The Representation of Gender and Sexuality in "Ulysses"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. The Representation of Gender and Sexuality in Ulysses
2.1. Molly
2.1.1. A World of Its Own
2.1.2. The Role as a Mother
2.1.3. Motives for Infidelity
2.1.4. Gea Tellus or Satanic Mistress
2.2. Bloom as the Modern Antihero

3. Bloom’s and Joyce’s Role in Molly’s Affair

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Ulysses, written by James Joyce, has various aspects, thus it is rather complex to comprehend the main topics. It implies one’s everyday life in Dublin of the time, interpersonal relationships including love and family relationship, Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church, English and Irish history and sundry other topics. It is also generally known as a modern Odyssey, a novel that reduces space and time. Alternatively, Hayman claims that Joyce’s writing is extraordinarily autobiographical; hence the protagonist Leopold Bloom’s character traits possibly bear resemblance to Joyce’s character traits. Assuming Ulysses refers to Joyce’s real life, many questions and concerns rise regarding the sexuality in the novel and indeed the protagonists Bloom and Molly Bloom since it had even been censored, criticised, and barred from the United States attributable to obscenity.

The study of gender and sexuality in Ulysses will be the main aim of this paper. The main focus will be on Molly, who is one of the most discussed fictive characters yet the least understood one. Opinions differ when one examines Molly since her performance to her family and acquaintances are rather uncharacteristic of the time of Modernism. Especially her submissiveness to her husband, which is rather expected, is absent. Thus, it is particularly challenging to decipher whether she represents the “earth mother” or the “satanic mistress”.[1] Moreover, it will be discussed about Bloom, who is the main protagonist, however, who has been set as the anti-hero. Additionally, Bloom’s and Joyce’s influence on Molly’s affair will be deepened to make an attempt to comprehend Molly’s character easier.

Bloom appears at the beginning of the second part in Ulysses and remains till the penultimate chapter, whereas, Molly paradoxically rises only at the end, especially after Molly has already had a negative impact on the readers. Higgins comments on such a negative impact as “her all-important soliloquy is relegated to the back of the book, amid the bedclothes, chamberpots, menses, and faeces.” This is merely an example with which she provides an indication of the antifeminist aspect of Ulysses which signifies that “woman is responsible for the loss of reason and humanity” (Higgins, 60).

If it was Joyce’s intention, he must presumably have had a specific notion behind the idea of placing Molly’s soliloquy as the final chapter. The question is whether it points out that Joyce wants to escalate Molly’s bad image or that he wants to give reasons for her performance by Molly’s soliloquy which functions as thought provoking. Another crucial point is that Joyce introduces Molly and Bloom exactly on a day when Molly is about to begin her first affair after ten years of loyalty (Hayman, 104). His obvious and specific interest in Molly might be comprehensible, if her character is revealed.

2. The Representation of Gender and Sexuality in Ulysses

The understanding of gender, that is required for this paper, is adopted from Diamond. The definition of gender has been discussed by many sociologists and psychologists. They developed various theories about gender such as gender as a function of cultural conditions, and the well-known Freudian model of gender as a development that initiates in early childhood, for instance, to identify with one’s parents (Diamond, 126). He gives a guideline to the definition of gender; that is, “sex would refer to biological traits while gender would refer to social / cultural ones” (p. 124). In other words, sex is defined as male or female whereas gender is defined as masculine or feminine.

Another crucial point is the subordination of women which is missing in Molly’s case. That seems to be the reason why Molly constantly has been and will be discussed, and criticized. Apparently, she is significantly ahead of her time. Ortner highlights the subordination of women as a universal and cultural issue, which cannot be steered clear by reorganising the social system, or the whole economic structure (p. 31). The second-class status of women concerns their positions in the family as well as in the society. Moreover, Butler points out that, according to feminist theory, the representation of women in literature advanced women’s political visibility. This has been significant for women in all cultural condition whose lives had been misrepresented and misunderstood (p. 4). Nevertheless, it has been a rather slow progress as it is noticeable in the timeline of literature.

After the Victorian Era, the role of an ideal woman had been changed to a degree which was unaccepted by the society at that time. On the other hand, a man’s role in the society had been discussed but accepted; that is, from hero to a lonely individual attempting to survive in a world that has lost its absolute values and traditions. In other words, the hero turned to be the antihero who is in turn a hero, or who had been accepted as a hero. The feminine ideal of the Victorian Era, “the Angel in the House”, was regarded as a woman who is altruistically submissive to her husband and devoted to her children. However, modernist writers changed the women’s role in their writings. ouHNevertheless, this change was inacceptable for the society as the women in Modernism rebelled against “the dominant ideology that insisted men and women were meant to occupy different spheres” (Gillies, 26). They demanded equal rights and feminism became one of the declared enthusiasms. Moreover, sexuality had been exercised in discretion or even deficient in Victorian literature, whereas in modernist literature issues related to female sexuality had been expressed. Many critics assert repeatedly that Joyce’s writings had been influenced by Sigmund Freud. In early twentieth century, Freudian psychoanalysis and redefinition of sexual desire became well-known and had an effect on modernist writings.

