I can’t help but notice the subtle smile that appears on people’s faces when I tell them my son’s name. In many ways it comes with the territory. When you choose to devote your professional life to one author, people are bound to view you as more than a student or a fan. Case in point, ever since I decided I was going to focus my career on James Joyce, most people I’ve met have viewed me as the most rabid of Joyce fanboys, a person who loves his works more than anything and whose every decision is guided by that passion.
Never was this more apparent than when my wife and I were expecting our first child, and everyone was speculating on its name. And everybody assumed that the name we settled on would be Joycean. If I had a nickel for every person who joked that we should name our child James if it was a boy and Joyce if it was a girl, I’d be able to retire early. And while we did not take that suggestion, the name we did use did nothing to dispel views of me as a Joyce fanatic. Hence the smile that appears on people’s faces when I tell them my son’s name is Stephen. And the quip that inevitably follows:
“Oh, I bet I know who he’s named after…”
To set the record straight, our son is not named after Stephen Dedalus. He is named after the same Catholic saint for whom Joyce’s young artist also serves as a namesake, but common name origin doesn’t always equate to direct inspiration. And in this case, there’s a clear reason why I never considered naming my son after young master Dedalus.
I’m not all that sure I really like Stephen Dedalus.
Now, two quick clarifications. First, my dislike for Stephen Dedalus does not mean that I dislike the author that created him. For all of the similarities between them (and they are legion), James Joyce and Stephen Dedalus are not the same person. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man may be the fictionalized autobiography of Joyce’s early years, but this does not mean that everything Stephen says or does is a reflection of the writer he embodies. In fact, it is now widely accepted that Joyce intentionally created distance between himself and Stephen so that the audience could evaluate his character more critically. For example, in his memoir My Brother’s Keeper, Joyce’s brother Stanislaus writes that “A Portrait of the Artist is not an autobiography; it is an artistic creation,” and that “Stephen Dedalus is an imaginary, not a real, self-portrait and freely treated” (pp. 17; 48). In Dublin’s Joyce, Hugh Kenner notes that “In the reconceived Portrait Joyce abandoned the original intention of writing the account of his own escape from Dublin” and “recast Stephen Dedalus as a figure who could not even detach himself from Dublin because he had formed himself on a denial of Dublin’s values” (p. 112). And in The Antimodernism of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Weldon Thornton argues that “Though Joyce treats Stephen sympathetically, he reveals in a number of ways the insufficiencies of Stephen’s implicit view of reality and of the self” (p. 3). Thus, though Stephen is widely considered to be Joyce’s fictional doppelganger, they are not twins, and Joyce’s critical portrait of his young artist enables us to admire the author at the same time that we may be cringing at his protagonist.
Second, my dislike for Stephen Dedalus does not mean that I also dislike the novel he stars in. In fact, my introduction to Joyce came through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man almost twenty years ago. I remember being assigned Portrait during my senior year in high school and being immediately drawn to both the audacity of a novel beginning with the childlike story of baby Tuckoo with no context and the masterful language used to capture young Stephen’s thoughts. This was essentially my introduction to modernism, the literary period that would dominate my professional life, and while I didn’t know what modernism was at the time, I was immediately taken with its experimental creativity and rich internal monologue. I recall my teacher asking me what I thought of the novel and telling her that I wish I could write a quarter as well as Joyce did. So, like many people, my first impression of Joyce was an admiration of what he could do with language, and it was Portrait that created that impression.
The next time I encountered Joyce was three-and-a-half years later, and again, it was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that brought him into my life. This time, it was the novel’s famous set pieces that drew me in: the world’s most awkward Christmas dinner undone by Parnell’s downfall; the rapturous beach scene where Stephen transforms a girl into a bird; Father Arnall’s chilling hellfire sermon, a thirty-page masterclass of Catholic guilt that scares the audience witless as it terrifies Stephen into repentance.
