Sexuality in Ulysses, Lolita and the World's Wife
English and Literature
Submitted By HelveticaBold
,The Presentation of male and female sexuality in Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’, Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry anthology ‘The World’s Wife’
The themes of sex and sexuality have always remained somewhat hidden by society, concealing a darker unspoken reality which has power to threaten the pure and romantic values of marriage and intimate relationships as well as established gender roles. Despite the alleviation of religious and moral restrictions, sex embodies the warped animal reflection of the exclusively human concept of love, exposing primal desires and ensuring its continued belonging to the realms of the shocking and distasteful, while inadvertently strengthening its power. It is this power that lies at the heart of much modernist literature. The illicit imagery serves as a physical subversion of the dated foundations the writings oppose. Prominent in early modernist work was the theoretical influence of Sigmund Freud, most notably in the case of contemporary writer James Joyce whose literary techniques, such as the stream of consciousness writing in Ulysses, have come to epitomize modernist fiction. Ulysses not only challenges the censors’ attitude to sex, but also what were considered the sexual norms for men and women in pre-war Catholic society. Similarly, Vladimir Nabokov uses sexual deviancy to protest the theoretical ideas implicit in modernist literature through characteristics derived from post-World War II civilisation. The absence of structure or control left by the war undermined contemporary opinion of western stability, presented in Lolita through American culture. This subversion is mirrored in the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy through use of explicit language rather than sexual perversion, confronting the inequality in modern culture. Despite the distinct narrative styles of each writer, be it the stream of consciousness monologues of Ulysses, the unreliable postmodernist narration of Lolita, or the poetical structures of The World’s Wife, the three texts are a clear indication of contemporary views on the marriage, sex and love.
The subject of Freudian analysis remains a cultural resource throughout modern literature, providing a psychoanalytical interpretation of how sexual identity takes form in an individual, notably during childhood. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a precursor to Ulysses, Joyce presents the childhood of Stephen Dedalus through a Freudian filter of sexuality, providing a greater understanding of his character as an adult. An oedipal complex is manifested, not through Stephen’s desire to displace his father, but through his confusion between parental and sexual relationships with women, the latter belonging to masculine society from which he is excluded. This separation between Stephen and conventional masculinity is shown in Ulysses through his conversation with Mr Deasy, a character suggested by E. L. Epstein to ‘represent a general view of the life of man which is inadequate for Stephen and, one may say, for Joyce’.
—Money is power, when you have lived as long as I have. I know, I know. If youth but knew. But what does Shakespeare say? Put but money in thy purse. — Iago, Stephen murmured.
Stephen clearly finds Deasy’s male and material world to be lacking as he himself lacks a male authority figure and so struggles to identify with his own masculinity. This continues though Ulysses as Stephen thinks of his conception in terms of ‘made not begotten’ and lacks a sense of unity with his father whom he terms ‘the man with my voice and my eyes’.
In Portrait, Stephen’s confusion as an adolescent between parental and sexual relationships first arises through the mockery of his classmates over the implications of ‘kiss’. When asked if he kissed his mother before he went to bed, Stephen at first replies with the affirmative before regressing to the opposite. This surfaces again during Stephen’s encounter with the prostitute, when he cannot dispel thoughts of his mother. The repetition of the line ‘his lips would not bend to her kiss’ asserts the level of turmoil Stephen feels over his sexuality, caused by the incident at school. This leads to Stephen becoming the submissive party during intercourse as ‘He wants to be held firmly in her arms, to be caressed slowly’. Joyce uses Freudian presentation of Stephen’s childhood to account for his lack of masculine characteristics as an adult. Throughout Ulysses, Stephen is unable to escape his past, experiencing a ghostly vision, comparable to Hamlet, to which he responds ‘No, mother! Let me be and let me live’. The use of repetition, as well as the ‘and’, in the line not only conveys desperation but also a resigned weariness towards his repressive past. The dramatic tone in the passage is again reminiscent of Shakespeare’s writing, in comparison to which Joyce had always felt inadequate. Duffy’s hyperbolic language in ‘Anne Hathaway’ similarly imitates Shakespeare, but creates passionate and romantic imagery, stating with the striking comparison of the love between Shakespeare and Hathaway to ‘a spinning world/of forests, castles, torchlight, cliff tops, seas’.
