Bloomsday: What would Molly Bloom make of Joyce and ‘Ulysses’?
Eileen Battersby imagines what the central players of Joyce’s Ulysses think about the novel that made them famous and how they feel about the man who wrote it
John Shevlin dressed as James Joyce at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, in 2012. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Leopold Bloom – possibly one of the most endearing and likeable Everyman figures in literature
“A very embarrassing book. No one likes his private thoughts made public. I couldn’t even visit the privy without having the world and his wife, ears a flapping . . . in on my difficulties with Molly. She broke my heart, lying in bed all day and well, I don’t know, I don’t want to think. That Boylan . . all that love turned upside down and my life ending with the loss of Rudy and if that wasn’t enough to crucify any man among us, there was the nasty digs about Jews and my politics, you’d never hear that from Griffith. Where else did they think I came from, if I wasn’t from here? Did they decide I fell from the sky? All my hopes and my little dreams, the scant fragments of knowledge that I acquired. I never did any hurt but no one ever gave a thought to my feelings. Not that I’d be moaning . . . I remember Molly as she was when we met, lush, innocent . . . well not exactly innocent, but not as obviously shop-soiled . . . and now I’m only good for making her breakfast in bed and fetching the messages. She acts like Cleopatra snapping her fingers at a poor slave. At heart I am a romantic, I believe in love and the restorative power of lemon soap . . . There’s no need to be laughing at me because I’m middle-aged and fat, I can still dream . . . Henry Flower Esq. I’d be a decent father to any son, if I still had a son. Funny chap young Dedalus, not a bit like the father . . .”
Buck Mulligan – indolent and indulged man-about-town based on real life man-about-town and poet Oliver St John Gogarty
“Well I’m glad you asked me, you see I’ve always suspected that Joyce made a big mistake, having me described as ‘a contaminated bloody doubledyed ruffian’ and making that no hoper Bloom the central figure of his damn book when he had me, right there, as large as life and twice, nay thrice as handsome. Sure wasn’t I the obvious choice? And me a hero and a university man; a medical doctor in the making, presentable, an addition to any company and well able to spout out the bits of Latin and Greek. You need the wit; humour is the saving of us all. Did that Bloom the sapeen ever crack a joke? And as for that Stephen, I think he went insane, miserable git, drunk on his own guilt. No true artist would have to spend every waking hour thinking about being one. I could carry the show; I’m a natural. The life and soul of the party. More than willing to donate my sperm to every woman eager to perpetuate genius. I was the man to save Ireland, never mind Joyce’s mingy book. I could have written a better yarn but I was too busy having a good time and at the end of the day isn’t that what you want? – we’re all on the way to joining poor Dignam. There’s no mistake – Joyce should have set the book in Athens and had me perusing the sights, I give you stately . . . I could have done all the talking and the aunt would have coughed up a few quid to cover the expenses. A missed opportunity, ‘Mulligan Abroad’, I can see it now, with me on the cover, a young wan on either side of my masculine form . . .
Mr Deasy – school headmaster, letter writer and employer of reluctant teacher Stephen Dedalus “Of course Joyce was a Dublin man and it shows; verbal diarrhoea all talk, no logic and the book devoid of any redeeming discipline. I’m from the North, I don’t waste words. Have you seen my letter regarding foot and mouth? Great economy of phrase, I could show those lazy reporters how to do it. I was right about Dedalus; a desperate malcontent.
John Conmee SJ – a man of the cloth “Yes, yes my child, I have read that filthy book, parts of it, some of it, enough of it – God help me for my labours. I did indeed make a journey, no an odyssey to hell! But read it? I had to, if only to be able to instruct my flock, the poor fools, and protect them from its evils. My faith is strong. Mother Church will save us. Amen.
Blazes Boylan – impresario, cad and sporadic lover of Molly Bloom “It’s over a 100 year ago now, what am I saying? 111 year, time does be flying on . . . but I never forgive a slight and that bastard Joyce, how dare he blackguard me! I never forced any woman, twas them that came to me, in their legions, and I’m not talking about the Legion of Mary, nor the Foreign Legion either. The Love Legions! (nudge, nudge) I am a real man not a Nancy boy like the eejit Stephen with his delusions. As for Bloom! Suffering Jaysus. Is it sick you’re making me or what? . . . I’ll tell him where to put his lemon soap. It’s no wonder poor Molly was grateful for whatever comfort I could spare her and don’t get me wrong, she’s a grand woman but a bit past it. Once they hit 30, the freshness is gone and there’s that thickness on the hips, the chin collapses and the whinging, the damn whinging drove me mad and always the looking for declarations of love eternal and such foolery. I’m a man of the world, a class of an entrepreneur, a true love merchant . . . I prefer young pullets but a happy Molly’ll sing better and sell me more tickets.”
