Ending James Joyce’s Ulysses: the unwieldy path of narrative and life

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Written in the voice of Marion ‘Molly’ Bloom (the wife of one of the novel’s protagonists, Leopold), the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses is a challenging end to a long and often ‘difficult’ novel. Around forty or so pages long depending on edition, and made up of eight unbroken and virtually unpunctuated sentences which form a stream-of-consciousness narrative, the coda is nothing if not a testament to the novel’s impenetrability.

Yet this description does no justice to Joyce’s skill, as he spends the course of the novel ranging between an encyclopaedic array of narrative modes and styles. These stretch from the language of a medieval courtly romance to a segment written entirely as a play script, stage directions included. So to end with Molly’s soliloquy, marked by its seemingly unending and unwieldy form, is arguably fitting, as it concludes a multitude of styles and voices; and Joyce’s choice of speaker is of equal importance, if not greater.

In Ulysses, Molly Bloom’s capacity for reconciliation is an encouraging reminder of our own humanity.

Molly Bloom is, in many senses, at the heart of the novel, yet she is unheard throughout most of Ulysses, and is referred to by the other characters primarily in relation to her infidelity. She is also one of only two women in the novel permitted to speak in her own ‘voice’, and arguably the only one which is not heavily filtered through either parody or mockery. There is none of the earlier verbosity of diction or semantics, none of Joyce’s trademark irony or satire to mock the speaker or make her seem ridiculous. Instead, he allows Molly her moment of self-realisation and consciousness.

This is not to say that Joyce does not find Molly ‘funny’, nor that she is incapable of conveying humour. After all, her husband’s obsession with women’s rears is sharply belittled in Molly’s statement that ‘any man thatd kiss a womans bottom Id throw my hat at him after that hed kiss anything unnatural’. Joyce’s subversion of style is most certainly a vehicle for his subversion of tradition here; in removing the novel’s formal conventions of sentence structure, syntax and punctuation, so too does he remove the social barrier to discussing subjects as perverse as ‘a womans bottom’.

In a novel focussed largely on men, it is thus interesting that Joyce chooses to end it by letting a woman speak. Molly’s coda illuminates several grey areas, follows a multitude of threads to their respective ends, and allows the reader an entirely different evaluation of its male protagonists.

Finally, the reader is left with a bittersweet touch of hope in the chapter’s final words, ‘yes I said yes I will Yes.’ Despite her broken marriage (to say more would reveal too much), Molly’s recollection of her acceptance of Leopold’s marriage proposal contains an unmistakeable fondness in the primal, affirmative power of the word ‘yes’. The capitalisation of its final occurrence seemingly ends on the moment of its vocalisation, the crystallisation of their love in one utterance.

Life, as long and unwieldy as Ulysses itself, is a narrative we may construct, order, and define ourselves.

By ending his meticulously detailed tome on this note of affection, the simplicity of Joyce’s language is uplifting, hopeful, and kind. In Ulysses, Molly Bloom’s capacity for reconciliation is an encouraging reminder of our own humanity, and is a reaffirming end to Joyce’s fictionalised 16th June, 1904.

Similarly, the power of the final word is not to be understated, and as I approach the end of my time at Durham, it is an apt reminder that life, as long and unwieldy as Ulysses itself, is a narrative we may construct, order, and define ourselves. Joyce’s achievement here, I think, is reminding us that we have the power to construct our lives as humanely and forgivingly as we please.

Photograph by .chiara.mente. via Flickr Creative Commons

One thought on “Ending James Joyce’s Ulysses: the unwieldy path of narrative and life

  • This is beautifully stated! Ulysses, beyond all its linguistic gymnastics, is very much a novel about kindness as you said. And we often forget that when we spend too much time chasing all the novel’s references.

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