2.1. Molly

It is rather difficult to characterize Molly than Bloom as the reader’s first impression in Calypso puts a negative spin on Molly, whereas the character Bloom appears quite apparent already at the beginning. Even his thoughts, while he sits on the toilet bowl, are revealed precisely (103). Thus, one has the impression of being involved in everything that concerns Bloom without any hidden secrets behind his character. In contrast to Bloom, the character of Molly does not give much information but only in the last chapter. Therefore, the only options are to analyse Molly via some minor characters, Bloom, and indeed to examine Molly’s soliloquy.

The first impression about Molly in chapter Calypso is as “the substantial animal lying late abed reading pornographic literature and contemplating her assignation with a lusty Boylan” (Hayman, p. 107). From now on a reader has no other option than to accept a lazy, seductive, and dominant wife who is ready to cuckold her husband without any hesitation. She even hides Boylan’s letter under her pillow even though Bloom stands right next to her. The reader’s assumption proves right particularly when Molly is still undressed and lying abed in the episode of The Wandering Rocks. On the other hand, the impression of Molly as a seductive female changes gradually. Hayman points out that Molly has nothing left for she has lost her reputation, her voice, and her good looks (p. 106). This is reasonable because Molly has no friends and she is not well-liked in her circle of acquaintances. For example, Simon Dedalus who makes fun of Molly and her clothing business that she “has left off clothes of all descriptions” (401) and Stephen who thinks she is fat. Also her career is not going well for her last appearance was “over a year ago” (1023). In addition, Hayman provides an indication that even Boylan needs preparations before meeting Molly by flirting with the Ormond Hotel barmaids (395-398).

Bloom’s only thoughts about Molly are referred to her upcoming affair with Boylan. Furthermore, he reveals a list of men with whom Molly supposedly has had an affair with (996). Yet again Molly is depicted as a lascivious woman, who has had affairs with or who has flirted with many men. An exception to be mentioned in between would be when the shrieking women at the maternity hospital remind him of Molly: “he still had pity of the terrorcausing shrieking of shrill women in their labour and as he was minded of his good lady Marion that had borne him an only man-child which on his eleventh day on live had died and no man of art could save so dark is destiny. And she was wondrous stricken of heart for that evil hap and for his burial did him on a fair corselet of lamb’s wool, the flower of the flock,” (588). Even though Bloom’s mourning for his dead son Rudy is central, it should not be utterly ignored that Molly is presented from a completely different point of view; namely, as the bereaved mother, knitting a wool vest for her son to be buried in.

2.1.1. A World of Its Own

Molly’s world or life is a combination of two worlds. Her imaginary world is the world, in which she is still admired by many and the real world, in which she is confronted with loneliness and fear of aging. In the last chapter Penelope, Molly reveals the reader every single detail about her past relationships, however only at the very end, which is quite noteworthy. As a result, it is obvious that Molly has had only Bloom and Boylan as sexual partners (Hayman, 113). Even though she uses a vulgar language, that is relatively provoking, the chief contents are not only about sexuality. She is craving for a love letter and indeed for admiration; she wished Boylan would write her a love letter, although she assumes that its content will not in line with the reality (1039). Nevertheless, she is willing to accept it merely to be in a world where she is beloved by somebody. Her longing for love is even further emphasised as she says, “Im not an old shrivelled hag […] of course a woman wants to be embraced 20 times a day almost to make her look young no matter by who so long as to be in love or loved by somebody” (1069). In fact, Molly enjoyed the animalistic sex with Boylan, yet she wants more than only sex. She can’t accept the role of a whore for she longs for romantic and emotions (Hayman, 148ff.). Even though she has no real choice to have a comparison, she knows that the afternoon with Boylan is not exactly what she yearns for. Therefore, she has even vulgar fantasies about Stephen (1067) who is young and poetic; thus, she considers him as affectionate and romantic. Subsequently, she decides to discontinue the affair with Boylan, who has “no manner nor no refinement nor no nothing in his nature […] the ignoramus that doesnt know poetry from a cabbage” (1968ff.). Reflecting on the first time when she had sexual intercourse with Bloom, she says yes to him, feeling ensured that he knows how women think. Thus, she proves her ability to face up to the real world.

