The bestial feminine in Finnegans Wake

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Lovejoy, Laura
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Female characters frequently appear as animals in the unstable universe of James Joyce’s a Finnegans Wake. What Kimberly Devlin terms “the male tendency to reduce women to the level of the beast” is manifest in Finnegans Wake on a large scale. From the hen pecking at a dung heap which we suppose is a manifestation of matriarch Anna Livia Plurabelle, to the often lascivious pig imagery (reminiscent of Bloom’s experience with brothel-keeper Bella in the “Circe” episode of Ulysses) associated with juvenile seductress Issy, the lines between animal and human are frequently blurred when it comes to representing the feminine in the Wake. As scholars such as Devlin have highlighted, such constellations of images have their roots in blatantly misogynistic iconographies. Indeed, the reinscription of female characters into bestial roles in the Wake echoes a religious history of the dehumanisation of women. Yet, while this gendered representational tendency has been noted in Joycean and, more recently, wider modernist studies, its deployment and impact as a cultural and literary trope has not yet been interpreted according to the sociohistorical and cultural contexts which shaped the composition of Finnegans Wake. In particular, the culturally-specific sexual politics of Free State Ireland (1922–1937), against which Joyce arguably pushes throughout the entirety of the Wake, offer a suggestive lens through which to view the text’s interconnected representations of the feminine and the bestial. This article suggests that, in Finnegans Wake, the nonhuman is a mode through which Joyce explores the fraught sexual politics of early twentieth-century Ireland. Specifically, the bestial feminine becomes an avenue to inspect, expose, and satirise prevalent contemporary fears over female sexual licentiousness and national moral decline. Historicising the text’s grappling with themes of carnality and baseness, the article discusses the ways in which the woman-as-animal is deployed in Finnegans Wake as a grotesque symbol of an unbridled and threatening female sexuality—an extreme embodiment of 1920s and 1930s Ireland’s worst fears surrounding the perceived degeneration of Irish women’s modesty. Unearthing the Wake’s social contexts in order to interpret its sexual politics, this article ultimately asks whether the trope of the woman-as-animal stages a complete resistance against the conservatism of early twentieth-century Ireland’s sexual politics, or whether Joyce’s invocation of a historically misogynistic and patriarchal construction risks reinforcing the dehumanisation of women, moving the text’s sexual politics further away from the liberatory
James Joyce , Animals , Women , Sexual politics , Gender , Modernism
Lovejoy, L. (2017) 'The bestial feminine in Finnegans Wake', Humanities, 6(3), 58 (15pp). doi: 10.3390/h6030058
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