Stephen’s creative impotence reflects the need Joyce felt to develop his work outside the influence of Shakespeare, leading to Stephen’s troubled declaration that ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. Stephen’s sexuality is restricted by his inability to create, as Bloom’s is restricted by his inability to pro-create and his search for a son after the death of Rudy.
Nabokov’s Lolita is also subject to Freudian influence, but this culminates in post-modernist parody rather than the more serious exploration in Joyce’s writing. This is evident not only through combined sexual and mythological imagery, but also in the ‘doppelgänger’ created in Quilty and the parallels drawn between Humbert’s childhood relationship with Annabel and his later relationship with Lolita. Most notable is the development of a reverse Oedipal complex (also referred to as an Electra complex) manifested in Lolita’s initial desire to replace her mother in an intimate relationship with Humbert. Nabokov uses the distorted narrative of a paedophile to create a derisive caricature of Freud’s theory which, for many decades, was used by psychoanalysts to deny the reality of child sexual abuse. Lolita, having no sexual motivation in her actions towards Humbert, simply considered him another opportunity through which to undermine her mother. The strained relationship between Delores and Charlotte Haze also leads a neglected Lolita to welcome Humbert’s attention, misconstrued in Humbert’s narrative as her wily seduction. In Speak Memory, it is thought that Nabokov alludes to his own experience of sexual abuse as a child. ‘During the summer, almost every day at lunchtime his carriage might be seen crossing the bridge and then speeding toward our house along a hedge of young firs. When I was eight or nine, he would invariably take me upon his knee after lunch and (while two young footmen were clearing the table in the empty dining room) fondle me, with crooning sounds and fancy endearments, and I felt embarrassed for my Uncle by the presence of the servants and relieved when my father called him from the veranda: ‘Basile, on vous attend’.’
Nabokov also writes that by the time he was just a couple of years older, he received no more than the usual attention any uncle might give a nephew. Heather Menzies Jones suggests that, coming from a large family, Nabokov, like Lolita, gladly accepted the attention offered by his uncle as this may have been lacking in his parental relationships. She explains that ‘Nabokov does not use a single word about his uncle that depicts feelings of exploitation’.
Lolita also brings under scrutiny the idea of childhood innocence, discussed by critic Henry Jenkins as ‘a cultural myth’, and the implications of sexual development. Humbert’s use of religious analogy in his descriptions of Lolita creates an Edenic framework in which Lolita, like Eve, can be found to be culpable for her fall from innocence. Though her sexual understanding becomes, to Humbert, a mark of innate depravity, Lolita’s juvenile experiences are shown to be congruent with her peers, summarised as ‘Well, the Miranda twins had shared the same bed for years, and Donald Scott, who was the dumbest boy in the school, had done it with Hazel Smith in his uncle's garage, and Kenneth Knight—who was the brightest—used to exhibit himself wherever and whenever he had the chance’. Nabokov presents innocence as a separate entity from sexual experience and establishes Lolita’s behaviour as normal. Her innocence is not compromised by her sexual experiences but proved by her naïve attitude towards them.
Nabokov also shows disdain towards Freud’s emphasis on the role of childhood in sexual development, shown through Humbert’s childhood relationship with Annabel Leigh as explanation for his disturbing behaviour. This is the first of many allusions to Edger Allen Poe’s poem ‘Annabel Lee’ used to present the purity of what Humbert considers his ‘exotic sexuality’ and evidence of refined taste. ‘All I want to stress is that my discovery of her was a fatal consequence of the ‘princedom by the sea’ in my tortured past.’ The suggestion of Poe’s phrase, ‘In a kingdom by the sea’ presents Humbert’s love for both Annabel and Lolita as separate from reality and asserts Humbert’s perceived superiority. Nabokov uses verbatim Poe’s phrase ‘by the side of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride’ and ‘exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied’ in the opening of the novel again refers to the poem.
