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An Epic in Need of Good PR: Feminist Re-imaginings of Ulysses

In recent months, the British Library has taken a fresh approach to the celebration and discussion of Ulysses, resisting the narrative many feminist scholars have taken over the past century which dismiss the novel and Joyce himself as misogynistic. By reframing the novel’s legacy in terms of the significant contributions women made in Ulysses’ long journey to publication, and by highlighting the prescience Ulysses still possesses in the literary landscape inherited by contemporary Irish writers, it seems as though— 100 years after its initial publication—there might still be much left to say about (and new audiences to be found for) the modernist epic.

Image courtesy of the British Library

In late March, at the outset of its James Joyce exhibit in the Treasure’s Collection Room, the British Library hosted a conversation featuring Anne Enright and Eimear McBride to discuss the legacy of Ulysses. They specifically focus on what the novel means for Irish women who now write in its shadow, or as Enright describes, “its great light”. For Enright, who discusses first purchasing the novel at fourteen only to have it taken by her Mother and put away in the attic until she was of age (only to truly read it all the way through two years into university), Ulysses is— in all its dirty, phallocentric beauty— more liberating for women than for men, who seem to find Joyce’s “innovative genius” to be a burden rather than a gift. This freedom, Enright describes, is born from Joyce’s innovative use of language which, she argues, ultimately makes the experience of reading Ulysses a democratic one. Despite its male-ness, it is a text which in its bodily-awareness and psychological exploration is very much “egalitarian” and “deeply humane”. Indeed, on this point McBride and Enright seem to agree, and as they read favorite passages back and forth to each other and to the audience throughout the event, they seem to derive great joy from the playfulness of Joyce’s writing.

According to McBride, despite many feminist scholars having decried Joyce’s misogynistic attitudes towards women, Joyce is intuitively and radically interested in his female characters in ways that most male writers which preceded him and have since succeeded him are not. — McBride argues that the women of Ulysses are interesting to Joyce aesthetically, intellectually, and psychologically, and as such he is always asking questions about them in much the same way they would ask questions about themselves . And, as Enright adds, the women of Ulysses are allowed to be desirous, which though perhaps not a rarity now was, at the time, revelatory.

As Enright and McBride discuss later on, this celebration of Ulysses comes in the face of recent critical attention to what Enright discusses in her January Guardian piece as Joyce’s “badness”. His legacy seems to, unfortunately, carry on in the professional circles of Joycean scholars— a “badness” which Enright at first dismisses as ultimately unrelated to Ulysses’ legacy and which McBride later discusses at the British Library event in the context of Joyce’s familial relationships. When an audience member asks, “What must it have been like to be related to Joyce?” McBride acknowledges the chaos of his marital and financial situations, but chooses her words carefully when, with much grace, she describes the doting relationship he had with his daughter— especially as he sought help from the psychologist Carl Jung to treat her, even after Jung had insulted his writing.

Whether or not this rehabilitation of Joyce’s public image was and will remain entirely convincing in the eyes of women, it is certainly true and important to consider that despite its shortcomings, for many female writers, Ulysses has been a font of inspiration and impetus for aesthetic liberation.. I’m not sure that I’m as ready as some to re-label Ulysses a feminist work, but learning to dwell in the light of Ulysses’ particular linguistic delights and the freedom they afford is, perhaps, a happy compromise.


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