Yes, yes

In Brief

Molly Bloom’s monologue begins and ends with "Yes," a word which she repeats throughout Penelope. The effect is as consciously rhetorical on Joyce's part as any linguistic patterning in Aeolus or Oxen of the Sun. Its circular return carries important intertextual echoes, and the word itself is rich with suggestive power. It expresses the ambivalence of a woman skeptically examining the circumstances of her life and coming to a final affirmation of its value.

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Ithaca ends with anticipations of Joyce's final book, Finnegans Wake, by showing Bloom drifting off to sleep and thinking rambling thoughtsPenelope extends the prolepsis by showing Molly hovering somewhere between sleep and waking, fusing present experience with memories of the past, seemingly thinking outside the bounds of time. Formal linguistic patterning enforces the resemblance. The Wake is written as a closed loop, ending with a word, "the," that is no end at all but rather an article introducing the novel's first word, "riverrun." Penelope achieves a slightly different effect through repetition of its opening word.

One name for this in rhetorical theory is epanalepsis (a "taking again"), which Gideon O. Burton defines as "Repetition of the same word or clause after intervening matter. More strictly, repetition at the end of a line, phrase, or clause of the word or words that occurred at the beginning of the same line, phrase, or clause" (Silva Rhetoricae, at rhetoric.byu.edu). Of the four examples that Burton gives, one seems particularly comparable to what Joyce does in Penelope: "In times like these, it is helpful to remember that there have always been times like these" (Paul Harvey). The phrase in this sentence is not simply repeated; its repetition carries a new spirit that changes one's understanding of the initial utterance. Molly's "yes" does something similar across the span of 24, 076 intervening words.

That a reader can hear this distance-defying effect owes not only to the abstract influence of re-reading and analysis but also to the 91 other appearances of the word "yes" in the chapter, which condition one to listen for its concluding reappearance. This gentle percussive signifier in Molly's monologue, which swells to a pounding heartbeat in the last page or so of text, could probably be named by several rhetorical terms. In addition to epanalepsis there is conduplicatio ("doubling"), the repetition of a key word in successive phrases, clauses, or sentences to impart emphasis, amplify thought, or express emotion, and epinome ("tarrying"), which has been variously defined as "the frequent repetition of a phrase or question," "dwelling on a point," or "persistent repetition of the same plea in much the same words." The terms are, of course, less important than recognition of the effects that such insistent repetition can bring about.

Penelope maps a movement from Molly’s conversation with herself, marked by introspective suspicion, to an intimate exchange with her husband, marked by mutual understanding. "Yes" is pivotal to both these internal and external conversations. The chapter begins with an unspoken question: Was there anything suspicious about Bloom’s behavior tonight? Molly's answer: “Yes because he never did a thing like that before …” Unspoken follow-up questions ensue: Has he had sex with another woman tonight? Is there any evidence of it?

The "yes because" formulation expresses Molly's detective work: "yes because the day before yesterday he was scribbling something a letter when I came into the front room to show him Dignams death in the paper as if something told me and he covered it up with the blottingpaper pretending to be thinking about business so very probably that was it to somebody who thinks she has a softy in him because all men get a bit like that at his age especially getting on to forty he is now so as to wheedle any money she can out of him no fool like an old fool and then the usual kissing my bottom was to hide it"; "yes because he couldnt possibly do without it that long so he must do it somewhere." Molly is wrong about Bloom having had sex on June 16, unless masturbating on the beach counts—and it may, since she thinks only "yes he came somewhere Im sure"—but she is certainly right about the exchange of money involved in his relationship with Martha Clifford.

By the end of the chapter, Bloom is allowed to speak for himself. In two remarkable passages, the narrative signifiers of a remembered conversation crowd into Molly's language almost as frequently as do her yeses: "the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head . . . the day I got him to propose to me yes . . . yes he 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 and the sun shines for you today yes . . . I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes"; "and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

Out of the movement from suspicious introspection at the beginning of the chapter to affirmative engagement at its end, Joyce crafts his ambiguous but happy ending, one that returns a reader to the beginning not only of the chapter, but also of the marriage. And, in a way, to the beginning of the Bloom family drama in Ulysses: in Calypso, "hurrying homeward" to be near his wife's "ample bedwarmed flesh," Bloom thinks, "Yes, yes." The word seems integrally linked with beginnings and endings. When Bloom returns to memories of the first woman he wooed, in Circe, the flirtatious encounter concludes with Josie's Molly-like affirmation: "(Eagerly.) Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. / (She fades from his side . . .)"

