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Working Women Weaving Tales in Ovid's Metamorphoses and James Joyce's Finnegans Wake

Cynthia Hornbeck

James Joyce's literary debt to Ovid's Metamorphoses is unquestionable. Having first encountered the Metamorphoses as part of his studies at Belvedere College, he used a line from that work as the epigraph to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: et ignotas animum dimittit in artes (Met. 8.188). In Ulysses, a work more overtly preoccupied with Homer, Ovid's influence is found in the single-minded narration of the "Cyclops" episode, in Bloom's daylong preoccupation with metempsychosis and in the various metamorphoses occurring in the "Circe" episode (See Senn 1989 and Freedman 2009). However, despite Fritz Senn's assertion, "that Finnegans Wake is metamorphosis in progress is self-evident "(Senn 1992, p. 401), the intertextual relationship between the Metamorphoses and Joyce's last novel has been little discussed. Like Ovid's carmen perpetuum, Joyce's "meandertale" (FW 18.22) covers the history of the world, from before the flood up to Joyce's own time. It mingles ancient myths, including those of Midas, Philomela, Hyacinthus, and Io, with modern politics, and contains numerous "tales within tales" (FW 522.05), in which characters transform into trees, stones, and rivers.

This paper will begin by summarizing Joyce's knowledge of Ovid and broadly sketching the resemblances between the Metamorphoses and Finnegans Wake. It will then focus in depth on one example of Joyce's debt to Ovid: chapter I.8 of Finnegans Wake, in which two old washerwomen tell each other stories about Anna Livia Plurabelle, the female protagonist of Finnegans Wake who personifies the river Liffey. Literally and figuratively airing Dublin's dirty laundry, the washerwomen gossip about Anna Livia's youthful sexual adventures and difficult marriage in order to pass the time. As evening falls at the chapter's end, the two washerwomen gradually transform into an elm tree and a stone. Grace Eckley has recognized that Ovid's Metamorphoses inspired the washerwomen's transformation, seeking precedents in the stories of Daphne, Baucis and Philemon, and Dryope (Eckley 1975). This paper will argue, however, that in content and form FW I.8 most closely resembles the Minyeides episode (Met. 4.1–415), in which three sisters entertain each other as they work by telling stories, until Bacchus arrives at dusk and punishes the sisters by transforming the them into bats and their work into vines. 

Situated within an ancient tradition of women singing as they work, the women's storytelling is compared to their weaving, spinning, and manipulating cloth. Moreover, both Ovid and Joyce use the vocabulary of weaving textiles and spinning yarns to explain their own literary techniques. The female narrators in both texts tell tales about romantic love and scandalous desire, perhaps because such things are absent from their daily lives. Joyce's washerwomen, underscoring his debt to Ovid, repeatedly compare Anna Livia and her husband to characters from Classical myth: Deucalion and Pyrrha, Daphne and Apollo, Leda and Zeus, Romulus and the Sabine women. Just as Leuconoe's tale of Venus and Mars reshapes a story sung by Homer's Demodocus, the washerwomen's stories integrate and transform ancient epic, suggesting, as John Heath has observed, the close relationship between epic poetry, gossip, "old wives' tales" and women's work songs (Heath 2011). 

These two depictions of women recounting myths in order to mentally escape from their work juxtapose epic content with the familiar and quotidien. This paper will conclude, therefore, by touching on the authors' shared preoccupation with the everyday. Finnegans Wake continues Joyce's lifelong project of adapting epic myths and language to represent the realities of modern Dublin. Ovid, by emphasizing the mundane mise-en-scene of the Minyeides' stories, demonstrates that storytelling is ubiquitous in everyday life, and Bacchus' sudden arrival and the sisters' metamorphosis brings the extraordinary into the everyday, implying that the line between them is as thin as thread. Blending epic and everyday, the Metamorphoses anticipates modernism's struggle to make the small dramas of daily existence as remarkable and significant as the founding of Rome, or Pyramus and Thisbe's fatal and star-crossed love. 

Session/Panel Title

Unhistorical Receptions of Ancient Narrative

Session/Paper Number

42.2

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