It’s possible to imagine a Ulysses that ends with “Ithaca.” The weary wanderer returns home, he and his spiritual son form a tenuous bond, he climbs into his marriage bed to join the wife he still loves, he regards her infidelity with envy, jealousy, abnegation, and equanimity, he narrates his day (with the omission of his “omission” on the strand), our remaining questions about the characters’ histories are mostly answered, he drifts to sleep, the manchild in the womb. It would conclude the journey and leave us with an appropriately wistful, ambivalent set of reflections. But Joyce realizes that this sleepy consummation is somehow not enough, that there is more yet to be said, and he ends the novel with a last great surprise, a truly beautiful coup. The book of the day has already become the book of the night, anticipating Finnegans Wake. Now, too, this consummate novel of movement through space, tracing perambulations across Dublin, becomes one of physical stasis combined with temporal drift. And the story of Leopold Bloom becomes the story of his wife, who revises much of what we’ve already read. An epic of fathers and sons, a book largely centered – like its Homeric counterpart – around the tangled material aspirations and struggles of men in groups, gives way to the inner life of a woman, a mother, whose distinctively candid and unpretentious voice also replaces the various guises of the narrative “arranger.” Essentially, the final episode of Ulysses is a new voyage, not an Odyssey, or a Telemachiad, or a Nostos, but its own Penelopiad. Though the narrative technique seems less experimental and obscure than that of “Sirens,” “Oxen of the Sun,” “Circe,” or “Ithaca,” it is in some ways the most radical departure from the rest of the text. It must have come as a wonderful surprise to readers in 1922, unexpected but utterly right, heartfelt. As Gilbert notes, Molly’s thoughts lend new dimensions to much of the rest of the novel. It is probably difficult, if not impossible, to precisely define how this final episode alters the book’s meanings (especially on a first reading). But Ulysses seems to me a more compassionate work than it would be without Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, a wiser one, a more open-ended one, and – I wish to argue, although I’m sure not everyone feels this way – a more hopeful and affirmative one.
Throughout Ulysses, situations and motifs from Dubliners occasionally seem to return in altered form. Appropriately, the final chapter of Ulysses centers on some of the major themes of “The Dead,” the concluding story in Dubliners: the past loves and inner life of a wife whose husband does not understand her, the gulf between two people who ostensibly share one life, the differences between men and women, the vastness of the past, the force of memory. But Ulysses is distinguished by Joyce’s determination to do what Gabriel Conroy cannot in “The Dead,” by imagining his way into the consciousness of the wife, the female, allowing us to perceive the world as she does. It’s difficult to say to what extent Molly is meant to be a representation of universal “feminine” subjectivity. Gilbert, at times, seems to make this implication, and certainly one of the underlying ideas of “Penelope” (and perhaps of Ulysses itself) is that the interior lives of men and women are fundamentally, enigmatically differentiated. This leads us into thickets of social and gender theory, but I feel that the power of this episode stems partly from this presumption of difference. But we do an injustice to Joyce if we suggest that Molly Bloom is meant to stand for all women. Or, more precisely, one of the major tensions of the episode is between the representation of Molly as a universal voice of the Feminine, “the Great Mother of gods, giants and mankind” as Gilbert says, and as a humble, individuated human portrait. In this respect she is a final embodiment of the dialectic, ubiquitous in Ulysses, between the epic and the mundane, the metaphysical and material, cosmic and quotidian, transcendence and immanence.
As Molly drifts toward sleep, and the novel toward its close, her thoughts about her husband, about men, about life in general, are frequently angry and resentful. As in “Ithaca,” a marriage’s worth of petty and profound grievances are revealed, not carefully cataloged and scrutinized as in the previous “scientific” chapter but instead cascading forth from deep within. There is a real sadness conveyed in the loss of passion and communication between these two people, the paralysis of their relationship since Rudy’s death, the inability of each to meet the other’s needs. But at times, their thoughts are more harmonious than either realizes. Both see Boylan for what he is. Both carry deep wounds from the death of their son. Both find Stephen intriguing, so much so that Molly in fact seems cheerfully open to the program of cultural education which her husband has in mind. Even their reflections on the adultery are not so different. Among the passages from “Ithaca” which moved me deeply was the explanation for Bloom’s feeling of “equanimity” regarding his wife’s infidelity: “As natural as any and every natural act of a nature expressed or understood… As not as calamitous as a cataclysmic annihilation of the planet in consequence of collision with a dark sun. As less reprehensible than theft, highway robbery, cruelty to children and animals… arson, treason, felony, mutiny on the high seas… practice of unnatural vice… criminal assault, manslaughter, wilful and premeditated murder. As not more abnormal than all other altered processes of adaptation to altered conditions of existence… As more than inevitable, irreparable.” For me, the masterstroke in this great, sad song of love is “mutiny on the high seas.” It’s a romantic, swashbuckling image, within the realm of Odysseus’ experience but worlds away from the life of Leopold Bloom, from the banal, mechanical crime of adultery, the inevitable ennui of marriage. Bloom’s exotic imagination, constantly at work throughout the book, is the pool from which he draws this litany of sins, which is in fact an enumeration of arguments for forgiveness, each of them an affirmation of his weary wounded love, a metamorphosed “Yes.”
Molly, like Bloom, defends her conduct as the product of “nature.” And although she has her own grievances, she too chooses to give him another chance. The Odyssey celebrates Penelope’s faithfulness to her husband, but the adulterous Molly is not an ironic subversion of the Queen of Ithaca. Joyce wishes to suggest to us that she is faithful, not physically but at a deeper, emotional level, that her Poldy remains the great fact of her life, as she is of his. Although most of what I think I know about love comes from books, films, and observations of others, this strikes me as a very humane, progressive, realistic portrait of marriage. This is why that final “Yes” seems, to me, to sound a sincere note of affirmation. It’s hope earned, not undermined, by recognition of our own imperfections, of the fact that love is time’s fool. Ulysses doesn’t suggest that we can erase the past, or perfect it, but it suggests that we can perhaps learn to live with it, even draw strength from it. That perhaps the memory of all that we’ve lost is something which gives us meaning, rather than depriving us of it. And I find that to be a very hopeful thought.