I found this on a wonderful blog full of Irish photographs, which I just wasted far too much time looking at. This photo is actually one the author of the blog specifically cites as recalling Milly Bloom and I can’t help but agree. If you’ve read Ulysses (or even if you haven’t), I’d suggest giving that blog a scroll.
Anyway. It’s my last day of first semester. I’m hopping on a plane to LAX this evening and I’m so relieved, you have no idea. On the other hand, though, I have my final project for my Charlemagne seminar due today and I just can’t do it. This week (reading period—I don’t have any finals and can get out of this place early!) has been hell. I take four classes, but still managed to have 5 final assignments, thanks to French which asked me to produce both a short film and a paper. Joy.
French, though, was honestly the least of my worries. My grade in French is pretty darn solid and it’d take a lot to mess it up. And my short film (which is pretty genius for the time in which I had to produce it) is not going to mess it up. And fingers crossed the essay won’t either (maybe I’ll tell you one day, when it’s just a memory, about the trauma that essay caused). However, the same can certainly not be said of my Expos grade, which, though solid, could easily be destroyed by whatever I get on the 3rd paper, which is stupidly worth 35% of my grade. A research paper. About Rocky Horror. I don’t do research or Rocky Horror. It was hell. But it’s done now and I’m just not going to think about it. Possibly ever again.
Then there was my Ulysses class and its final 10 page paper. The class was actually pass/fail, so I honestly could have written about one page as opposed to the required 10 and absolutely failed it and still passed the class, but that wasn’t an option because I love the prof and he loves me and therefore I had to impress him and not let him down. I also definitely want to take more of his classes in the future, so. . .
But all that (as in the 10 pages of Ulysses paper) was last Friday. And this Friday (today!) I got an email saying it was graded and I could go pick it up. Oh cruel fate that trembles my knees and turns my brains to mush. I didn’t want it back! I didn’t want to think about it again! How could he have graded it in time for me to get it before I left?! Well, I collected it this morning and the results exceeded any expectations I ever had (this essay was written in about 7 hours straight after an all-nighter. It was not pretty, let me tell you.). But I got an A+! He loved it! I’m so happy! (Why did this class have to be pass/fail?) (Why did I put so much effort into a pass/fail class as opposed to Expos?) (Ugh.)
But now that I have confirmation of its non-suckiness, I can post the essay in full. So, without further ado, here it is!
Another Themselves: How Milly Bloom Made “Yes” Possible
Of all the characters central to the plot of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Milly Bloom may be the most difficult to get a sense of. Not once is she herself actually present in the novel; instead, she is filtered through the memories of other characters and even doubly filtered: through her own letters and then other character’s receptions and perceptions of them. This absence of physical presence in the novel makes her far harder to pin down than Bloom, or Molly, or Stephen, or even the Citizen or Sailor simply by dint of the fact that the reader has nothing concrete to latch onto. As a result, it’s far too easy to dismiss Milly—or to outright ignore her—often in favor of discussion of Rudy or Stephen’s relations to Bloom. However that tendency should be avoided as Milly is actually not only integral to the plot of Ulysses, but is the central point around which it hinges. Though Ulysses can be seen as dealing with the complexities of a father-son relationship, as good a case can be made for reading it as the exploration of the much overlooked father-daughter relationship and the role a daughter can play in the reconciliation of the father with the mother.
From the moment we meet Milly, we are alerted to her significance, simply by the fact of her gender, which is not what it “should” be. As the offspring of Bloom, our Odysseus, Milly should, by rights, be a boy. However, Ulysses has no Telemachus insofar as providing Bloom with a living male heir. Instead, there is Milly. True, not much is to be gained by analysis of Ulysses in terms of the Odyssey, but it is significant that Joyce chooses to give his hero a daughter, as opposed to a son, even just because it draws our attention to her, tipping us off to the fact that she is going to be significant. And she is: Milly, we come to realize, is the physical representation of Molly and Bloom’s love for one another. The both of them are contained within her, as we see through both of their identifications with her as well as their recognition of the other in her: Bloom sums it up perfectly when he says he sees her as “another themselves” (311). For her part, Milly by being the consummation of their love, their love made flesh, allows them to see something of themselves in her and eventually reach reconciliation.
