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Penelope’s (lack of) Questions

Monday, November 16, 2009; 04:27 am Leave a comment Go to comments

Okay so the Penelope piece of this update is pretty obvious, because there are no questions in the episode!  Well, there might have been one or two, but without question marks I’m not counting them.  As for what this indicates, since this is the first (and last) purely female perspective we’ve had in the novel, there are two ways to treat it.  The first is this lack of questions being representative of women in general, which would denote a surety lacking among the men of Ulysses.  If Molly is to be the representative for her sex in this regard, we can say with a degree of certainty (and as usual with Joyce it’s a small degree) that the lack of questions for the only female in the book gives women a stronger presence than the surface misogyny that some read in Ulysses implies.  If Molly is only representative of herself, however, we can read the lack of questions as another piece in the puzzle of her relationship with Bloom.  Molly is sure of what she wants, and has little pondering to do; she has by and large figured herself out.  The issue is that Bloom is so full of questions and uncertainty that he is the one hurting the marriage, and if he were to rise to Molly’s level of confidence their relationship would be in better shape.  This being Ulysses, I’m going to take the middle ground on this one and say that the lack of questions probably represents both of the ideas I’ve discussed, and furthermore that it probably has many more implications than the ones I’ve addressed.

As for questions as a whole in Ulysses now that we’ve finished the novel, I suppose I’ll sum up my thoughts on questions even though it’ll be a bit repetitious from the last time I did this (since Ithaca was the real climax of my obsession).  Questions begin as useless, having no direct answers and giving no information.  They then shift in the middle of the book to getting answered, but information is still lacking.  By Ithaca of course, we have an overload of information that we have to swim through to get any real meaning.  And then there’s Penelope, with no questions and yet a fully functional narrative.  Taken altogether then (I’m going to assume an authoritative voice here despite the inherent lack of certainty when dealing with Ulysses), Joyce is discounting the “common sense” conception of questions as dealing with information.  Instead, questions in Ulysses function by turns as greetings and formalities, rhetorical devices to further one’s own argument, meaningless time-consumers, and when finally they do serve the traditional role of information givers they do so in an overwrought manner that makes it difficult to obtain real meaning.  Joyce thus echoes the theme he has been pursuing throughout the novel, that being an ongoing mission to undermine tradition.  Questions are meant to equalize the playing field among people by equalizing the amount of information available to everyone, but Joyce demonstrates in Ulysses that questions are more often than not devices used to establish power relationships, whether between characters or between novel and reader.

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