And although I had read and relished Ulysses by the time I caught up with Stephen again in grad school, it was Portrait that framed most of my early scholarly work. This was when I discovered Stephen Hero, Joyce’s initial draft of Portrait that was legendarily thrown into a fire by its frustrated author and recovered by his sister, and I loved lining this manuscript up against Portrait‘s fifth chapter to see how it enriched my reading of the novel. I particularly enjoyed the parts of Stephen Hero that didn’t make the final cut in Portrait, especially Stephen’s presentation of his “Art and Life” paper at the university debating society and the self-righteous backlash to it. And from that, I became more and more fascinated with Joyce’s portrayal of the social and religious conformity imposed upon his young protagonist, and so Stephen Hero and Portrait became springboards to explore the repressive definitions of Irishness that were imposed upon Stephen, “nets” of “nationality, religion, [and] language” that he attempted to “fly by” through a resistance platform of “non serviam” and tactics of “silence, exile, and cunning” (Portrait, pp. 177; 109; 213)
And so my coming of age as a Joyce scholar and fan was largely centered around Joyce’s famous coming-of-age story, and while the reasons changed each time Stephen’s Portrait entered and exited my life, my love for the novel and the many ways it enriched my studies never wavered. But none of those reasons were ever Stephen himself. In fact, the more my exposure to and love for Portrait increased, the more my irritation over Stephen’s actions in the novel increased as well. And the more I became a consumer of Ulysses and found myself drawn to Leopold and Molly Bloom, the further that irritation with Stephen grew. It’s a literary phenomenon I had never experienced – love the novel, hate the protagonist – but it’s largely influenced the role Portrait and Stephen have occupied in my careers as a Joycean and teacher for years.
This year, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man celebrates its 100th year of publication, and, as part of my centennial celebration, maybe it’s time to reexamine my feelings about Stephen Dedalus and to see if I can reach a more productive understanding of Joyce’s famous alter ego.
Of course, it’s never been a requirement that Joyce’s protagonists be likable. In fact, his early fiction is filled with main characters whose thoughts and actions deservedly earn a side eye. There’s Corley and Lenehan, for example, who spend the entirety of “Two Gallants” trying to scam the servant girl Corley is dating. There’s James Duffy in “A Painful Case,” whose demand for isolation causes him to coldly reject the lonely Mrs Sinico and brood on his own loneliness even after becoming aware of her tragic death. Tom Kernan could be considered sympathetic in another author’s story, a suffering alcoholic either helped or exploited by his friends, depending on your take. But because Joyce wrote “Grace” as a religious satire, Kernan comes across as a buffoon and an easy dupe. And Gabriel Conroy might come to a somewhat productive understanding of his wife at the end of “The Dead,” but he spends the majority of that story as a patronizing know-it-all whose pretensions of cultural superiority are consistently the butt of his author’s jokes. Indeed, the Blooms may be Joyce’s most famous and likable protagonists, but they’re grossly outnumbered by the major players of the writer’s early stories when it comes to assessing the sympathetic nature of Joyce’s main characters.
And to me, Stephen Dedalus has always topped the list of Joycean protagonists I just could not get behind. Looking back on my introduction to Stephen, it seems weird that I would feel this way. I encountered Portrait for the first time in my late teens and was reintroduced to it in my early twenties, which would make me around the age of Stephen in the novel’s later chapters. So I would have been at the right age to sympathize with his desire to rebel against the establishment and forge his own path. But at that time, I was distracted by other elements of the book, and so Stephen’s rebellious nature took a backseat to language and style. In a way, I was like the Stephen of “Nestor,” who could be helped through his mourning for his mother by his student’s recitation of Milton’s “Lycidas,” but is too distracted by his memories of Paris to pay attention.
So it was an older me who began to pay explicit attention to Stephen himself, and by that point, his personality started to grate. While I could admire his refusal to submit to social forces dictating how he should live his life, I was frustrated by how he seemed to apply the same logic to his family and friends. Taking the idea of “with me all or not at all” to the extreme (Ulysses, p. 475, 15.4228-9), Stephen seemed to demand absolute loyalty in the people he met, enjoying the company of others as long as those others were full-fledged disciples of Dedalus, only to quickly and rudely cast them aside the second they voiced the slightest disagreement.
