Let’s Talk About Memory, Milly, and Molly

I have a paper due in 3 and a half hours, I’ve barely done any of it, and so, of course, I’m here instead. It’s a paper on The Crying of Lot 49 for my Expos class and I couldn’t care less (blatant lie) as I absolutely detest Expos (perfect truth) and everything that come along with it. Anyway, let’s talk about Ulysses!

Memory in Ulysses is certainly not always tender, sweet, and touching. There are good memories (Milly running from Berkeley road like “quick warm sunlight” (50)), there are bad memories—or at least memories which are not tender or sweet or touching—(Mrs. Thornton telling Bloom that Rudy would not live: “Well, God is good, sir” (54)), and there are memories which don’t necessarily fit either category. Memory and different types of memories play an interesting role in Bloom’s thoughts, though, in the way in which his thoughts interact with them. For Bloom, unhappy memories are usually involuntary—that is he does not think of them purposefully, but is instead reminded of them by something else and cannot prevent his mind from jumping to them, while happy ones he often calls up, to banish less happy thoughts, to protect himself, to reach the resting point, the moment of peace that usually characterizes the end of the episodes in Ulysses as we have seen. This can be seen throughout the chapters we’ve read, but perhaps the most striking instance of it—simply by reason of sheer contrast—comes as Bloom is walking home from the butcher and a cloud passes overhead, turning the world gray. That momentary grayness starts Bloom on a train of thought which quickly spirals down to the observation “Dead: an old woman’s: the grey sunken cunt of the world” (50), a thought which makes “grey horror sear his flesh.” Bloom becomes aware of the direction his thoughts have turned, concludes he must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, and calls up a memory of Milly (“quick, warm sunlight” to contrast with the grayness of the preceding paragraphs) “running from the Berkeley road, swiftly, in slim sandals, along the brightening footpath” (50) in order to brighten his mood, pull himself out of the slump the gray cloud had caused. Bloom often does this, particularly with memories of Milly. At the funeral for Dignam, Bloom thinks of Milly burying the little bird; this is perhaps not a happy memory, but it is a touching and sweet one, which Bloom uses almost as a shield from the darker horrors of his thoughts.

Through Bloom, we get a picture of a young, carefree girl, full of the vitality and haste (the piano downstairs, which she must get to, the lack of subjects in her sentences) of youth. These last come through especially in her letter, which is the only real evidence of Milly’s character from Milly herself that we have gotten—and even then we cannot be certain that seeing her letter through the eyes of her father, we are not receiving it filtered in some way. It seems that what appears in the text is the full letter, as opposed to the fragments (“Thanks: new tam: Mr. Coghan: lough Owel picnic: young student: Blazes Boylan’s seaside girls” (51)) that we get when Bloom first skims it, but we have no real way of knowing. Instead we must use what we get through Bloom to characterize her, rather than anything from her, herself (rather like Ophelia, in a way).  An important aspect of Milly’s characterization in Bloom’s thoughts, though, which couples with her youth, is her potential sexuality. She is, at the moment, a virgin. But the mention of the student and of the upcoming picnic at Owel (picnic being a word which we already associate with sex, having read chapter 6 and heard how Mr. Power uses the word as a euphemism for sex: “Someone seems to have been making a picnic party here lately,” (74)) have Bloom worried that he is about to lose her to young men, that she is about to lose her virginity, though he knows that there is nothing he can do to stop it: “Will happen, yes. Prevent. Useless: can’t move” (55).

Bloom’s preoccupation with Milly’s sexuality is particularly interesting in terms of his relations with Molly. Bloom sees in Milly the same budding sexuality, the same potential, that Molly had at the same age. And because of this, knowing Molly’s history, he worries that Milly will follow the same path. He projects Milly’s future in terms of Molly’s past and in so doing conflates them (“Molly. Milly. Same thing watered down” (74)). Milly is unusual in Bloom’s thoughts because she manages to represent to him both virginity and sexuality, through the fact of herself and her association in his mind with Molly. She is a paradox, two opposites contained in the same thing, and it makes it very hard to trace how Bloom actually feels about her, to separate what feelings he has are really about her and which are about Molly.

Then there is the distinction between Memory Molly and the present reality of Molly to be made. The two pictures of Molly we receive appear to be largely contradictory. The Molly we meet in life bears more resemblance to a rather demanding beached whale than to any object of fantasy, let alone the object of fantasy which Bloom so often pictures when he thinks of her and her warm flesh. His images of her when they first met are sensual, sexual, and fond. This image of Molly as so desirable is confirmed, too, from an outside source in Chapter 6 when Menton comments that he danced with her once; “a good armful she was,” (87) he says and then: “what did she marry a coon like [Bloom] for?” (88). It’s very hard to reconcile this image of Molly with the lolling, lardy, imperious reader of sadomasochistic fantasy that occupies the bed in the Bloom household, ordering Bloom around in a loud reversal of domestic roles. It’s also very hard to wrap one’s head around the idea that the woman in the bedroom would herself have a lover and one with such a name as Blazes Boylan at that. It begs the question of whether or not we can rely on this picture of Molly we’re getting from Bloom in the present, and whether instead we should moderate it, rely more perhaps on the glimpses of Molly we get in memory and adjust for the filter through which Bloom sees her.

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