James Joyce, “Ulysses”

1922

The novel, probably the most famous ever written in the English language, was first serialized in The Little Review from 1918-1920 and published as a whole in Paris by Sylvia Beach in 1922 (the same year as Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and McKay’s Harlem Shadows). It takes place over the course of a single day in Dublin (think Woolf, McEwan). Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew, represents Ulysses, whom Joyce believed to be the “most complete man in literature” and “the only all-round character” because he is shown in all his contradictions of valor and vice. The novel is set on June 16, 1904, as Stephen Dedalus (almost 2 years after the end of Portrait) begins his day. The fourth episode brings in Leopold Bloom, and after Stephen and Leopold get drunk together, hallucinate, and reveal their subconscious in a soulful discussion, Bloom goes to bed with his wife Molly (having an affair with Blazes Boylon), whose 8-sentence “monologue” finishes the novel.

Joyce was born in Dublin and 1882 and left in 1904, never to return from the Continent, where he died in 1941. Ulysses was written from 1914 to 1918 – the period of the war (think of what Yeats was writing…). Variously banned on charges of obscenity. Among the first “stream-of-consciousness” novels, it mixes the real and the imagined to accurately, if confusingly, reveal the psyche of the narrators, so that “the symbolic aspect of the novel is at least as important as the realistic aspect.” Essentially, Stephen searches for a father (Simon Dedalus is artistically stunted and emotionally unavailable) and Bloom for a son (Rudy is dead). Note the correlations between Leopold Bloom and Odysseus, Molly Bloom and Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus and Telemachus. Some of the novel’s many themes are of the underdog, the voyage/loss of home/exile, the crisis of faith, and everyday kindnesses. Parallax, an astronomical term that Bloom encounters in his reading and that arises repeatedly through the course of the novel, is a good word with which to relate the novel to faceting. It refers to the difference of position of one object when seen from two different vantage points, which is the project of the text. I am including plot summaries from Wikipedia for study in italics and then adding my own notes in plain text.

The opening: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:—introibo ad altare Dei” 3 (I will go in the altar of God).

The ending: “. . . and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower 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 yes I will Yes” 644.

Joyce divided Ulysses into 18 chapters or “episodes”. At first glance much of the book may appear unstructured and chaotic; Joyce once said that he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” which would earn the novel “immortality” [reminds me of Nabokov].  The two schemata which Stuart Gilbert and Herbert Gorman released after publication to defend Joyce from the obscenity accusations made the links to the Odyssey clear, and also explain the work’s internal structure. The original text did not include these episode titles and the correspondences; instead, they originate from the Linati and Gilbert schema. Joyce referred to the episodes by their Homeric titles in his letters. He took the idiosyncratic rendering of some of the titles–– ‘Nausikaa’, the ‘Telemachia’––from Victor Berard’s two-volume Les Phéniciens et l’Odyssée which he consulted in 1918 in the central Zurich library.

Part I: The Telemachiad

Episode 1, Telemachus – 8am

It is 8 am. Buck Mulligan, a boisterous medical student, calls Stephen Dedalus (a young writer encountered as the principal subject of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) up to the roof of the Sandycove Martello tower, where they both live. There is tension between Stephen and Mulligan, stemming from a cruel remark Stephen has overheard Mulligan making about his recently deceased mother and from the fact that Mulligan has invited an English student, Haines, to stay with them. The three men eat breakfast and walk to the shore, where Mulligan demands from Stephen the key to the tower and a loan. Departing, Stephen declares that he will not return to the tower tonight, as Mulligan, the “usurper”, has taken it over.
Stephen wakes up, like Telemachus, in a usurped tower (imagines himself as fatherless Hamlet). Buck Mulligan is not unlike Cranly of Portrait, more crass but personable than Stephen. Stephen refers for the first of many times to “agenbite of inwit, a religious term meaning the “remorse of conscience,” connected to his refusal to kneel at her deathbed (Mulligan calls him Kinch, meaning ‘blade’). Bannon refers to “the photo girl,” probably Bloom’s daughter Millie. Steven decides not to return to the place of the “usurper” that night.

Episode 2, Nestor – 10 am

Stephen is teaching a history class on the victories of Phyrrus of Epirus. After class, one student, Sargent, stays behind so that Stephen can show him how to do a set of arithmetic exercises. Stephen looks at the aesthetically unappealing Sargent and tries to imagine Sargent’s mother’s love for him. Stephen then visits school headmaster, Mr. Deasy, from whom he collects his pay and a letter to take to a newspaper office for printing. The two discuss Irish history and the role of Jews in the economy. As Stephen leaves, Deasy makes a final derogatory remark against the Jews, stating that Ireland has never extensively persecuted the Jews because they were never let in to the country. This episode is the source of some of the novel’s most famous lines, such as Dedalus’s claim that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” and that God is “a shout in the street.”

Unlike the charioteer Nestor, Mr. Deasy inspires Stephen by negative example. He argues with Mr. Deasy’s anti-Semitism, insisting we have all sinned against the light and saying that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” 28. But for Deasy history is teleology, moving towards “one great goal, the manifestation of God” 28. Deasy says Stephen is not a born teacher, and Stephen counters that he is “a learner rather” 29. Deasy gets one last jab in – “Ireland has the honour of being the only country which never persectued the jews… Because she never let them in” 30. This idea of Ireland as a chaste female body plays interestingly against Molly and other women who “let them in.”

Episode 3, Proteus – 11 am

Stephen finds his way to Sandymount Strand and mopes around for some time, mulling various philosophical concepts, his family, his life as a student in Paris, and his mother’s death. As Stephen reminisces and ponders, he lies down among some rocks, watches a couple and a dog, scribbles some ideas for poetry, picks his nose and urinates behind a rock. This chapter is characterized by a stream of consciousness narrative style that changes focus wildly. Stephen’s education is reflected in the many obscure references and foreign phrases employed in this episode.
Stephen wandering on the beach: “INELUCTABLE MODALITY of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.”
Proteus is the mutable sea-god. Stephen’s thought is like the god, changing, shifting shapes, only to be captured by special cunning. His ideas move from inner thought and philosophical solipsism toward the material world in this section. Stephen’s first thought of the “ineluctable modality of the visible” counters Kantian idealism and Berkleyan immaterialism with the Aristotelian view tactile matter, though for Aristotle, we always see form or pattern, rather than the thing itself. The line has a postcolonial parallel in Rushdie’s “ineluctable superiority of northernness!” in Midnight’s Children, which may mean that the view is immutable, and based on a criterion of the visible: race. Like Prufrock, Stephen angsts about his personal appearance and habits, and like The Waste Land his thoughts at the sea are of drowning (a man has drowned, also). Ironically, the “word known to all men” (except Stephen?) here is love.