Humbert's humorously concise description of his mother's violent demise is, in its brevity, a distinct contrast to the narrator’s usual florid style. ‘My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.’ This comic undercutting of what would usually be considered a devastating occasion is another indication of Nabokov's contempt for all things Freudian.
This concise use of language has become a convention of Duffy’s poetry presenting a similar derision towards chosen subject matter, including Freudian concepts in her poem ‘Frau Freud’ and female and childhood innocence in ‘Little Red Cap’. The latter takes its name from the original Brothers Grimm title for Little Red Riding Hood, the narrative of which presents a less distinct boundary between the worlds of adulthood and childhood. Bruno Bettelheim determines Little Red Cap’s danger ‘is her budding sexuality, for which she is not yet emotionally mature’.
The poem begins ‘At childhoods end’, establishing a boundary which is emphasised by the monosyllabic style, and the use of an end stop in both instances, of the last and penultimate lines. ‘till you came at last to the edge of the woods. / It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf. ‘ The first stanza ends, as does Duffy’s representation of childhood, with the Wolf; a symbol of adult understanding and sexuality. Despite this definitive end of childhood, Duffy’s protagonist does not immediately enter maturity but decisively enters an adolescent limbo, not losing childhood innocence but leaving it behind. The relationship with the wolf, at first dangerous and exciting, soon becomes passionless routine (‘one bite, dead.’), a parallel transition to Lolita’s dreamlike fantasy relationship (‘I am said to resemble some crooner or actor chap on whom Lo has a crush’) and the nightmarish reality. The Wolf’s mundane response ‘How nice, breakfast in bed, he said’ creates a domestic image of similarly lifeless existence. The internal rhyme of the line draws on connotations of childhood songs, suggesting the actuality of the character’s relationship does not meet her childhood ideals or that it reflects the same banality she wished to leave behind. The line ‘but got there, wolf’s lair, better beware’ sounds almost playful due to the close proximity of the rhyme and has a similarly mocking tone as Duffy’s Red Cap has not been tricked by the Wolf but instead uses the experience to gain knowledge. The repetition of ‘Words, words’ creates a sense of childlike wonder which may suggest the protagonist’s innocence, like Lolita’s, has not been diminished by loss of virginity. This is emphasised by description of the books as ‘beating, frantic, winged’ recalling the white dove which met its demise in the previous verse. The poem ends with the line ‘Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone’ showing the independence gained from her experience. The poem partly reflects Duffy’s own relationship with poet, musician and artist Adrian Henri, which began when she was 16 and he 39, presented as her own journey through the woods. An adventure of understanding similar to Bloom’s personal Odyssey in Ulysses.
The restrictions of gender is another concept raised in Joyce’s writing and is explored through both male and female characters. During the early 20th century, in which Joyce was writing, women were not thought to posses the same sexual drive as men. Joyce subverts these preconceptions of gender through Molly’s attitude towards her affair with Boylan and her inordinate use of sexual language. This challenges gender roles as it places her as an equal in the sexual relationship between men and women. The character of Molly draws parallels with Homer’s Calypso, which is also the chapter title in which she is introduced, who held Odysseus captive for seven years . Critic Harry Blamires proposes that Bloom is likewise bound to Molly in amorous captivity, which reverses conventional marital roles. Molly commonly refers to her husband as ‘Poldy’, effectively de-lionising him by removing the ‘Leo’ from his name, undermining the stereotypic roles of men and women in a relationship. This control is presented again in the chapter when Molly requests a book by Paul de Kock, phonetically ‘Poldy cock’ which can be seen as a degrading reference to Leopold’s impotence. This debasing use of language towards men in relation to sex continues in Molly’s speech and draws parallels with Duffy’s Frau Freud. ‘titties he calls them I had to laugh yes this one anyhow stiff the nipple gets for the least thing I’ll get him to keep that up and I’ll take those eggs beaten up with marasala fatten them out for him’ Molly not only laughs at ‘titties’ as man’s name for breasts but also creates her own ridiculous euphemism in ‘eggs’ to deride Boylan’s testicles. Duffy similarly uses slang terms for penis to ridicule men, ‘the beef bayonet, the pork sword, the saveloy, love-muscle, night-crawler, dong, the dick, prick, dipstick and wick, the rammer, the slammer, the rupert, the shlong.’, and concludes the poem with the notion that a man’s penis is not something for him to be proud of. ‘the average penis - not pretty… the squint of its envious solitary eye…one’s feeling of pity…’
