Episode 18

A brief guide to “Penelope”

Prepared by Danis Rose

2021 edition Ulysses pages 822-872
2017 edition Ulysses pages 674-712
1922 edition Ulysses pages [690]-732

Thursday 16 June, 1904: 2.45 to 3.30 a.m., The bedroon, no. 7 Eccles street.


TITLE and SENSE: Penelope. The Past Sleeps.
SCENE: The Bed
ORGAN: Flesh
ART: —
TECHNIC: Monologue (female)

Molly lies semi-somnolent in her old bed in her house at 7 Eccles Street, mulling over the highs and lows of the day, of her past and of her possible future. In the end, her thoughts wander back to her romantic quasi-lesbian girlhood in Gibraltar.

Almost every thought that she formulates she later contradicts, so determinately ambivalent is she in her mind. In a sense she is body without mind, or the fecundity of the Earth. Even so, though she has earlier in the day copulated several times with Hugh Boylan (her own account of how many times varies), the onset of menstruation reveals that he has failed to impregnate her.

The episode comprises 8 extended and unpunctuated sentences, with a sole full-stop midway at the end of the fourth sentence. Joyce's skeleton (which see) gives us a feeling for his concerns.

No time, or infinite time, is indicated for this episode in Joyce's schema. In fact, there is a narrative time-axis. The episode extends from the time of Bloom's nodding off or slightly thereafter to somewhere in the region of twenty minutes past two, post meridian.

In her meandering, Molly revisits a number of key themes. Joyce took some time to balance these each side of the central full stop (at the end of Sentence 4). An idea of how he went about this can be gleaned from a set of notes now in the National Library of Ireland:

6. men / father / girl / Gardner / menses
7 piss / morning / Milly / bells
8 LB / SD.

Each of the sentences can be reduced in this way to a few dominant motifs. What is most striking, however, is the close and unexpected parallelism between the Homeric prototype and Molly's life, as is that between Penelope and his play Exiles, from whence he wholly derived Molly's psychology. It almost seems as if Joyce knew very little about the diversity of women, his experience being limited to one full-bodied exemplar: his wife and muse, Nora Barnacle.


Penelope = Earth
Web = Movement

As she lies abed, Molly speculates on the possibility of a future pregnancy: “I dont know what supposing I risked having another.” This invites comparison with the fate of Penelope after the return of Odysseus and the slaughter of the suitors. While both Homer and Joyce remain silent on the eventual outcome, popular tradition holds that Penelope and Odysseus lived on in Ithaca, and that she gave birth to a second son, Akusilaus or (some say) Ptoliporthes.

In craggy Ithaca, the tale runs on to say, the royal pair continued to prosper until, in their old age, Telegonos, son to Odysseus by Circe, sent by his mother to locate his father (in a kind of mirror Telemachiad), chances upon the island. While there, and naturally not recognizing Odysseus, Telegonos kills him using a spear tipped with poison drawn from a sting-ray. Subsequently realizing his patricide, Telegonos brings his step-mother Penelope, his step-brother Telemachus, and the body of his father back to Circe on Aiaia. There, bizarrely, he marries the aging Penelope. Meanwhile, keeping it all in the family, Telemachus (getting the better deal) marries the ageless witch Circe. On being impregnated by Telegonos, Penelope gives birth to a son, Italos, the eponym of Italy.

An alternate, simpler and more credible version of the aftermath is that Odysseus, convinced of Penelope's depravities with Antinous and Amphinomus (to name only these), summarily divorced her and banished her to her homeland of Sparta. From there, she journeyed to Mantineia, where (having had intercourse with the god Apollo somewhere along the line) she gave birth to the horned and hoofed monster, Pan. Penelope, in this account, eventually ended her days in Arcadia, where she is buried.

The philologist-philosopher Vico, conflating these different accounts, interprets Penelope's prostitution to the suitors as mythologising the extension of connubium (the rite of marriage) to the plebs, and the birth of Pan, a monster of a dual (human / bestial) nature, as (in the view of the patricians) the outcome of such an extension of privilege.

And Bloom? What of Bloom?

He himself in Ithaca proposes several possible future lives. Departure, perhaps, to various localities of an attractive character, at home and abroad, wandering from the Dead Sea to the land of the Eaters of Soap. Then, his exotic wandering over, he would return after incalculable eons of peregrination as an estranged avenger, a dark crusader, a wrecker of justice, a sleeper awakened.

But Poldy's lamb-like circumspection, solicitude, equanimity, apathy, lethargy, timidity and inertia, of course, render such heroic aspirations somewhat less than impracticable.



While, strictly speaking, there is no episode in the Odyssey that corresponds with Joyce's Penelope, this fragment is perhaps the closest.

Penelope cannot believe that her husband has returned. She suspects a fraud, a dissembler (not recalling that that is precisely what Odysseus is). His memory of the hewing of their marital bed, however, finally convinces her of his true identity. They go to bed, and Odysseus relates his tales to her and speaks of the future as foretold by Teiresias: the divine imposition upon him to wander the earth until he reaches a place where men “know not the sea” and mistake the oar he carries on his back for a winnowing fan. There he must fix his oar firm in the earth and make sacrifice to Poseidon of a ram, an ox and a stud-boar. After he has done this he must return to Ithaca and sacrifice again to all the gods who live above the sky. Only then can he rest and not die at sea, but grow old and meet a gentle death.t1