Part II: The Odyssey

Episode 4, Calypso – 8 am

The narrative shifts abruptly. The time is again 8 am, but the action has moved across the city and to the second protagonist of the book, Leopold Bloom, a part-Jewish advertising canvasser. Bloom, after starting to prepare breakfast, decides to walk to a butcher to buy a pork kidney. Returning home, he prepares breakfast and brings it with the mail to his wife Molly as she lounges in bed. One of the letters is from her concert manager Blazes Boylan. Bloom is aware that Molly will welcome Boylan into her bed later that day, and is tormented by the thought. Bloom reads a letter from their daughter. The chapter closes with Bloom defecating in the outhouse.

We meet Leopold Bloom (“people’s prince”/”flower”), whose bodily delights are a far cry from Stephen’s closed-eyed testing of the world, but whose imagination, though seemingly wasted on making advertisements, is alive and brilliant: “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls… Kidneys were in his mind” 45. He imagines never growing older by traveling around the world fast enough. We feel his warm anticipation for breakfast, as well as the unity of “kidney” and “mind” here – the wholeness of Bloom. Calypso is the name of the half-goddess who keeps Odysseus on her island for years. Her name means “to cover or conceal,” and Molly here conceals her letters under her pillow, covering her affair. He watches the beautiful cat, relating as a fellow creature (Leopold has lion in it, too…). We begin to see the odd things in his pockets, as befit a ‘traveler’ – here a potato, later soap, a watch, and a pig’s foot. He brings breakfast to Molly and she asks him the meaning of metempsychosis – reincarnation which he explains to her through the concept of metamorphosis. He gets a letter from Milly, while Molly gets only a card. He reads the newspaper and defecates, wiping himself with it. He pities Dignam, who is dead.

Episode 5, Lotus Eaters – 10 am

Bloom makes his way to Westland Row post office where he receives a love letter from one ‘Martha Clifford’ addressed to his pseudonym, ‘Henry Flower’. He meets an acquaintance, and while they chat, Bloom attempts to ogle a woman wearing stockings, but is prevented by a passing tram. Next, he reads the letter and tears up the envelope in an alley. He wanders into a Catholic church service and muses on theology. He goes to a chemist where he buys a bar of lemon soap. He then meets another acquaintance, to whom he unintentionally gives a racing tip for the horse Throwaway. Finally, Bloom heads towards the baths.

This chapter introduces many of the recurring figures in the novel. The lotus-eaters are lazy and drugged, and so is Bloom here. He ends by imagining “the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower” 71.

Episode 6, Hades – 11 am

The episode begins with Bloom entering a funeral carriage with three others, including Stephen’s father. They drive to Paddy Dignam’s funeral, making small talk on the way. The carriage passes both Stephen and Blazes Boylan. There is discussion of various forms of death and burial, and Bloom is preoccupied by thoughts of his dead son, Rudy, and the suicide of his own father. They enter the chapel into the service and subsequently leave with the coffin cart. Bloom sees a mysterious man wearing a macintosh during the burial. Bloom continues to reflect upon death, but at the end of the episode rejects morbid thoughts to embrace ‘warm fullblooded life’.

The funeral makes Bloom think of his son Rudy, who is dead. He imagines the soil “quite fat with corpsemanure, bones, flesh, nails… of course the cells or whatever they are go on living. Changing about. Live for ever practically. Nothing to feed on feed on themselves” 89. This reminds me of Eliot.

Episode 7, Aeolus – 12 pm

At the office of the Freeman’s Journal, Bloom attempts to place an ad. Although initially encouraged by the editor, he is unsuccessful. Stephen arrives bringing Deasy’s letter about ‘foot and mouth’ disease, but Stephen and Bloom do not meet. Stephen leads the editor and others to a pub, telling an anecdote on the way about ‘two Dublin vestals’. The episode is broken up into short sections by newspaper-style headlines, and is characterised by an abundance of rhetorical figures and devices.

Aeolus is the god of winds, here compared to the media, who does not determine history, but records it. The “windblowing” of the media is false and often out of control here. The chapter is structured as a series of news pieces.

Episode 8, Lestrygonians – 1 pm

Bloom’s thoughts are peppered with references to food as lunchtime approaches. He meets an old flame and hears news of Mina Purefoy’s labour. He enters the restaurant of the Burton Hotel where he is revolted by the sight of men eating like animals. He goes instead to Davy Byrne’s pub, where he consumes a gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy, and muses upon the early days of his relationship with Molly and how the marriage has declined: ‘Me. And me now.’ Bloom heads towards the National Museum to look at the statues of Greek goddesses, and, in particular, their bottoms. Bloom suddenly spots Boylan across the street and, panicking, rushes into the museum.
The Lestrygonians were giant cannibals. It’s an interesting allusion in this chapter, full of his thoughts about food. He stresses out about what to do about Blazes Boylan, shifting perspectives but too afraid to do anything. He ducks into the library and avoids him at the end of the chapter.

Episode 9, Scylla and Charybdis – 2 pm

At the National Library, Stephen explains to various scholars his biographical theory of the works of Shakespeare, especially Hamlet, which he claims are based largely on the posited adultery of Shakespeare’s wife. Bloom enters the National Library to look up an old copy of the ad he has been trying to place. He encounters Stephen briefly and unknowingly at the end of the episode.
Scylla is a monster and Charybdis a whirlpool – Odysseus makes the mistake of trying to fight Scylla, much as Stephen, in his argument with Mulligan, gets too wrapped up in the battle. Odysseus must go nearer the rock of Scylla (Aristotelian material reality) rather than the whirlpool (Platonic essences and ideas). Stephen admits he does not believe his argument – he merely knows it. The chapter takes the form of a dialectic. They pass Bloom on the way out. Mulligan accuses him of being gay and Jewish. Stephen thinks his anti-Semitism comes from English boarding school.

Episode 10, Wandering Rocks – 3 pm

In this episode, nineteen short vignettes depict the wanderings of various characters, major and minor, through the streets of Dublin. The episode ends with an account of the cavalcade of the Lord Lieutenant, William Ward, Earl of Dudley, through the streets, which is encountered by various characters from the novel.

In 19 vignettes in 35 pages, Joyce alights on over a dozen characters. This would therefore be an interesting section to compare to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. They are somewhat interconnected, but objects are not used as jumping points in the same way – there are divisions.

Episode 11, Sirens – 4 pm

In this episode, dominated by motifs of music, Bloom has dinner with Stephen’s uncle at a hotel, while Molly’s lover, Blazes Boylan, proceeds to his rendezvous with her. While dining, Bloom watches the seductive barmaids and listens to the singing of Stephen’s father and others.

The sirens were the singing creatures whom no man survived hearing. Odysseus got around this by having his men (their ears stuffed with wax) tie him to the mast of his ship. There is a lot of wordplay here “throw, flow, flower,” etc, like song lyrics, an experiment with the sound of language over its sense. The chapter begins by “tuning” and swells, then falls at the end to ppprfff, almost like an orgasm (foreshadowing Boylan’s?).