For example, I never felt his falling out with his father in Chapter five to be either surprising or problematic given Simon Dedalus’s destructive influence on Stephen’s early life, but I always found him to be too hard on his mother. To be sure, May Dedalus’s devout Catholicism would always put her at odds with Stephen’s rebellious rejection of the church, but I couldn’t help feeling he went overboard in pushing his mother away. This was especially apparent towards the end of Chapter Four, when Stephen reflects on his mother’s hesitation to his choice of a university career:
Yes, his mother was hostile to the idea, as he had read from her listless silence. Yet her mistrust pricked him more keenly than his father’s pride and he thought coldly how he had watched the faith which was fading down in his soul aging and strengthening in her eyes. A dim antagonism gathered force within him and darkened his mind as a cloud against her disloyalty: and when it passed, cloud like, leaving his mind serene and dutiful towards her again, he was made aware dimly and without regret of a first noiseless sundering of their lives. (p. 146)
Here, Stephen’s anger would seem appropriate as a reaction to a hostile argument between mother and son, perhaps culminating in a maternal denouncing or disowning of her rebellious child. Yet I’m always struck by Stephen’s bitterness being brought about by his mother’s “listless silence,” an “antagonism” to a “disloyalty” revealed without a word uttered. I wonder how much of this “mistrust” and “listless[ness]” is read into by a Stephen expecting the people around him to reject him, and I can’t help but feel that he’s overreacting. And while the rest of Portrait‘s portrayals of mother and son are sparse and vague, that feeling still remains. May Dedalus may disapprove of Stephen’s movement away from the church and still wish him to make his Easter duty, but she also still seems to really love him and take care of him throughout Chapter Five, and his reaction always seems to be a blanket dismissal of her.
That sentiment frequently creeps into how I’ve seen most of Stephen’s reactions with his friends and loved ones in Portrait‘s fifth chapter. In what should be Stephen’s coming out party as a revolutionary artist, I find myself more amused by Lynch’s sarcastic quips that interrupt Stephen’s reflections on “integritas, consonantia, [and] claritas” (p. 184). And I can’t help but see Cranly as a voice of reason that Stephen just can’t accept when declaring his resolution to leave Dublin to forge his own path through “silence, exile, and cunning.” This is to say nothing of Stephen’s treatment of Emma (who’s primarily referred to as E.C. in the novel), the girl he broods over throughout the middle of Portrait, only to cast off when he suspects her of flirting with a priest. And what did E.C. do to reveal this flirtatiousness to Stephen? In response to Father Moran’s declaration that “the ladies are coming round” to the language movement, she replies:
-And the church, Father Moran? (p. 191)
Oh no, she didn’t! Tell me she didn’t just play the “and the church, Father Moran” card! So shameless!
I then saw Stephen’s reaction as indicative of his perpetual overreaction, as he leaves the room in a huff, angry that E.C. would “unveil her soul’s shy nakedness, to one who was but schooled in the discharging of a formal rite rather than to him, a priest of the eternal imagination” (p. 192). So it’s really E.C.’s devotion to a church Stephen rejected that entices him to leave her behind, just as his recognition that Cranly “felt then the sufferings of women” and “would shield them with a strong and resolute arm and bow his mind to them” lets Stephen know that “it’s time to go” and that “his friendship was coming to an end” (p. 211). So Cranly can empathize with other people too? Have to get rid of that guy! For a person who refuses to serve the desires of other people, Stephen consistently demands that service from everyone he holds dear, and so it’s not surprising that he ends the novels he appears in flying solo.
And Stephen Hero only magnified my dislike of Stephen. As I mentioned above, Stephen Hero is the published fragment of the rough draft of Portrait, specifically equating to Portrait‘s fifth chapter, so many of the episodes line up to the published novel. However, Stephen’s egotism is also significantly ramped up in Stephen Hero, which frequently makes these versions of the Chapter Five conflicts more caustic and volatile. For example, Joyce gave more sustained attention the relationship between Stephen (last name now spelled Daedalus) and his mother in the draft version, and that further treatment only strengthened my conviction that he was too hard on her. While some readers of Stephen Hero focus on May Daedalus’s harsher criticisms of Stephen and her destruction of his books, I always felt she was provoked by a Stephen who deliberately baited her into getting upset at his criticisms of her religion. Of course, she’s wrong to destroy his stuff, but Stephen is in no way the victim here, as he purposefully gets her to react this way so that he can show how much of a threat to his individual freedom she really is.
