Literature Study GuidesUlyssesPart 3 Episode 18 Summary

Ulysses | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Ulysses | Part 3, Episode 18 : The Nostos (Penelope) | Summary



Molly narrates this episode, which consists of eight very long, unpunctuated sentences or paragraphs. It is nearing dawn on Friday, June 17, 1904. Molly remarks Bloom has never before asked to have a breakfast of eggs in bed. (Perhaps she misinterpreted his sleepy mumbling about the "roc's auk's egg.") She thinks of how he used to curry favor with Mrs. Riordan back in the early days of their marriage. She then expresses contempt for the way Bloom moans and malingers about being sick or injured and is suspicious of the account Bloom gives of his day. Wondering if he is having an affair with "some little bitch or other," she recalls firing their maid Mary, whom she thought was flirting with Bloom. She thinks about seducing "some nicelooking boy" and about how exasperating Bloom's sexual practices are. Apparently, he often presses Molly to tell him who she is thinking of. Molly thinks there is "no satisfaction" in sex with Bloom, "pretending it to like it ... and then finish it off myself anyway." She wishes "some man or other" would embrace her and kiss her. She remembers confessing to a priest and how it was just another man getting nosy about her sex life.

Molly recalls with annoyance Boylan slapping her rump as he left that day: "though I laughed Im not a horse or an ass am I." They made love several times, and she took a nap after the final time. She reflects on his sexual prowess and his size. She wonders if there was anything between Bloom and Josie Breen and thinks she would hate to be married to Denis Breen, who goes to bed with muddy boots on "when the maggot [notion] takes him." Bloom at least wipes his shoes on the mat.

In the second sentence Molly considers men's sexual tastes: "theyre all so different." Boylan likes shapely feet. Bloom is "mad on the subject of drawers" and likes to watch women on bicycles, hoping he'll see up their skirts. Even courting Molly it was "drawers drawers the whole blessed time." She recalls when Bloom gave her eight poppies on her birthday, the eighth of September. When she got the fruit basket from Boylan earlier this day she thought he was breaking their date. But Boylan knocked on the door, though she doesn't know when: "I never know the time even that watch he gave me never seems to go properly." She thinks about Bloom's upcoming trip to his father's grave in Ennis and about the singing tour. She wonders if Boylan might get jealous of Bloom: "its all very well a husband but you cant fool a lover." Then she wonders if Boylan would have sex on the train and if she could run away with him.

In the third sentence Molly thinks about breasts and why men like them: "theyre supposed to represent beauty placed up there." She knows about Bloom's "dirty Spanish photo." She thinks about his long words ("jawbreakers") and his long-winded explanations. Bloom was intrigued by Molly's breast milk when she was nursing—he wanted it in his tea: "well hes beyond everything I declare." She wishes Boylan "or somebody" were there so she could make love again. Boylan is supposed to meet her again on Monday.

In the fourth sentence Molly hears a train. She recalls Hester, now Mrs. Stanhope, a female friend on Gibraltar. When Hester left Gibraltar to live with her husband, she and Hester kissed and cried. She remembers going to a bullfight on Gibraltar and also the gun salute when Ulysses Grant visited Gibraltar. She also recalls an early flirtation with a Captain Grove and thinks about a medical student on Holles Street; she put on her gloves and hat, hoping he'd follow her out, but he didn't pick up on her flirting. Molly thinks about how tedious it is that everyone has their sad story to tell. She considers her spelling problems and wishes someone would write her a love letter; Boylan's note to her was perfunctory.

