Mrs Marion

In Brief

From the moment he reenters his house and sees a letter addressed to "Mrs Marion Bloom," Bloom becomes relegated (and relegates himself) to the position of a servant. Rather than being acknowledged (and acknowledging himself) as the master of his house, he is shunted into a subordinate role. An Homeric logic plays through this degradation, highlighting Molly's role as Calypso and recreating the usurpation that Stephen experiences in Telemachus.

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According to a social convention that held through most of the 20th century, the letter should be addressed to Mrs. Leopold Bloom, reflecting her husband's masculine primacy as owner of the family name. Boylan's deliberate violation of this convention implies that Bloom's ownership of his wife's body means nothing to him, and Bloom certainly registers the insult: "His quickened heart slowed at once. Bold hand. Mrs Marion."

This new subjection is immediately subsumed in the quotidian servitude of Bloom's domestic routines. His wife shouts "Poldy!," demanding to know what has come in the mail, and there follows what appears to be a long-accustomed dance of female demands and male acquiescence. Bloom asks "Do you want the blind up?" and begins raising it without waiting for a reply. "— That do? he asked, turning." She orders him on to his next task: "— Hurry up with that tea, she said. I'm parched." Before attending to the tea he picks up the dirty clothes that she has carelessly tossed onto the floor the night before, but that intimate service does not spare him from further directions: "As he went down the kitchen stairs she called: / — Poldy! / — What? / — Scald the teapot." He does it. When he reappears some minutes later, bearing a full teatray that he has obsessively made sure has "Everything on it," her response is not thanks: "— What a time you were, she said." And so on.

"Mrs Marion" remains in Bloom's thoughts throughout the day, signifying his subordinate relation to Molly in the household and Boylan's supplanting of him in her sexual affections. The first condition corresponds to Calypso's enslavement of Odysseus, enforced in Joyce's Calypso by the picture of the nymph over the bed, Bloom's comparison of Molly to the nymph, Molly braiding her hair, and associations of food smells and female warmth. The second evokes the suitors' intrusion into the royal palace on Ithaca as they seek to replace Odysseus in Penelope's bed. Joyce has already alluded to this usurpation in Stephen's first chapter, and he brings it back with Boylan's letter.

In The Economy of Ulysses Mark Osteen observes that "Bloom's feeling of security is fragile, in part because, like Stephen, albeit more willingly, he is a servant in his household (his service of breakfast in bed is apparently habitual). Given the typical domestic roles of the time, this seems unusual, if not exactly sinister. . . . What is most important is not the actual condition but the perceived one: Bloom believes that the nomoi (rules) of his oikos (home) are out of balance. In the etymological sense, the "economy" of his household is disrupted, if not by Molly's power, then by the author of the letter addressed to 'Mrs Marion [not Leopold] Bloom,' as if Bloom were dead. Like Stephen, Bloom is threatened by usurpers" (81). The fact that he willingly participates in this subordination does not in any way lessen his need to overcome it.

JH 2017
John Jones, pen and wash illustration of "What a time you were, she said," reproduced in David Pierce's James Joyce's Ireland (1992), courtesy John Jones.