The space of Molly Bloom
The Space of Molly Bloom
Dirce Waltrick do Amarante
A sleepy soft mumble or grunt: Mn. This is the first thing we hear from Molly Bloom in Ulysses (1922). She’s in bed in the morning and responds to Leopold Bloom, her husband, who asks if there is anything she wants from the street. No, she doesn’t want anything, not from the grocery store, nor from the newsstand, etc. Molly begins with a sort of “no”, in spite of becoming known as the character who says “yes”. With time, can she have accepted everything?
A little bit earlier, in the kitchen, the cat rubs herself against the leg of the table and addresses Leopold with a “— Mkgnao!” — in a way that makes Molly and the cat seem to speak the same language.
It should also be noted that the first time the cat murmurs, you read that it “mewed in answer”. In the murmurings that follow, verbs like “meow” are left aside and substituted by verbs like shout, cry, weep, whimper and say. These verbs are also used for human beings.
However, when Molly speaks for the first time, although the verb used is “reply”, her voice doesn’t produce a word, but “a sleepy soft grunt”. It’s worth remembering that a grunt is a sound that can be emitted by a person or an animal, as for example a pig.
Perhaps Molly and the cat in the story are on an equal footing to the narrator, both being animals deprived of a language, and thus Leopold should speak for them.
In The animal that I am, Jacques Derrida reminds us that to say “the animal” is a claim to designate “all living beings except man (man as a rational animal […]).” This way, “the animal” would be a word that men gave themselves the right to use to designate those beings. According to the Algerian philosopher: “The Animal, they say. And they gave themselves this word, at the same time conceding to themselves only, the human beings, the right to the word, the name, the verb, the attribute, the language of words, in short, to that of which the other ones concerned were deprived, those who inhabit the great territory of the beast: the Animal” (my translation from Portuguese to English).
Derrida affirms that “all philosophers […] say the same thing: the animal is deprived of a language.” More precisely, the animal is “the only one lacking a word to reply.” (my translation from Portuguese to English).
At first the still sleepy, half-conscious Molly and the cat get mixed up. Molly’s grunt — “Mn” — seems to be much more of an instinctive sound than a real answer. The cat that meowed emitted a similar sound to respond to Leopold Bloom’s call. Both are deprived of words.
When Leopold comes home, what you see is him serving Molly her tea, just like he served milk to the cat.
Molly and the cat seem to exist in a space of domestication, one among many spaces where man incarcerated “all living beings that […] he wouldn’t recognize as his equals, his neighbours or his brothers,” as Derrida says. Obviously, this text is a provocation, and in this respect, Molly’s “space of domestication” would be her bed, her room, her house, which she never leaves throughout the novel.
But Molly is a mixture of animal and human, almost a mythical being, perhaps a seductive mermaid. If she starts out with a grunt, she gradually acquires a language and seduces the men around her. The first word she utters is “Poldy”, her pet name for Leopold Bloom. Later on she utters short phrases like “—Who are the letters for?” and “—She got the things”.
Bloom, a caring husband, doesn’t only bring the tea and open the bedroom windows the way his wife likes it, he is also her “teacher”. He is the one who explains the obscure vocabulary of the books she reads, the word metempsychosis, for example. “That means the transmigration of souls”, says Leopold. Molly still doesn’t understand and asks him to explain “in plain words”. Her husband proceeds: “They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance. What they called nymphs, for example.” Could Molly be a nymph?
Leopold seems to have little faith in his wife’s intellectual and artistic gifts; for instance, he doubts that she could pronounce well the Italian word voglio: “Voglio e non vorrei. Wonder if she pronounces that right: voglio”. This could be a reference to the opera Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, i.e. to a phrase spoken by Zerlina (Vorrei e non vorrei) in a duet with Don Giovanni, a noble seducer that tries to interpose himself between her and her fiancé Masetto. In this dialogue Don Giovanni invites her to go out with him and she hesitates: “wants to and doesn’t want to”.
Leopold Bloom suspects that Molly has a lover, young Blazes Boylan, her manager. But he appears to allow her this pleasure, this distraction. Molly would be a nymph and Boylan a satyr (the satyrs used to have sexual relations with the nymphs). When Leopold tolerates this extra-marital affair and her “career” as a singer, isn’t he manipulating Molly, keeping her at home without any need to go out and realize herself as a woman, professionally and emotionally?
Maybe Leopold Bloom intuited what Betty Friedan would reveal decades later in her book The Feminine Mystique(1961), that housewives and women with sporadic professional activities often turn to sex in search of a way to feel alive. Molly Bloom lived within the narrow confines of the feminine mystique, as Friedan would say, that is, she is “intelligent” (in spite of Leopold doubting it) but extremely incomplete. Molly no longer has her daughter to care for: Milly has moved out and is a young lass of fifteen (Rudy died soon after birth). She doesn’t have a profession in which she could make a career. According to Friedan, sex is the only frontier open to women who have always lived confined by the feminine mystique.
Decades earlier, in the play A Doll’s House (1879) by Henrik Ibsen, a great master to the Irish writer, Nora, the wife of the lawyer Torvald Helmer in the play, abandons her home. When her husband says that “there is no-one who would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves”, Nora replies that “thousands and thousands of women have done that”. Could Joyce have had this fact in mind when he wrote Ulysses, a reason for him to sacrifice his protagonist’s honour in order for him to be able to keep his wife at home?
Molly continues in her “space of domestication”, in her home, in her bed. That way she reminds us of the character of A obscena senhora D, (The obscene Mrs D.) by the Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst, imprisoned in the stairwell of her house.