The Bloom’s sexual situations are in contrast to one another. Leopold’s small sexual encounters throughout the day often culminate in disappointment and frustration shown in the woman at the butchers in ‘Calypso’ and the stylish woman who distracts him from M’Coy in ‘Lotus Eaters’, both of whom elude him. Possibly Leopold’s most sexual relationship is in the form of the written transactions between him and Martha, with whom he is reluctant to meet. He declares that he will not commit to the difficulties of ‘usual love-scrimmage’. This is embodied in the flower Leopold receives from Martha, which he places in his heart pocket but discards the pin, thought by Blamires to signify a rose without its thorns. In some respect, both Molly and Leopold are conducting an affair, although dissimilar in nature. Marther’s letter presents an idealised passion but Boylan’s is all too real. Leopold, aware of his wife’s relations with Boylan, never refers to him by name, preferring ‘he’, to maintain an emotional and physical distance. This is reflected in Duffy’s ‘Mrs Aesop’, as her husband is quoted as referring to her as such, showing her contempt for their marriage. ‘Dead men, Mrs Aesop, he'd say, tell no tales.’
Leopold is caught up with the anticipation of Boylan’s arrival at his home, shown in frequent reference to 4:00pm, whereas Molly is indifferent to the relationship and, seemingly, its effects on her husband, singing ‘Vorrei e non vorrei’ (I would like to and I wouldn’t like to) which reflects her initial ambiguous ‘Mn’ and shows her apathetic control.
Stephen, similarly to Leopold, is shown to be apart from conventional male sexuality. In the second chapter, as he waits for Mr Deasy to finish typing his letter, Stephen studies the pictures of horses around the room, recalling Cranly’s vain attempts to interest him in horse racing. Blamires notes that ‘Stephen stands outside the world of horse-racing and gambling, symbols of the masculine pursuit of women and success.’ This is referred to by Joyce later in the novel with regard to the Ascot Golden Cup race, in which the horse Sceptre, a name with phallic connotations, is favoured to win. However it is the dark horse Throwaway that wins the race.
At first it would appear that the character of Gerty MacDowell is typical in terms of contemporary female representation. However, Gerty seeks a husband, not to validate herself, but to gain the financial stability her alcoholic and abusive father failed to provide. Katherine Mullin states that her ‘desire to attract is blatantly motivated by her bleak financial prospects’. Joyce presents the character as sexually aware and challenges the 19th century values of marriage. Gerty’s interaction with Bloom also displays her expertise and focus in her exhibitionist display, which, as Mullin points out, is reminiscent of a contemporary erotica of the time. The mutoscope, a hand-crank individual moving picture device, presented shots of girls scarcely clothed, with the pretence of looking through a peephole. This created the illusion that the girls were unaware that they were being watched, just as Gerty feigned innocence with her ‘pathetic little glance of piteous protest, of shy reproach.’ Her pretence of craning back to watch the fireworks and air of ‘accidentally’ revealing herself to Leopold uses the mutoscope’s technique to add a thrill of opportunistic voyeurism. Gerty’s apparent knowledge of current erotic film techniques transform her from innocent victim to skilful seductress. As Richard Brown states, she ‘is not merely a passive object of Bloom’s voyeurism or complicit through her coquetry and exhibitionism alone’ but to a lesser extent shares in his physical arousal and gratification. Gerty is in control, both of her own desire and of her fulfillment of Leopold’s, dispelling the illusion of the character both as an innocent victim or as a slave to her own passion.