From the very first, we come to associate Milly with her parents to a degree beyond the usual. Beginning her introduction in chapter 4, we learn that Bloom very closely identifies Milly with Molly, even conflating them: “Molly. Milly. Same thing watered down” (74), Bloom says to himself, thinking that the only difference between them is the addition of his own impotence. The connection between Milly and Molly and particularly between their sex lives is established immediately by the the simultaneous arrival of Milly’s card and letter for her parents and Blazes’ letter for Molly. Milly’s mixing up Blazes Boylan with the Boylan who wrote the song she mentions in her letter and the mention of the impending picnic (picnic being a word which we associate with sex as a result of Mr. Power’s using it euphemistically: “Someone seems to have been making a picnic party here lately… After all, most natural thing in the world” (74)) with her young student at Owel both serve to further the connection. Bloom immediately jumps to the conclusion, when he reads of the picnic, that Milly is fated to lose her virginity to Bannon because he 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, enforcing his conflation of the two of them. Milly represents both virginity and sexuality to Bloom, through the fact of herself and her association in his mind with Molly. This paradox is reinforced by Bloom’s directly identifying them with one another at the time of their menstruation: “sometimes Molly and Milly together” (301). He goes on to recognize the connection formed between them as a result of their menstruation, one which Molly felt, when he says it must have been a “strange moment for the mother too. Brings back her girlhood,” (311).
Not only, though, does Bloom identify Milly with Molly, but Molly sees herself in Milly, In her soliloquy, Molly reconstructs an image of Milly through memory in which she is very strongly identified with the younger Molly. In picturing a carefree Milly with her legs propped up on the windowsill, Molly comments that “they all look at her like me when I was her age,” (631) and goes on to say that “I was just like that myself” (632) as she remembers Milly’s bad temper. Molly sees in her daughter the girl she was when she was her age, much the same way Bloom recognizes in her the same thing. What for Bloom is on the brink of sexually confusing, though, is for Molly a source of jealousy: Milly serves as something of a reminder of better times past, a prettier, younger Molly who was happy in her marriage to Bloom.
Milly, though, is not simply a Molly duplicate: she is equally of her father, as Molly recognizes when she comments that Milly is “sly of course that comes from his side of the house,” (630). Bloom, too, sees himself in Milly when he makes the observation “Little paps to begin with. Left one is more sensitive, I think. Mine too.” (311). However, more interestingly, Milly’s nature is extremely derivative of Bloom’s, much more so than Molly’s. Through Bloom and her letter to Bloom, we get a picture of a young, carefree girl, full of the vitality, haste, and freedom of youth (the piano downstairs, which she must get to; the lack of subjects in her sentences; her loose blue scarf; her inability to comprehend death). While the girlish haste and unintentional guile is all Molly, her open, giving nature is Bloom through and through. Bloom, in recounting the touching memory of Milly burying the little bird, says “The Sacred Heart that is: showing it. Heart on his sleeve,” (93), speaking to Milly’s willingness to make herself vulnerable in order to love. This openness, this emphasis on giving, is the basis for the closeness of Milly and Bloom. While Molly and Milly share a more physical identification, one which is reinforced by the onset of physical changes in Milly’s body, Bloom and Milly are connected through their natures, through their abilities to give of themselves and their love freely and openly, to allow themselves to become vulnerable.
As well as being a reflection of her parent’s pasts and presents, Milly is also a representation of their future. Bloom, because he lacks a son, lacks one sort of a future. This idea is underlined by repeated allusions to Bloom’s lack of potency: the image at the end of chapter 5 of “his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower,” (71) is especially powerful, because, of course, Bloom isn’t the father of thousands. His penis is limp, useless. He is the father of just one: Milly. The only traces of himself after he is gone will be in Milly (who cannot even preserve his name because she is a girl). And so it is natural that he should be preoccupied with her and her future. This preoccupation manifests itself in Chapter 14 with “Return, return, Clan Milly: forget me not, O Milesian,” (322) which connects the fate of Bloom to the fate of Ireland by tying his family to Ireland’s past (the Milesians being the supposed original inhabitants of Ireland), but also simultaneously establishes Milly as Bloom’s family’s and Ireland’s only hope going forward.