Episode 12, Cyclops – 5 pm

This chapter is narrated by an unnamed denizen of Dublin. The narrator goes to Barney Kiernan’s pub where he meets a character referred to only as the ‘Citizen’. When Leopold Bloom enters the pub, he is berated by the Citizen, who is a fierce Fenian and anti-Semite. The episode ends with Bloom reminding the Citizen that his Saviour was a Jew. As Bloom leaves the pub, the Citizen, in anger, throws a biscuit tin at Bloom’s head, but misses. The chapter is marked by extended tangents made in voices other than that of the unnamed narrator: these include streams of legal jargon, Biblical passages, and elements of Irish mythology.

This is the chapter of parody: of legal jargon, poetic language, and translation, even the parroting of the Bible by the average man. Cyclopean view is here related as narrowmindedness, and the citizen is “nobody” (what Odysseus tells the Cyclops his name is), a short sighted nationalist. It is the only section in the first-person, but it seems to condemn that perspective as being narrow and limiting in many ways.

Episode 13, Nausicaa – 8 pm

Gerty MacDowell, a young woman on Sandymount strand, contemplates love, marriage and femininity as night falls. The reader is gradually made aware that Bloom is watching her from a distance, and as she exposes her legs and underwear to him it is unclear how much of the narrative is actually Bloom’s sexual fantasy. Bloom’s masturbatory climax is echoed by the fireworks at the nearby bazaar. As Gerty leaves, Bloom realises that Gerty has a lame leg. Bloom, after several digressions of thought, decides to visit Mina Purefoy at the hospital. The style of the first half of the episode borrows from (and parodies) romance magazines and novelettes.

Nausicaa is young and lovely, but also a kind of mother to Odysseus. A similar phenomenon is at work here – the chapter begins with Gerty McDowell’s novelistic gibberish about love and moves to Bloom sort of solipsizing her as he masturbates and the fireworks go off. It’s ambiguous how much is Gerty’s perspective, especially since Bloom is an expert with advertising language, but there are several facts of her personal life that turn out to be true and that Bloom could never know about. Interspersed with romantic language are pills and ads, as well as her “long adolescence” limited knowledge of sex. Phrases like “apple of discord,” “castle of sand,” “ivorylike purity” (purse) and “golden rule” suggest to me that Nabokov had this chapter in mind when writing Lolita – it is also a Sunday, there are magazine photos, and she identifies Bloom as a foreigner with “an intellectual face,” the “image of the photo” she had of a matinee idol. In turn, she is imagining herself as a picture cutout for him, “pictures cut out of papers of those skirtdancers and highkickers and she said he used to do something not very nice that you could imagine sometimes in the bed” 299. This is different because “she could almost feel him draw her face to his.” Again the golden and Os are like Lo. He animates her: “Mutoscope pictures in Capel street: for men only. Peeping Tom. Willy’s hat and what the girls did with it. Do they snapshot those girls or is it all a fake? Lingerie does it” 301, but the key here is mutuality: “Why me? Because you were so foreign from the others” 311. “Darling I saw, your. I saw all” 305. “I begin to like them at that age. Green apples” 308 – literal fruit vert! He calls himself a “murderer” for wanting to come back. Time is instated: cuckoo…

Episode 14, Oxen of the Sun – 10 pm

Bloom visits the maternity hospital where Mina Purefoy is giving birth, and finally meets Stephen, who is drinking with Buck Mulligan and his medical student friends. They continue on to a pub to continue drinking, following the successful birth of the baby. This chapter is remarkable for Joyce’s wordplay, which seems to recapitulate the entire history of the English language. After a short incantation, the episode starts with latinate prose, Anglo-Saxon alliteration, and moves on through parodies of, among others, Malory, the King James Bible, Bunyan, Defoe, Sterne, Walpole, Gibbons, Dickens, and Carlyle, before concluding in a haze of nearly incomprehensible slang.

A midwife delivers a boy – no coincidence that this is where Bloom and Stephen meet! This is interesting in light of the idea of faceting. It is a kind of bildungsroman for the English language itself, and like Stephen in Portrait, it moves from the impersonal to the personal, the abstract to the concrete, through the spiritual to the political. It is a rejuvenation of language by dragging it through mud that also reminds me of Eliot and Stein. The unity of form and content on display here is remarkable (form is content, content is form – a Keats chiasmus like beauty is truth, truth beauty). The two men are both outcasts, and this is how they bond. The connection to Odysseus is his men eating the sacred cattle, which come back to life in distorted, zombielike forms.

Episode 15, Circe – 12 am

Episode 15 is written as a play script, complete with stage directions. The plot is frequently interrupted by “hallucinations” experienced by Stephen and Bloom—fantastic manifestations of the fears and passions of the two characters. Stephen and Lynch walk into Nighttown, Dublin’s red light district. Bloom pursues them and eventually finds them at Bella Cohen’s brothel. When Bloom witnesses Stephen overpaying for services received, Bloom decides to hold onto the rest of Stephen’s money for safekeeping. Stephen hallucinates that the rotting cadaver of his mother has risen up from the floor to confront him. Terrified, Stephen uses his walking stick to smash a chandelier and then runs out. Bloom quickly pays Bella for the damage, then runs after Stephen. Bloom finds Stephen engaged in a heated argument with an English soldier who, after a perceived insult to the King, punches Stephen. The police arrive and the crowd disperses. As Bloom is tending to Stephen, Bloom has a hallucination of Rudy, his deceased child.

Bella Cohen, the brothel mistress, is Circe, and all the men dogs. This is the section of “Gentleman of the jury, let me explain” and “the halcyon days” 373 – also like Lolita. Both men have sexual neuroses, which are mocked here. The chapter ends as Stephen breaks a chandelier, Bloom pays for it, and they leave. On the street, he “brushes the woodshavings from Stephen’s clothes with light hand and fingers” – like Prufrock 496. Stephen is mumbling abstractions and poetry in the fetal position. Bloom thinks of “the rough hands of the sea” and a figure appears: “BLOOM (wonderstruck, calls inaudibly) Rudy!” 497 (it’s interesting that it’s inaudible – something only the novel can do). Rudy is all dressed up and unseeing.

Part III: The Nostos 

Episode 16, Eumaeus – 1 am

Bloom and Stephen go to the cabman’s shelter to restore the latter to his senses. At the cabman’s shelter, they encounter a drunken sailor, D. B. Murphy. Riding in the cab, Stephen sings a spirited song by the Baroque composer Johannes Jeep, and he and Bloom bond over its misogyny. The episode is dominated by the motif of confusion and mistaken identity, with Bloom, Stephen and Murphy’s identities being repeatedly called into question. The rambling and laboured style of the narrative in this episode reflects the nervous exhaustion and confusion of the two protagonists.

