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Vicki Mahaffey on Gender in Ulysses

Wednesday, October 28, 2009; 04:22 am Leave a comment Go to comments

Mahaffey, Vicki. “Ulysses and the End of Gender.” A Companion to James Joyce’s ULYSSES. Ed. Margot Norris. Boston: Bedford, 1998.

Joyce’s description of Gerty MacDowell as well as her interaction with Bloom marks a key moment for discussions of gender and feminism in Ulysses. As Vicki Mahaffey notes at the outset of her essay “Ulysses and the End of Gender,” Joyce will play with the term ‘feminist’ itself in the “Circe” episode. And since it’s Joyce, feminism will be subversively presented “as a paradoxically masculine, action-oriented position” (152).

“What does this mean for Joyce’s attitude for gender?” Mahaffey wonders. She is quick to point out that Joyce was intricately concerned with gender and its implications for how Dubliners lived. In Dubliners itself, Mahaffey talks about how again and again, the sexual desire and general “longing for meaningful connection” of characters are pitted “against the rules of a social system that effectively prohibits relation” (152). As readers, we encounter the societal limits with the characters themselves.

But in Ulysses, Joyce cuts right to the chase. “By composing characters who violate popular preconceptions of what makes men and women admirable,” Joyce forces us to consider the original depictions of strong men and subservient women in a way that can only evoke “the stuff of comedy” when compared to Ulysses(153). Stephen is a prime example: if Stephen is the young male hero of Ulysses, the transmigration of Telemachus, we can only laugh as “a scrawny intellectual who is poor, physically dirty, periodically infested with vermin” is what we get instead.

As for women, Gerty MacDowell is an important character, especially since we know Molly almost solely from her absence. In Gerty, who Mahaffey says “is so thoroughly indoctrinated by the image of the culturally desirable young woman that she cannot own or realize her own desires,” we meet a character that Joyce uses to critique “popular culture’s objectification of the young ‘heroine’” (158). Mahaffey cites two references to Gerty having parallels to Cinderella, as she reportedly has small feet (13.165-67) and has not been granted favorable social status or a good education (13.96-102). However, I feel like Joyce emphasizes how the gender constraints of Gerty’s life detract from her appeal, and we are left to wonder whether she will ever be married. Molly is the obvious contrast to Gerty’s provinciality. Considering Joyce’s highly verbose language that describes Molly’s body in the seventeenth episode, Mahaffey defends Joyce as someone that appreciated “female corporeality,” someone who was not afraid to put these things in print (165).

With the examples of Gerty, Stephen, and Molly, Mahaffey concludes by talking about gender categories as “mixed, controversial, changing, and alive” (168). None of these characters occupy the traditional standard for their roles, and this provides a mood of irregularity and contradiction that Ulysses is constantly exploring.

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