A Joyce Scholar on his Ithaca
by Michael Groden
IN HER MUSICAL version of the closing words from Molly Bloom’s monologue in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kate Bush sings of Molly “stepping out of the page into the sensual world.” We think we know where art ends and life starts, or vice versa, but do we always? Molly’s husband Leopold, still amazed that she accepted his marriage proposal sixteen years earlier, wonders, simply but eloquently, “Why did she me?” I’ve spent my adult life reading, studying, teaching, and writing about Ulysses, and I could easily ask, Why did I it? or, perhaps more accurately, Why did it me?
Mollys entered in my life not in the book but in the sensual world. What if Molly Peacock hadn’t started talking to me at our high school Junior Carnival with such enthusiasm and persistence that even I, generally obtuse in such matters, couldn’t fail to recognize her interest in me? A nerdy, small, shy boy with a big nose, big ears, and thick glasses, I could talk about math but not much else. Now this very attractive, intelligent, artsy girl with pageboy-style brunette hair came up to me and didn’t leave. Surely we didn’t discuss the math proofs and puzzles that fascinated me. Maybe the Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller plays that had recently caught my attention and that she pretended to care deeply about? More likely Silas Marner or other books that the grade-eleven English teacher we both despised bored us to death with – or even personal matters. This was early 1964, and the new, strange but thrilling Beatles songs “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” were playing over and over again in the background. The lyrics seemed to speak directly to me, even about me.
Why did she me? I was so surprised and elated that much of the time I didn’t wonder why she had chosen me. We were both in the artsy-techy, college-bound crowd at our large, public, suburban Buffalo high school. We were peasants on the school’s social scale, but Molly was my beautiful Prom Queen, my stunning girl from Ipanema-on-the-Rio-Niagara, the song “Poetry in Motion” come to life. She was as unlike me as could be. I was calm, even-tempered, and steady in my moods, but her blue eyes, wide open or narrowed, and her face, relaxed or scrunched-up, revealed every emotion she was experiencing. I never knew what she would be like from one day to the next, or even from one school hour to another. I thought my family life was perfect; she made it clear that in some unspecified way hers was a mess. When I felt insecure about her, I wondered what she saw in me, and I worried that she would suddenly and inexplicably end everything between us. But for the rest of our junior year and all of our senior year, Mike and Molly, M&M, were inseparable.
Our lives had been limited to Buffalo and our working-class families. But now new worlds opened up. I started reading more. We attended films, concerts, and art exhibits. One afternoon we drove an hour to Rochester which to us might as well have been Paris. We feared a pregnancy that could ruin our futures, but full of curiosity about each other’s bodies, every month or so we took off another piece of clothing and savored what we could see and touch. It took us half a year to remove everything, but even then we didn’t go “all the way.” I couldn’t forget my uncomfortable health teacher’s refrain during the single hour he spent on sex education – “Remember, there are lots of rhythm babies running around” – and we didn’t know how to find condoms.
As he contemplates the highs and lows in his marriage to his Molly, including her likely adulterous rendezvous with her concert manager, Blazes Boylan, later in the day on which Ulysses takes place, Leopold Bloom accepts all the vicissitudes as he observes that “too much happy bores.” I never noticed his thought until I was well into my thirties. As a teenager I wanted every minute with my Molly to be happy. It wasn’t like that, of course. When she was upset, I didn’t ask her what was wrong. Nor did I say that when her mood changed I felt unmoored. I was too confused and afraid to make things worse by prodding her to talk. My mother’s behavior taught me that people terminated relationships abruptly and inexplicably, and I couldn’t risk stepping into a minefield with Molly. So I told her over and over again how happy she made me and how much I loved her, words she often reassuringly echoed back. That she could tolerate fluctuations in mood or that there were reasons for her behavior that had nothing to do with me were beyond my powers of imagination. If I panicked when she turned distant, she came back with such regularity that I managed to contain my fears.
Ulysses offers us incredibly detailed access to Molly Bloom’s mind, with all its weavings and contradictions, but this doesn’t happen until the novel’s last episode. Before then, we pick up impressions of her from her few spoken words, her husband’s thoughts, and other characters’ conversations about her. These other men almost always talk about her in physical and sexual terms. For example, Lenehan, a thirty-year-old man with the mind of a Playboy-ogling adolescent, excitedly recalls her breasts as he sat next to her during a carriage ride after an elegant dinner (Leopold and Molly were guests while he washed bottles): “Every jolt the bloody car gave I had her bumping up against me. Hell’s delights! She has a fine pair, God bless her.” This carriage ride, during which Lenehan says he was “lost, so to speak, in the milky way,” appears to have been the highlight of his sexual life.