Paddy Dignam – very famous corpse whose passing inspires the finest sequence in the book. He speaks to The Irish Times in an exclusive interview from beyond the grave, never mind from beyond the book
“With all the drink and then being dead, in the box and the aul worms already on the march, commencing their trot up through me insides . . . I never noticed much and I wouldn’t be big on the reading. That Mr Bloom was a dacent man and didn’t they give him a terrible time on account of him being some class of a foreigner . . . Hungarian or Jew boy, or something, not a true Dubliner. Me funeral, though, that was a grand show, them big horses, clippity clop through the streets and all . . . Sure you could call it me finest hour . . .”
Gerty MacDowell – a young girl dreaming of love on Dollymount strand. She excites the watching Bloom who is unaware she is lame. Joyce counters the open sexuality with a subtle touch of pathos
“No. I never read it. I like a good romance with a happy ending, the gentle kiss, a swoon, a sigh. But I tended to avoid reading, it’s hard on the eyes and it leaves you with them frown marks, and lines and I’ve got to mind my looks, they’re all I have if I’m ever to find a man completely the opposite of my drunkard father and have a family, I need to be a wife. I’m good at sewing, I turn all my clothes and that gentleman on the strand he looked kind but very unhappy. Yes, a man like him . . . but with a house and a position in society, a girl needs to look ahead, and it’s not easy with my little . . . er . . . imperfection.”
The Citizen – overly fervent nationalist allows his patriotism to spill into vitriolic racism “Ireland doesn’t need dirt like this. What’s wrong with our own myths? We don’t need foreign words and Jews. English remains the tongue of the oppressor. Why wouldn’t I speak Irish to my dog? He’s the only one that understands it, a true Gaelic hound, a Cuchulain reincarnated! All those boyos in Kiernans – useless Saxons. Ireland is pure and must remain pure. Ireland for the Gael. Now release that biscuit tin?
Bella Cohen – dynamic madam of the brothel in Nighttown and a force to be reckoned with “That book? It convinced me that God must have been a woman. Would you look at the men in it? When I think of Bloom and young Dedalus, talk about the blind leading the blind! I’d never go down on all fours to any man. Sex is a cod, but it will always sell and, by the love of all that’s holy, I’m happy to sell it. Where did I leave my whip?”
Lydia Douce and Mina Kennedy – two barmaids, The Sirens, in the Ormond Hotel “It’s gas stuff; that book, we read the bits about us out to each other . . . a body’d never read all of it, sure it’d drive you mad or blind or both, probably both . . . The music’s great for getting the men all feeling romantic and you’d see them sneaking glances at us, them all getting themselves hot under the collar like, you know yourself . . . Plain to see what’d be going through their minds! But a barmaid is in a difficult spot, the men get ideas and afterwards we get left, serving drinks and getting older, the bottom getting all squishy, not as firm as it once was . . .”
Mackintosh Man – present at Duignan’s funeral, and in the absence of a name, the news reporter identifies him only by his coat “I’ve often wondered who I was supposed to be. Quite taken with the idea of being Beckett or that eccentric poet chap Yeats, did he have a raincoat? I think he favoured cloaks. Now Beckett, the young pretender, he would have been the man to edit it, the book’s a bit out of control, Joyce was a conceited individual, felt he was the last word. Still, I’m the big mystery. They’re still guessing who I am, always enjoyed being what you’d call an enigma. I heard that the fool of an illiterate reporter made a hames of spelling my name, a bit irritating that . . . but you know newspapers, ramshackle enterprises, staffed by drunks.”
Molly Bloom – Leopold’s missus. She’s not so young, she’s not so faithful but she’s not too stupid to realise that it is Bloom who loves her and not Blazes “Don’t be daft. Me? Read that? Where do you think I would find the time to waste on that mad doorstop of a book? I have my career, I’m an artiste. It takes it out of you. All that singing, it puts heavy pressure on the bosoms. I’d be exhausted and have to rest and then, always fretting about the young wans coming along . . . No, Blazes was never easy. He’d throw you flowers now and again; make eyes and hint at you-know-what . . . Lively and able in the bedroom on the day, no mistake, a bit of an artist you might say, good on the smouldering, keep a girl on her toes . . . encourages a bit of invention, keep him interested . . . but he never, no he never, loved me. Not like poor, dear, boring Poldy . . . Poldy always loved me. Yes, can’t deny it . . . Poldy always loved me “and yes I said yes I will. Yes.”