Reading Ulysses in today’s social and political climate necessarily means grappling with concepts that James Joyce could never have predicted when he first published the provocative novel in 1922. The past couple of years have been particularly revealing when it comes to the pervasiveness of workplace sexual harassment, a problem that has quietly existed for as long as there have been working women ‑which is to say for as long as there have been women. Although the origins of the Me Too movement can be found in Tarana Burke’s workshops starting in 2007, the hashtag took the world by storm when it went viral in October 2017. After The New York Times exposed decades of harassment claims against media mogul Harvey Weinstein, an overnight explosion of tweets and Facebook posts detailing experiences of assault or harassment ensued, leading to the increased visibility of workplace sexual harassment. Although many have argued that James Joyce was a man ahead of his time ‑ forward in his thinking and occasionally prophetic in his diagnosis of Ireland’s current and future problems ‑ he was not a time traveller. His use of a chorus of “me too” between women accusing Leopold Bloom of sexual harassment is mere coincidence, though one which might resonate with modern readers. Nevertheless, Joyce’s novel is an important text, not only because it endures in the cultural imagination but because it dared to say what others would not, especially in its depiction of sexuality. Molly Bloom’s iconic “yes” has become so fundamental as an example of affirmative consent that it is quoted in legal literature, sociological research, advertisements, political campaigns … ad infinitum.
But have readers been misled about Molly all this time? As we approach the centennial anniversary of Ulysses’s publication, more critical attention than ever is being paid to the ground-breaking novel’s depiction of culturally significant topics, including women and gender, sexuality and queerness, economics and poverty, politics and resistance, among others. Yet somehow the peculiar circumstances of Molly Bloom’s affair seem to have received little of this growing critical attention.
Both Molly and her husband, Leopold Bloom, acknowledge that their former domestic, the young Miss Mary Driscoll, was let go before the events of the novel, ostensibly for stealing. Bloom’s account, told in the dreamlike “Circe” episode of the novel in the form of a harassment trial, includes the charge of sexual misconduct between employer and employee. Driscoll alleges that Bloom “surprised [her] in the rere of the premises … when the missus was out shopping” and that he “held [her]” and “interfered …with [her] clothing,” causing her to be “discoloured in four places as a result”. Bloom never outright denies Driscoll’s claims of misconduct, but rather states for the record: “I treated you white. I gave you mementos, smart emerald garters far above your station. Incautiously I took your part when you were accused of pilfering. There’s a medium in all things.”
In the episode titled “Penelope,” better known as Molly’s Soliloquy, Molly inadvertently corroborates the testimony that Driscoll offers the court in “Circe”. Thinking about the possibility of her husband stepping out on her, Molly thinks, “not that I care two straws now who he does it with … though Id like to find out so long as I dont have the two of them under my nose all the time like that slut Mary we had in Ontario terrace”. The characterisation of Mary Driscoll as a “slut”, unflattering and unfair as it may be, reveals Molly’s indifference to the plight of the working woman. She accuses her former employee of “padding out her false bottom” to excite her husband, believing that Mary hoped to leverage her sexuality for monetary gain or presents, which is something that Bloom’s rebuttal, admitting to having bought Driscoll expensive emerald garters, may actually support. Molly thinks that her husband “[ruins] the servants” by treating them too kindly, such as “proposing that [Mary] could eat at [their] table on Christmas day”, and it is after she finds “the garters … in her room the Friday she was out” that she thinks “that was enough” and gives Driscoll notice. The reason she cites for dismissing Driscoll is that she stole potatoes and oysters, offering the “proof” that Driscoll’s “aunt was very fond of oysters”, but the “either she goes or I do” ultimatum Molly offers her husband makes evident that the real cause for concern is the potential infidelity she anticipates being encouraged by Driscoll. Molly hires an older, married woman as a replacement despite her incompetence at the job, which is a clear signal that Driscoll’s youth and attractiveness led to her dismissal.
