Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 16, 2010

Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce (Disordered Thoughts of an amateur #18)

 Chapter 18: Penelope

Well, here we are at the end of this brilliant book, almost a year after I made my first post about Ulysses back on June 27th 2009, and the stalwarts at Team Ulysses will be  celebrating with me on Bloomsday!

Penelope‘ is the chapter that most litlovers know about, even if they haven’t got round to reading Ulysses.  It’s written as a stream of consciousness, in eight of the longest ‘sentences’ ever written, and in my edition it’s 62 pages long, an average eight pages per sentence, without any punctuation.  Where men have controlled the syntax and grammar in the previous 17 chapters, Molly/Woman is formless, shapeless, uncontrolled.  She evades habits, routines, and order; she is loose and excessive and not at all respectable, as women are supposed to be.  No wonder censors around the world got in a lather about it!

It sounds daunting, until you read it.  Then you discover that it’s just Molly drowsing in bed, meandering from one thought to another as she revisits her day and her memories.  It’s actually easier than many of the previous chapters…

In what ways is Molly like Homer’s Penelope?   Homer’s Penelope was the daughter of Icarius, a prince of Sparta.  Ulysses won her hand against a horde of suitors, but her father loved her so much he tried to persuade her not to leave.  Ulysses asked Penelope to choose but her only reply was to demurely cover her face and Icarius let her go without further entreaties.

Penelope Unraveling Her Web (Joseph Wright of Derby) used by permission of the Getty Institute

Having won Penelope against so much competition, Ulysses hung around long enough to father their only child Telemachus and promptly set off for the Trojan War.   He was gone for twenty years during which Penelope was assailed by countless tiresome suitors hoping to usurp Ulysses in more ways than one.  Eventually this most faithful of wives recognised that she had to choose one of them, and she promised to make her decision when she’d finished weaving a shroud for Laertes, Ulysses’ father.  She managed to defer her choice for three years by working at the shroud during the day and unravelling it at night, giving rise to the expression ‘Penelope’s web’ to describe a labour which will never be completed.

(Margaret Atwood has written a gorgeously subversive version of this myth from Penelope’s point-of-view.  It’s called The Penelopiad and although it’s only a short book, its droll humour is unforgettable.)

Her loyalty was rewarded when Ulysses finally returned, despatched the suitors and proved to a justifiably doubtful Penelope that he was indeed her husband, not only with predictable feats of strength, but also by passing a subtle test set by Penelope.  She commands the servant to move their marriage bed and Ulysses knows it can’t be done because one of its legs is a living tree.  All’s well that ends well, eh?

Does it end well for Leopold and Molly Bloom?  Well, yes it does, though they’ll have to negotiate a few adjustment issues too, and not just who makes the breakfast in bed.  Joyce’s allusion to the iconic faithful wife Penelope is ironic, because Molly Bloom has been up to no good with Blazes Boylan and a few others besides.  What we learn in this final chapter about an everyman marriage is that Molly suspects that Poldy’s been none too faithful either, but is prepared to tolerate it. It’s not a bad marriage, all things considered and Bloom for all his shortcomings is not too bad especially if you compare him to that ‘forlorn looking spectacle’ Denis Breen (p919).

Molly’s first thoughts are about Bloom’s odd behaviour.  He’s asked her to get breakfast in bed for him, and it’s usually the other way round.  She’s a bit miffed about the idea of him ‘sitting up like the king of the country’ (p907) ordering her about and she’s none too impressed by him hanging about with medical students and coming in at four in the morning even if he did ‘have the manners ‘  not to wake her (p907)  She knows he’s been up to something, and guesses (correctly, as we know from his adventures on the waterfront) that his manhood has been reasserting itself. (Forgive the coyness, you have no idea how much horrid spam is detected by Akismet.  I prefer not to use terms which attract more of it).   She’s not entirely sure about her husband’s past infidelities: she’s been celibate for 10 years and Bloom has some rather odd proclivities, and not just his dirty postcards.  Blazes Boylan by contrast is more circumspect,  and she’s enjoyed it.

No guilt trips here, not at all.  Homer’s Penelope may have been vexed by her odious suitors but Molly has a healthy appetite for male companionship! She still fancies Bloom a bit and remembers with yearning how handsome he was in his youth.  But her yearnings extend elsewhere as well: she has fond memories of good times in Gibraltar with Harry Mulvey; she thinks about other lovers too, as well as happily anticipating her future trips with Boylan.

On the other hand, Molly is an Everywoman.  Like many a woman then and now she worries about her weight; she compares herself to other women; she wishes she had a nicer nightgown; she plans the meals for the next day.  She remembers difficult times in their marriage when Bloom lost his job and the humiliations that caused: you can just imagine her dredging this up when they’re having a row, along with scornful suggestions that he ‘ought to get a leather medal with a putty rim for all the plans he invents.’   He’s certainly been a disappointment: he was ‘frightened out of his wits’ one time when he thought there was a burglar – and for all his grand talk, there’s nothing much to steal anyway(p909).

She’s mildly jealous when she remembers that Bloom received a whole letter from Milly while she only got a card – and there’s a good three pages of resentment about Milly’s behaviour in general, a lot of it to do with Milly being a lot like Molly was at the same age.   She’s jealous of her rivals in the theatre company too- Kathleen Kearney and her lot of squealers come in for a bit of scorn while she dismisses them because they can’t sing with any passion because they haven’t experienced ‘life’ (p905).  Molly seems to think she could have been a prima donna if not for marrying Bloom, and maybe she could have, she wouldn’t be the first woman to have her career compromised by marriage so who knows?

