A critique of mariolatry in James Joyce "Ulysses". Incongruities in Gerty McDowell's self-depiction and actions

Term Paper, 2013

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

I Introduction

II The Construction of Gerty McDowell

III Gerty’s Identification with the Virgin Mary

IV Gerty's True Character
IV.I Gerty's Moral Values

V Suppressed Sexual Desire versus Sexual Innocence

VI Conclusion

VII Works Cited


“Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a hideout, every word also a mask.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: 3

For Gerty McDowell, it is mariolatry that conceals her personal philosophy. It is mariolatry she uses as a hideout and it is mariolatry she uses as a Mask. To see her true face; we must have a look at her mask, for it is what she wants us to think of her, a look at her actions, for it is her most objective description, and finally a look at her dreams, for they are whom she wishes to be. It is her being in all its contradictions, that gives Gerty her purpose in Joyce's Ulysses. Despite her relatively brief appearance, her character is integral as it represents the aspect of woman that is connected with piety. By looking at the incongruities in Gerty McDowell's self-depiction and her actions, we see Joyce's criticism that women hide their true personality behind the mask of mariolatry.

The Construction of Gerty McDowell

“But who was Gerty?” (314). With this line Joyce introduces us to the female protagonist of the chapter Nausicaa. However, even before we read anything about the 22 year old girl or her stream of consciousness, we are already lost in her world. As with his other characters, Joyce “postponed the […] stream-of-consciousness passage [..] until he had carefully established the outlines of the character, their relationships, and the world in which they live” (Steinberg 28). In Gerty’s case, her world is described in a dripping sweet, picturesque and overly romanticized style which is so overdone that the satirical aspect becomes obvious. Joyce himself called it “a namby-pamby jammy marmalady drawersy[..] style” (Steinberg 33). As Stanley Sultan writes in The Argument of Ulysses: “The style […] is the author's vehicle for delineating Gerty’s character and the significance of her principal action” (267). Preparations for Gerty's world and character only take about two pages, which is, little, compared with other characters, but what we need to know about her does not only come from Joyce. For Gerty is a “second-hand” character, built on already existing ideals. As Gerty takes Homer’s virgin princess, Nausicaa's place she falls, just as Nausicaa did, for the dark stranger at the sea and imagines her dream husband in him. However, the overlap between Joyce's 13th Chapter and Homers sixth book of the Odyssey is though mostly structural. A greater template for Joyce's Gerty is Gerty Flint, the protagonist of the dime- novel The Lamplighter by Maria Susanna Cummins, with which she shares not only her name but also her naivete and romanticism. Thirdly, and most elaborated, the Virgin Mary serves as Gerty's identification. With the first paragraph Joyce not only introduces the setting of the “quiet church”, the “prayers” but also with “Mary, star of the sea” one of the leading themes and Gerty's self-identification (312). By uniting these three characters from a different culture, position and time, who only have their virginity and piety in common, Joyce creates a representation of pious womenhood.

Gerty’s Identification with the Virgin Mary

Gerty's identification with the Virgin Mary is important because it is what she wants others to think about her, it is what she would like to think about herself and is the goal for which she outwardly thrives. A match in terms of colour between Gerty and the Virgin Mary is to be found in the colour blue. The Blessed Virgin Mary is in paintings often depicted in blue garments and Gerty herself pictures “the blue banners of the blessed Virgin’s solidarity” (324). Conveniently Gerty's colour is blue too, as she wears a blouse of “electric blue” a navy coloured skirt, a hat “with an underbrim of eggblue chenille” and even some “undies” with blue ribbons (316). More than once Gerty blushes and “a burning scarlet swep[s] from her throat to brow till the lovely colour of her face [becomes] a glorious rose” (326) or “she fel[s] the warm flush […] flaming into her cheeks” (322). This rosiness as well as her rose perfume, further equates Gerty with Mary, who is worshipped as “mystical rose” (322). Gerty wears not only the Virgin's colours and scent, but also owns a “child of Mary badge” (329), which literary labels her as a disciple. Virgin Mary is praised as a “spiritual vessel” and “honourable vessel” (320). Equivalently, Gerty thinks of her own “almost spiritual […] purity” (315) and ascribes honour to herself because apparently she does not use any aids to gain this purity. Not only her appearance, clothes, but also her self-attributed characteristics relate Gerty to the Virgin Mary. As Blamires sums it up in The Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Joyce's Ulysses