Odysseus meets Eumaeus the swineherd when he returns home. He welcomes and feeds him. I’m most interested in this chapter for its confused identities – the different characters being mixed up is like Ellison, Woolf, and Pynchon. The chapter returns to an older, more classical narrative style. “So they turned on to chatting about music, a form of art for which Bloom, as a pure amateur, possessed the greatest love” 539. Bloom admires Stephen’s voice, nice like his father’s. He tells the boy Molly would like to meet him (this chapter also like a bookend to “Sirens,” also “My Little Carmen.”

Episode 17, Ithaca – 2 am

Bloom returns home with Stephen, who refuses Bloom’s offer of a place to stay for the night. The two men urinate in the backyard, Stephen departs and wanders off into the night, and Bloom goes to bed. The episode is written in the form of a rigidly organised catechism, and was reportedly Joyce’s favourite episode in the novel. The style is that of a scientific inquiry, with questions furthering the narrative. The deep descriptions range from questions of astronomy to the trajectory of urination.

This episode toggles between a kind of Socratic dialogue and the depressing idea of memorized doctrinal response, beautifully creating tension between information and emotion as the two sit up and talk (309 Q and R – think of To the Lighthouse!). We return to the theme of water as Bloom begins to make tea and Stephen reveals himself to be afraid of water. Odysseus is a hero at the banquet, but Bloom is an ordinary man, whose heroism is his kindness to Stephen. Bloom also forgives Molly, considering all the crimes worse than adultery. This is the last we hear of “narrator” and “listener.”

Episode 18, Penelope – 3 am or later – the infinity symbol

The final episode, which also uses the stream of consciousness technique seen in Episode 3, consists of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy: eight great run-on sentences (without punctuation) describe the thoughts of Molly, Bloom’s wife, as she lies in bed next to her husband. Molly guesses that Bloom had an orgasm that day, and is reminded of his past possible infidelity with other women. She considers the differences between Boylan and Bloom, in terms of virility and masculinity. Molly feels that she and Bloom are lucky, despite their current marital difficulties. Molly recalls her many admirers, previous and current. She wishes she had more money to buy stylish clothes, and believes that Bloom should quit his advertising job and get better paid work elsewhere. Molly thinks about how beautiful female breasts are, particularly compared to male genitalia. She thinks of the time Bloom suggested she pose naked in exchange for money. Her thoughts return to Boylan and her orgasm earlier.

A train whistle blows outside, and Molly thinks of her childhood in Gibraltar. Out of boredom and loneliness, she had resorted to writing herself letters. Molly thinks about how her daughter sent her a card this morning, whereas her husband received a whole letter. She imagines that she may receive another love letter from Boylan. Molly recalls her first love letter from Lieutenant Mulvey, whom she kissed under the bridge in Gibraltar. She later lost contact with him and wonders what he would be like now. Her thoughts turn to her singing career, and Molly wonders what path her career could have taken had she not married Bloom. Molly senses the start of her period, confirmation that her tryst with Boylan has not caused a pregnancy. She gets up to use the chamberpot. Events of the day spent with Boylan run through her mind.

Molly climbs quietly back into bed and thinks of the times she and Bloom have had to relocate. Her mind then turns to Stephen, whom she met during his childhood. She conjectures that Stephen is probably not stuck-up, and is most likely clean. She fantasizes about having sexual encounters with him. Molly resolves to study before meeting him so he will not look down upon her. Molly thinks of her husband’s strange sexual habits. Molly speculates that the world would be much improved if it consisted of Matriarchal Societies. Thinking again of Stephen, and then of his mother’s death, evokes memory of Rudy’s death, whereupon she ends this line of thought as it is making her depressed. Molly thinks about arousing Bloom in the morning, then revealing the details of her affair with Boylan to make him realise his culpability. She decides to procure some flowers, in case Stephen Dedalus decides to come around. Thinking of flowers, Molly remembers the day she and Bloom spent at Howth, his marriage proposal, and her acceptance: “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Helene Cixous cited this chapter of the novel as ecriture feminine, since “the body unfurls” in the woman’s voice here. (You could think about Woolf building a more structured and precise version of the in medias res “Yes because he never did a thing like that,” more drawn from Mansfield, perhaps, than Joyce). Part of her body unfurling is to consider her own beauty, greater than a man’s and to fart, proving women are not without scatological functions. As lovely as this chapter is and Cixous’ idea of it is, there is something troubling about the leaky chaos of Molly’s discourse – an infinity time free of the clock.

As Bloom, the modern man, is not the hero Odysseus is, so Molly, the modern woman, is not the faithful wife. Still, she is a storyteller, and she brings all of the ideas and passions to a close here in her eight runon sentences. (Penelope kept Odysseus alive through her weaving in the original story.) More materially, she will likely weave them together in reality – she thinks of offering Stephen the room upstairs “itd be great fun supposing he stayed with us why not theres the room upstairs empty and Millys bed in the back room… and if he wants to read in bed in the morning like me as hes making the breakfast for 1 he can make it for 2… Id love to have a long talk with an intelligent welleducated person” – and then turns right to shopping 641.

Strikingly, the stream of consciousness here is most like the Proteus chapter – Stephen and Molly get that concatenated, runon perspective more than Bloom. One of my favorite parts of the chapter is when she says she’d like to make a book of “Poldy’s” sayings. He called her “a flower of the mountain… one true thing he said in his life.” The repetition of O here connects it to the orgasms of the Nausicaa chapter, but the repetition of Yes reminds me of Bloom’s affirmation or choice of life in Hades. Like her husband, Molly chooses life, and this is the beauty between them, despite their problems.

 

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David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas”

2004

David Mitchell’s novel is probably the best thing I read all year. It was inspired by the interrupted narratives of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but completes all its stories in a nested cycle. This arrangement of narrative, like an onion sliced in half, seems to thematize a postmodern collapse of history and boundlessness of space, forcing us to move first from history to the present to the future, and then back again. Far from being a negative quality, however, Mitchell seems to explore this as a means of creating a story so large that even he, the author, cannot make all its pieces match up (vs. Nabokov). This reminds me of Auerbach on Woolf – the characters being beyond Woolf’s authorial scope, and I want to compare this to The Waves & The Golden Notebook as British novels in 6 voices.

The novel’s complex nuanced overlaps of the pages of the atlas Mitchell creates remind me of the opening critique of the hysterical realist novel by James Wood: Several of the main characters have the same distinctive birthmark, like a shooting star. Mitchell has said,

Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context..

Genealogy is also present throughout the text. Adam Ewing’s son Jackson edits the journals and is the person for whom Ewing wants to improve the world (he becomes an abolitionist). Luisa del Ray is rescued by her father’s friend. Zachry’s son ends the “Sloosha’s Crossin'” tale. Yet it is never a safe origin point, but rather a Foucauldian arrival point of results – it feels temporally lateral, and many  bonds are of affiliation rather than filiation, as in The Waves.