Joyce associated Molly's key word with a feminine principle of circular return. In an August 1921 letter to Frank Budgen he wrote that Penelope "begins and ends with the female word yes. It turns like the huge earth ball slowly surely and evenly, round and round spinning, its 4 cardinal points being the female breasts, arse, womb and cunt, expressed by the words because, bottom . . . woman, yes." In October of the same year he also remarked on the word's essential property of affirmation. Speaking with his translator Jacques Benoîst-Méchin, he called it "the most positive word in the human language" (Ellmann 522).

The conjunction of circularity and affirmation suggests the influence of Nietzsche. Given the interest in this philosopher expressed in Ulysses, beginning with allusions to the hyperborean life of the übermensch in Telemachus, it seems plausible to hear in Molly's "yes" a response to the concept of eternal recurrence, an idea of cyclical history from classical antiquity that Nietzsche preferred to the linear teleology of Christianity. In The Gay Science (a book that sits on Mr. Duffy's shelf in "A Painful Case"), Nietzsche posed a hypothetical "burdensome thought": Imagine that everything in your life is destined to repeat. You relive pleasant but also painful events endlessly. If there were no alternative, could you still find joy and meaning in your life? Would you say Yes to all its imperfections, frustrations, and tortures, or would you wish to negate it?

"Eternal recurrence" is a fair description of a life story that constantly circles back on itself in memory, as Molly's does, and her final word may well be taken as a Nietzschean affirmation of that imperfect life. Coming at the end not only of her monologue but of Joyce's novel, this capitalized "Yes" can also be seen as an instantiation of what Stephen in Ithaca calls "the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man in literature." In an early lecture titled "Drama and Life," Joyce had praised art that tells the truth about human life, no matter how unflattering, and that thereby reveals its eternal truths. Stephen appears to be carrying this view forward into Ulysses, and Molly puts it into practice.

One more connection to Finnegans Wake deserves mention, even though it has some of the smell of a red herring. When he was writing that book Joyce implied that he had intended a dying-away effect at the end of Ulysses, comparable to Anna Livia's. In a conversation with Louis Gillet reported in Gillet's Stèle pour James Joyce (1941), translated in the 50s as Claybook for James Joyce, he said: "In Ulysses, to depict the babbling of a woman going to sleep, I had sought to end with the least forceful word I could possibly find. I had found the word ‘yes,’ which is barely pronounced, which denotes acquiescence, self abandon, relaxation, the end of all resistance. In Work in Progress I have tried to do better if I could. This time, I found the word which is the most slippery, the least accented, the weakest word in English, a word which is not even a word, which is scarcely sounded between the teeth, a breath, a nothing, the article the.”

Wrapped up in concluding the Wake, Joyce may have creatively misremembered some of what he intended while finishing Ulysses. "The" can justly be called a word "which is barely pronounced," but few speakers of English would describe "yes" as such a word, or declare that it "denotes" passivity. Nor does Molly seem to be going away quietly at the end of her monologue: if Joyce had not said so, would any reader imagine that she is falling asleep and babbling? Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that Joyce was looking for a strong effect in 1921, not a weak one. Ellmann reports that in the draft of Penelope given to Benoîst-Méchin the final "Yes" was "inscrutably omitted" (521). Without that word, the book would have ended with "I will," which suggests forceful determination. When the translator "tacked on" a final oui Joyce initially resisted, saying that "the last word of a book is very important."

There may be some middle ground between these seemingly incompatible readings of the end of Ulysses. Ellmann infers that by settling on Yes, "the most positive word in the human language," Joyce chose to emphasize "submission to a world beyond himself," as opposed to the Luciferian resistance implied by "I will." Positivity is by no means incompatible with "acquiescence, self-abandonment, relaxation, the end of all resistance," and even if these terms do not fit Molly as well as they do Anna Livia, "yes" could still be seen as a relatively unforceful, yielding conclusion. It would probably be foolish to ignore the resemblance that Joyce saw between Molly and his river-goddess passing beyond the frustrations of her existence and losing herself in the streams of the sea.

John Hunt and Doug Pope 2018
Yoko Ono, Ceiling Painting (ink on canvas, metal frame, magnifying glass, metal chain, and painted ladder), displayed in London's Indica Gallery in 1966. Source: www.pinterest.com.
"Page 1, Penelope" (1969), modern-day stele created by Joe Tilson to celebrate Molly's signature word, usually displayed in the foyer of the British Library and shown here being cleaned by conservator Leo Stevenson. Source: blogs.bl.uk.
Joe Tilson's 1970 transcription of Joyce's words from the letter to Budgen. Source: www.tate.org.uk.