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The Flower as Figure of Femininity and Forgetfulness in James Joyce’s Ulysses

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The Flower as Figure of Femininity and Forgetfulness in James Joyce’s Ulysses

June 16 is undoubtedly a special occasion, and not just because of Father’s Day.

June 16 is Bloomsday, a day on which thousands the world over celebrate a watershed in the history of European literature by reading the most memorable work of one of Ireland’s greatest authors—Ulysses.

Ulysses, written by Joyce in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris over a seven-year period from 1914 to 1921, is set on June 16, 1904 in Dublin, Ireland, and centers around a cast of lively characters as they go about their day. The novel caused a sensation in the literary world owing to its extensive use of the stream-of-consciousness technique, superabundance of allusion, and oftentimes bawdy—some argued pornographic—content.

Joyce himself remarked that his work would “keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.”

But there is no denying that the novel is less about Ulysses—the Latinized name of the Greek mythological figure Odysseus—and more about Leopold Bloom, the novel’s protagonist. And as we shall see, we can deny even less the significance of flowers in the text as a whole.

Although Leopold Bloom’s very name and that of his wife Molly Bloom provide the first real clue, and although the book overflows with a wealth of symbolism and imagery relating to flowers, two episodes—Lotus-Eaters and Molly’s Soliloquy—offer the clearest examples of the flower’s integral role in the novel.

Central to our understanding of how the flower figures in Joyce’s masterwork is the episode titled “Lotus-Eaters,” which presents Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness as he makes his way to the funeral of a friend on a hot summer morning.

The name of the episode alludes to the famous incident in The Odyssey, where Odysseus and his men, attempting to return to Greece after winning the Trojan War, find themselves enthralled by the lotus. Upon eating the “honeyed plant,” Odysseus’ men “never cared to report, nor to return: / they longed to stay forever, browsing on / that native bloom, forgetful of their homeland.”

Although the exact nature of the Homeric lotus is unknown (many have suspected it to be connected to a flower of one type or another), its classical identification with forgetfulness and indulgence has lasted throughout the ages. Joyce’s Ulysses is no exception.

The chapter opens with Bloom’s musings on the “Far East” and its lethargy-inducing weather. He humorously speculates that the climate makes people docile and less prone to quarrel. He even goes so far as to convert the peoples of Asia into lotuses: he likens them to “Flowers of idleness” whose “Petals [are] too tired” to stand alert.

In this episode Bloom also uses a pen name in his surreptitious correspondence with a woman other than his wife, namely, Martha Clifford. Bloom’s nom de plume, Henry Flower, is a pun on his own name and a means of reinforcing the connection between flowers and forgetfulness, insofar as one who is promiscuous while married forgets his marriage vows, among them faithfulness. The fact that Martha mails Bloom “a yellow flower with flattened petals,” which he promptly puts in his front jacket pocket, likewise furthers this association between flowers and infidelity.

In fact, Martha’s letter to Bloom prompts him to think about the Victorian language of flowers, a language which, because it is purely visual, has a highly-ambiguous symbolism. In Ulysses, the multiplicity of meanings of individual flowers applies to the figure of the flower more generally.

Molly Bloom’s infamous soliloquy in the last chapter of the book is perhaps more revealing in this respect. This final episode offers the reader access to the widest possible significance of the flower in Ulysses, connecting it not just with forgetfulness and infidelity, but also with femininity itself.

Though her monologue stretches for many pages and consists of several lengthy, unpunctuated sentences, flowers only become noticeably prevalent at the very end of Molly’s stream-of-consciousness.

There she interiorly declares her love of flowers and a desire to see her home “swimming” in them. She then paints a vignette of “rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours springing up even out of the ditches primroses and violets.”

Molly considers the existence of such beauties of nature as an easy refutation of those who object to God’s existence: “I wouldnt give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why dont they go and create something,” she says inwardly.

But out of all these floral reminiscences, it is actually “rhododendrons on Howth head” which send Molly into her final reverie—her childhood in Gibraltar and Bloom’s proposal of marriage to her. Both memories, though intermingled, are packed with floral imagery.

Apropos of the former, Molly remembers “the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs” and “the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used.”

Regarding the latter, Molly recalls that Bloom “said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life.”

In fact, the word “flower” appears eight times in the final portion of Molly’s monologue, the second-most frequent word in the text besides “Yes,” which appears in the section a total of 22 times. Joyce referred to “Yes” as “the female word,” claiming that it indicated “acquiescence, self-abandon, relaxation, the end of all resistance.”

We see then that Molly’s excessive use of the word “Yes” can be understood as firmly connecting her to the female archetype, while her linking the flower to the female body further associates the floral with the feminine.

But in order to throw this web of associations into relief, a comparison with The Odyssey is once again necessary. Molly, like Bloom, has her doppelganger in the famous poem. While Bloom is very much a foil to the eponymous hero of Homer’s epic, Molly serves as a kind of Penelope (the wife of Odysseus).

But whereas Penelope remains faithful to the memory of Odysseus even while he is missing for many years and thought dead by all, Molly, an opera singer, can be said to forget about Bloom in favor of an extramarital affair with her manager Hugh “Blazes” Boylan.

Whereas Penelope’s slogan might be said to be a resolute “No,” a response she delivers time and again to the numerous suitors who have taken up residence in her home during her husband’s absence, Molly’s motto is most certainly a dissolute “Yes”—“Yes” to all manner of suitors, including Boylan. Penelope’s only “Yes” is delivered to her rightful husband, upon his successful homecoming.

Penelope rejects the flower of forgetfulness in favor of faithfulness and fidelity, whereas Molly embraces the symbolic significance of her married name Bloom. Her memory of her husband is not as he is on June 16, 1904, but as he was at the moment of his proposal to her, when both parties intended to be faithful to one another. In short, her memory of Bloom and her fidelity to him remains precisely that—a memory with no reality in the narrative present of the text.

With regard to the figure of the flower and femininity, there is only one chief difference between The Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses. Both take the flower as a stand-in for forgetfulness, but the former presents a positive image of femininity as chaste and committal, while the latter offers a purely negative one. Joyce essentializes femininity as promiscuousness by connecting it to the flower and more specifically the lotus.

Although the flower-as-forgetfulness is not relegated to femininity alone—as we saw earlier, Bloom uses a floral pseudonym to correspond with another woman—Bloom’s infidelity is merely literary, whereas Molly’s is literal. The physicality of Molly’s infidelity is an integral part of it, hence Joyce’s likening of the female form to the flower.

For Joyce, the flower is not merely a one-dimensional symbol; it is not just a concretized forgetfulness. Woman too is an embodied flower, and she is only essentialized as a forgetful, unfaithful creature through the figure of the flower.

Just as individual flowers are ambiguous symbols in the wider language of flowers—a rose can represent romance or death—so too is the flower, in the Joycean language of Ulysses, always enmeshed in a complex web of symbolism which denies any simple one-to-one correspondence.

Illustration by W.E.F. Britten to Tennyson's poem The Lotos-Eaters as published in The Early Poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1901).


published on June 16, 2019.

Image (top): Painting by John William Waterhouse titled Penelope and the Suitors.
Image (bottom): Illustration by W.E.F. Britten to Tennyson’s poem The Lotos-Eaters as published in The Early Poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1901).

About Author

TROY WORDEN is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley where he concentrated in English and Philosophy. He has written for online publications including Campus Reform of The Leadership Institute and The Daily Signal of The Heritage Foundation. Troy currently writes for American Greatness and The Washington Examiner.