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Why Molly Bloom Menstruates

Joyce’s purpose is served by having Molly establish her own point of view against its counterpart, Mrs. Riordan’s prudery. Prudery is associated with miserliness and piety here, as earlier in the book with occultism and aestheticism.

Clearly Molly does not belong to Mrs. Riordan’s faction, but she might seem to run more danger from the opposite one, of Mistress Moll Flanders. She says herself, however, that she is not a whore or a slut, and she is right. Only the most rigorous interpretation of adultery—Christ’s in the Sermon on the Mount, “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart”—could consider Molly’s friendships, except that with Boylan, and perhaps that with D’Arcy, as adulterous. The book makes clear that this relationship with Boylan is something new, that it began only twelve days before. June 16 may in fact be the first day that Boylan and Molly have had “carnal,” as Bloom puts it. It may also be the anniversary, though this is never established, of that day in June that Bloom and Molly climaxed their courtship by proposal and consent among the rhododendrons on Howth sixteen years before. Joyce plays on the coincidence without bearing down too hard. Fidelity and infidelity coexist.

Essentially Molly is right about herself—she is not the wholly sexual being that to Boylan she must appear to be. She hopes that he is pleased with her, but she is not really pleased with him. She complains about his too familiar manners in slapping her on the behind—“I’m not a horse or an ass am I”—but she remembers that Boylan’s father was a horsetrader and hopes that this fact may explain his conduct. Boylan writes loveless letters that end, “Yours ever Hugh Boylan.” Molly detects that he is basically a “strange brute” with an unconscionableness that Stephen had earlier described as the sentimental desire to “enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done.” So while Molly is not planning to break with Boylan, she is not expecting the relationship to last, and thinks of other men as more perceptive and congenial. For the same reason she rejects sadomasochism, in books about flagellants, “Sure theres nothing for a woman in that.” She steers between Mrs. Riordan’s masochistic prudery and Boylan’s loutishness.

Bloom has as much trouble as Ulysses had in winning recognition as Penelope’s husband. Joyce complained once of his wife that she did not appear to see much difference between him and other men, though in fact Nora Joyce remarked to a friend that, whatever else might be said of her husband, there was nobody like him. The seeming (though not real) inability to differentiate finely is characteristic of Molly, who falls into calling the various men she has known by the pronoun “he,” without much further identification. (Stephen Dedalus did the same in “Proteus”: “She she she. What she?” But he had no particular woman to think about.)

Against Stephen’s effort to make women mythical, “handmaidens of the moon,” “wombs of sin,” and the like, Molly regards men as either natural or unnatural. Basically she is earth to Bloom’s sun, modifying his light by her own movements. She is thoroughly aware of his many failings, but notes also a few virtues. He is kind to old women like Mrs. Riordan, he has “a few brains,” he was handsome when young, he wipes his feet on the mat. On the other hand, his atheism, his socialism, his talk of persecution put her off. She gradually acknowledges his pre-eminence by the frequency with which she returns to thinking about him. As compared with Boylan, her husband is the more complete man, with the supreme virtue that he wishes her well. She cannot say as much for Boylan. It is as though Molly, as the earth, prefers in Bloom the more complete to the less complete example of a biological species.

In the book’s characterology, Molly is needed to contribute a quality not often present in either Bloom or Stephen, her naturalness and spontaneity. The two men are thoughtful, detached, Bloom because he sees all round, Stephen because he looks deep in. Molly’s monologue is therefore less an addition than a correction. The “Ithaca” episode had offered a heliocentric view of Bloom, Molly offers a geocentric one, the two together forming the angle of parallax (a word that had baffled Bloom earlier in the day). Bloomsday becomes everymansday, and everywomansday, in that all necessary elements of desirable life have been gathered together. None of the principal figures is complete in himself, but together they sum up what is affirmable. At the end we are brought back to the earth, to spring, to vegetation, and to sexual love.

Molly has a capacity for intense yet fastidious feeling which makes Joyce’s altitudinous ending possible. The peroration of her monologue is morose delectation, theologically speaking, but moroseness plays no part in it. She is thinking of that day among the rhododendrons on Howth when she and Bloom came to an understanding, and she marvelously collocates such elements as land and sea to have them all “swimming in roses.”

I love flowers Id love to have the whole place swimming in roses God of heaven theres nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and the waves rushing then the beautiful country with fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours springing up even out of the ditches primroses and violets nature it is….

She quickly resolves the questions of belief and incertitude which have dogged Stephen and Western philosophy, and with which Bloom has bothered her, by finding them not worth asking:

…as for them saying theres no God I wouldnt give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why dont they go and create something I often asked him atheists or whatever they call themselves go and wash the cobbles off themselves first then they go howling for the priest and they dying and why why because theyre afraid of hell on account of their bad conscience ah yes I know them well who was the first person in the universe before there was anybody that made it all who ah that they dont know neither do I so there you are they might as well try to stop the sun from rising tomorrow the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago….

