib.” He delights in mythologizing Molly as Gea Tellus, then, by bringing her down with a thump onto the orange-keyed chamberpot at 7 Eccles Street, in demythologizing her into an old shoe.
Molly’s animadversions begin with thoughts of Mrs. Riordan, a widow whom Bloom befriended:
Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathingsuits and lownecks of course nobody wanted her to wear I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice I hope Ill never be like her a wonder she didnt want us to cover our faces….
Copyright © 1972 by Richard Ellmann.
According to Eugammon's Telegony, Ulysses sails forth yet again, this time to Thesprotia, where he marries the queen. His son by Circe, Telegonus, searching for his father, lands in Ithaca and begins to lay it waste. Ulysses returns to defend his country but is killed, unwittingly, by his son. Telegonus goes with his father's body and with Penelope and Telemachus to Circe. He then marries Penelope, and Telemachus marries Circe.↩
According to Eugammon’s Telegony, Ulysses sails forth yet again, this time to Thesprotia, where he marries the queen. His son by Circe, Telegonus, searching for his father, lands in Ithaca and begins to lay it waste. Ulysses returns to defend his country but is killed, unwittingly, by his son. Telegonus goes with his father’s body and with Penelope and Telemachus to Circe. He then marries Penelope, and Telemachus marries Circe.↩