Procreation, Hedonism, Artistry and Erotica in James Joyce’s Ulysses
by Joshua Ivie
Stylistically gargantuan, James Joyce’s Ulysses takes what the author established in his earlier preceding works (namely Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and not only builds The Modernist Literary Gauntlet, but runs it, too. The megalithic novel Joyce authored invokes a seemingly endless catalogue of themes and styles which Joyce uses to characterize his protagonists and establish some semblance of a baseline for their streaming conscious thoughts. Joyce was able to draw his readers into the thoughts of his characters—whether they want to be drawn into them or not—and does so by showing the reader that his protagonists are not too far afield from the reader his or herself. In the novel Ulysses, James Joyce uses a frank and often erotic portrayal of sex as a universal metaphor for the human condition. This paper will examine the differences between the portrayals of procreative sex versus sex purely for pleasure. After having established how sex is portrayed thematically, this paper will discuss how these portrayals place sex in the functional context of art versus erotica.
Sex, thematically, is a wonderful way to associate a reader with a character, due to the undeniable human fact that any reader who casts so much as a sideways glance at Ulysses is a product of procreation; there are very few literary conventions or themes that can establish such an immediate and undeniable bond between reader and character. Likewise, sex is a central component to human existence, both because of procreative needs and hedonistic desire. Many of the central characters of Ulysses are driven, to varying extents, by sexual desire. Sex becomes an umbrella theme which encompasses other literary conventions and themes which are often categorized by the dichotomy of sex for procreation versus sex for pleasure.
Procreative sex is essential for the continuation of the human race as well as the continuation of familial lineage through a male heir. It is so because he (Bloom) lacks the ability to bear a child through pregnancy—specifically, to bear a son—and is at the sexual mercy of his wife, whose sexuality is reinforced beyond her husband’s by way of her beauty, singing talent, and ability to attract and engage in sexual intercourse with a partner outside her marriage.
Bloom’s lack of sexual power is reinforced by the death of his infant son, Rudy, and the lack of a subsequent male heir. Considerable time has passed—more than a decade—since the death of Rudy, and it is assumed that a male heir is not lacking because of Bloom’s inability to act as a father or because of a lack of desire to become a father to someone (blatantly represented by the Odysseus-Bloom/Telemachus-Stephen relationship). Rudy makes a climactic appearance in the Circe chapter, manifesting the transition between Rudy (the biological son) and Stephen (the projected son); Rudy appears to Bloom as Bloom would imagine seeing him as if he had never died: Eleven years old, dressed in an Eton suit (a connection to Stephen from A Portrait; Joyce 40), and reading a book which he appears to be thoroughly enraptured by. Though these are things that any father could imagine about a son’s future, there are undeniable similarities between how Bloom imagines Rudy and the reality of Stephen Dedalus. Though dead, Rudy lives on in Bloom’s mind; on the surface, there is a simple, elegant memorial remembrance between live father and dead son. Below the surface, the loss of Rudy causes Bloom to long for a son—a longing which Bloom is able to see manifested in the last few passages of the Circe chapter as mentioned above (496, lines 4955-4967).
A symbol for procreative failure can be seen in the potato Bloom carries around in his pocket, first introduced to the reader in the Calypso chapter (46. 73). The potato is an object, and heirloom (allegedly from his mother, Ellen; this obscure reference is difficult to substantiate), which Bloom carries with him throughout his travels that day. The potato becomes analogous to the “moly” (a slant reference to Molly) which Odysseus uses to ward off enchantment by the witch whose namesake Joyce used for the Circe chapter. In the Circe chapter, a prostitute named Zoe (Zoe Higgens; possibly a reference to Bloom’s maternal family) attempts to fondle Bloom and reaches in his pocket in search of his testicles. Instead, Zoe finds not Bloom’s testicles but a “black shriveled potato” (388, lines 1299 – 1319). Representative of Bloom’s failure to produce a male heir, and also representative of the way Bloom regards his sexuality and sexual power (as an “heirloom”), the black shriveled potato is symbolic of a black shriveled teste.