Considering the reality, Molly’s everyday life must be examined more intensive to comprehend her nature. Since Molly is introduced to readers on a day when she commits adultery, it is illogical to consider exactly this day as a day of her everyday life. Nevertheless, a usual day of Molly is still imaginable for she has neither friends nor occupation, and her only child has moved out. She is alone at home and her only duty is to entertain herself with her household. In other words, Molly is leading an absolutely unexciting life without any ups and downs (Hayman, 116). It should be considered that Molly represses the lows of her real life such as Rudy’s death, her unsuccessful career as a singer, and her lost charm. Besides these points, certainly she expects some changes in her life, especially in terms of both sexual and marital. The only change can emanate from Bloom, her only mate, yet his request for breakfast on that morning makes her feel that the whole situation is forlorn. She is desperate and annoyed due to her disappointment, and thus she even begins her inner monologue with the part that Bloom “never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs” (1006). Hayman summarises her feelings that “his request shocks her into a reappraisal of their life together, a process which begins with condemnation of the negligent spouse and moves gradually toward a recognition of the permanence of their relationship” (Hayman, 122).

Alternatively, it can also be a trick to fool herself due to her sense of guilt that she emphasises his request for breakfast. Since it is her first affair and the very day when she commits adultery for the very first time, she is confused and conscious of guilt. Therefore, it is imaginable that Molly rather thinks of Bloom’s worse characteristics at the beginning than his better ones to explain herself.

Schwaber points out that her childhood has influenced much of her present, by means of her everyday life. He says that she never knew her mother, for reasons that remain mysterious (Schwaber, 208). This might explains her weird, unusual relation to her own daughter Milly. Moreover, her father raised her with the aid of several elderly women but for some reason Molly remembers them with annoyance. In fact, she could never forge close links with females. She mentions only two female friends, namely, Hester and Josie Powell Breen. Hester is described as a school day friend, to whom she lost her contact, and the friendship with Josie ended abruptly after Molly’s and Bloom’s wedding for Josie had been interested in Bloom (Hayman, 125). In 1904, Molly has no friends, no one to take care of, and no one to care for, nothing to engage in, no successful career, and above all no admiration. Yet admiration is everything she believes that she can obtain and thus, she craves for.

2.1.2. The Role as a Mother

Another crucial point in Molly’s inner monologue is her fear of aging. One can read it between the lines, especially when she reflects on her daughter Milly. However, it is also obvious how she attempts to repress this issue. She compares constantly and even strangely only with Milly which is of interest, too. Certainly, she slanders other women and always says that she is better than them (“some women ready to stick her knife in you I hate that in women no wonder they treat us the way they do we are a dreadful lot of bitches I suppose its all the troubles we have makes us so snappy Im not like that” – 1072), yet she never compares herself with them in a positive manner but she does compare herself with Milly. This might appear as a very vague argument since she is her daughter; nevertheless, there is enough evidence that both of them do not have any usual mother-daughter relationship. First of all, Milly wrote a letter to Bloom but Molly has received only a card from her daughter which is quite noticeable. Furthermore, in her monologue, Molly reveals a couple of incidents that occur between them. These incidents clearly provide the evidence that Milly gives her father the preference and that she is not closely tied to her mother. In her letter, Milly tells Bloom that she has met a young man, but Molly is absolutely clueless about this case. Though she talks about Milly’s youth, beauty, and confidence (“of course shes restless knowing shes pretty with her lips so red” – 1054) she insists on it that she was very similar to Milly at her young age (“now shes well on for flirting too [...] imitating me” – 1052). On one hand, this can be considered as a simple saying of a proud mother, but on the other hand, in case of Molly it sounds like enviousness. Probably on the basis of her tone how she expresses that Milly is just a copy of her. If they had had a close relationship to each other, Molly would not have been contemptuous of her advice (“no matter what they say her tongue is a bit too long for my taste your blouse is open too low she says to me [...] and I had to tell her not to cock her legs up like that on show on the windowsill before all the people passing they all look at her like me when I was her age of course” – 1052ff.). Repeatedly, she blurts out that Milly is more a rivalry than a daughter, yet she never forgets to add that she was also the same when she was young. Most notably she complains about Milly that “she didnt even want me to kiss her at the Broadstone going away” (1053) and then again she shows her competitor her limits by “2 damn fine cracks across the ear” for Milly’s impudence towards her mother (1054). If the argument that Molly sees her own daughter as a rivalry is considered, it must also be factored why she still describes Milly’s beauty in detail. In point of fact, she identifies with her daughter to bring back her own memories when she was young; to have “a rush lost girlish pleasure and frustrated hopes” (Hayman, 116).


[1] Higgins, Lesley (1997). ““Lovely Seaside Girls” or Sweet Murderers of Men”?: Fatal Women in Ulysses.”

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The Representation of Gender and Sexuality in "Ulysses"
University of Wuppertal
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Molly's Sexuality, Molly's Role as Female, Wife, Mother, Mistress
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Vincey Vattachirayil John (Author), 2009, The Representation of Gender and Sexuality in "Ulysses", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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