The question of power is one also raised in Lolita. Humbert’s actions are often derived from a psychological need for control rather than a physical desire. Similarly to the contemporary attitude under which Ulysses was received, Humbert views women as something to be possessed, confidently declaring that ‘I was, and still am, despite mes malheurs, an exceptionally handsome male… I could attain any adult female I chose’. The need for control of others as well as himself provides an ultimate drive in his romantic relationships, the first being his marriage to Valeria which was born out of a desire to control his disposition towards young girls and not from love. ‘It occurred to me that…all the conventions of marriage…might help me, if not to purge myself of my degrading and dangerous desires, at least to keep them under control’ Humbert clearly has no respect for his wife as the following two pages are pervaded by mockery towards her. Humbert’s outrage upon discovering Valeria’s affair is again derived from a need for control. ‘A mounting fury was suffocating me—not because I had any particular fondness for that figure of fun, Mme Humbert, but because matters of legal and illegal conjunction were for me alone to decide, and here she was, Valeria, the comedy wife, brazenly preparing to dispose in her own way of my comfort and fate. ‘ His anger stems from his wife acting independently and from another man intruding on his territory. He presents his revenge though a bizarre story of how Valeria and her lover were forced to live in a science experiment on ‘human and racial reactions to a diet of bananas and dates in a constant position on all fours’ and how Valeria died in childbirth, a story which would seem too absurd to be factual but would allow Humbert to regain a form of control.
His later relationship with Charlotte presents similar characteristics. ‘Charlotte frightened me. My light-hearted dream of controlling her through her passion for me was all wrong.’ This is, however, the nature of Lolita’s tenuous control over Humbert. Humbert possesses physical control over Lolita as ‘she had nowhere else to go’, has no mental control. Humbert’s relationship with Lolita is the first to be driven by passion, and Lolita does her best to use this psychological control to her advantage.
Humbert’s need for control and superiority reaches further than romantic relationships. ‘Indian ceremonial dances, strictly commercial. ART: American Refrigerator Transit Company. Obvious Arizona, pueblo dwellings, aboriginal pictographs, a dinosaur track in a desert canyon, printed there thirty million years ago, when I was a child. A lanky, six-foot, pale boy with an active Adam’s apple, ogling Lo and her orange-brown bare midriff, which I kissed five minutes later, Jack…Reno, a dreary town in Nevada, with a nightlife said to be ‘cosmopolitan and mature.’
He ridicules society for its taste in entertainment and art, and Americans for letting him get away with a crime so disgusting. Critic Eric Goldman concludes that ‘He has to have us know that with his great intellect he has penetrated every subject to the core, understood it completely, and found it wanting.’
There is an aspect of ridicule present in Duffy’s work, often turning a critical eye towards the self-satisfied male of which Humbert can be considered the epitome, rather than the superficial criticism proposed by Humbert. Duffy’s cutting female personas present an alternative view of culture and history, giving voice to the women whom Duffy feels have been excluded, such as the bored wife of Aesop or the resigned mockery of Icarus’ wife. Duffy uses a similar list structure to show contempt for common euphemisms for a man. ‘The Husband. Hero. Hunk. The Boy Next Door. The Paramour. The Je t’adore. The Marrying Kind. Adulterer. Bigamist. The Wolf. The Rip. The Rake. The Rat. The Heartbreaker. The Ladykiller. Mr Right.’ The use of a period at the end of each term creates unity, possibly suggesting the descriptions are synonymous. The observations made by Duffy and Nabokov are similar as, although Humbert may ridicule society, Nabokov is mocking the egotistical male. In Frau Freud Duffy scorns Freud’s focus on the importance of the penis to both male and female psychology, which although linguistically similar to Joyce, is similar to Nabokov’s writing in concept as Duffy reflects his scathing opinion of Freud’s psychoanalysis.
Throughout the 20th century, literature has continued to challenge social boundaries in relation to sex and gender, whether through Joyce’s sexually aware female characters, Nabokov’s contempt for the association between virginity and innocence, or Duffy’s determined personas. The rise of Freudian analysis saw a new wave of sexual connotation, stressing its importance in the human psyche, and the counter movement sought to discredit the chauvinistic and mythological aspects of his theories. Each provided a platform from which to question previous stereotypical presentations. Despite their disparate places in time, the issues raised in Ulysses, Lolita and The World’s Wife are consistent throughout the three texts and remain relevant to modern society.
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