Leopold Bloom is not the only Bloom concerned by the lack of a male heir. Molly, too, feels the absence left by Rudy, and the language she uses to describe the lack of a male heir suggests that she too looks longingly for a replacement Rudy. “I suppose I oughtnt to have buried him in that little woolly jacket I knitted crying as I was but give it to some poor child but I knew well Id never have another our 1st death too it was we were never the same since” (640. 1448-1450). One way of interpreting the above sentence suggests that Molly does in fact lament the lack of a male heir; the key to this interpretation can be found in Molly’s notion and confirmation that she would “never have another,” followed by “our 1st death too,” signifying Rudy (the symbolic and literal male heir). Molly’s admittance that “we were never the same since” seems like both an understatement which she quickly addresses and moves away from, and a moment of revelation whose importance cannot be overlooked; the statement asserts that the death of Rudy marked a critical turning point in the Blooms’ marriage from which they have never fully recovered (presumably the root of their mutual sexual frustrations; the root of their problem is like the aforementioned moly root, which is analogous to the potato.).
Procreative sex is a marker for sexual power and this sexual power is threatened by the failure to procreate or through the death of a child. Rudy Bloom’s premature death signals an end to the Blooms’ procreative sex life from the moment of his death to the day of the events described in Ulysses. Both Leopold and Molly bear the burden of Rudy’s death psychologically, for it has become the wedge between them that threatens their marriage; Bloom attempts to compensate for the lack of a son by befriending Stephen Dedalus, and Molly attempts to compensate for Bloom’s lack of sexual prowess by asserting her own beyond her husband through the pursuit of pleasure that her husband is unable to provide her with.
In the depictions of sex in Ulysses, there is a distinct difference between procreative sex and sex for pleasure. Thematically, sex for pleasure is characterized by adultery (Molly and Boylan), the use of prostitutes (both literally and figuratively), and as a form of sexual release (as in the Nausicaa chapter). Sex for pleasure, or hedonistic sex, is sex that carries a negative connotation with it, by way of its damaging effects—the strain on a marriage, or, from Bloom’s point of view, a lack of cleanliness.
Hedonistic sex is an act driven by human desire and obtained through sexual power. Both Molly and Blazes Boylan are at the mercy of their sexual attraction to one another and are driven to commit adultery based on desire alone. For Boylan, sex with Molly is a testament to his sexual prowess (his transcendence from admirer to sexual partner; more on this later) and it is unclear if there is an emotional component. For Molly, sex with Boylan is based on the sexual needs she has that have not been and/or are not being fulfilled by her husband. There is a procreative element to Molly’s sexual desires, but the procreative element is not what brings her to Boylan; Molly briefly contemplates having a child with Boylan, but rejects the idea: “… supposing I risked having another not off him [Boylan] though still if he was married Im sure hed have a fine strong child…” (611, lines 166-167).
Another character emerges with signs of developing sexuality in the Penelope chapter—the Bloom daughter, Milly. Milly’s perceived sexuality (perceived in the mind of Molly, based on her observations and notations of her daughter’s behavior and most likely what is said in her letters home) rivals Molly’s own sexuality. Molly sees Milly’s behavior maturing through behavior she does not condone (Milly’s smoking, for example; 631. 1028-1031). Molly also remembers an exchange between the two in which Milly verbally calls upon her mother’s sexuality in defense of her own: “her tongue is a bit too long for my taste [Molly says] your blouse is open too low she [Milly] says to me the pan calling the kettle blackbottom” (631. 1033-1034). Here, Molly has told her daughter that her dress is too revealing, which prompts Milly to critique her own mother’s perhaps inappropriate style of dress.
Milly’s sexuality is representative of the sexuality of the next Bloom female, and Milly appears to be following in her mother’s footsteps. Milly’s overt sexuality is seen as inappropriate by her mother, who represents unmatched sexuality. The rebellious quality of Milly’s sexuality can be seen in how her sexuality conflicts with her mother’s: “I had to tell her not to cock her legs up like that on show on the windowsill before all the people passing” (631. 1034-1036). In this passage, Molly is both the instructor and enforcer of Milly’s sexuality, bestowing advice on how not to appear inappropriate; in telling her daughter what not to do, she both limits her daughter’s sexual expression and confirms to her daughter her own sexual knowledge. One of the ways Molly reconciles her own sexuality with her daughter’s is by asserting that, referring to the people who would be looking at her daughter through the window, “they all look at her like me when I was her age” (631. 1036).
