This post is part of a series that takes a closer look at the scholarship in the articles and issues of IU Press journals. Posts may respond to articles, provide background, document the development process, or explain why scholars are excited about the journal, theme, or article and are primarily written by journal editors and contributors.
By Julie McCormick Weng, author of "Her 'Bisexycle,' Her Body, and Her Self-Propulsion in Finnegans Wake" in issue 39.4 of the Journal of Modern Literature.
My first foray into James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake took place in a graduate seminar with Joyce scholar Vicki Mahaffey. I was mesmerized by the text’s vivid blend of languages, images, and inventive plays on words. Although moved, I was also mystified. The “novel” has no obvious narrative arc, and reading sentences—even words—was at times challenging. What was a reader to glean from such a seemingly impenetrable text? My sentiments shifted, however, when I discovered the following image in a scene where the main characters’ three children—Shem, Shaun, and Issy—study geometry (among other subjects).
In a text that both dazzled and dizzied me, I found this image comforting. Here was discrete form, an attractive starting point for understanding how Joyce weaves together textual and visual media—images and words—to convey meaning. The more I studied the image, however, the more I felt that from it, Joyce had let loose some wild and thrilling signal that went beyond words and images, reaching into the trenches of modern culture and history. I knew I needed to investigate further.
My own scholarly interests include representations of machines in modernist texts. I was intrigued, therefore, when I discovered that Joyce links this image to a bicycle (it is also a map of Dublin, a woman’s pudendum, and more). Joyce then joins the bicycle with the initials of the novel’s primary heroine Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP). But why? And to what effect?
In parallel research I was doing at this time, I noted that bicycles appeared frequently in Irish modernist texts. From the works of Samuel Beckett to those of Flann O’Brien—Irish modernists seemed fixated on bicycles. Yet Joyce’s use of the vehicle appeared to differ from his contemporaries. Unlike Beckett’s and O’Brien’s exclusively male bicyclists, Joyce depicts only female bicyclists in the Wake, and he does so in a remarkably positive light. At a time when women could scandalize their communities by riding bicycles—see E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread for such an example—Joyce paints favorable portrayals of these women athletes. Thus, my contribution to Journal of Modern Literature explores the complicated sexual politics of bicycles during the first half of the twentieth century. I show that Joyce casts women cyclists as empowered sexual, maternal, and narrative agents. During my research, I found this latter connection to be the most surprising as well as the most exciting. Joyce’s cyclists not only handle their “bisexycles,” as he calls them, with ease, they also act as metaphorical cyclists through menstruation and childbearing (FW 104.4). Yet these biological processes do not confine them to the limits of their physiological matter alone. The power of their bodies to produce children—ALP’s ability to conceive Shem, Shaun, and Issy, during her body’s cycles, for instance—evinces the power of women to propel life cycles and narrative cycles. In Joyce’s text, these “bisexycle[-ing]” women are at the helm of creation.
Joyce’s bicyclists are thus manifestations of, what he calls, “that New Free Woman with novel inside” (FW 145.29). Like the entirety of Finnegans Wake, this line operates in multiple manners. It references the creative potential of women who have “novel” stories buried both literally (biologically) and figuratively within them. It gestures also to the turn-of-the-twentieth-century’s “New Woman,” a first-wave feminist figure who refused to submit to traditional women’s roles. And it points additionally to The New Freewoman, a magazine spearheaded by Dora Marsden, Rebecca West, and Harriet Shaw Weaver, the last of whom served as Joyce’s patron and publisher. By invoking these multiple associations, Joyce emphasizes women’s sexual embodiment, political agency, and creative output. And he uses the bicycle as a vehicle for underscoring these very qualities. What I discovered in Finnegans Wake is that Joyce places his bicyclists at the forefront of the possible, letting them blaze their own paths willfully—or as he writes, “deliberatively”—in whatever direction they so choose (FW 115.15). While you won’t find Joyce’s term in the dictionary, it does reveal the kind of liberation in which his bicyclists engage: one literally bookended by their own self-driven deliberate deliberations. What a wonderful kind of freedom!
Although this article stands alone in Journal of Modern Literature, it serves also as a subsection of a chapter from my dissertation, Irish Modernism and the Machine. In the chapter, I show that Joyce’s female bicyclists are foils to Beckett’s Molloy, a clumsy, disoriented, and impotent male bicyclist, one seemingly disempowered at every turn (pun intended). As with many of his protagonists, however, Beckett uses Molloy’s feebleness to challenge traditional narrative codes that rely on hyper-masculine, able-bodied, and athletic heroes. Beckett instead gives center stage to an entirely unconventional character who is irregular, original, and, by being so, progressive. In Molloy, too, we encounter the possible as we find a new story. Together, Joyce and Beckett both offer discomfiting depictions of characters that challenge us to read differently and to reconstruct our views of femininity, masculinity, and storytelling.
Finally, I believe Joyce’s admiration of self-propelling women is important, both for his era and our own. During Joyce’s lifetime, some parts of the world were only just beginning to open their eyes to their systematic suppression and disenfranchisement of women. And unfortunately, today, while women in many countries enjoy immense liberties, gross inequalities and abuses remain prevalent and, more troublingly, perceived as acceptable social and cultural norms. Through his bicyclists, Joyce resists the social and cultural impulses of his generation. He offers instead an affirmation of early-twentieth-century feminist causes by artistically showcasing women’s dynamism, an attribute not typically admired in women of his age. Joyce’s representation of women and bicycles in the Wake thus serves not (only) as a fantastical myth or portrait of a distant past but as a provocative commentary on our present experiences of the gendered human condition. Against the grain, Joyce imaginatively displays women’s physical strength, individuality, and robust powers of the mind—the most necessary of ingredients in furthering equality and seeking justice and change across boundaries of difference.
Read Julie McCormick Weng's article "Her 'Bisexycle,' Her Body, and Her Self-Propulsion in Finnegans Wake" in issue 39.4 of the Journal of Modern Literature, which is available now on JSTOR.