Feminist Fridays: James Joyce, Perfume, and How I Wrote My Senior Thesis / by Amanda Silberling

By Talin Tahajian, Poetry Editor

I went to a public high school. The building is forty-five years old, most of the bathroom stalls don’t lock, and the art department has experienced more budget cuts than it knows how to handle. The cafeteria has a strict social hierarchy. The librarians are something else. And if you want to print from your laptop, figure out another plan.

We did, however, have a mandatory senior thesis. Each senior chooses an author or topic and proceeds to spend the greater part of the year slaving over notecards, sticky notes, novels, and countless critical essays. Countless late nights, cups of coffee. Skype calls at two in the morning to keep one another awake the night before a big deadline.

I had a relatively narrow focus from the start. Going into the process, I knew that if I really wanted to write a paper on James Joyce, I would need to have a general idea of where I was going with my thesis early on—otherwise, there would just be too much material to handle. I had read Dubliners and half of the Portrait when, in early July, I was talking to two friends about my work. Guthrie commended my choice of author before launching into a discussion about our mutual love of Harold Bloom; Leah, on the other hand, immediately expressed her disappointment.

“Honestly, Talin, the last thing we need is more dead white European male canon. You could choose any author you want, and you chose him? Why would you ever do that?”

Leah got me thinking, and from then on, I approached my primary sources from a feminist perspective—or, at least, something like a feminist perspective. It was a loose fit, but concentrating upon Joyce’s treatment of female characters in his novels helped me streamline my attention, which became essential once I began to pretend to be able to tackle Ulysses.

I wasn’t sure about my thesis topic any more specifically than that, though, until I was about fifty pages into Ulysses. In a letter to Bloom, one of the protagonists of the novel, Martha, a woman with whom he’s having an affair, writes, “P. S. Do tell me what kind of perfume does your wife use. I want to know” (Joyce 64). I’m honestly not exactly sure why, but something about that line really stood out to me. I highlighted it in my text, drew a huge star next to it, and kept reading, this time with a newfound focus on perfume—and floral and aqueous imagery in general—as a subset of my nebulous “feminist” lens. I ultimately ended up going back through all four primary sources (Dubliners, Exiles, Ulysses, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) to find mentions of perfume, analyzing their thematic context and looking for patterns.

To say the least, this required a lot of highlighters. Upon receiving a request to provide an outline of Ulysses, Joyce responded, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality” (qtd. in Ellmann 573). Fortunately, while his literary “immortality” remains indisputable, I did find that Joyce’s Dubliners, Exiles, and Portrait buttress Ulysses in the same manner by which a compass rose complements a topographical map. By providing a narrative schema for the events of the latter novel, they laid the groundwork for what would become one of the most controversial pieces of literature produced during the Modernist era. Critical scholar Robert S. Ryf, a student of William York Tindall, notes that Joyce’s plays and novels “are so closely interconnected as to render impossible a complete catalogue or correspondences within a limited space. The meaning of one involves and reinforces the meaning of the other” (77). I found that this proves especially true of the imagistic patterns that drive each plot, as aqueous imagery permeates much of Joyce’s work and branches into two primary symbols: perfume, manifesting in soap and flowers, and water, manifesting in the sea.

P. S. Do tell me what kind of perfume does your wife use. I want to know.
— James Joyce, Ulysses (p. 64)

Ulysses exists as an inherently masculine narrative due to its focus on the colloquial perceptions of Joyce’s two primary voices, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, heteronormative male characters whose perspectives Joyce chronicles in order to produce what he considers an accurate, unedited depiction of the nonlinear behavior of the psyche. Few pieces of feminist criticism focus heavily upon Joyce, and none address the prevalence of perfume imagery in his work. Ulysses, however, lends itself to such a reading due to its innately misogynistic framework, which revolves around the phallogocentrism associated with the “father narrative.” Filling the gap in Joycean analysis thereby stipulates criticism that explores this through Joyce’s use of aqueous imagery. Evaluating the symbolic significance of the water-perfume dichotomy that pervades Joyce’s work proves the most streamlined means of exploring Joyce’s treatment of women, as he consistently associates female characters with distilled liquids.

The narratives of Exiles and Dubliners ultimately deem uxorial figures subordinate to their male counterparts by employing water and perfume as symbols of female sexuality. In pairing floral and aquatic imagery in Ulysses, Joyce evokes the physical properties of perfume, thus expanding upon the emblematic implications of his Portrait by developing the imagistic elements of Dedalus’s epiphany scenes through pleonastic repetition. By using aqueous imagery to contrast the clarity attributed to water with the sexual connotations of perfume, Joyce delineates the implications of projecting romanticized conceptions of purity onto women.

In contrast, Joyce establishes the sea as a motif indicative of vital risk and peril, drawing parallels between the ocean and death—which critics so often associate with inevitability—before using this association to extend the implications of nautical imagery to denote dominance. By deviating from the archetypal norm, where vast oceans signify rebirth and purity, Joyce illuminates the intersection at which the engulfing power of the sea aligns with male sexuality. By associating men with the ocean and women with perfume, Joyce acknowledges the discrepancy between masculine autonomy and feminine constraint.

Joyce’s work demonstrates a consistent linguistic topography that proves representative of Modernist literature. Joyce juxtaposes floral imagery with the ocean, which he uses as a motif for the authoritative nature of male sexuality. He unites these distinct realms of imagery to evoke perfume, which he employs as a mechanism to denote and ultimately incriminate female sexuality—though Molly attempts to reclaim her individuality in the Penelope episode of Ulysses. While his dexterity in creating this symbolic duality appears incredibly adroit and even unique, the prose of several of Joyce’s American and Bloomsbury contemporaries mirrors his own sinuous style and tendency toward imagistic continuity.

Readers may feel unsurprised, then, to find similar streams of imagery in works such as William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End and A Room with a View, Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, all of which contrast aqueous and floral imagery to evoke the power of death and the varying shades and conventions of male and female sexuality. Consequently, however, as with Joyce’s body of work, there follows the question of whether the sexual and inherently misogynistic biases of these patterns result from authorial sentiment, temporal cultural influences, or universal tropes—and, if the latter proves true, how past literature may inform contemporary literature in the face of society’s shifting views on gender, sexuality, and individual expression. And what’s the role of a writer, after all, besides learning from what’s already been written?


Talin Tahajian grew up near Boston. Her poetry has appeared (or will soon appear) in PANK, Word Riot, DIAGRAM, Best New Poets 2014, Washington Square Review, and on Verse Daily. Recently, she was a finalist for the 2014 Indiana Review Poetry Prize, judged by Eileen Myles. She will attend the University of Cambridge in the fall, where she will study English literature and attempt to assimilate.