Milly, then, is indeed the connection between her parents made human. In her, they can see themselves, see their connection, see their past and their future bound up in one. In this way, Milly serves as a reminder to her parents both of past happiness and the possibility of future happiness. It is through her, through the idealized version of themselves she represents, that the reconciliation and optimistic hope of the last page is reached.
This idea of the reconciliatory power of young girls is a theme throughout the book, explored most in depth when Stephen explains his biographical theory of Shakespeare in the library. According to Stephen, Shakespeare identifies with Hamlet Senior because his wife, Anne Hathaway, was unfaithful. Stephen argues that in seeing his granddaughter born, though, Shakespeare saw himself, saw his youth, and was reconciled, a fact which we can know from analysis of his later plays. “A child,” he says “a girl, placed in his arms” (160) was what did it. It’s important that Stephan emphasizes the fact of her gender. Not just any child, a girl. Stephen then turns to discussion of the later plays and the pivotal roles played by girls in them and in this we hear direct references to Milly: “My dearest wife, Pericles says, was like this maid. Will any man love the daughter if he has not loved the mother?” (161). This is the selfsame struggle Bloom faces throughout the book with Milly and Molly: the impossibility of the separation of the two as the younger becomes the elder. The suggestion here, then, is that Milly has something of the same power that Shakespeare’s granddaughter (and all the girls of Shakespeare’s later plays) did in terms of reconciling her father with her mother. That Stephen makes the distinction that he does between Hamlet and the later plays, arguing that there can be no reconciliation in Hamlet simply because “the images of other males of his blood will repel him. He will see in them grotesque attempts of nature to foretell or repeat himself” (161) emphasizes the importance of girls to love, to reconciliation, and to families. Love may be the word known to all men, but it takes girls to put it to use. Milly is special as a girl because she is of Bloom, but she is not Bloom. That is the power of girls in relationships with their fathers: they are capable of granting them some sort life after death on earth (even if it is a more tenuous mark than the kind a son would represent), while being different enough not to be threatening or perverse.
Though Milly is never once present in the novel and does nothing to aid her parents’ reconciliation, the mere fact of her existence is enough. Because she exists as the physical evidence of their love and connection, she serves as a reminder of both their happier past and the hope of a happier future. Idealized as she is—the perfect picture of youth, freedom, happiness—she represents the ideal to Bloom and Molly. Though looking at her and recognizing the difference may be painful (particularly for Molly), that she is there to illustrate the difference is important and is ultimately what facilitates Molly’s reexamining of her happy past with Bloom, which leads her to the contented reliving of the moment in which she, full of hope and happiness, sad yes to Bloom. What Stephen said in Chapter 9 is true: “Where there is reconciliation… there must have first been a sundering” (159). There was a sundering between Molly and Leopold Bloom, two in fact: first with the death of their son, this was a physical and sexual sundering, and second with their daughter’s attainment of puberty, this was a mental sundering. However, through their daughter, the physical manifestation of their past and present, reconciliation was able to be reached, culminating in the hope and optimism of that final “Yes.”
I have a thing, apparently, for defending female characters largely overlooked by the canon of literary criticism. First Ophelia (and how Hamlet‘s actually her tragedy, not his), now Milly (and how she’s actually the crux of the novel). Okay. Who’s next?
(Oh my gosh I also talked almost exclusively about Sue Bridehead in my interview to get into the Ulysses class. I need to stop.)
Completely unrelated sidenote: I got my first official piece of crew gear as a member of the varsity team yesterday and now I feel monumentally douchey whenever I wear it. Problem is it’s a really nice winter jacket and I don’t have a winter jacket and it’s cold here. I guess I’ll get over it eventually.