Another theme is the cloud atlas itself. Zachry ends his tale with “Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ the clouds” 308. Frobisher critiques Ewing’s journal for being too neatly structured (like Benito Cereno, but also Hawthorne’s birthmark theme?), but he doubts his own ‘gimmicky’ “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Luisa Rey receives the letters, but the novel she appears in is fictional in the world of Timothy Cavendish. His narration, later made into a film, is an actual film when Sonmi sees it. Finally, Zachry believes in Sonmi as a god, but his son watches her on the recovered orison and doesn’t understand her language – she is just “beaut’some, and she ‘mazes the littl’ uns an’ her murmin’s babbybie our babbits. Sit down a beat or two. Hold out your hands” 309. (A ‘babbit’ is an unthinking middle-class man, as in the title of Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 novel, the same year as Ulysses). This central “ending” questions the whole enterprise of narrative – it is both a force so powerful that it leads us to bind all these lives together, and something so fragile that time can erase its legibility completely.

The structure of Cloud Atlas:

1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1849 – American in Pacific Islands) – journal
2: Letters from Zedelghem (1931 – Englishman in Belgium) – epistolary
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1975- American in LA) – detective novel
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2000 – Englishman in UK) – film script
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 (2200? – clone in Korea) – interview
6: Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After (post-apocalyptic – islanders in Maui) – oral story
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 – Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi; Zachry’s son’s children watch her orison.
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish – Sonmi watches archived film version
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – Timothy Cavendish reads and critiques novel
2: Letters from Zedelghem – Sixsmith keeps them and Luisa Rey finds them
1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing – Frobisher finds in Ayrs’ library and figures out Henry’s plan (Melville)

Philip Roth, “American Pastoral

1998

A family drama that seems an important precursor for Eugenides and Franzen, American Pastoral is one of several novels Roth wrote about Nathan “Skip” Zuckerman. Rather than the fusion of narrative and psyche that Henry James, for example, demonstrates, in Roth the layering of voices calls attention to the problem of linguistic (self-)representation. Like Eugenides and Franzen, too, this is a novel of suburban solipsism – the lives of others.

The formal device of novel writing is (over)performed here. It falls in concentric nests here: we read a novel about a novelist trying to imagine the mind of the Swede, who is in turn trying to imagine the mind of his daughter Merry. But the narrator often does not sound like the Swede, even/especially in moments of free indirect discourse – the neurotic calling himself “stupid bastard,” or the “oh boy, what’s really wrong with Merry,” etc. Oddly, we never return to Nathan’s frame, or if we do, it is ambiguously. Tthe novel concludes:

“Yes, the breach had been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened it would not be closed again. They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life! And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” 423.

We have no idea whose voice this is – Nathans? The Swede’s? The stuttering, violent Merry has made the Swede “see” – beyond his own desire to “pass” (a repeating theme in Roth), and to be successful, into the pressures his own brother has resisted. But this is only if we believe we have entered the Swede’s mind at all, or whether it has been “put on,” like a glove from his factory.

William Faulkner, “The Sound & the Fury”

1929

The Sound and the Fury unfolds in four parts – Benjy’s disjointed narrative (Holy Saturday – April 7th, 1928), Quentin’s last day before suicide (June 2, 1910), Jason’s clear and cruel tale (Good Friday – April 6th, 1928), and Dilsey’s focalized perspective (though not in first person – Easter Sunday – April 8th, 1928). The novel’s title comes from the final soliloquy in Macbeth – “the tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot and signifying nothing” (the “nothing” pun in Naiman’s terms would be interesting here, given the centrality of Caddy’s sexuality). Once again, you could consider these as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Mark being the oldest source material for the other two synoptic gospels and John (the Dilsey section) being that of revelation.

Faulkner originally proposed representing Benjy in different-colored fonts, and to be sure, both he and Quentin are synesthetes (Benjy’s “smelled cold,” etc). Benjy’s narrative is odd because he cannot speak (he repeats “I tried to say”), but we see the world through his eyes. He seems to believe he creates the very world around him “the fire disappeared,” “the bowl appeared.” Benjy’s narrative accumulates moments that conflate all chronology or clock time – a heap of duree in one dose. His obsession with mirrors and what enters and exits their frames is thus interesting: Benjy watches to see his own creation of life, and is upset when the mirror disappears. He listens at the fence for the golfers to say “caddie” to hear the name of his sister, which no one else speaks.

The incest trope (Caddy and Quentin) functions here not so much for the shock, but because the plot hinges on unspeakability. Incest mobilizes the problems of kinship and loyalty, the inability for the characters to communicate – they all suffer from versions of Benjy’s “I tried to say,” a modern condition, perhaps. Dilsey and the other black characters escape/are erased from even the narrative effort: “These others were not Compsons. They were black:… Dilsey. They endured” 427.

Jeffrey Eugenides, “The Virgin Suicides”

1993

Eugenides’ first novel tells of the 5 Lisbon sisters of Grosse Pointe, Michigan during the 1970s. It has an unusual style, told from a Greek chorus of teenage boys who are in love with the sisters. They reconstruct the stories by memories, voyeurism, and research, emphasizing the importance of the material objects in each girl’s room and the particularities of each of their bodies, which appear to the boys to be mappable onto their desires and depressions. Ronald Lisbon is a math teacher, his wife is a homemaker, and they have 5 daughters: Cecilia (13), Lux (14), Bonnie (15), Mary (16), and Therese (17). The family is Catholic.

The girls’ lives problematically overlap and intersect, as the opening paragraphs suggest:

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, ‘This ain’t TV folks, this is how fast we go.’ He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.

Cecilia, the youngest, only thirteen, had gone first, slitting her wrists like a Stoic while taking a bath, and when they found her, afloat in her pink pool… her extremities were already blue… the laminated picture of the Virgin Mary she held against her budding chest…

We’ve tried to arrange the photographs chronologically, though the passage of so many years has made it difficult” 3-4.

Cecilia lives, but kills herself only weeks later during a chaperoned party, when she jumps from the window and is impaled on a fence spike (the detail of the bracelets that cover her arms while the lights glimmer over every surface in the rec room).

In the fall, “despite their closed ranks, we could see the new differences among them, and we felt that if we kept looking hard enough we might begin to understand what they were feeling and who they were” 64. Lux, the most sexualized of all the girls (sounds like Lo, also a delicious fabric) sleeps with Trip Fontaine after the school dance (she is permitted to go because she gets the other girls dates). “The girls we knew, along with their mothers, fell in love with Trip Fontaine. Their desire was silent yet magnificent, like a thousand daisies attuning their faces toward the path of the sun” 69. For Trip, “Lux is the most naked person with clothes on he had ever seen,” dramatized in the movie when we see x-ray style through her dress to her panties, on which she has written “Trip” in permanent ink. One boy kisses Bonnie and “her soul escaped through her lips” 130. Trip can “feel how slim [Lux is] under all those drapes. It killed me” 131.

