Martha Clifford closes her letter to Henry Flower with a "P.
S. Do tell me what kind of perfume does your wife use. I
want to know." The novel does eventually give the reader
an answer to her question. But a more interesting question is
why she wants to know.
Much later, in Nausicaa, Bloom catches a whiff of
Gerty MacDowell's perfume and wonders what kind it is: "What
is it? Heliotrope? No. Hyacinth? Hm. Roses, I think. She’d
like scent of that kind. Sweet and cheap: soon sour. Why
Molly likes opoponax. Suits her, with a little jessamine
mixed. Her high notes and her low notes." The context
suggests that Molly's blend of opoponax and jasmine is more
complex and less cloyingly sweet than many perfumes.
Opopanax or opoponax, sometimes called "sweet myrrh," is a
resin derived by tapping the gummy sap of shrubs and trees of
the Commiphora genus, which also produces myrrh and
frankincense. The trees grow in Somalia and nearby countries,
and their resin has been used in perfumes since biblical
times. The presence of myrrh and frankincense among the gifts
that the Magi bring to the Christ child suggests how
un-"cheap" these scents are, and Molly's use of opoponax makes
one more link in a chain of details that defines her as
exotically Mediterranean: Spanish, Jewish, Arab, Turkish.
But why should "Martha" take the trouble to inquire about her
rival's perfume? Clearly it is an intimate question, violating
the boundary that separates spouses from the outside world and
indicating a desire to move the epistolary flirtation into the
realm of physical closeness. It could be that Martha aims to
please Henry by smelling just like his wife. A less
pathetically self-abasing, more confidently cunning,
possibility is that she is thinking practically about the
tactics of conducting a sexual affair: Henry's wife could
hardly suspect him of infidelity when he comes home bearing
her own scent.