On “City Limits: Reading Gender and Urban Spaces in Ulysses” by Johanna X. K. Garvey
Garvey, Johanna X. K. “City Limits: Reading Gender and Urban Spaces in Ulysses.” Twentieth Century Literature 41.1 (1995): 108-23. Print.
Johanna X. K. Garvey’s “City Limits: Reading Gender and Urban Spaces in Ulysses” uses a mainly French feminist critical approach to map the role of Dublin’s cityscape in Ulysses (108). Although Virginia Woolf and Judith Butler make cameo appearances, Garvey generally frames her analysis within the psychoanalytic and semiotic theories of Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva. Garvey’s rather large scope of investigation lobs two round questions at the text: 1) are the “spatial configurations” of Joyce’s Dublin mere reproductions of “recurring gender dichotomies”? 2) And if so, does Ulysses offer the space for a subversive or “countertextual” reading of such gender constructions (109)?
Despite the article’s rough conclusion, “it is up to Joyce’s readers, perhaps, to recognize the warnings buried in Ulysses” . . . etc., Garvey does introduce some valuable feminist critical tools for examining the text (119). For instance, her contrasting of maternal and paternal spaces provides some useful vocabulary for a psychoanalytic understanding of the text. In post-structural psychoanalysis, the paternal is associated with what is known as the symbolic (aka the Name or Law of the Father), a (sometimes literal) realm or system of representation in which symbols (signs) share a direct and oppressively concrete relationship to things and more importantly meanings. The maternal, on the other hand, is tied to the semiotic, that which evades definition and encoding, constantly shedding its referents or proliferating new ones until meaning overflows. As Garvey points out, Ulysses’ association of watery imagery with maternity, and images of desolation and barrenness with man’s domain, seems to withstand a psychoanalytic treatment.
That this seems, at least for Garvey, unlocks large portions of the book, however, should be taken as cause for caution rather than motivation for adopting a strictly psychoanalytic approach to the work. In fact, it is precisely psychoanalysis’ penchant for collapsing texts into logically encoded typologies that speaks to its own perilous relation to the Law of the Father. Garvey seems to fall prey to just this relation when she concludes that it is up to readers to identify “warnings buried” in the text, implying that there is a hidden message in Ulysses that simply requires the right code to materialize (119).