Lux misses curfew, and the parents pull the girls out of school. The house becomes stale and eerie. Lux is still seen making love on the roof each night with a different boy, “a cellophane body” like a film star 145. The boys begin to obsess, imagining trips with the girls inspired by travel brochures they toss out (especially after learning of Lux’s pregnancy scare): “The only way we could feel close to the girls was through these impossible excursions, which have scarred us forever, making us happier with dreams than wives” 169. The title of the novel comes from the song lyrics “Virgin suicide, What was that she cried? No use in stayin, On this holocaust ride, She gave me her cherry, She’s my virgin suicide” 176. “The song certainly ties in nicely with the notion that a dark force beset the girls, some monolithic evil we weren’t responsible for” 177. What is illegible to the boys are the girls’ differences – they cannot make them coincide. On the trees in the neighborhood (once imagined as lungs filling with air): “for a time the tree stood blighted, trying to raise its stunted arms, a creature clubbed mute, only its sudden voicelessness making us realize it had been speaking all along” 179.

The boys call the house and play records to the girls over the phone, and the girls respond in kind, but with more inscrutable lyrics and choices (less pop, more folk). The girls send them a message on a laminated picture of the virgin to come over at midnight, but when they arrive, the suicides go off like dominoes: Bonnie hangs herself in the basement, Therese swallows sleeping pills, and Lux dies of carbon monoxide in the garage (escaping by car, as it were). Mary fails to copy her, sticking her head in the oven, but goes a month later by sleeping pills, a year after Cecilia’s death and 13 months after the bathtub incident. As they stand looking at Bonnie, they think, “We had never known her. They had brought us here to find that out” 215. “We knew them now,” they claim afterwards 217. In a moment like Humbert and Lolita, the coroner “spoke of the incredible cleanliness of the girls’ bodies, the youngest he had ever worked on, showing no signs of wastage or alcoholism. Their smooth blue hearts looked like water balloons, and the rest of their organs possessed a similar textbook clarity” 221. The boys are dismayed as everyone begins to recite the TV version of the occurrences, rather than the events as they were. The novel ends,

“They made us participate in their own madness, because we couldn’t help but retrace their steps, rethink their thoughts, and see that none of them led to us. We couldn’t imagine the emptiness of a creature who put a razor to her wrists and opened her veins, the emptiness and the calm… we had to breathe forever the air of the rooms in which they killed themselves. It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together” 249.

The misguided close reading of the girls (as in Lot 49, Oedipa misreads the clues around her) recalls the line in Little Women “over the mysteries of female life there lies a veil best left undisturbed.” I would like to compare this to Roth’s project of the obsessive mythologies American suburbia maps onto its members, as well as to Jonathan Franzen. To me, the family drama of Roth-Eugenides-Franzen seems like an interesting one to pursue against the backdrop of the “hysterical realist” or more typically “postmodern” novel of social issues and complexes. The Virgin Suicides seems particularly interesting for the way it focuses in on female space, women as products and surfaces, and the prize of their virginity (ironic in Lux’s case). The mythology of the girls supersedes their humanity – it is the thing the boys cannot recover from the trash of history and its artifacts.

Don DeLillo, “White Noise”

1985

DeLillo’s zeitgeisty “breakout” novel tells the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies (a department he invented) who can’t speak German. He works at The-College-on-the-Hill (perhaps a “city on the hill” reference to the Bible/Kennedy/Reagan) and is married for the fifth time to his fourth wife, Babette. They have a baby, Wilder, and a number of other children, including the prescient Steffie and the morose Heinrich. Both Babette and Jack are obsessed with death and with discussing who will die first. The bland 1980s and its “white noise” in the form of technology and advertising are recurrent subjects in the novel. (I would love to teach this with a John Hughes movie, like Sixteen Candles, and think about how trends, products, and cliches work in each).

When the “Airborne Toxic Event” arrives, Jack is exposed and later learns from testing that he has somehow been affected. The acronym is ironic, as the cloud is dispersed when microbes are released to eat it. SIMUVAC’s priority is to pretend the real event is simulated: “there is no substitute for a planned simulation” (a reality reversal like the most photographed barn bit. The barn’s aura is increased, rather than decreased, with each photograph in a “collective perception” that is different than Benjamin’s original theory: “we can’t get outside the aura” 13). Jack discovers Babette has slept with a man to get Dylarama, a drug to cure people of the fear of death. It is not working for her, but for a time Jack becomes obsessed with procuring some for himself. Jack and Murray talk, and Murray theorizes that “the more people you kill, the more power you gain over your own death… a secret precision at work in the most savage and indiscriminate killings” 291. Jack’s final confrontation with Willie Mink, the scientist who makes Dylar, is a sort of parody of the Marlow/Kurtz communication or the Humbert/Quilty conflict. It also seems to follow on the failed glory of Taxi Driver and the imagined horrors of American Psycho, both of which focus on sex and youth as well. The novel ends with Wilder miraculously surviving as he rides his tricycle across the freeway. Jack decides to stay away from the doctor and the “binary secrets” the information age seems to offer 326.

Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”

1952

Though it owes much to Richard Wright’s earlier Native Son, Ellison’s complex and subtle work supersedes the genre of protest novel and is one of the earliest examples of postmodern tropes in American literature. The repeated use of spectacle in the novel, the trickster-like cycle of stories, the flatness of characters who are overstated types and come and go, and the cryptically unnamed narrator and his bizarre underground life all point ahead to the literature that would take firmer hold in the 60s with novels like Pale Fire & The Crying of Lot 49. 

More than anything, Ellison’s novel represents a moving away from the binary or double-consciousness (Hegel, DuBois, the Marxist dialectic) and towards a more uncertain multiplicity. Ellison wrote to Wright that he wanted to expose the Communist Party’s abandonment of blacks in the novel, and to depict a man “who had been forged in the underground of American experience and yet managed to emerge less angry than ironic.” Part of his resistance to becoming a “type” is his constant movement, his search for self-knowledge, and his awareness of his own contradictions – like Langston Hughes’ speaker, this narrator, too, sings America and ‘contains multitudes.’

It’s interesting to consider women in this novel – the narrator champions women’s rights at one point, relates to a white stripper, has an affair with a white woman (its ‘rape play’ rehearses Birth of a Nation and Bigger and Mary, but also looks ahead to blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback). Unlike the “invisible man,” itself a rewriting of the “native son,” women do not have the luxury of remaining invisible in the novel; they are made into spectacle, as the stripper and raped daughter of Trueblood attest.

– The Introduction: The unnamed narrator squats in a basement at the edge of Harlem, “a border area,” sucking power off the grid to light it up brightly with filament bulbs, which are more expensive to run: “I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.” In this sense, he siphons and ‘wastes’ the provisions of capital in a repurposed way. He listens to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” because Armstrong “made poetry out of being invisible” 8.

