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Betrayal in Joyce and Wilde 2 of 2

The concluding part of a seminar paper written by Philip Harvey for the ‘Wilde about Joyce’ Bloomsday in Melbourne, 16th June 2009, and read in the Brian Boru Room of the old Celtic Club, corner La Trobe and Queen Streets, Melbourne. The numbered quotes were read by Bill Johnston.

When readers want to argue for the main theme of Ulysses, or for the major catalyst to its original big bang, the answer is often the infidelity of Molly Bloom. We know that Joyce chose the 16th of June in order to commemorate his first stepping into the Dublin streets with Nora Barnacle, on that same day in 1904. In other words, Ulysses is an anniversary book. The paradoxical irony of Joyce’s choice of date is not lost on anyone. The book itself is an obsessional account of the Othello problem – jealous paranoia on the part of Bloom. Richard Ellmann links this to Joyce’s discovery, after eloping with Nora and leaving Ireland, that she may have been with another man before Joyce. This unleashed in him the most insane feelings of jealousy and betrayal. What is of interest in this context is the way he tested those responses, sublimated them if you will, and transformed them into the drama of unfaithfulness between Poldy and Molly, something the two of them never speak to one another about, but which pervades and drives the narrative of Ulysses. It is Molly who is of especial significance in Joyce’s artistic consciousness, because within the novel itself she is unfaithful to Leopold but yet never betrays him to any of the other characters. It is we, the readers, who learn the secrets of the Blooms’ private life; Molly betrays him throughout the soliloquy, after her own fashion, but only we are party to the betrayal.  

8. men again all over they can pick and choose what they please a married woman or a fast widow or a girl for their different tastes like those houses round behind Irish street no but we’re to be always chained up they’re not going to be chaining me up no damn fear once I start I tell you for stupid husbands jealousy why can’t we all remain friends over it instead of quarrelling her husband found it out what they did together well naturally and if he did can he undo it he’s Coronado anyway whatever he does and then he going to the other mad extreme about the wife in Fair Tyrants of course the man never even casts a 2nd thought on the husband or wife either it’s the woman he wants and he gets her what else were we given all those desires for I’d like to know I can’t help it if I’m young still can I it’s a wonder I’m not an old shrivelled hag before my time living with him so cold never embracing me except sometimes when he’s asleep the wrong end of me not knowing I suppose who he has any man that’d kiss a woman’s bottom I’d throw my hat at him after that he’d kiss anything unnatural where we haven’t one atom of any kind of expression  in us all of us the same 2 lumps of lard before ever I do that to a man pfooh the dirty brutes the mere thought is enough I kiss the feet of you senorita there’s some sense in that didn’t he kiss our halldoor yes he did what a madman nobody understands his cracked ideas but me still of course a woman wants to be embraced 20 times a day almost to make her look young no matter by who so long as to be in love or loved by somebody if the fellow you want isn’t there sometimes by the Lord God I was thinking would I go around by the quays there some dark evening where nobody’s know me and pick up a sailor off the sea that’d be hot on for it and not care a pin

We, only each of us individual confidants, learn the true words from her own lips. Even though some Dublin locals know something is up, it is you and I, the readers, who are ever privileged to know how and why Molly betrays Poldy. This brilliant literary accomplishment by Joyce places us in the unique position of knowing a secret that no-one else knows. That is our readerly experience, for even though Molly’s is now one of the worst-kept secrets in literature, every time we read Ulysses the secret is ours, and ours alone. And as we know, Molly’s soliloquy transforms into joy and riotous humour, everything that has gone before, it transforms the very feeling of the novel into something greater and more physical. And one of the main ways the betrayal does this, is by deepening further our appreciation of Leopold Bloom. Instead of making Leopold less of a person, his marital dilemmas make him look more human. Instead of there being a crisis in the relationship, we understand that their mutual affection and respect will outlast any misdemeanours, and Leopold we know has engaged in many more misdemeanours than Molly. She is unfaithful, but never betrays Bloom to anyone else, other than you and me. So then, how do we judge her betrayal? Funnily enough, we don’t.