“She [Gerty] is beautiful, graceful, pale in complexion. The description of her, voiced in the sentimental idiom of her own thinking and dreaming, is as much a piece of self revelation as of objective picturing. (The use of words and phrases like ‘graceful’, ‘almost spiritual in its ivory-like purity’, ‘veined alabaster’, ‘queenly’, and ‘glory’ reinforces the implicit correspondence with the Virgin Mary”) (140).

Gerty sees Bloom “literally worshipping at her shrine” (327) as the church goers worship Mary at hers. She also sees herself as a “ministering angel” (321) with a “queenly hauteur” (315) while Mary is praised by the church goers as “Queen of the angels” (325). As the Virgin Mary is praised as the “Refuge of sinner” and “Comfortress of the afflicted” (324), so Gerty cares not if Bloom “had suffered, more sinned against that sinning, or even, even, if he had been a sinner, a wicked man” himself (323). Seeing that Bloom is in mourning, she offers herself just like a “beacon ever to the storm-tossed heart of man” (312) again comparing or even trying to imitate Mary. In her mercy, which is another of Mary's features, Gerty would receive Bloom, “even if he was a protestant methodist” under the condition that “he truly loved her” (323), reminding us that “it been said that whosoever prays to her with faith and constancy can ever be lost or cast away” (324). Gerty also qualifies as “Comfortress of the afflicted” because she too has her dolours of heart, although not seven of them, like Mary, but at least one for she “had even witnessed in her home circle deeds of violence caused by intemperance” (320).

Gerty's True Character

To show that the picture of the Virgin Mary is just a mask behind which Gerty hides, we must reveal her true character, shown by her thoughts and actions toward other people, instead of her self-description. As simple as Gerty would like to portray her garments, she still spends “all Tuesday week afternoon […] hunting” her straw hat (316). She wears what, from the Lady ’ s Pictorial, is expected to be worn, shows off her shoes, which “were the newest thing in footwear” (316) and prides her transparent stockings while describing Cissy “with the flimsy blouse she bought only a fortnight before like a rag on her back and a bit of her petticoat hanging like a caricature” (325). She also enjoys the thought of taking “the shine out of some people she knew” (316). Since Gerty not only puts great effort into purchasing and coordinating her garments, but also uses them to set herself of from her friends, there is no simpleness or modesty in her style of clothing. Her vanity does not only display itself in her clothing though but also in her love for her own reflection. We are reminded of Narcissus or Snow White’s grandmother as we read that Gerty’s reflection tells her “you are lovely, Gerty”, that “she knew how to cry nicely before the mirror” (317) or that she keeps “smiling at the lovely refection which the mirror gave back to her” (316).

Gerty’s extreme interest in her own life and problems prevent her from caring for and engaging with her friends. From the moment she is introduced, she is “lost in thought, gazing far away into the distance” (314) as if she were not really there. While her friends talk to each other, play with baby Boardman, or look after the Caffrey twins, her thoughts are only concerned with herself. Though she laughs as a reaction to being proposed as Tommy Caffrey’s sweetheart, she doesn’t speak till asked for her thoughts. As for the short moment “Inclination prompt[s] her to speak out” her true thoughts, “dignity [tells] her to be silent” and bereaves her of all authenticity (315). Her answer, 'wondering about the time', is not even a true answer but an effort to manipulate her friends into leaving. Neither her response to Edy’s question, whether she were heartbroken about Reggy Wylie, nor her verbal reaction to baby Boardman ruining his bib are honest or lead to a conversation.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


A critique of mariolatry in James Joyce "Ulysses". Incongruities in Gerty McDowell's self-depiction and actions
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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ISBN (Book)
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Ulysses, James Joyce, Nausicaa, Gerty McDowell
Quote paper
Anna Klamann (Author), 2013, A critique of mariolatry in James Joyce "Ulysses". Incongruities in Gerty McDowell's self-depiction and actions, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/381018


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