– The Battle Royal: The story begins 20 years earlier, when the narrator is a boy. He does not understand his grandfather’s advice to treat life as a war, to “overcome ’em with yeses…let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” He is invited to give a speech to a group of white men in the town. There is a stripper there who “saw only me with her impersonal eyes” – as in McKay’s “Harlem Dancer,” the woman’s eyes are vacant as she performs, moving outside her body (the kewpie doll is comparable to the Sambo doll here). The white men make the black boys fight for coins on an electrified rug, dehumanizing them before the boy’s speech. He wonders if this is not a time for “humility and nonresistance,” but is forced into battling the others. It is no surprise that his speech is largely a recitation of Booker T. Washington’s “Cast Down Your Bucket” speech. He is given a scholarship in a briefcase, and in a dream, he sees the paper as “To Whom It May Concern: Keep this Nigger Boy Running” 33.

– The university: The narrator drives the rich, white Mr. Norton around, who is obsessed with his own pure, dead daughter. He is fascinated by Trueblood, a local black sharecropper who rapes and impregnates his own daughter, supposedly in his sleep. Trueblood says he is in “the tunnel” in his dream (MattyLou’s vagina), and once a man gets himself in “a tight spot” like that, he “wants some more” 68. Norton gives him cash and makes the narrator take him to a black brothel, where he gets drunk and a fight breaks out. Homer Barbee lectures the narrator on how great the founder is and says he should have shown Norton an idealized picture of black life. He is dismissed from the college with 7 letters of recommendation.

– Harlem: The narrator learns from the trustee Emerson that he can’t get a job because the recommendation letters condemn his character. He gets a job at Liberty Paints making Optic White with Lucius Brockway. They quarrel because Lucius fears he is in the union. One of the paint tanks explodes and the narrator wakes up in a hospital. The doctors experiment with electric shock treatments on him, feminizing him as hysterical and bringing an element of madness in that also reminds me of the Beats. He recovers his memory, is released, collapses outside, and is taken in by Mary.

– The brotherhood: Brother Jack offers him a job as a spokesman for the Party after his impassioned speech at the eviction. He takes it to earn some money to help Mary. He associates with Tod Clifton and Ras the Exhorter (and sleeps with a white woman after a rally). The white Brother Hambro trains him in rhetoric, and he gives speeches.

– Clifton: Clifton sells Sambo dolls on the street and is shot for not having a permit to sell them. After the narrator holds a funeral, the Brotherhood is angry and lectures him. He turns against the brotherhood, as Ras has, but Ras also turns against him, since he blames him for the Brotherhood’s failure to use the momentum of the funeral for action. He is mistaken in a disguise for “Rinehart” – a pimp, bookie, and reverend. He confronts Brother Hambro, who has decided the Party is not interested in racial issues (here is where Ellison plays out his disillusionment with the Party, which he shared with Richard Wright). He sleeps with Sybil to try to play along with the Party, but she is clueless and only plays out her rape fantasy with him.

– The riot: Ras has started a full-blown riot in Harlem. The narrator participates, setting fire to a tenement house. As the police chase him, he falls down a manhole and has stayed there ever since, mulling over his own individual complexity and preparing to emerge again, which he says he is now ready to do. His conflict explores the complexity of self-articulation vs social struggle. (You could also read this against the simplifying films he discusses in “The Shadow and the Act.”)

Importantly, the narrator insists at the end, “I’m invisible, not blind” and that “white is not a color but the lack of one” (a reversal of the Freudian sex dynamic that feminizes white men?) 576. He observes the “spectacle” of whites becoming blacker and blacks becoming whiter without understanding each other. The stench in the air is “either of death or spring” 580. “I’m shaking off the old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole… even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play… Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” 581.

 

 

Richard Wright, “Native Son”

1940

In Native Son, Richard Wright suggests an inevitable fate for Bigger Thomas. He works for the Daltons, driving Mary and her communist boyfriend Jan around. Mary gets drunk and as Bigger puts her to bed, he suffocates her for fear that she will betray him when Mrs. Dalton enters the room. She goes away, but Mary is dead. He cuts her up and burns her in the furnace. Bigger discovers during the ensuing chaos that Dalton owns the filthy flat where his family lives. Bigger is asked to clean the furnace. Mary’s bones and earring are discovered in the ashes as Bigger stirs them into a cloud. He writes a false kidnap note for money and he and Bessie try to run away. The kidnap note is most interesting in its invisibility to the whites – “do what this letter say,” it reads, and is signed “red.” It is a color deterrent whose own diction, in the form of a missing letter, should give itself away, but somehow does not. No one in the house sees him as clever enough to write it – or to write anything, to be a man of letters, as it were. Bessie is paralyzed with fear, so Bigger beats her to death with a brick. The only money he has is from her pocket. He is captured by the police. Jan hires him a communist lawyer, Max.

Biblical allusions to Job abound in the novel, but are delivered with an ironic tone, since Bigger must answer to himself in the end, not God. Max is just “the man who had lured him on a quest toward a dim hope” 352. His moment of “I-I” in the final pages of the novel is both self-articulation and split consciousness. He has been abandoned by language itself, and has no recourse to art to comfort him: “Distractedly, he gazed about the cell, trying to remember where he had heard words that would help him. He could recall none. He had lived outside of the lives of men. Their modes of communication, their symbols and images, had been denied him” 353. It is almost as though Wright suggests that if he did have aesthetics, he could have been saved. What he realizes is that “Max is not a friend” either, and that “anger was useless” 353. What is left with Max is the memory of the night of questioning: “You asked me questions nobody ever asked me before. You knew that I was a murderer two times over, but you treated me like a man” 354. Max ends up spewing some Communist stuff about how belief and fear hold up the material world of men: “Die free… Every time you try to find a way to live, your own mind stands in the way… because others have said you were bad and they made you live in bad conditions” 357.

Bigger’s self-realization is not exactly what Max was hoping for: “They wouldn’t let me live and I killed… what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill!… What I killed for must’ve been good!… I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em” 359. Max is horrified, but Bigger ends with a wry smile.

E.M. Forster, “Howards End”

1910

The Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen (and their brother Tibby) are half-German intellectuals living in London. They meet the Wilcoxes, wealthy capitalists who have made their money in colonial rubber and are less artistic but more common-sensical. Unlike their grander places in town, etc., Ruth Wilcox’s house at Howards End has been handed down from her family, rather than purchased with the new money of the Wilcoxes. She leaves it to Margaret on her deathbed in a moment of pity that she will be kicked out of Wickham Place (another Jane Austen reference!), but the Wilcoxes throw away the paper on which she writes it (like Middlemarch). The narrator:

“It is rather a moment when the commentator should step forward. Ought the Wilcoxes to have offered their home to Margaret? I think not. The appeal was too flimsy. It was not legal; it had been written in inllness, and under the spell of a sudden friendship… to them Howards End was a house: they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir” 114.