It has long been taken for granted by both casual readers and Joyce scholars that Molly Bloom is unsympathetic to Mary Driscoll’s circumstances because she is jealous of the attention her husband gave Mary. In light of the dialogue started by #MeToo, might we consider the possibility that Molly’s lack of compassion for Mary is because she too is a victim of workplace harassment? Consider this: the year is 1904, and Molly Bloom is a married woman in her late thirties with a stagnating singing career. In order to stay popular, she must be appealing both musically and sexually, the latter of which probably brings in more patrons. The open secret of her sexual availability and the gossip it generates no doubt increases attendance at her performances. Consequently, the affair with her manager, Blazes Boylan, may be less consensual than it seems at first glance. To stay in his good graces and get booked for singing engagements, has Molly been unduly influenced by economic and social pressures to take him as her lover? She compares Boylan to “a swell with money that can pick and choose whoever he wants” and thinks “as for being a woman as soon as youre old they might as well throw you out in the bottom of the ashpit”. The relationship, long considered a triumph of female sexuality in literature, may actually be an example of the kind of sexual exploitation highlighted by the hashtag #MeToo and the infamous Weinstein case. Molly is a rare example in literature of the period of a married woman with a career outside the domestic sphere, yet even she, as a professional, falls prey to sexual harassment and exploitation with little ability to seek redress.
Working women in Joyce’s work consistently undergo harassment, objectification, and other forms of ill-treatment indicative of the time. In Ulysses, prominent examples include the barmaids, shop girls and prostitutes, as well as named characters like Mary Driscoll and Molly Bloom. Joyce’s partner, Nora Barnacle, having worked as a chambermaid at Finn’s Hotel, may have provided the details that bring Mary Driscoll’s character to life, as Joyce frequently based characters and situations on Nora and her experiences. Joyce’s short-lived aspirations to a singing career, following in the footsteps of his tenor father, may also have informed these depictions; he worked as an amateur musician, even briefly playing with the famous tenor John McCormack, in 1904. Joyce probably witnessed the harassment and exploitation female performers received first-hand during this time; he certainly wrote instances of both into his work from the very beginning. His first book, Dubliners, a collection of short, character-driven stories, includes one such depiction in “A Mother”. Worried that her daughter, Kathleen, will not be paid for her work as an accompanist, Mrs Kearney holds up the concert by insisting that Kathleen will not play until she is paid. Mrs Kearney’s insistence, while well-meaning, ultimately proves embarrassing for all those involved and, worse, hinders Kathleen’s career; another pianist is found halfway through the concert to replace her, demonstrating the price women pay for asserting their rights. The risk of standing up for oneself in such a competitive industry is simply not worth it ‑ something Molly Bloom knows all too well.
Joyce’s depiction of Molly Bloom offers a window into the conditions through which sexual harassment and exploitation have flourished for so long, particularly in the entertainment industry. Rather than being perturbing to Molly, unwanted sexual advances seemingly constitute reassuring proof of continued desirability for a woman worried about ageing and its effect on her career. For example, Molly recalls how fellow singer Bartell d’Arcy once “commenced kissing [her] on the choir stairs after [she] sang Gounods Ave Maria” but she doesn’t “see anything so terrible about it”, even years after the fact. Having become so accustomed to the presumptuous advances of her male peers, Molly no longer regards them as harassment, if she ever did. When she mentions that Simon Dedalus turns up to concerts “half screwed”, Molly’s focus is on the verses he sings out of order and the quality of his voice ‑ potential impacts on her performance ‑ rather than his incessant “flirtyfying” during and after their duet.
Molly’s relationship with Blazes Boylan is similarly framed, at least initially, by its value to her professional career. He is, after all, the one currently securing her place in an upcoming concert, and the one who advocates for and markets her services. She even contemplates running away with him, thinking, “suppose I never came back what would they say eloped with him that gets you on the stage”, emphasising what she can gain from a sexual relationship with her manager. “What gets you on the stage” has not changed since Joyce’s time, as the well-known “casting couch” phenomenon attests. However, the language she uses to describe their actual coupling indicate fear and violence rather than either pleasure or professional opportunity.