His treatment of Emma Clery is even worse. While Joyce does give her a full name in Stephen Hero, that’s the only benefit the draft’s E.C. receives, as Stephen Daedalus is substantially harsher towards her faith than Portrait‘s version is, even going so far as to reference her “stupidity” on more than one occasion (p. 66). Maybe it’s the extra A that makes him extra aggravating. In one shocking scene, Stephen actually propositions Emma to “live one night together, Emma, and then to say goodbye in the morning and never to see each other again” (p. 197), and when she runs away in tears, he feels satisfied in having revealed her to be “the most deceptive and cowardly of marsupials” (p. 210). Thus, in combining initial manuscript and final novel, Stephen Hero and Portrait became Joyce’s portrait of the artist as a young egomaniac, and the extent to which his loved ones took a humiliating backseat to his desire to “express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can” consistently turned me off (Portrait, p. 213)
Plus, I couldn’t help but wonder what this commitment to individual expression really got him. It could seem extreme but justifiable for Stephen to cast aside everyone who might be an obstacle to his desired path if he ended up becoming a successful poet. But whereas Stephen triumphantly leaves Dublin determined to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” at the end of Portrait (p. 218), he’s back just two years later in Ulysses, living a meager life with Buck Mulligan and Haines and mostly running away from the ghost of his mother. Plus, Stephen’s literary creations in both Portrait and Ulysses are few and far between. In the former, he composes two poems about E.C. (the second one being the “Villanelle of the Temptress” that explicitly castigates her “ardent ways,” which I touched on above), though he shares neither poem with anyone. In the latter, he writes a vampire poem (which, again, he does not share), recites the “Parable of the Plums” to the Freeman’s Journal employees (who get a patronizing chuckle out of it), and presents his Shakespeare theory to some literary bigwigs at the National Library of Ireland (who reject it and then invite everyone in attendance except Stephen to a party). And when he finally finds a sympathetic person in Bloom willing to help him out, he rejects his assistance and is last seen exiting Eccles Street and out of Ulysses. In the end, Joyce’s portrait of Stephen Dedalus seemed to me to be a depiction of pointless egotism, a championing of radical individuality that casts everyone aside who isn’t a pure acolyte, all in the service of an “uncreated conscience” that never gets “forge[d].”
That’s the image of Stephen Dedalus that has stuck with me for years. Every time I returned to Portrait and Stephen Hero, I could never shake the idea that Stephen was an unnecessarily harsh narcissist whose inability to compromise proved his undoing, and the more familiar I became with Bloom, the more I began to appreciate his desire to understand other people’s perspectives and the easier it was to dismiss Stephen’s rigidity. And, in that way, my perceptions mirrored Joyce, who famously told Frank Budgen:
“I have just got a letter asking me why I don’t give Bloom a rest. The writer of it wants more Stephen. But Stephen no longer interests me to the same extent. He has a shape that can’t be changed.” (p. 107)
For my part, it resulted in extremely critical assessments of Stephen in both my writing and teaching. Professors and readers would consistently tell me to go easier on Stephen because my arguments about him were too one-sided and negative. Whenever I would teach Portrait in my Twentieth Century British Literature courses, my treatment of Stephen would vary between “mildly annoyed” and “scorched earth” depending on the mood he put me in during that semester, but the narrative would always stay the same. The young artist who fancied himself as Daedalus was held back by an excessive pride that doomed him to be Icarus instead.
But now I wonder if I’ve really been fair to Stephen. To be sure, I still don’t think he goes about everything in the right way, but the more I reflect on my reactions to young Kinch, the more I can’t help but think I’ve been guilty of the Dedalian overreaction I’ve always attributed to him. And I think the reasons for this are the reasons a lot of people might react more negatively to Stephen than maybe they should, especially if their experiences with him have moved beyond the pages of Portrait. From the moment I started paying explicit attention to Stephen, his character has always been defined by all three books that he’s appeared in, and that may have been a mistake. It’s only natural that Stephen Hero and Ulysses would influence my reaction to Portrait‘s protagonist, but I think this holistic approach has produced a more flawed Stephen and a more critical condemnation of those flaws that don’t do justice to the character.
