Fireworks for the Cult of Mary
Amy asked about this in class maybe half a month ago, now (or it could be longer), but I’m finally going to sort of answer the question of femininity in the Church, how Joyce is using it, and then quickly dodge away behind a rock before anyone figures out that I haven’t answered that question at all. So, Nausicaa finally gives us long awaited direct contact with the Cult of Mary. I’m actually surprised that it took so long when we got the much more masculine church of the fathers in Aeolus, Lotus Eaters, and Wandering Rocks.
So, let’s examine Gerty’s character through the structures of the Cult of Mary. Basically, to boil down the Cult of Mary, there 5 (or 4 – one of the beliefs in Mary wasn’t made into actual Dogma until the 1950s, but it was held as common knowledge from the 6th century) basic pieces of dogma: Mary is the Mother of God, she has always been a virgin, she was immaculately conceived, she was taken into heaven (the Assumption is the belief that had not been made official in Joyce’s time), and she is the Mother of the Church. I do think that as Joyce was constructing Gerty he was modeling the deeper Mary parallels on these five beliefs.
Sadly, the first belief, Mary as the Mother of God, is the hardest dogma to work with, for some reason. I feel that Molly fits in here better, or Milly, considering some of the comments made in Oxen of the Sun. I guess in class I’d like to look a bit harder at Gerty’s role as a mother, and how these three women interest at various points with the Virgin Mary. Gerty’s motherhood is questionable. She is supposedly a second of her house (290) but this actually fits more to Mary in her role as Mother of the Church, because Gerty’s home is more closely paralleled to the institution, rather than a more anthropomorphic representation.
Obviously, it’s much more easy to work with the concept of the perpetual virgin. Beyond the fact that it is clear Gerty is a physical virgin, she’s also extremely inexperienced mentally. Her “style” of thought is the awkward prettiness of a dime-store novel, and her very outlook is simple, and innocent. She “crimsons” at the mention of bottom when Cissy uses it in baby talk, transforming herself into the virginal rose (290). Despite the fact that she spends the whole chapter ruminating on romance, and flirting, sex is firmly in it’s proper place, that is to say, the “other thing” and out of sight for Gerty (300). Also, her antipathy to children, compared to both Cissy and Edy (Mother and Crone pair of a different trinity) , places her firmly in the “maiden” category. She doesn’t even have children in her vision of the the ideal home, which suggests that she would prefer that children, like food, came in more “poetical” (perhaps sacred/mysterious) packages (289). The final proof of her perpetual virginity might lie in a physical virginity, however, considering her lameness. This kind of defect might mar her standing in the marriage market. It even marred her attractiveness to Bloom, after all, and he can entertain almost anything. Gerty might end up the childless spinster of the three girls, despite all her dreams to the contrary.
Moving on to the Immaculate Conception, I have to say, it’s hard to relate this to any Joyce character. In Gerty’s case, it could be argued, her freeness from sin rests in her innocence, and incapability of understanding what sin actually is, as classified by the Roman Catholic Church. “Besides, there was absolution as long as you don’t do the other thing,” is a pretty inaccurate reckoning of the doctrine of lust (300). It could be that Gerty’s immaculate-ness has to do with her pre-Fall Eve-like innocence. Otherwise, I’m going to need a little help with this one.
I’ll make an argument for a representation of the Assumption of Mary, as well, despite the fact that it still wasn’t official in Joyce’s time. I still feel that he nodded at it, in the fireworks scene (Yes, that Roman candle can be more than phallic and masturbatory. Roman candles can be a lot of things). Gerty, after all, “saw a long Roman candle going up over the trees,” which could be the ascension of the Roman Catholic church, or even Gerty going “up, up” to the heavens (300). The fireworks explode in glory becoming one with the sky at the apex of their assent. In artwork of the assumption, the Virgin also ascends in colorful almost liquid-like clouds (sometimes it’s billowing cloth) — Here’s a pretty Rueben from Wikipedia, lots of jetting clouds and artistically nude cherubs — so the fireworks and the Virgin and Gerty all ascend to heaven together.
So, finally we come to looking at Gerty through the lens of the Mother of the Church. I have to say that the moments that I identified when she fit this role were generally Gerty’s least attractive moments. Her condemnation of pretty much all women as prostitutes is one fun example, since Gerty “loathed that sort of person, the fallen woman off the accommodation walk beside the Dodder that went with the soldiers and coarse men with no respect” (299). Of course, like the Church, Gerty associates respect with her kind of virginal-Victorian ultra modesty. She seems only to be able to reach out her more charitable impulses in the language of doctrinal conversion, as well. “If he was protestant or methodist she could convert him easily if he truly loved her,” according to Gery-Mary, mother of the church (293). Each time she reaches out in love or dislike, Gerty seems to embody the Catholic church at some level. Unfortunately, it isn’t the most flattering level. I feel that Joyce is digging more at the institution, rather than woman’s reactions to it.
Femininity in the form of Mary is to be respected and adored, according to Catholic doctrine. Gerty, although she is respected and adored by Bloom, is not as attractive to the reader, having obvious flaws. But these are reflected flaws of the church. Her dislike is absolute, pronounced, and clear. She can’t get along with Edy, and her thoughts turn from majestic to poisonous, which is not brilliant, when seen in someone as powerful as Gerty believes herself to be. When Gerty reaches out with love, as the Church is supposedly open, she thinks of conversion, conquest, and changing those who are not of her color, so to speak. Again, this represents a very ugly side of an institution that has what seem to be decent goals in the form of Gerty’s rather pleasant daydreams. The Catholic Church, as represented through this Mary is a negative force, despite the positive goals it alleges to.