One of the most famous literary references to Gibraltar is the final chapter of James Joyce’s quintessentially Irish novel Ulysses. Molly Bloom, the wife of the central character Leopold Bloom, recalls her youth growing up on the island in a long stream-of-consciousness soliloquy that establishes the exotic location as an important, if surprising, presence in Ulysses. In a novel set entirely within one day in Dublin, the final word goes to Molly and Gibraltar.
Gibraltar became a British outpost when Sir George Rooke took it from Spain on July 24, 1704. Since then it has supported a large naval and military presence due to its strategically advantageous location at the mouth of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. It is this military, predominantly male, society in which the fictitious character of Molly Bloom is raised. She spent her youth on the Rock, as it is colloquially known, before moving to Ireland with her father. Her reminiscences of the place, however, are filled with warmth, color and femininity establishing a contrast to the male narratives of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus which have dominated the book up to that point.
Molly remembers the heat and the sensual physicality of the hot nights: “I used to be weltering then in the heat, my shift drenched with the sweat.” She remembers the color of the sky, of the buildings and the vibrant plants: “O and the sea, the sea crimson sometimes like fire, and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens; yes, and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses.” In commemoration of these evocative lines, the Alameda Gardens now feature a statue of young Molly Bloom rushing home to beat curfew.
Molly’s Gibraltar heritage also allows Joyce to forge an explicit connection between Dublin, the setting of the novel, and the Mediterranean, the setting of Homer’s Odyssey, to which the novel alludes. As Molly remembers falling in love with her husband she begins to return to the past, and blurs her recollection of that moment with a memory of a passionate kiss with a young soldier in the Alameda Gardens. Gibraltar has, for the British, always symbolised the exotic and far-flung, and it is this vision Joyce exploits. It was the end of the known world to ancient mariners, and a resting point for travelers throughout Europe and Africa. In Molly’s soliloquy, she brings a burst of sunshine to the streets of Dublin.