For one thing, I wonder if Stephen Hero should be considered off-limits in evaluating Stephen’s behavior. Like I said above, Stephen Daedalus is substantially more dismissive and hostile than Stephen Dedalus, and reading Portrait‘s fifth chapter after having read Stephen Hero inevitably soured my reactions to Stephen’s rebellious pursuits and alienated me further from the character. But just as Joyce is not Stephen, the two Stephens are not the same person, and should a novel’s main character really be held accountable for the actions he committed in a rough draft that got eliminated or pared down in the revision process? Stephen Daedalus definitely acted egregiously towards his loved ones, but if the apocryphal story of Joyce throwing the fragments of Stephen Hero into the fire is true, then the author never meant for those egregious acts to see the light of day. It is similar to the recent backlash over Go Set a Watchman potentially tainting the character of Atticus Finch (particularly depending on how you interpret Harper Lee’s consent for that draft version of To Kill a Mockingbird to be published). If a character’s initially problematic actions are absent in the novel’s final draft, then do they still exist? If anything, toning down Stephen’s behavior from Stephen Hero to Portrait may be Joyce’s indicator that we are to view Stephen more charitably than we would have if the explicit hostility of the draft versions of these scenes were used. So while Stephen Hero is invaluable to manuscript research into Portrait‘s composition and Stephen’s development on the page, perhaps the episodes themselves should not be considered canon and influence our reactions to Stephen.
Also, I’m not sure that Stephen was done many favors by having his story carry over into Ulysses. As I’ve said in previous posts, Ulysses is my favorite novel and the Stephen chapters in it are fantastic. However, while Joyce did create a modern masterpiece in Ulysses, in many ways, he also created a 650 page truck that gets driven over his young artist in the process. In fact, there are several reasons why Ulysses may be responsible for people’s negative reactions to Stephen:
It makes Stephen a supporting player – in writing Ulysses, Joyce not only creates one of literature’s most likable protagonists in Leopold Bloom, but his framing Bloom’s Dublin wanderings through The Odyssey brilliantly highlights the importance of everyday life and raises the characteristics of Bloom that we love to heroic status. However, this brilliance comes at a price, because in casting Stephen as his epic’s Telemachus, Joyce transforms his previous star attraction into a supporting player in his own sequel, and the division between the Stephen and Bloom chapters of Ulysses is anything but equal. Stephen may lead off the novel with the three-chapter Telemachiad, but once Mr Leopold Bloom eats with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls, he practically consumes Stephen’s spotlight in the process. Not only is the number of Bloom-centric chapters greater than the number of Stephen-centric chapters (seven versus four), but Bloom’s chapters are typically longer than Stephen’s, so the division of Ulysses is even more skewed. And even though Stephen and Bloom share several chapters together, Bloom inevitably dominates those chapters as well (particularly “Oxen of the Sun,” “Circe,” and “Ithaca”).
This unequal division is important because the longer we spend with Bloom, the more drawn we become to the characteristics that make us love him: his compassion, empathy, and willingness to help others regardless of the cost to himself. Coincidentally, these qualities are at the heart of a lot of the main criticisms of Stephen: his uncompromising egotism and how it impacts his refusal to help others before he’s saved himself. Tellingly, in one of the chapters Bloom and Stephen share, “Wandering Rocks,” Bloom borrows a book he knows Molly would enjoy even though its adulterous themes throw his hardships back in his face, while Stephen refuses to help his struggling sister Dilly out of fear that such assistance would drown him. And the less time we spend in Stephen’s head, the easier it is to dismiss him along those lines, especially in comparison to the depth Joyce gives to Bloom’s internal monologue throughout Ulysses. Thus, while we may have been critical of Stephen in isolation while reading Portrait, those criticisms become magnified when he’s put in direct contrast to Dublin’s kindest person, and the fact that Ulysses quickly becomes the Bloom show only further stacks the deck against Stephen .
It shrouds Stephen’s Bloomsday odyssey in failure – want further proof that Joyce and Stephen are not the same person? 1904 was actually a fairly prolific year in Joyce’s literary career. He wrote his essay, “A Portrait of the Artist,” in January 1904, had completed chapter drafts of Stephen Hero from February through June, and would solicit Grant Richards to publish Chamber Music in a September 26, 1904 letter (Letters I 56). Also, in June or July 1904, George Russell would invite Joyce to submit short stories to The Irish Homestead for publication. The first of these stories, “The Sisters,” would appear in The Irish Homestead on August 13, 1904, less than two months after Bloomsday. Joyce also had developed the basic idea for Dubliners by this time, as he related in a 1904 letter to Constantine Curran (Letters I 55). So in the months leading up to and following the date immortalized in Ulysses, the initial building blocks of Joyce’s early literary output were slowly being put into place.
