Serving ‘a Male Philosophy’? Elizabeth Costello’s Feminism and Coetzee’s Dialogues with Joyce


In this essay, I show that J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is shaped fundamentally by an engagement with Joyce’s Ulysses. However, the relationship between the two does not reveal itself in the rewriting of Joyce’s ‘Penelope’ that Costello’s literary and feminist reputation relies on, but through a range of references to ‘Scylla and Charybdis’, the ninth episode of Ulysses set in the National Library of Ireland and populated exclusively by men. Elizabeth Costello alludes to ‘Scylla and Charybdis’, I argue, because its philosophical dialogue, its dramatic form, its preoccupation with creativity, its investment in the life and reputation of the writer, and its attentiveness to the materiality of writing, offer Coetzee a model for his literary-philosophical experiments of the period. Drawing on archival evidence and published sources, the essay explores the apparent contradiction between Costello’s avowed feminist reclamation of Molly Bloom and the consistent intertextual engagement with ‘Scylla and Charybdis’, positioning the question of gender centrally within Coetzee’s broader engagement with philosophy in this period.

J.M. Coetzee’s authorial avatar Elizabeth Costello not only enjoys, like her creator, a significant international reputation as a writer, but an international reputation as a feminist writer.1 She ‘made her name’, we are told on the opening page of Elizabeth Costello (2003), with the 1969 novel The House on Eccles Street, whose main character is Molly Bloom, wife of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) (1) According to Susan Moebius, an academic who interviews Costello in the opening lesson, The House on Eccles Street is a ‘path-breaking’ feminist work, part of ‘the project of reclaiming women’s lives in general’ (12). Costello herself insists that she is not ‘challenging Joyce’, as Moebius claims, but her description of Molly Bloom plays into Moebius’s reading, while converging metaphorically with her recent commitment to animal welfare: ‘Queen bee, bitch . . . a lioness . . . stalking the streets, smelling the…

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Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: Gender - Literary portrayal, Modernism, J.M. Coetzee, James Joyce.

Cite as: Kelly, Michelle. ‘Serving ‘a Male Philosophy’? Elizabeth Costello’s Feminism and Coetzee’s Dialogues with Joyce.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018, doi: 10.20314/als.79b435225d.