In her punctuation-free monologue, Molly expresses frustration regarding her husband, resents the treatment of women, and fondly recalls her girlhood in Gibraltar. She also sighs with contented relief as she mentally replays her torrid encounter with Boylan: “O thanks be to the great God I got somebody to give me what I badly wanted to put some heart up into me.” But she also complains as her period begins – “wait O Jesus wait yes that thing has come on me yes” – and she exclaims, “5 days every 3 or 4 weeks usual monthly auction.” (How many novels from this era, whether by men or women, mention periods in any way?) Her thoughts contain more profanity and graphic sex than any earlier parts of the novel that the censors and a New York City court condemned.
The analyses of Ulysses that I was reading, all written by men, said nothing to discourage my perception that Molly was all body. These critics interpreted a list of men that pops into Bloom’s mind near the end of the day as a collection of Molly’s previous lovers and asserted that this modern Penelope had taken over 25 lovers during her marriage. If they approved of Molly, she was a symbol: an earth-mother, “the eternal feminine,” “the voice of Nature herself.” If they disapproved, their rhetoric went wild: she was “a great lust-lump,” a “thirty-shilling whore,” a “swine,” a “frightening venture into the unconsciousness of evil.”
But Bloom doesn’t think this way. As he joins Molly in bed, aware of the imprint of Boylan’s body still in it, he forgivingly rationalizes her adultery as “less reprehensible than theft, highway robbery, cruelty to children and animals” or other crimes and then kisses her bottom. And when Molly ends her monologue by repeating the “yes” she said to Bloom’s marriage proposal, Joyce makes this unapologetic adulterer the modern equivalent of Odysseus’ faithful Penelope.
I decided to attend all-male Dartmouth College because of its outstanding math department. Almost from the moment I arrived there, I despised its preppy, heavy-drinking, testosterone-filled atmosphere, where everyone I met seemed to boast about his many summer sexual conquests. I missed Molly terribly. Her college semester started two months later than mine, and at the same time as I felt increasingly embarrassed and foolish that we had never made love to each other, she told me that she didn’t want to arrive at her school as a virgin. And so we planned for her to visit me and to finally sleep together.
After an overnight bus ride of about ten hours, she arrived in the tiny town of Hanover, New Hampshire on a bitterly cold, snow-covered late October day. That evening we went to our isolated, woodsy hotel – the only one that would take us together. It was totally dark and officially closed for the winter. But the manager opened it just for us. He hadn’t turned on the heat in the rooms yet, but he’d do that now, and soon we’d be toasty, he cheerily assured us. Not very soon, though: our teeth were chattering from the cold in our second-floor room with its creaky wood floor and tattered throw rugs. We jumped into the bed under three or four blankets, discovering that even “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” had its limits. I wondered why no trumpets were blaring in triumph, not even the Tijuana Brass’ “A Taste of Honey,” but we’d done it, we’d “put some heart” in each other.
I saw Molly again over Christmas vacation, the second half of which was filled with anxiety when her period didn’t arrive on schedule. It finally began the day before the vacation ended. By then we both knew that we were drifting apart, and even though we stayed together for six more months – during which time I changed my major from math to English – when I arrived back home in June and called her to find out when she’d be returning, she told me that she was breaking up with me.
Molly Bloom famously declares in her monologue that “I dont like books with a Molly in them.” When I first read Joyce’s novel, three months after the break-up, I was fascinated by the character Joyce created, but I wasn’t all that certain that I wanted a book with a Molly in it either. Nevertheless, here she was. I was surprised – shocked sometimes, probably also a little frightened – at what I was reading. Did women really have explicit sexual thoughts like hers? As with Leopold Bloom, though, the crucial quality about Molly as a character is the openness of her thoughts, her lack of self-consciousness about what she doesn’t know, the absence of self-censorship regarding her body and her sexuality. And she doesn’t get punished for her openness or, even, her infidelity. Joyce didn’t condemn her to the fate of characters like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – no suicide, no poison, no leaping in front of a passing train. Instead, she is very much alive at the end, sexually satisfied unlike at the beginning. Her betrayed husband doesn’t stop talking to her. Life goes on.
