“Yes I said yes I will Yes.” In high school, my earthy, fearless friend Lisa—who was two grades ahead of me and already initiated into the world of men and sexuality—had these words stenciled on her bedroom wall. As I learned from her, they constitute the most famous affirmation by a woman in English literature: the rapturous last words of Molly Bloom’s monologue in Ulysses, the modernist masterpiece in which James Joyce defied conventional grammar and syntax in an attempt to represent the human mind in all its chaos, freeing fiction into a new world of possibility. Among the novel’s innovations was that final chapter: its intimacy with a female character’s most private thoughts, feelings, and fantasies, much of which is famously rendered in one amazingly long unpunctuated sentence. Someday, I imagined, I too would ecstatically say yes, yes, yes to a man.
Once I got to college and actually read Ulysses, the novel didn’t offer as clear a model as I had expected. Molly’s soliloquy reflects on the disintegration of her marriage to Leopold Bloom, closing with her memory of accepting his proposal, sixteen years before the novel takes place: “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.” My professor told us that Molly’s character manifests Joyce’s adoration of his wife, Nora, to whom the novel is a kind of homage, unfolding entirely during the course of the day they first met: June 16, 1904. (The two of them also exchanged some of the dirtiest love letters in literary history.)
But my hopes that Ulysses would illuminate female sexuality were disappointed. One strand of the novel turns on Molly’s frustration with the marriage’s long barrenness: they haven’t had sex since the death of their infant son ten years earlier. She gets just a few crude lines about how she longs to feel her lover’s penis inside her. Meanwhile, when Bloom, under rather seedy circumstances, has an orgasm—he furtively masturbates on the beach while peeping up a girl’s skirt—it’s accompanied by literal fireworks.
When the Irish writer Eimear McBride sat down to write her first novel, she taped above her desk a quote from a letter in which Joyce summed up his literary method: “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” Reading Ulysses, McBride said later, altered her perceptions of what fiction could do and convinced her that “within the novel lay the greatest freedom I would ever possess.” But as she began to write, she became aware of the limitations on “appropriate modes of expression for female…
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