In the fifth sentence Molly thinks about her first love letter. It was from Lieutenant Mulvey. He signed it "an admirer," to her great excitement. She recalls her first kiss, which took place on Gibraltar "under the Moorish wall." She told Mulvey she was engaged to a Spanish nobleman just to amuse herself. She recalls lying down with him on a hill. He wanted to make love but she feared pregnancy, so she masturbated him instead. She thinks fondly of him but has trouble remembering his first name: "Jack Joe Harry Mulvey was it yes I think a lieutenant." She thinks about her married name, Bloom; at least it's superior to Breen or any name with the word bottom in it. Then she considers divorcing Bloom and becoming "Mrs Boylan." She wonders why her mother didn't give her a nicer name. Her mother's name was Lupita Laredo (Tweedy). She recalls a ring Mulvey gave her which she then gave to Lieutenant Gardner, who later died of fever in the Boer War. She feels oppressed by Bloom's presence and wishes she had her own room; then she farts.

In the sixth sentence Molly wonders if the pork she ate that day was bad. She hopes Bloom won't start hanging around medical students and carousing at night like a young man. She recalls again that he asked for breakfast: "then he starts giving us his orders for eggs and tea and Findon haddy [smoked haddock]." She thinks about Bloom's boastfulness and how he pretended he could row though he couldn't even swim and "if anyone asked could he ride the steeplechase for the gold cup hed say yes." She remarks on the pun in the name Paul de Kock (though she doesn't connect it to Bloom's nickname, Poldy). She also recalls Bloom's big talk about how he would open a musical academy or a hotel, and "whatever I liked he was going to do immediately if not sooner." She is scandalized Bloom insisted on sending 15-year-old Milly away to learn to take photographs. Thinking about the Dedalus men, she characterizes Simon as "the criticiser" and Stephen, the one who "got all them prizes for whatever." She feels her period starting and then recalls she and Boylan put a quilt on the floor and made love there because the jingly brass bed was too noisy.

In the seventh sentence Molly wonders if there is anything wrong with her insides. She thinks scornfully of the questions doctors ask about gynecological matters: her vagina ("her cochinchina") and whether she has "an offensive odour" or "omissions." (She mishears the word emissions.) She thinks about Bloom's passionate love letters to her long ago: "my Precious one everything connected with your glorious body." Bloom's habits are odd, she muses: "look at the way hes sleeping at the foot of the bed." She wonders if Bloom went to a prostitute that night: "of course he has to pay for it." She decides she will check to see whether he still has a condom ("French letter") in his wallet. Molly next thinks about a falling out between herself and Bloom when she wouldn't "let him lick [her]" when they lived in Holles Street; she doesn't like the way Bloom does it. She thinks about the report of Dignam's funeral and her husband's name appearing as "L Boom." Molly wonders about Stephen: "he [Bloom] says hes [Stephen's] an author and going to be a university professor of Italian." Bloom told her he showed Stephen her photograph. She thinks about Stephen's age and considers "I'm not too old for him if hes 23 or 24." She wonders about oral sex with Stephen: "so clean and white with his boyish face." The "handsome young poet" might write about her, she thinks, and their photographs would appear in the newspapers.

In the eighth sentence she recalls vulgar Boylan slapping her rump: "has he no manners nor no refinement." Molly recalls boys on the street saying a lewd verse when she walked by, hoping to embarrass her: "it didnt make me blush why should it either its only nature." She thinks again of Bloom's erotic interest in kissing her behind and of the outrage of his expecting her to cook breakfast. She proposes the world would be better off governed by women, but soon she thinks how "some woman" is always "ready to stick her knife in you." Menstruating makes women bad-tempered, Molly thinks.

Molly becomes irritated with Bloom over her infidelity with Boylan. She considers telling him all about it: "Ill let him know if thats what he wanted" and "Ive a mind to tell him every scrap." She would feel pleasure, she thinks, in humiliating him and feels it's "all his own fault [she is] an adulteress." She thinks about her next meeting with Boylan. Then she remembers her early days with Bloom on Gibraltar, when she used the promise of sexual pleasure to get Bloom to marry her: "I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes." She recalls the natural beauty of Gibraltar, especially the sky and the sea. Finally, she thinks about accepting Bloom's marriage proposal and how she had him repeat the question again and again so that she could answer it again and again: "yes I said yes I will Yes."