For Stephen Dedalus, a character on the periphery of the Bloom marriage, sex is at first an avenue of self-exploration; in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the precursor to Ulysses, Stephen seeks a prostitute as a means to an end, and comes away from the experience haunted by his actions. There are not very many examples of a sexualized Stephen in Ulysses, perhaps in part due to Stephen’s sexual past (which his companions Dixon and Lenehan tease him about in the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter; 321. 337 - 340), which is something that has caused him to be cautious of his sexual desires. It is also possible that Stephen’s monumental intellectualism has been developed by him in order to aid him in rationalizing away the sexual desires that may confuse or upset him.
There is also a possibility that Bloom may wish to use Stephen as a tool to sate his own desires, by utilizing his closeness and perceived influence over the young man: Bloom’s possible influence over a coital union between Stephen and Molly may, in a sense, allow him to achieve sexual gratification by-proxy. That is, by Bloom choosing who Molly sleeps with (through Stephen acting through Bloom’s influence), Bloom is able to become part of a desirable, fulfilling sexual union with his wife (which he has been unable to do or unsuccessful at up to this time). Hypothetically, if Bloom were to arrange sexual congress between his wife and Stephen (and it is not clear that this is something that he has any intention of doing), Bloom would be acting from a position of someone who lacks sexual power but takes it by way of manipulation; Stephen, in the arrangement, would be an unknowing pawn, and would challenge Molly’s sexual authority by way of her unknowing submission to her husband’s scheme.
The basis for the supposition that Molly would consider Stephen as a sexual partner comes from her own musings about Stephen in the Penelope chapter. Though Molly briefly contemplates seducing a young man early in the chapter (it is uncertain who this young man may be), the thought of Molly’s that most closely pictures Stephen as a possible love interest is represented in Molly’s attempt to calculate Stephen’s age—“I wonder is he too young… I suppose hes 20 or more Im not too old for him if hes 23 or 24” (637. 1326-1328). This provides the subtext for Molly’s later musings about Stephen staying with the Blooms in the upstairs room, staying in bed in the morning to write, and having “Poldy” make both Stephen and Molly breakfast in bed (641. 1489-1492).
Critic Thomas Balazs sees a connection between sexual power in Ulysses and sexual masochism. In his essay “Recognizing Masochism: Psychoanalysis and the Politics of Sexual Submission in Ulysses,” he sees Leopold Bloom’s passivity as a type of sexual masochism (in Bloom’s tolerance of Molly’s anticipated affair with Boylan, for example), and that Bloom actively seeks positions in which he is the submissive sexual partner. Balazs uses Bloom’s brief, lukewarm correspondence with Martha Clifford (himself using the name Henry Flowers) from the Lotus Eaters chapter and its repeated use of the word “naughty” to describe Bloom as an example of the masochistic sexual attention Bloom seeks (Balazs 161; Joyce 63. 241-259). Though his essay does provide some interesting insight into the explanation of Leopold Bloom’s behavior, Balazs falls short of examining the encounter between Bloom and Gerty MacDowell in the Nausicaa chapter; in that instance, one could argue, Bloom is not displaying any sort of masochistic behavior, either by the denial of his autoerotic fantasies or the denial of his sexual release. Granted, this is merely one instance of Bloom’s sexuality, but to claim through psychoanalysis that Bloom’s sexual urges are driven by the need to be the sexually passive partner seems to address the issue too quickly and incompletely.
Though Bloom’s hedonism is overshadowed by more powerful sexual figures, he is not without his own pursuit of pleasure (albeit a muted pursuit). The Nausicaa chapter features an Odyssean Bloom on the Sandymount Strand, watching a Nausicaan Gerty MacDowell. Gerty, along with Cissy Caffrey and Edy Boardman, are looking after Caffrey’s two young brothers and the Boardman baby as they play near the water. Gerty catches Bloom’s eye by the way she holds herself, moves, and doesn’t shy away from Bloom’s (“the gentleman in black”; 292. 349) gaze. Phillip Sicker, author of the article “Unveiling Desire,” sees Gerty MacDowell as a young woman who has been given by Joyce an “erotic self-awareness… by endowing her with exhibitionistic agency and visual pleasure” (Sicker 94).
The exchange between Bloom and Gerty revolves around Bloom taking visual pleasure (which fuels his masturbatory self-stimulation) in Gerty and Gerty taking visual pleasure from being watched by Bloom. This voyeuristic exchange continues, escalating gradually as Gerty swings her legs and kicks, until she climactically strains herself: “She leaned back far… and caught her knee in her hands… there was no-one to see only him and her when she revealed all her graceful beautifully shaped legs…” (299. 694-698). Description of Gerty’s garters follow, alluding to what the young woman revealed to her lone admirer.
Though subtle, the pleasure Bloom receives from the erotic show presented to him by Gerty brings him to sexual release. It is an ironic release; Bloom, once again, demonstrates his sexual passivity by way of voyeurism. After his release, Bloom repositions his wet shirt—the overt reference to his emission. “Begins to feel cold and clammy. Aftereffect not pleasant. Still you have to get rid of it someway. They don’t care. Complimented perhaps” (303. 852-854). The language, “you have to get rid of it someway,” suggests that he doesn’t put the same value in his “spunk” as his wife does (“spunk” referring to Leopold’s sperm; 611. 168). Thus, his hedonistic voyeurism de-values his procreative capacity.
Leopold Bloom’s procreative capacity is called into question by his sexual passivity (which is translated into a lack of sexual power). We, the readers, know that Leopold Bloom is sexually capable—he produced a son, Rudy, and a daughter, Milly, but we also know that there are reasons why Leopold Bloom has been unable to produce a male heir or satisfy his wife sexually. Leopold is largely the representative character of procreative sex because of how he has internalized the lack of a son. In contrast, Molly is the representative character of the hedonistic, pleasure-based sex by way of her overt and undeniable sexuality. Molly wields the sexual power in her marriage; Molly’s sexual power is characterized by her ability to bear children (which is an unused and lamented ability) and by her ability to seek (and find) pleasurable sex outside her marriage. Sex and sexuality, as depicted in Ulysses, is meant to compliment the power relationships between characters (especially the dyad of Leopold and Molly), adding multiple dimensions to the actions, reactions, and conscious perceptions of the characters enmeshed inside these power relationships. Though sex cannot account entirely for the success of Joyce’s Ulysses, it is a theme, motif, and literary device that rightfully refuses to be ignored.
Early publishers and critics refused to publish Ulysses because of its vulgarity; the sexuality featured in Ulysses was part (if not all) of the claims that the novel was “obscene.” The allegations of Ulysses’ vulgarity conjure the age-old debate between what constitutes art and what constitutes pornography. From an understanding of how Joyce incorporated his contemporary social mores to view procreation and hedonism in the portrayal of sexual intercourse, one can begin to understand how sex functions in the novel. There are many ways to approach the functionality of the sex in Ulysses, but this paper will focus on the complications Joyce encountered when trying to get his novel published, the use of Molly as an artist of sexual desire, how modernism and Joyce’s status as a modernist facilitated the portrayal of sex, and how mutual sexual gratification (and the want of) brings Bloom and Molly closer together.
In order to publish Ulysses, Joyce had to appeal to numerous publishers and face recurring rejection. Many of the publishers Joyce reached out to, including Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, rejected Joyce on the basis of Ulysses’s revolutionary and experimental style, portrayal of middle-class and lower lifestyles, and also because of its allegedly “obscene” content (Norris 13). The allegations of obscenity came from Joyce’s frank depictions of sex and sexuality. Insight can be gained from examining the decision of John M. Woolsey, United States District Judge, in the case of the United States of America versus One Book called “Ulysses,” Random House, Inc. The decision, reprinted in the First Vintage International Edition (1990) of Ulysses, relates to the exoneration of Ulysses on all obscenity charges in America, thus clearing the way for Ulysses to be imported into America and allow for Random House, Inc. to begin publishing the novel in the country.
Judge Woolsey specifically addresses the charges of obscenity and describes the process at which he arrived at his decision. Woolsey was faced with determining whether or not the novel was written with pornographic intent—“that is, written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity.” Woolsey used his interpretation of the novel which he read in its entirety as the basis for his decision, and states “in spite of its [Ulysses’s] unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist.”
Woolsey also arrives to a conclusion aligned with the central argument of this paper—that sex is depicted as a way to authentically portray the novel’s characters. Woolsey believed that Joyce’s objective was to “show how the screen of consciousness… carries… not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions…” To do so, Woolsy states, Joyce’s objective “has required him incidentally to use certain words which are generally considered dirty words and has led at times to what many think is too poignant preoccupation with sex in the thoughts of his characters.”
What we are to take from Woolsy’s decision is a notion of the struggle of sensibilities that confronted Joyce at an occurrence of Ulysses’ publishing (as represented by the American example). Though he did not frame it as such, Woolsy was drawing a distinction between Joyce’s literary artistry and allegations that Joyce’s artistry was akin to pornography.
Joyce was undoubtedly aware of the great debate between what constitutes art and what constitutes pornography. From Woolsey’s letter, we know the legal definition of pornography. However, the subjective nature of a reader’s interpretation of the novel allows for some debate on this subject. Undeniably, Joyce had the ability and wherewithal to depict sexual themes as either artistic or pornographic, or both. The question then becomes “Are there any pornographic figures in Ulysses?” A possible answer to that question is “yes,” with regard to Molly Bloom. If one sees Molly as a vehicle for desire, an artist of sexual gratification, Molly can become a “pornographic” character.
Molly makes no illusions about her sexual desires. She also makes no effort to deny the suitors which she held in mutual “concupiscence”; in the “Ithaca” chapter, Molly lists the names of the men who admired her and who she thought were worth admiring back (suggesting said mutual concupiscence; 602. 2149-2153). Molly cannot help the attraction random men feel toward her, but she does have (to some extent) control over how they react to her by way of her reaction to them. Blazes Boylan, for example, would have been relegated to the position of admirer had Molly not chosen to exercise her sexuality and allowed him to experience her; instead, Boylan transcends admirer status and becomes the first (if not latest) admirer to become a sexual partner.
Alyssa J. O’Brien, in her article “The Molly Blooms of ‘Penelope’: Reading Joyce Archivally” describes the changes in the language Joyce used in prior drafts of the Penelope chapter. Through examining the earlier drafts, O’Brien arrives at the conclusion that Joyce specifically intended Molly to become a sensual, sexual figure. This conclusion is obtained through close examination of lines 1520 – 1523, in which Molly describes (sexually) someone (“he”) kissing her ass:
“then if he wants to kiss my bottom Ill drag open my drawers and bulge it right out in his face as large as life he can stick his tongue 7 miles up my hole as hes there my brown part then Ill tell him I want ¤1 or perhaps 30”
The earliest version, as provided by O’Brien, presents a muted version which pales in comparison to the passage’s frank eroticism: “then if he wants to kiss my bottom Ill stick it out in his face as large as life then Ill tell him I want ¤1” (O’Brien 17). From O’Brien’s analysis, we see how Molly evolved from Joyce’s earlier conception of the character, at least in terms of the Penelope chapter, which is as close as the reader gets to experiencing the authentic Molly Bloom.
Though Judge Woolsy did not see Ulysses as a pornographic novel, he does attest to Joyce using “dirty” words in the pursuit of authentic characterization. This concept is akin to Joyce’s experimentalism and the trails he blazed in modernism. In moving away from the repressive conditions of the Victorian period and the conventions of Victorian literature, Joyce was able to use modernism to experiment with sexual material that might have gotten him blackballed as an author previously. Joyce uses sex and sexuality as functional narrative tools that, as already described, assist Joyce in making his characters more believable and more human by simply illuminating universal aspects of human nature. In treating sexual subjects as such, Joyce denies them the stigma they carried as taboo subjects and instead forces his readers to see them as something natural and central to the human experience.
Joyce does similar things with conventional bodily functions that would otherwise serve no narrative purpose. For example, in the Proteus chapter, Stephen relieves himself. Though Joyce’s artistry, the act is almost imperceptible: “In long lassoes from the Cock lake the water flowed full, covering greengoldenly lagoons of sand, rising, flowing” (41. 453-454). The act is signified by “Cock lake,” an obvious penile reference; however, because of the dynamic form of the language of this particular chapter (Proteus symbolizing formlessness), the urinary reference may elude the casual reader. In the following Calypso chapter, Joyce depicts Bloom relieving himself on the toilet. The act of defecation is obscured by the description of Bloom reading from his paper (56-57). In providing both examples of natural body functions, Joyce depicts them not as social taboos (or improper literary devices), but as literary devices that facilitate his expression and description of his protagonists as they go about their daily activities. In these two examples, Joyce also creates a relationship between Stephen (urination; number one; ‘smaller’) and Bloom (defecation; number two; ‘bigger’; One could also see this as foreshadowing Molly’s comment in Penelope that if Bloom can “make breakfast for 1 he can make it for 2…” (641. 1492).
Through the functional component of Joyce’s depictions of sex, Joyce guides his sexual depictions away from a pornographic portrayal and makes them seem no less artful than the rest of the literary conventions he employs. An overarching example of how Joyce depicts sex as artful rather than pornographic is found in Joyce’s consistent portrayal of procreative sex and consistent portrayal of sex purely for pleasure. If Joyce believed in the so-called “quick-fix” approach to sex, one would think that prostitutes would be made to be far more appealing. Instead, prostitutes are the manifestations of bad choices. In the Sirens chapter, Bloom encounters a prostitute that he once patronized, and then asked to wash his (and Molly’s) laundry. The arrangement became altogether complicated when Bloom revealed enough to the prostitute for the prostitute to know whom he is married to (238. 1252-1260). In the Eumaeus chapter, the same prostitute Bloom encounters earlier in the Sirens chapter makes an appearance; Bloom hardly knows what to do to avoid her gaze, and hides behind a pink slip of paper, examining it as if he were contemplating on “why pink” (517. 704-726). This prostitute has become a figure that threatens Bloom’s already shaky sexual status (and marriage).
Later, in the Eumaeus chapter, Bloom attempts to mentor Stephen on the dangers of prostitution: Bloom “spoke a word of caution re the dangers of nighttown, women of ill fame… was of the nature of a regular deathtrap for young fellows of his age” (502. 63-66). This attaches negative significance to the sex-for-pleasure figure of the prostitute, of which Stephen is already aware.
Despite Molly’s considerable sexual influence, the sexual intercourse between herself and Blazes Boylan confirms an underlying fact about sex in both the novel and the real world: not all sex is gratifying, or at least, flawless. In the Penelope chapter, Molly remarks about Boylan’s mechanical, rude approach to sex, which leaves her wanting more of something else (610. 122); she is satiated by something that her husband hasn’t been able to provide her with, but at the same time keenly aware that the passion she once experienced with her husband was absent in Boylan. It is the uncertainty she feels toward her future encounters with Boylan that suggests that despite their marriage’s flaws, there is something that she can only get from her husband, and cannot get anywhere else. This echoes the sentiment Bloom feels toward Molly at the end of the Ithaca chapter.
The novel ends with Molly’s orgasmic “yes,” something that is both final and affirming. The “yes” comes on the cusp of her memories of the day Leopold Bloom proposed to her, and echoes her answer as much as it signifies mental and sexual release. Throughout the day, the protagonists of Ulysses have had to confront many things; among those things are their dauntingly complex sexual profiles. If one focuses a critical lens on the depictions of sex in this novel, one can see that Joyce has carefully constructed and displayed the sexual appetites of his protagonists. By using sex as a link between his characters and his readers, James Joyce was able to draw his readers into his novel by creating characters whose desires are basic and universal, but at the same time intangibly, authentically layered. He does so by expanding upon the human conception of procreation and hedonism through sex, and by developing these concepts into functional literary devices which further the novel’s plot and allow the reader access into the inner, complex psychologies of his characters.
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