Margaret becomes close to Henry, however, and marries him, making the children dislike her. The Schlegels try to help the Basts, a poorer couple, and enlist the help of Henry Wilcox to get him a job. Helen sleeps with him out of pity when this fails and disappears the Europe.

Eventually, we discover that Helen is pregnant. She returns home and says she no longer hates Henry and sees why Margaret married him. She wonders why both times she fell in love it was for a night of loneliness and panic afterwards. Margaret confronts Henry Wilcox, having learned that he once had an affair with Leonard’s now-wife and abandoned her in Cyprus. Margaret urges him to see that this is the same as Helen sleeping with Leonard, but he will not admit it. When Leonard comes to talk to Margaret, he discovers Helen there as well. Charles, one of Wilcox’s sons, attacks him with a sword for his behavior, knocking him into a bookshelf, which falls on him and kills him because of his weak heart. Helen and the boy will live at Howards end with Margaret, who is given the house in the will. The novel ends with “Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox” reconciled (Margaret shivers to learn she was once bequeathed the house, but insists her husband did nothing wrong) and the others come in from the field which will yield “such a crop of hay as never!”

In bequeathing Howards End to Margaret, who will give it to her illegitimate nephew, product of Helen and Bast, Forster suggests a shifting sense of class and inheritance that nonetheless bind the house as a lasting sign of dignity and tradition in the English novel. The relationship between Helen and Margaret also reminds me of that between Jane and Lizzie Bennet in Austen, Ursula and Gudrun in Lawrence, Molly and Anna in Lessing. The heavy weight of (literary) English history is also what kills Leonard – the sword and the pen, the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels of the world united in his downfall.

Howards End parades as a Victorian “novel of manners,” but updates the genre in a number of interesting ways. The omniscient narrator operates more by direct and indirect discourse even than free indirect discourse, and offers Austen-like comparisons of how much different people would enjoy Beethoven’s Fifth, which “will be generally admitted” to be “the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man… Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood, Margaret, who can only see the music…” 38. The fact that the plot does not end in Helen’s marriage, but a new kind of family, is more modern, as is the tragic and strange chance death of Leonard.

It would be interesting to place him in a tradition with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, and Julian Fellows’ Downton Abbey. Sebastian’s charm leads Charles to the Marchmains, much as Paul involves Helen Schlegel with the Wilcoxes, giving on to Margaret’s fascination with first one, then the other parent. In Fellows’ show, the house (much grander) is more important than all of the American mother’s money used to save it – it confers “history” (what makes this show so strange). Mary and Matthew’s marriage is a sort of twist on the Margaret-Henry Wilcox match.

V.S. Naipaul, “A House for Mr. Biswas”

1961

Naipaul’s novel of the sprawling Tulsi house and one man’s attempt to escape it inaugurate an era of postcolonial writing in the Anglo tradition. The prolepsis of the prologue allows us to see Mr. Biswas on his deathbead, surrounded by piles and piles of stuff, but happy because he is dying in his own house: “How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without [his house]: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large, disintegrating, and indifferent family… to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth” 11. In this way, Naipaul rephrases Joseph Conrad’s “taking away of things” in the “dark places of the earth,” creating a kind of microcosmic colonialism in Mr. Biswas, a refusal of communal 3rd world living in favor of Western values of materialism and independence. (It seems no mistake that Mr Biswas is first a sign painter, and at Hanuman House, no less (the trickster monkey god). Even at the very end of the novel he is measuring to “expand the yard” with Shama. In a parallel to Death of a Salesman, “the debt remained… living had always been a preparation, a waiting. And so the years had passed; and now there was nothing to wait for” 561. It is not the journalism career he has had, but the ambition to achieve something that would promise happiness, which animates Mr. Biswas. Its accomplishment, however, leaves him withering (Sister Carrie). In a parallel twist, after years of complaining about his stomach (material) it is his heart (emotional/spiritual) which gives out, confining him without dignity downstairs, a prisoner in his own house. He gets fired and begs his son Anand to come home, but he flakes out. “And Mr. Biswas never complained again,” but “once again became the comforter” 563. He welcomes his daughter home at the end “as though she were herself and Anand combined” 563. Mr. Biswas dies and is cremated, leaving his family with the house and the debt.

From Wikipedia:

Mohun Biswas is born in rural Trinidad to parents of Indian origin. His birth is considered inauspicious as he is born “in the wrong way” and with an extra finger. A pundit prophesies that the newly born Mr Biswas “will be a lecher and a spendthrift. Possibly a liar as well”, and that he will “eat up his mother and father”. The pundit further advises that the boy be kept “away from trees and water. Particularly water”. A few years later, Mohun leads a neighbour’s calf, which he is tending, to a stream. The boy, who has never seen water “in its natural form”, becomes distracted watching the fish and allows the calf to wander off. Mohun hides in fear of punishment. His father, believing his son to be in the water, drowns in an attempt to save him, thus in part fulfilling the pundit’s prophecy. This leads to the dissolution of Mr Biswas’s family. His sister is sent to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle, Tara and Ajodha, while Mr Biswas, his mother, and two older brothers go to live with other relatives.

Mr Biswas is withdrawn prematurely from school and apprenticed to a pundit, but is cast out on bad terms. Ajodha then puts him in the care of his alcoholic and abusive brother Bhandat which also comes to a bad result. Finally, Mr Biswas, now becoming a young man, decides to set out to make his own fortune. He encounters a friend from his days of attending school who helps him get into the business of sign-writing. While on the job, Mr Biswas attempts to romance a client’s daughter and his advances are misinterpreted as a wedding proposal. He is drawn into a marriage which he does not have the nerve to stop and becomes a member of the Tulsi household. 

With the Tulsis, Mr Biswas becomes very unhappy with his wife Shama and her overbearing family, which bears a slight resemblance to the Capildeo family into which Naipaul’s father married. He is usually at odds with the Tulsis and his struggle for economic independence from the oppressive household drives the plot. The Tulsi family (and the big decaying house they live in) represents the traditional communal world, the way life is lived, not only among the Hindu immigrants of Trinidad but throughout Africa and Asia as well. Mr Biswas is offered a place in it, a subordinate place to be sure, but a place that’s guaranteed and from which advancement is possible. But Mr Biswas rejects that. He is, without realizing it or thinking it through but through deep and indelible instinct, a modern man. He wants to BE, to exist as something in his own right, to build something he can call his own. That is something the Tulsis cannot deal with, and that is why their world—though that traditional world, like the old Tulsi house which is its synecdoche, is collapsing—conspires to drag him down. Nevertheless, despite his poor education, Mr Biswas becomes a journalist, has four children with Shama, and attempts (more than once, with varying levels of success) to build a house that he can call his own. He becomes obsessed with the notion of owning his own house, and it becomes a symbol of his independence and merit.