In a chapter known for its “yeses”, Boylan is unilaterally associated with the word “no”. Molly describes their sexual encounter by saying “no I never in all my life felt anyone had one the size of that to make you feel full up” and “no that’s no way for him has he no manners nor no refinement nor no nothing in his nature slapping us behind like that on my bottom because I didnt call him Hugh”. In case either of these “no” statements somehow indicates romance, the descriptions of Boylan himself with a “determined vicious look in his eye” and a “tremendous big red brute of a thing” surely connote more fear than arousal. He is, for Molly, “like a Stallion driving it up into you because thats all they want out of you”, a statement that, alongside her admission that she kept her eyes closed during the intercourse, reads as acquiescence to an unpleasant chore rather than enthusiastic consent. Molly’s fear that she is getting old and will no longer be able to compete with the “little chits of missies they have singing now” is mitigated by her affair with Boylan, who both confirms her sexual attractiveness and will keep her on the stage—as long as she sleeps with him. Trading sexual favours for professional advancement in the entertainment business, Molly’s position is one which bears a striking resemblance to the accusations which spearheaded the #MeToo movement and thus is likely to resonate differently with modern audiences than it did during its initial print run in 1922.
Despite her acquiescence to “the way things are in the industry”, I think modern readers can and should have sympathy for Molly Bloom. Molly, like Mary Driscoll, is in an untenable economic situation. Her husband’s sporadic freelance work as an adman does not provide the household with a steady income, and she complains in “Penelope” that Bloom cannot sufficiently provide for her. Molly believes that she requires various beauty products and new, fancy clothing to compete with younger singers in the industry. These are luxuries that Bloom cannot afford on his modest, irregular income. Molly’s singing engagements may offset some of the household expenses and her expensive tastes, but before Boylan became her manager and her lover, Molly had not had an engagement in almost a year. Her prospects in the entertainment industry are rather bleak without Boylan’s promotion of her, a fact that, coupled with her inconsistent and, at times, wholly unflattering descriptions of their affair, could ‑ and I believe should ‑ cause us to question whether the encounter between them was consensual at all.
Molly Bloom is known for saying yes. Readers may recall seeing the novel’s closing lines taken completely out of their context as her reaction to Leopold’s wedding proposal: “and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes . . . and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said I will Yes. These final words of Molly’s soliloquy have been mobilised for all kinds of causes, from promotion of California’s 2014 “yes means yes” law (Senate Bill 967) to Ireland’s recent referendum on abortion. And while Molly’s “yes” at the end of “Penelope” may be an example of affirmative verbal consent, it is one which is remembered from days long past ‑ and, as we all know, past “yeses” do not translate into future or continuous “yeses”. Molly has broken the vow she made to Leopold Bloom when she told him “yes I will Yes” by having sex with her manager, Blazes Boylan, a man with the power to make or break her career. With her economic future in jeopardy, Molly’s “yes” to Boylan is suspect, especially when reading the novel in the wake of #MeToo. Even Leopold Bloom, an Everyman character who has been lauded by readers for his empathy toward and high regard for women, is probably guilty of harassment himself in the case of Mary Driscoll, a country girl with even less economic potential and support than married Molly Bloom.
Ulysses is a novel that leaves out none of the unpleasantnesses, depicting the minutiae of everyday life in excruciating detail. Joyce’s precise snapshot of Dublin in 1904 not only holds a mirror up to the problems of his contemporaries but confirms that the world in which we live now is still very much the same; it is a world in which aspiring entertainers are sexually exploited by their managers, young women are fired for being too attractive to their employers and even good men can be guilty of sexual harassment. Molly Bloom and Mary Driscoll live among us ‑ and they’re using the hashtag #MeToo.