"Penelope" is an episode that contrasts in more ways than it parallels The Odyssey. Most notably, the epic poem of Homer ends with the triumphant Odysseus sailing home to Ithaca after many difficult years away at sea, dispatching Penelope's many suitors with his son, finally returning to his loving wife's arms. Leopold Bloom is no triumphant hero. He returns home to Molly who has just slept with a man who is not her husband. Bloom says nothing to her about this at the time. Later, in her interior monologue, she says she feels no remorse. The contrasts between Odysseus and Bloom, and Penelope and Molly, could not be sharper.

As in the first half of the "Nausicaa" episode, the "Penelope" episode is given over to the consciousness of a female character. In "Nausicaa" Gerty's desires were conveniently aligned with Bloom's: he liked looking and she liked being looked at. In "Penelope," by contrast, Molly is more independent than Gerty. Molly's views on Bloom and their marriage seldom coincide with Bloom's. She finds his sexual practices inadequate, unsatisfying, and peculiar. In the "Ithaca" episode Bloom's kissing Molly's rump is described with poetic effusion as Bloom lavishes attention on "each plump melonous hemisphere." In "Penelope" Molly reveals she is annoyed by being woken up and having her nightgown all bunched up as well. She also reveals what it's like to be married to Bloom, the utopian dreamer, full of unrealized schemes for their domestic happiness. "[H]e ought to get a leather medal with a putty rim for all the plans he invents," Molly says, meaning his half-baked, unrealized plans deserve only these lowly materials rather than metal and ribbons. Molly's earthiness and lack of gullibility are often refreshing.

Most importantly, readers finally have an opportunity to get to know Molly through her own words and thoughts. All previous views of her were from a male perspective, that she sleeps around, is promiscuous, and compulsively flirtatious. However, Molly indicates that Blazes Boylan is her first and only lover since her marriage to Bloom, and that their marriage is essentially sexless. Joyce tells the other, female side of the relationship, albeit through the rambling thoughts of a woman lying half-awake in bed. Readers may find the style of writing with no punctuation difficult, but after some time, what strikes the reader is not the style, as in many other episodes, but the substance of her mind. Her speech flows, but not in accordance with any art of rhetoric, and not for any listener in her world. Her words are the relentless, inflowing, outflowing tide of her life, its many actors and events tumbling forth, revealing the fullness of her personality.

Her soliloquy often illuminates psychologically complex situations. When thinking of Boylan, she sings a line from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni: "Mi fa pieta Maseto." It is a line from the song she will sing on the tour with Boylan—"Là ci darem." In the opera Zerlina is an innocent peasant girl wooed by the corrupt nobleman, Don Giovanni, although she is engaged to marry the peasant Maseto. In the song Don Giovanni asks Zerlina to give him her hand ("Là ci darem la mano"). Zerlina frets, "Mi fa pieta Maseto" (Maseto will chide me). But Bloom does not chide Molly; he makes his peace with the situation, leaving Molly alone and frustrated. In a complicated move, Molly shoves her guilt onto Bloom: "serve him right its all his own fault if I am an adulteress." Although she seems motivated by guilt or exasperation, she is not wrong about Bloom's complicity in her affair with Boylan.

The final words of this episode, and of Ulysses, lend support to the idea love is the single unifying theme of the novel. However, Molly's account of manipulating Bloom slightly undercuts this, as does her view of Bloom as a wooer of women. Regarding Bloom and Josie Breen in former times, Molly wonders if Bloom was about to "make a declaration to her with his plabbery kind of manner like he did to me." The word plabbery is Joyce's invention, perhaps a combination of blathery and palaver, but here it appears as Molly's invention. In her untutored way she is poetic, and she skewers Bloom's talkativeness. Nonetheless, she does recall him with affection, and her memory of his marriage proposal at the end of the episode shows genuine excitement and joy.

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