Sigmund Freud’s theory of the Oedipal Complex, in its simplest formulation, states that the individual betrays their mother (symbolically that is, in some manner) and goes in search of the good father, who has to be named. It is worth noting that this advancement describes perfectly Stephen Dedalus’s behaviour on June 16th. Guilty of betraying his mother by refusing to kneel at her deathbed, Stephen walks Dublin in mourning, meets bad fathers like his natural father Simon Dedalus, and good fathers, like William Shakespeare and Leopold Bloom. Stephen, like many in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, is haunted still by another betrayal, that of the politician Charles Stewart Parnell in 1889. But that is not my interest here. Freud seems to mean that all of us are in the business of betrayal and that, at its extreme, everyone is betraying everyone else. In 1899, ten years after Parnell’s death, Oscar Wilde published his hymn to self-martyrdom ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, which contains verses that phrase Freud’s ideas:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
   By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
   Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
   The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
   And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
   Some with the hands of Gold;
The kindest use a knife, because
   The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
   Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
   And some without a sigh;
For each man kills the thing he loves,
   Yet each man does not die.

Oscar doubtless had in mind Judas Iscariot when saying “a coward with a kiss”, the betrayer we are reminded about at the beginning of this paper. The English playwright David Hare directed his new play The Judas Kiss last year (i.e. 2008) in London and New York. The play treats the last years of Wilde, and in an interview in The New York Times, Hare makes these observations:

10. Oscar Wilde loved the power of suggesting what was going on underneath the surface. The minute he was outed sexually he died as an artist, because the thing he hated most in art was naïve sincerity, breast-beating, simple propagandizing. Overt sentimentality was the thing he most disliked. The minute he went to prison he wrote one overtly sentimental work, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol.’ And never wrote again. So when gay men now see Wilde as a hero, they have to be clear what he’s a hero for. What he seems to me a great hero for is that he took responsibility for his own actions.

In other words, David Hare is saying that Wilde was always going to see himself as the hero of his own aesthetic creed, while the matter of his sexuality is necessarily secondary. Wilde’s public martyrdom for his art would have been for Joyce, an object lesson. Much as he bemoaned in later life that no one understood him, Joyce studiously avoided turning himself into a hero (A Stephen Hero, in fact) or a public martyr for his art. Today, the fortunes of Wilde’s humiliation have turned full circle. For the past few decades in the West his role as a gay icon has eclipsed his vision of himself as a dandy leading the charge for Hellenic aestheticism, and again David Hare seems to be asking if this is altogether the only way of appreciating his legacy.


And here are my Notes to Bill Johnston, who read the ten numbered quotes at the correct moments in the paper. I must have sent them to him in an email.:

Dear Bill,

here are your ten quotes. Below I cite the source and give suggestions about delivery. I am home all Monday, so if you want to phone 9444-8303 we can go through these directly, if that will help further.

Best regards,


1.     Mark 26: 24-26, Vulgate.

Opening of the paper, i.e. you have the first words. To be read with the authority and indifference of a Roman priest of the golden era just following Infallibility (1870-71). Hmmm, sounds impressive!

2.     The Book of Common Prayer, in the Prayer of Consecration at Communion, Anglican.

Again, straight, with feeling. No need to sound impressive.

3.     Bloom in All Hallows Church.

Meandering Bloom, one thought leading to another, the practical and the impractical. Every second thought about women, so play that up. The text gives ample leads, especially regarding ample measurements.

4.     Ditto

5.     Buck Mulligan, at the Martello Tower: The Ballad of Joking Jesus.

Jolly, harmless, carefree undergraduate carry-on.

6.     Oxen of the Sun, satire of 19th century Irish gothic and Celtic twilight literature.

Blood-curdling farce. You can milk this for all it’s worth. Joyce is making merciless fun of his character here, a fantasy scene in which Haines is haunted and like one of the living dead.

7.     Haines, Mulligan and Dedalus that morning, at the Martello Tower in Sandy Cove.

Good-hearted banter, but they treat each other with caution. Note that they are all being facetious to hide the innate seriousness with which they take themselves. Simple, straight delivery.

8.     Molly in bed.

Bill, mark it out as best you can, Dubliners will drop connecting words sometimes and this is part of the fun of Molly. Note though such amazing clauses, so easy to miss, like when she says “still can” – a wow moment, and then how she says “I” but doesn’t continue the thought but starts on something else. Genius of Joyce.

9.     Oscar Wilde, three verses from ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol.’

Recite like an elocution lesson, or Edwardian public poem like Tennyson. While leaving the audience in no doubt that Wilde is deadly earnest.

10.  David Hare, English playwright. Quote from an interview in the New York Times last year, during performance of his new play about Oscar Wilde, ‘The Judas Kiss.’

Straight delivery, someone airing some opinions. No need for dramatics or emphases.


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