I wasn’t ready to respond to much of what Molly Bloom was saying when I first read Ulysses, but, like Leopold, she was always there waiting whenever I returned to the novel. As the years went by, I started to see her as not only a physically and sexually preoccupied being but also a woman with many valid grievances and unmet needs. As someone worried about her attractiveness, especially as middle age loomed. As a professional singer trapped by the limited opportunities available to a woman in early-1900’s Dublin. As a mother still grieving for a baby son who died ten years earlier and lacking any outlet for expressing that grief. As a shrewd observer of the world around her, especially of men. And, saying something on one page and almost the complete opposite a page or two later, as a bundle of contradictions that seemed less stereotypically female than typically human. Molly Bloom probably isn’t even a serial adulterer: those 25 men her husband lists are almost surely not lovers at all but rather men who had shown interest in her over the years, and listing them says more about Bloom and especially about the critics who interpret them as lovers than about her. Molly was speaking in this more nuanced way all along, but only eventually did I begin to hear her. Still, I had to meet her in bed; she can’t be found anywhere else.
For many years, as I embarked on the odyssey of adulthood, Molly Bloom was the only Molly in my life. I reread her story often, but even though her words never changed, she always seemed slightly different. I went to graduate school at Princeton and wrote a doctoral dissertation on Joyce’s manuscripts for Ulysses. I married and divorced. In 1975 I moved to Canada to become a professor at the University of Western Ontario, and soon I was a well-known Joyce scholar. Then, in early 1981, I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. I was thirty-three (and just over thirty-five when it recurred eighteen months later), and I thought that my story was over.
It wasn’t, though. I recovered from the second bout of cancer and returned to my life, even if slowly and shakily. I began intensive psychotherapy, ostensibly to deal with the cancer, but before long I found myself fascinated by my struggle to come to grips with my early life. My experiences in my late thirties – progressing in my therapy, adapting to life as a cancer survivor, dating different kinds of women, responding to feminism – started altering both me and Ulysses.
One Sunday morning in December 1984, I was in London, Ontario reading the New York Times Book Review. One page transformed the frigid early-winter day into one as warm as Ulysses’ Bloomsday: it reviewed a book of poems called Raw Heaven by Molly Peacock. This had to be the Molly I knew; there couldn’t be two people with that name. I found a copy of the book the next day and read through the poems as if I had found a long-lost friend. Some poems mentioned people I knew, such as Molly’s sister, and I learned that her father was an alcoholic. So that was one of her big family problems. She wrote about making love and having her period and smells of all kinds. Certain interests apparently came with the territory of being named Molly.
I hadn’t had any contact with Molly for almost twenty years, the length of time that Homer’s Odysseus is away from home. I wanted to write her, so, nervously, I did. She answered quickly, glad to hear from me, and we arranged to meet for a drink the next time I was in New York, where she now lived. This first meeting was more awkward than I’d hoped, but we began an adult friendship. I learned that she had gone on an odyssey of her own, in some ways uncannily paralleling mine. She had married, separated, and divorced in the same years as I had. She had gone to graduate school to get a masters degree in creative writing. Raw Heaven was her second book, and she was becoming a prominent poet. There was also her personal journey. Her father was a violent alcoholic, her mother was frequently depressed, and when she was only ten, she had often been responsible for many of the household chores, including raising her younger sister, who had run away from home as a teenager and was now a drug addict. She was involved in a long-term relationship and, like me, deep into therapy.
As we talked about our pasts, we reconnected more and more in the present. Then, in 1991, seven years after we reconnected (and the length of time Joyce spent writing Ulysses), her relationship ended, and I faced a professional crisis involving a publisher. I called her for advice, and we started talking more and more often, eventually every day. After a few weeks, I invited her to visit me in Canada. It was July this time, not chilly October, the sun shining brilliantly. We were lovers again within hours of her arrival, engaged six months later, and married the next summer.
By now, Molly and I have been married longer than the Blooms. In her more exasperated moments regarding her husband in her monologue, Molly Bloom asserts that “Id rather die 20 times over than marry another of their sex” and complains that “there isnt in all creation another man with the habits he has.” But she also admires his reliability and prudence and devotion to her. Her picture of her married life with all its highs and lows enacts Leopold’s “too much happy bores.” Molly Peacock and I remain very different from each other, but now our dissimilarities are nourishing in the way that Leopold and Molly Bloom’s marriage is built on their differences. In living with both a fictional and a real-life Molly I sometimes feel like Kate Bush’s figure stepping out of the page into the world, or maybe out of the world into the page. It’s a nice confusion with which to be saddled. Molly Bloom, dubbed the “second Molly” in our household, may dislike books with a Molly in them, but I’ve found that life with two Mollys is wonderful.
MICHAEL GRODEN, now retired from the University of Western Ontario, is the author of Ulysses in Progress and Ulysses in Focus. He recently completed a memoir called The Necessary Fiction: A Life with Ulysses, from which the essay here is adapted.