Then the ‘usual monthly auction’ turns up, to muck up her plans for the next tryst with Boylan ‘damn it damn it’   and she has to get out of the ‘lumpy old jingly bed’ to sort herself out. (p915) (No wonder she was in a black mood, she had PMT, eh?)  She mulls over their finances, wondering if Bloom has been wasting their money on other women or giving it away to the ‘goodfornothing’  Dignams (p920). This reminds her about Stephen and the suggestion that he give her lessons – she fantasizes about giving him lessons of a different sort because she doesn’t think she’s too old for him; she doesn’t think he’s ‘stuck up’;  and she’s pretty sure he’s clean enough for what she has in mind.

The world would be a better place, thinks Molly, if it were run by women, though how that would compensate for her disappointments about Bloom isn’t clear.  She doesn’t like his odd behaviour, she craves an embrace and she resents the way he goes off on his own little adventures which are clearly suspect.  But like Bloom she finds herself suddenly thinking of Rudy’s death, and although she won’t ‘think herself into the glooms’ about it she blames this tragedy for their marriage being ‘never the same since’ (p927).

Thinking about their dead son brings Stephen (Telemachus) to mind, and now she thinks it’s a pity he didn’t stay the night.  Perhaps Stephen might come and board for a while, she thinks, resurrecting Spanish learned long ago with which to impress him, and having woven her web of memories and desires for 62 pages with countless words unravelling her thoughts – she finally comes to a decision.  Snoring upside-down in their marriage bed, Bloom has somehow passed the ‘test’ – perhaps only that he is the one who shares the sense of loss about Rudy and wants to bring Stephen into their lives to assuage the longing for a son.  And so she’ll give Bloom ‘one more chance’ (p928), even giving him what he wants in the bedroom at the expense of her own needs (and self-respect)…

She now remembers the day they spent at Howth and how he proposed; she remembers her thoughts while Bloom waited for her answer.  Like Ulysses he won her hand in competition with a horde of other suitors – and she remembers them all at this crucial moment.  She remembers then how he ‘kissed her under the Moorish wall’ and she thought ‘as well him as another’ and said the most famous concluding words of any novel ‘yes I will Yes’.

I’m going to miss reading and thinking about Ulysses, but I’m not going to read it again until I’ve had a go at Finnegan’s Wake!

To make sense of this chapter I consulted Wikipedia, Online Mythology and Carlin and Evans’ joynotes.

Author: James Joyce
Title: Ulysses
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 9780141182803
Source: Personal library, purchased from Book Street Hampton $15.95AUD.

It’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.


  1. Congratulations and Happy Bloomsday!


  2. Phew, what a post! Not having read the book it does seem rather strange – literature based on dreams is usually difficult, but this one sounds more difficult than most. I admire your persistence


  3. Congratualtions Lisa – a great review. I shall one day get to Ulysses and will use your chapter reviews as guidelines.
    BTW: I’m *really* looking forward to what you make of Finnegan’s Wake! ;)


  4. John, I have * no idea* how I am going to get on with FW! I have downloaded it to the kindle and had a quick look at the first page or two – which look as mystifying as I’ve been led to expect.
    But there must be a way into it. I haven’t decided yet whether I shall simply read it and hope that it begins to make a sort of sense, or whether to poke around online until I find the ‘clues’.
    Maybe some kindly acadmeic who stumbles onto these disordered thoughts will offer some guidelines? I don’t want an annotated copy or a PhD analysis, just something to get me started in the way that the Carlin and Evans structure did.
    Who knows? Someone out there on the web does. It’s a wonderful place these days!


  5. Congrats on finishing it, Lisa. I’m planning on reading it shortly (I bought a copy a few weeks ago) and will use your posts to help me along the way!


  6. Fantastic, Kim, we Aussies will corner the market for blog posts about Ulysses LOL!
    Will you read it straight through, or a chapter at a time with other books in between?


  7. Not sure… will see how I go. I’d like to be able to read it right through, but I have a feeling I’ll need to break it up with other stuff. In the meantime, I’m currently reading Joyce’s Dubliners and really quite enjoying it.


  8. I think that’s a good start if you’re going to read Joyce, and if you haven’t already read it, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is good to read too.


  9. Oh good for you, Lisa! Wow! What an incredible job you’ve done. I’ve commented prior but I wanted to add now that I also loved Atwood’s Penelopiad. That book just made me smile and smile.

    I’m not big on Molly so I won’t go there – I’m not a prude, I just think too much has been made of Joyce doing a stream of consciousness from someone who greatly resembled his wife. It doesn’t mean that I think like that. I digress –

    You’re fabulous, Lisa! Thanks for the work – and to think you’ve finished!



  10. Thanks, Bekah, I liked The Penelopaid too – Atwood’s droll humour is just wonderful!


  11. Lisa,
    I’m in the middle of giving ‘Ulysses’ yet another go and have gotten further than ever, currently I’m on chapter 14. I appreciate your musing. I’d like to make you aware of Frank Delaney’s podcast re:Joyce that is a 5 minutes a week analysis of Ulysses. Very detailed.


    • Hello Kathy, it’s nice to meet another fan of Joyce:) Where would I find the podcast?


  12. Lisa,
    I don’t know how to make the link but the address is:
    You can also find it on itunes as a free podcast under Frank Delaney re:Joyce.
    I hope you enjoy it.


    • Ah, I see it makes the link itself, brilliant!


      • Thanks, Kathy, I’ll listen to it while I’m doing some scrapbooking later on today:)


  13. […] in ‘The Dead’; and the second, more discouraging attempt is Bloom’s failure in the famous last chapter of Ulysses.  But both of these, says Tindall offer some hope: Molly after all, says ‘yes.’  But […]


  14. […] in ‘The Dead’; and the second, more discouraging attempt is Bloom’s failure in the famous last chapter of Ulysses.  But both of these, says Tindall offer some hope: Molly after all, says ‘yes.’  But […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: