Subversion of Masculinity in Joyce’s “Ulysses”

By Ariana DiPreta

This essay won first place in the Diversity Studies category of Geneseo’s Writing Contest of 2016. The award is entitled Jérome de Romanet de Beaune Award for an Essay.

Attitudes towards sexuality, specifically British attitudes, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected the colonial and patriarchal constructions that created repressive sexual codes. Michel Foucault, moreover, argues that gender norms and sexuality are socially constructed and reinforced by the bourgeoisie. This is the result of a patriarchal society that supports monogamous marriages and creates a binary dichotomy between masculinity and femininity. James Joyce’s Ulysses deconstructs strict postcolonial bourgeois modes of sexual normalcy, proliferating sexuality in his portrayal of Leopold Bloom, who represents the feminine male lacking classical “maleness” falsely associated with men. Joyce dismantles the influences of imperial codes of dualistic sexuality, fabricated to substantiate separations of the imperial state and their colony through Bloom and his relationship with Molly. In doing so, Joyce mocks the system of gendered symbols upon which people and his characters operate.

Britain often created sexual codes essential to the rationalized domination of foreign races and territories, including Ireland. This need for sexual control existed because Britain correlated a breakdown of sexual regularity with the threat of social chaos and the fall of the British Empire (Hyam qtd by Choi 95). Furthermore, with the emergence of these ideals came a conflation of masculinity and nationalism, “as the construction of national identity became dependent upon the new masculine ethos” and how “such challenges led to the formation of a masculine discourse subtended by an anxious awareness of its own instability” (113). Imperial states viewed Irishmen as feminine, and in knowing their androcentric identity was therefore unstable they compensated by acting increasingly masculine in social situations, thereby furthering patriarchal norms (Arnold qtd by Lin 41). This socially invented and construed category “male” is encumbered with a great deal of symbolic baggage that makes it look absurd. In everyday life, it is impossible to apprehend this symbolic baggage simultaneously, so the image is perceived as “true” in the sense that the category “male” within the symbolic system of imperial discourse has a connection with actual men. The masculine and male discourses discussed in this paper are constructs completely removed from the realities of identities viewed as male. Perhaps Joyce is not offering alternatives with the gendered system but is actually mocking the entire system, revealing the constructs people live within. Michel Foucault, however, undermines naturalized gender norms by appealing to how socially constructed ideals are perpetuated by those in power, focusing on how oppressive discourses engender and perpetuate social norms, thereby limiting individual thought. Foucault, using this logic, traces the historical discourse surrounding sexuality. The bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, he believes, used sexual normalcy as a means to extend their power; he also states that sexuality is a historical concept shaped by the times, but in particular it is a product of the 19th century. Thinking and talking in terms of a model perpetuates the norm and spreads the discourse attached to it. Thus, punishing and demonizing atypical expressions of sexuality, therefore, furthering the control of the bourgeoisie over the individual.Joyce uses Foucault’s ideology to inform Ulysses by suggesting alternative sexual perspectives through which the colonized can resist the colonizer and achieve sovereignty. Bloom’s sexual identity illustrates a role reversal of masculine-feminine dynamics as established by this bourgeois. Molly, his wife, subverts established normalcy, too, through the position she holds in her marriage with Leopold. The idea of monogamy, encouraged by the heterosexual norm, is destabilized when Molly sleeps with countless other men—including Blazes Boylan, an archetypal masculine figure—and when Bloom has his erotic longings for other females: for instance, he writes sexual letters to Martha and masturbates on the beach to Gerty McDowell. What is striking, too, is that no matter how sexual Leopold’s acts towards other women, he never fully follows through with his actions, exemplified at the Brothel in “Circe” when he fails to sleep with any of the prostitutes. Further evidence of atypical sexual dynamics between the two comes in the fact that Molly and Leopold have not had sex for “10 years, 5 months and 18 days” (Joyce 736). While it is expected that a husband and wife keep healthy by having sex, Leopold and Molly do not do so. Rather, they find sources of sexual pleasure outside of one another. Since Bloom has not had sex with Molly in ten years, his masculinity is undermined, especially since she goes to other men for pleasure, because sexual developments from the Greek period rendered “the wife…the centre of the man’s sexuality and accordingly the locus in which he constituted his subjectivity” (Poster 215). Joyce uses them to subvert the monogamous bourgeoisie norms of marriage. Further, Leopold allows Molly her freedom, and although this bothers Leopold, he refrains from treating Molly as a piece of property as was common of the time.

Michel Foucault, however, undermines naturalized gender norms by appealing to how socially constructed ideals are perpetuated by those in power, focusing on how oppressive discourses engender and perpetuate social norms, thereby limiting individual thought. Foucault, using this logic, traces the historical discourse surrounding sexuality. The bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, he believes, used sexual normalcy as a means to extend their power; he also states that sexuality is a historical concept shaped by the times, but in particular it is a product of the 19th century. Thinking and talking in terms of a model perpetuates the norm and spreads the discourse attached to it. Thus, punishing and demonizing atypical expressions of sexuality, therefore, furthering the control of the bourgeoisie over the individual.Joyce uses Foucault’s ideology to inform Ulysses by suggesting alternative sexual perspectives through which the colonized can resist the colonizer and achieve sovereignty. Bloom’s sexual identity illustrates a role reversal of masculine-feminine dynamics as established by this bourgeois. Molly, his wife, subverts established normalcy, too, through the position she holds in her marriage with Leopold. The idea of monogamy, encouraged by the heterosexual norm, is destabilized when Molly sleeps with countless other men—including Blazes Boylan, an archetypal masculine figure—and when Bloom has his erotic longings for other females: for instance, he writes sexual letters to Martha and masturbates on the beach to Gerty McDowell. What is striking, too, is that no matter how sexual Leopold’s acts towards other women, he never fully follows through with his actions, exemplified at the Brothel in “Circe” when he fails to sleep with any of the prostitutes. Further evidence of atypical sexual dynamics between the two comes in the fact that Molly and Leopold have not had sex for “10 years, 5 months and 18 days” (Joyce 736). While it is expected that a husband and wife keep healthy by having sex, Leopold and Molly do not do so. Rather, they find sources of sexual pleasure outside of one another. Since Bloom has not had sex with Molly in ten years, his masculinity is undermined, especially since she goes to other men for pleasure, because sexual developments from the Greek period rendered “the wife…the centre of the man’s sexuality and accordingly the locus in which he constituted his subjectivity” (Poster 215). Joyce uses them to subvert the monogamous bourgeoisie norms of marriage. Further, Leopold allows Molly her freedom, and although this bothers Leopold, he refrains from treating Molly as a piece of property as was common of the time.

Joyce chooses a particularly feminine name for his main character “Leopold Paula Bloom,” which subverts his “masculine” identity, seeing as one’s name serves as another way one engenders identity. His name is defined in Gifford’s annotations as including “beauty… judgment, and the female principle,” all of which undermine masculine characteristics thought to be real to society. From the start, too, Leopold indulges less in primitive traits such as jealousy and embraces equality in his relationship with Molly, acting fairly and with diplomacy. Bloom, though, feels ambivalent about his masculine and feminine traits, creating a negative category of gender within the system. While all the other men drink, Bloom “never drank no manner of mead which he then put by and anon full pirvily he voided the more part in his neighbor glass” (Joyce 387). Bloom’s abstinence from this masculine activity further establishes an ambivalence in gender identification in the bourgeois established normalcy, otherwise manifest in the surrounding men and their banter. However, this does not equate with Joyce offering Bloom’s version of masculinity as preferred, rather he uses this commentary as a mockery of the system of defining masculinity or femininity. In other words, Joyce offers up Bloom’s masculinity as a way to show that the idea of gender and gender norms are merely constructs, and as humans, we always exceed these categories which are often thought of as real, or natural. Bloom’s version of masculinity, and the contrasting versions, are used to express the absence of a true definition of what masculinity truly is.

“Cyclops” is a microcosm of the postcolonial masculinity by exemplifying the behavior of frustrated men driven by jealousy, pride, and greed. Other characters become suspicious of Bloom’s atypical mode of masculinity, questioning his sexuality and abilities as a result. Bloom attempts to participate in male conversation, because of his core male-weakness in traditional masculinity, through attempts of negotiation to please others. Bloom misses out on imperalistic male interactions and social cues; he exemplifies a devolution of masculine norms with his intellectual demeanor, exemplified as such: “If you took up a straw from the bloody floor and if you said to Bloom: Look at, Bloom. Do you see that straw? That’s a straw. Declare to my aunt he’d talk bout it for an hour so he would and talk steady” (316). In this scene, the Citizen, an emblem of nationalism and hyper-masculinity, constantly undermines Bloom’s diplomatic conversation with hyperbolic confrontation, because the Citizen perceives these intellectual offerings as challenges to his authority. Further, the Citizen mocks Bloom when the latter tries to resolve discordance by using love instead of hatred: “force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life” (Joyce 333). But Bloom is ridiculed behind his back when citizen asks “Do you call that a man” and he is referred to as “one of those missed middlings” which means half man, half woman (Joyce 338). Furthermore, the climax of the episode comes when a biscuit tin is thrown at Leopold and Citizen roars as the fact that Bloom did not participate in the homo-social cardinal rule of paying for a round of drinks, despite his abstinence. Citizen is blinded with rage and takes it out on the vulnerable Bloom. “Cyclops” is a culmination of Bloom’s lacking gender orientation and its reception by ultra-masculine nationalistic men of Dublin, who fail to see the two modes of sexuality reconcilable and, therefore, display how deeply bourgeois culture has embedded this ideological construct into their state of being. Joyce uses the stark contrasts of masculinities in this episode to show how absurd the image of imperial masculinity is. By contrasting Bloom with a character such as Citizen, Bloom’s “version” of “maleness” is perceived as less ideal or true than Citizen’s. Conversely, Citizen’s masculinity is so outrageous and aggressive that it mocks the idea of “true masculinity” within the system in which it operates.

In “Ithaca,” Bloom is confronted with concerns of Molly’s adultery and social alienation upon returning home, although he manages to suppress these thoughts throughout the day. Before he can enter his house, though, he finds that he does not have the key, and instead of waking Molly, he climbs the fence and falls. When Bloom regains entry, he wins back his woman, house, and establishes the symbolic mode of masculinity, “by inserting the barrel of an arruginated male key in the hole of an unstable female lock” (Joyce 703). In entering his bed, then, Bloom finds “additional odours…the imprint of a human form, male, not his, some crumbs, some flakes of potted meat, recooked, which he removed” (Joyce 731). His relaxed, casual nature in wiping the crumbs off the bed represents the ease with which he forgets and dissolves Boylan’s lingering presence despite his conscious avoidance throughout the day. Additionally, his equanimity in ridding of Boylan reflects the level-headed components of his more organic masculinity. In other words, he does not respond with the typical masculine violence as a purely typical Irish male would have, but rather rationalizes the situation to himself, “Assassination, never, as two wrongs did not make one right. Duel by combat, no. Divorce, not now…” (Joyce 733). Molly even declares and admires his form of masculinity because “he understood or felt what a woman is,” exemplifying why Bloom, in the end, wins out over all her suitors, most specifically Boylan, whom Bloom metaphorically swipes off the bed in the form of crumbs with nonchalance and ease (Joyce 782). The traits he embodies here and throughout this section represent common modes of postcolonial “femininity” that, ultimately, allow Bloom to subvert the masculine norms attached to his expected sexual identity in wake of a truer, more genuine self that, in truth, was the one which attracted Molly in the first place. This is not to say that Joyce is offering Bloom’s form of masculinity as preferable, but rather a different one that breaks the constructs of identities consistently thought of to be male. Joyce again mocks the gender system in which society operates as opposed to offering alternatives within the system, showing that masculinity or femininity has nothing to do with being human.

“Ithaca,” moreover, reveals in-depth knowledge on Bloom’s belongings on his shelves and in his drawers. One of the books on his shelf is Sandow’s Physical Strength and How to Obtain It. Later, while looking through his drawer, Bloom comes across “a chart of measurements of Leopold Bloom compiled before, during and after 2 months of consecutive use of Sandow-Whiteley’s pulley exerciser” (Joyce 721). The measurements that follow are disproportional in reality, perhaps implying that Bloom was never cut-out to be a strong, masculine man and undermining the physical movement. Additionally, they turn Bloom into a kind of false body, which is crucial because the image of imperial masculinity is itself an absurd and out of proportion version of the categorical “male.” This pulley exerciser is mentioned earlier in “Calypso” when Bloom mentions that he is fatigued and says to himself “must begin again those Sandow exercises” and again later in “Circe” (Joyce 61, 435). Eugen Sandow, the author of the book on Bloom’s shelf, which includes exercise programs and charts for measurement, was a strong man who claimed he could transform “the puny into the mighty” (Gifford 75). Sandow was considered “the most perfect male specimen alive” and presented the ideal of good health as part of the physical culture movement during the late 19th century (Plock 130). Fitness culture idealized the muscular male body and became a symbol of social and national progress (Plock 130). Bloom complains that he feels “exhausted, abandoned, no more young” which Joyce uses as a mockery of the symbolic system of masculinity: “Both physically and commercially Sandow has achieved what Leopold Bloom can only dream of: physical superiority and professional success in advertising” (Plock 132). Since Bloom is clearly lacking in most other masculine parts of his life, including sexually, this physicality seems to be of importance to him; perhaps Bloom’s purchase of this book shows his struggle with his masculinity and represents failing efforts of Ireland’s national progress. However, according to the disproportionate measurements he records, this plan does not succeed in making him “mighty.” Bloom contemplates Boylan’s muscularity by rejecting fighting him when realizing the “muscularity of the male” (Joyce 733). By contrasting Bloom’s insecurity in Boylan’s masculinity, he thinks of how unfit he is again undermining his masculinity coupled with the man sleeping with his wife. Joyce uses Sandow as an example, though, to mock the system in suggesting that there is not real category of gender-identity, but one that is formed and thought to be true. However, we cannot escape this ideology, not even a character like Bloom, because of how engrained the system is.

In “Circe” lies another example of how Joyce uses Bloom to eradicate the colonialist obedience to binary divisions. After Dr. Mulligan describes Bloom as “bisexually abnormal,” Dr. Dixon reads that, “Professor Bloom is a finished example of the new womanly man. His moral nature is simple and lovable. Many have found him a dear man, a dear person. He is a rather quaint fellow on the whole, coy though not feeble-minded in the medical sense…he is practically a total abstainer” (Joyce 494). Joyce blatantly subverts the binary divisions of gender and even the science of biology through Bloom birthing children and being described as effeminately as he is. Bloom is a victim of the bestial hyper-masculinity in both “Cyclops” and “Circe” as he is belittled by the Citizen and Dr. Mulligan. Joyce protests against the British imperialist enforcement of gender norms by presenting readers with an internally contradicted character exemplified in this episode. This contradiction is another example of how Joyce intends to use Bloom as a subversion of the socially-constructed, imperialistic masculinity created as a “true” category which does not really exist.

In “Circe,” Mulligan condemns Bloom’s masturbation that occurs earlier in “Nausicaa” with Gerty MacDowell. After describing Bloom as “bisexually abnormal” he goes on to say “he is prematurely bald from self-abuse, perversely idealistic in consequence” (Joyce 493). Mulligan’s accusations are reminiscent of the Victorian fear of masturbation’s “baleful effects” in which “masturbation became a symbol of catastrophe because it was believed to be a cause of degeneration of the next generation” (Choi 101). However, this is the only pleasure Bloom is allowed as is discovered later when it is revealed that Molly and Milly control what Bloom can do sexually in “Ithaca”:

“there remained a period of 9 months and 1 day during which in consequence of a pre-established natural comprehension in incomprehension between the consummated females (listener and issue), complete corporal liberty of action had been circumscribed. How? By various reiterated feminine interrogation concerning the masculine destination whither, the place where, the time at which, the duration for which, the object with which in the case of temporary absences, projected or effected” (Joyce 736).

This question and answer reveals the hypocritical and masculine control Molly has over Bloom and his ability to ejaculate freely. For a period of nine months, he was unable to do as he pleased, providing a possible excuse for his masturbation on the beach. After Bloom’s masculinity took a severe hit in “Cyclops,” his imagined love affairs with Martha and Gerty revitalize his wounded masculinity in addition to his triumph over Citizen. Bloom’s lack of physical contact with Martha and Gerty signals at his feminine nature, but does not discount his masculinity completely as he is still engaging in an erotic act. The letter from Martha in “Lotus-eaters” presents Bloom’s perverse and erotic nature and the effect he has on women, “I do wish I could do something for you. Please tell me what you think of poor me. I often think of the beautiful name you have” (Joyce 78). Bloom also expresses a different type of masculinity here in the form of masochism in controlling Martha’s actions and desires. He pulls her along and teases her, an act often viewed as masculine. This letter, and his feeling of control, boosts his ego and continually does throughout the day creating a source of sexual-masculinity. Joyce purposely makes Bloom seem overly-erotic and perverse in order to further subvert the bourgeois normalcy. Additionally, Joyce offers these two contrasting versions of masculinity to continue mocking the system in which gender norms and identity operate. Joyce refrains from offering Bloom as a preferable form of masculinity, rather his various forms of it create a negative category in which no symbols or systems are present.
James Joyce uses Ulysses to break down the postcolonial social construct of masculinity and offers Bloom’s lacking “masculinity” as a negative category. Bloom is Joyce’s suggestion at how one can destabilize gender norms and how those norms operate in nationalism. Bloom is a mix of feminine and masculine traits; from his way with women, to his kind nature, Bloom is Joyce’s way of mocking the symbolic system in which we constantly operate. Although it seems impossible to break away from the inescapable effects of the constructions of identity and gender based on nationalist identity, Joyce suggests otherwise, thus upsetting stereotypical images of the meaning behind these socially-constructed terms further separating the colonized from the colonizer.

Works Cited
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Gifford, Don. Ulysses Annotated. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Hoy, David C. Introduction. Foucault: A Critical Reader. By Hoy. New York: Basil Blackwell,
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Poster, Mark. “Foucault and the Tyrrany of Greece.” Foucault: A Critical Reader. David Hoy.
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Joyce, James. Ulysses. Vintage Classics Ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Kimmel, Michael S., and Aronson, Amy. Men and Masculinities: A Social, Cultural, and
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Lin, Paul. “Standing the Empire: Drinking, Masculinity, and Modernity in ‘Counterparts.’”
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Plock, Victoria M. “A Feat of Strength in ‘Ithaca’: Eugen Sandow and Physical Culture in
Joyce’s Ulysses.” Journal of Modern Literature 30.1 (2006): 129-139. ProQuest. Web. 14 December 2015.

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