This recollection of the seedcake, which Bloom also experienced in the “Lestrygonians” episode, is vaguely reminiscent of something else, and if we remember that Finnegans Wake speaks of the apple in the Garden of Eden as the seedfruit, there is a momentary connection with the apple that Eve passed to Adam as Molly to Bloom. This is what St. Augustine called the happy fault, felix culpa, but Bloom calls it copula felix, happy not because it brought about redemption by Christ, but in itself. As in Dante’s Earthly Paradise, Adam and Eve have been absolved of original sin. Moist with spittle, the seedcake offers also its parallel to the host, and the lovers’ rite is contrasted with the black mass of “Circe” and with the orthodox, immaculate mass as well.

…my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street….

Duke Street is in Dublin. East and West join here, as in “Circe” greekjew and jewgreek meet, with the Arabs added here to the pot:

…and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire….

Water and fire combine, and so does the crimson sea of the straits of Gibraltar with Molly’s menstruation, about which she has complained earlier, as if the natural forces of earth and woman were synonymous. This synthesis was prepared long before in the book; in the “Proteus” episode Stephen brooded on the oddity of God’s transubstantiation into flesh occurring in so many communions in so many times and places:

And at the same instant perhaps a priest round the corner is elevating it. Dringdring! And two streets off another locking it into a pyx. Dringadring! And in a ladychapel another taking housel all to his own cheek. Dringdring! Down, up, forward, back.

Then in “Nausicaa” Bloom meditated on the same identity=variety in the process of menstruation:

How many women in Dublin have it today? Martha, she [Gerty]. Something in the air. That’s the moon. But then why don’t all women menstruate at the same time with the same moon, I mean? Depends on the time they were born, I suppose. Or all start scratch then get out of step.

These two passages seem at first to be idle. But Joyce is establishing a secret parallel and opposition: the body of God and the body of woman share blood in common. In allowing Molly to menstruate at the end Joyce consecrates the blood in the chamberpot rather than the blood in the chalice mentioned by Mulligan at the beginning of the book. For this blood is substance, not more or less than substance. The great human potentiality is substantiation, not transubstantiation or subsubstantiation. It is this quality which the artist has too, in that he produces living human characters, not ethereal or less-than-human ones. It is human blood, not divine. Menstruation is Promethean.

…and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall….

Molly confuses, or rather conflates, an incident in her early youth when she lay on the rock of Gibraltar beside Lieutenant Mulvey with the moment of her courtship by Bloom on another eminence, the hill of Howth.

And now her reference to all the men she has known as “he” has a sudden relevance: Mulvey glides into Bloom in the next line: “and I thought well as well him as another.” In Homer Tiresias prophesied that Ulysses would, after some years with Penelope, set sail once again but return at last to Ithaca. Dante, however, as Keats said, brought “news” of Ulysses, for in the Inferno Ulysses tells Dante of a last, presumptuous voyage beyond the pillars of Hercules and out into the unknown and for him fatal sea. In Molly’s mind Mulvey, who was her Ulysses on Calpe’s mount at Gibraltar, blends into Bloom, her Ulysses on Howth. She stamps an Irish visa on Ulysses’ Greek passport. There is also an Italian visa, for Dante and Beatrice in Canto XXVII of the Paradiso look down on the straits of Gibraltar just as Bloom-Mulvey and Molly do. It is now clear why Molly Bloom had to be born so far from Ireland, at the pillars of Hercules.

In the last non-sentences of her monologue Molly, having as she said got Bloom to propose to her, joins activity to passivity, aggression to surrender:

…and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower 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.

But why then does Molly end with an act of sixteen years before? She seems to burst the confines of her present situation and fly from her jingly bed to a time that is beyond present time and a place beyond present place. In fact, she bursts through them to “that other world” (mentioned by Martha Clifford) which is not death but an imaginative recreation, like le temps retrouvé of Proust. Like Adam and Eve’s, it is a paradise lost, for as Proust says, the only true paradise is the one we have lost.

According to Dante, Adam and Eve’s paradise lasted only six hours. Bloom and Molly’s is about the same. At the beginning of Molly’s monologue she had thought of Mrs. Riordan predicting the end of the world, and here, in memory and imagination, the world does end and is created afresh. Joyce said that this episode had no art, but his book is consummated by the principle that art is nature’s self. Molly, like Gerty McDowell, like Bloom, like Stephen, has a touch of the artist about her, but that is because art is a natural process, which begins and ends with impure substance, and bids the dead to rise. There is sadness, too, since Molly’s present is so bleak in comparison with that lost paradise where, as Yeats said, all was “blossoming and dancing.” The sadness is muted, however. Time and space are, at least for an instant, mere ghosts, beside eternity and infinity.

