Susan S. Brown: James Joyce's American Beauty
Articles » November 2000







Joyce's American Beauty
Joyce's American Beauty.

In the "Nausicaa" chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses, a virginal exhibitionist, Gerty McDowell, flashes her "knickers. . .the wondrous revealment, half-offered like those skirt-dancers" at Leopold Bloom, igniting his sexual fireworks on a beach in Dublin (366). In a film set almost 100 years later in an American suburb, another virginal seductress flips her dance skirt, giving admirers a peek at her panties, and inspires Bloom's modern incarnation, Lester Burnham, into a similar burst of auto-eroticism.

The "metempsychosis" of Leopold Bloom into Lester Burnham isn't the only astonishing similarity between Ulysses and American Beauty. When screenwriter Alan Ball accepted the 2000 Golden Globe and Academy Awards for his screenplay of American Beauty, he owed a substantial debt--albeit universally unnoticed and, as he claimed in a telephone interview, "unintended"--to Joyce's masterpiece, the book chosen just months earlier by the Modern Library editorial board as the "best novel" of the Twentieth Century.

Yes, the ending of American Beauty represents a major departure from the plot of Joyce's novel--but an explicable one in a modern update of the Ulysses saga. Late twentieth-century audiences, who have become desensitized to escalating media violence over the past 100 years and have, in fact, developed an appetite
for gore, require a bloody resolution. Despite the ending, we are left with striking reincarnations of Irish urbanites into suburban American personalities.






We see the Canvasser at work
We see the canvasser at work.
Consider other parallels: heroes Leopold Bloom and Lester Burnham (same initials, LB) are both middle-aged, middle-class, mediocre, unappreciated admen (Lester describes himself as "a whore for the advertising industry"[49], neither of whom has had sex with their wives in years . Ultimately both Bloom and Lester yearn to regain the past unity and warmth of their homes.







We used to be happy.
We used to be happy.
Bloom muses, "I was happier then" and fantasizes he could "somehow reappear reborn" to his marriage bed with wife Molly (728) while Lester tells us, "That's my wife Carolyn. . . . We used to be happy" and vows, "It's never too late to get it back" (2, 5). Both also feel displaced by a growing estrangement from their teenage daughters: Bloom's surviving child, Milly, and Lester's only child, Jane.







Every man his own wife.  A honeymoon in the hand
Every man his own wife. A honeymoon in the hand.
To compensate for their non-existent sex lives, both Leopold and Lester turn first to solo sex in the bath (or in Lester's case, the shower) and both enjoy adulterous, guilty dreams of unorthodox sexual practices, often accompanied by flower imagery. Eventually, our heroes masturbate a second time in response to what Joyce describes in the "Ithaca" chapter of Ulysses as "the eroticism produced by feminine exhibitionism (rite of Onan)" (729).

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Susan Sutliff Brown has published numerous articles and reviews for the Joyce industry and currently serves as Freshman English czar at Manatee Community College in Bradenton, Florida and as a creative writer director at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. She has worked as a journalist and as the private editor of published memoirs and fiction. Incidentally, she believes Alan Ball.




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