Not Stephen then—though he celebrated art as eucharistic—but Molly rebears paradise, and Bloom, who earlier evoked the same scene in “Lestrygonians,” is her husband in art as in law. But Joyce has other nuptials in mind as well. “Penelope” ends the second half of the book as “Scylla and Charybdis” ended the first. The idea that Stephen brought to birth in “Scylla” is that Shakespeare’s life provided him with the matter of his plays and poems, or in grander terms, that art is nature. Molly, by demonstrating that nature is art, may be seen as reaching across nine chapters of the book to offer Shakespeare her hand. As Shakespeare says in The Winter’s Tale, “o’er that art/Which you say adds to nature is an art/That nature makes.” Deliberate and spontaneous creation are joined.

As if to render this contract more licit, Joyce in the “Circe” episode had Bloom and Stephen look together into a mirror, and see there not their own faces but the beardless face of Shakespeare. The cuckolded Shakespeare and Bloom, the betrayed Shakespeare and Stephen, are more closely akin than anyone would have suspected. (The same bond was suggested in Stephen’s remark in the “Oxen of the Sun” episode, “Bring a stranger within thy tower it will go hard but thou wilt have the secondbest bed.”) All three out of victimization, as Molly out of present deprivation, create their artistic moments. There is a famous late-nineteenth-century edition of Shakespeare edited by F. J. Furnivall, which is known as the Leopold Shakespeare, and Joyce makes this strange amalgam credible, with Stephen, now fused with Bloom, also a part of it. He announces the nuptials of Mrs. Mariam Bloom and Mr. Leopold Shakespeare.

But another ingredient is necessary for art as for nature. Bloom’s statement that the very opposite of hatred is truly life is borne out by Molly’s last words, for it is love which empowers the imagination to overcome time just as it is love which, in Wallace Stevens’s words, “tips the tree of life.” The first nine episodes of the book ended with a vision of the act of love as the basic act of art, as Shakespeare, type of the androgynous artist, takes into himself the hard facts of experience and fathers and mothers them as the issuing word. The second nine episodes end with a vision of the act of love as the basic act of nature. Joyce affirms this union of the two halves of his book by implicitly uniting the ship, which appears so heraldically and mysteriously at the end of the “Telemachiad,” with the straits which appear at the end of the “Return.” The ship sails through the straits, even navigation constituting an amorous movement. The ship is the Rosevean, and its name is taken up in Molly’s epithalamion where she thinks about wearing a white rose or a red.

Thus is fulfilled Stephen’s prophecy in the “Oxen of the Sun,” “Desire’s wind blasts the thorntree but after it becomes from a bramblebush to be a rose upon the rood of time.” Yeats, Dante, and Joyce all agree, though Joyce corrects Dante (and Plato) by placing sexual love above all other kinds of love. Red-rosed Molly and Bloom, himself a “flower,” fertilize the terrestial paradise. Their youth and age, their innocence and experience, blend. In their dark bed at dead of night the summer sunlight shines.

The narrative level of the book has by this time become less important, and Joyce will not pursue his characters literally because he has negotiated their symbolic reconciliation. On the ethical level Bloom and Stephen have succeeded in taking the city of Dublin by exposing enthusiasm and superstition there, and by disclosing a truer way of good will and freedom. Molly’s hard-won approbation confirms their enterprise. On the historical level, the characters have awakened from the Circean nightmare of history by drawing the past into the present—a timeless present—and making it an expression of love instead of hatred, of fondness rather than remorse. Art has been shown to be a part of nature, and in all its processes an imitation of natural ones. These processes have their summit in love, of which the highest form is sexual love.

Joyce outflanks the individual lives of his characters by these ultimate implications. But he outflanks them also by making each episode a part of the body. It seemed at first that this slow accretion of a human form was gratuitous, but it must now be seen to be essential. Stephen says that literature is the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man, but pure spirit is something never endorsed in this book. For the body of man must be affirmed with his spirit. So the pervasive physicality of Ulysses goes with its spirituality. The identity of the archetypal man whose body the whole book limns is never given; it can scarcely be Bloom, since the book is larger than he. It must include Molly and Stephen, a trinity and a unity. On the analogy of Blake’s giant Albion, the androgynous man who stands within and behind and beyond might be called Hibernion. One day he will be Finnegan.

In the final stages of his book Joyce, with all his boldness, shows a certain embarrassment and reticence. He speaks of love without naming it; he celebrates art as an essential part of nature, but offers his proofs without ceremony or explanation; his moral criticism of his time is sharp yet couched entirely in images; without warning he raises his narrative from a literal to an anagogic plane. He is determined that his book, unlike some of the works of his master Tolstoy, should not be didactic. What claims he has to make for various possibilities in experience he puts forward with the utmost delicacy. That we are all members of the one body, and of the one spirit, remains implicit rather than explicit. This message he will give us only obliquely and in Greek, in Dublin Greek.

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