So why doesn’t Joyce give Stephen any such progress? There’s no indication that Stephen has drafted anything remotely close to the work his real-life doppelganger had written at that point. (In fact, the main reference to Chamber Music in Ulysses is a punning reflection on its title that Joyce actually gives to Bloom in “Sirens” instead of Stephen.) Instead, all Stephen has to show for himself are two E.C. poems (unshared), a vampire poem (unshared Douglas Hyde knock-off), a plummish parable (patronized), and a Shakespeare theory (rejected). And the Irish intellectual who primarily dismisses Stephen’s thoughts on Shakespeare and doesn’t invite him to that literary party? George Russell. Of course, Russell had not yet offered Joyce the spot in The Irish Homestead on June 16, 1904, but Joyce obviously knew Russell would do so a month later when Joyce was writing “Scylla and Charybdis” in 1918. So Joyce having Russell dismiss Stephen so categorically with nary a sign of hope is telling.
Instead, Stephen’s reflections on his literary career in Ulysses emphasize his lack of progress. Instead of referencing poems or stories he’s already composed, Stephen’s reflections on his own writing mostly consist of regretful reflections that he had thought he would have accomplished more at this point. For example, in “Proteus,” Stephen recalls:
Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F? O yes, but I prefer Q. Yes, but W is wonderful. O yes, W. Remember your epiphanies written on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria? Someone was to read them there after a few thousand years, a mahamanvantara. (p. 34; 3.139-44)
Of course, it’s possible Stephen has been writing in the interim between Portrait and Ulysses, but you’d think an artist as proud as Stephen would mention that. Instead, 22-year-old Stephen chides himself with lines like “You were going to do wonders” (p. 35, 3.192), as if he were an elderly Krapp sickened by his youthful ambition. Joyce’s 1904 could have provided Stephen with a reasonable foundation to build on his artistic resolutions from Portrait, but his withholding any semblance of this progress from Stephen emphasizes how far we’re supposed to see him having fallen.
Professional progress isn’t the only success Joyce denies Stephen. June 16, 1904 is famously celebrated as Bloomsday because it was the day Joyce took Nora Barnacle out for the first time. They would later leave Ireland together on October 8, 1904, and spend the rest of their lives together. Ulysses thus emerges as a great love story inspired by the beginning of Joyce’s great love. So what are Stephen’s romantic prospects in Ulysses? Is this hope of romantic salvation available to him? Aside from fantasizing about a “virgin at Hodges Figgis window” he saw a few days earlier (p. 40, 3.426-7), Stephen’s romantic musings are almost solely reflections on his own loneliness. There’s no E.C. available to him now; instead, he has only this:
Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me soon, now. What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me. (p. 41, 3.434-6)
And the great Joyce love story spawned on the day the novel takes place? Joyce gave that to Bloom as well, as the building of the author’s great romance finds its counterpart in the potential rekindling of the Blooms’ marriage through that beautiful concluding memory of Bloom’s proposal on Howth Head at the end of “Penelope.” One would think a semi-autobiographical novel of James Joyce’s 1904 would put Stephen in a better position, but his boredom with his early protagonist and increased interest in Bloom ends up depriving Stephen of the victories his author’s life could have provided him. Instead, he remains the brooding individual artist from Portrait‘s fifth chapter two years later with nothing to show for himself, which makes him an easier target of criticism.
It concludes Stephen’s story prematurely – Stephen may actually be the unsung casualty of Joyce’s 17 year fascination with the “Wholesale Safety Pun Factory” of Finnegans Wake. While the Blooms are at least given the hope of a happy ending at the conclusion of “Penelope,” Stephen leaves Ulysses in the middle of “Ithaca,” walking down Eccles Street towards … where exactly? Not his family’s home. Likely not his Martello tower, if his concluding thoughts in “Telemachus” are any indication. It’s one of literature’s great dangling plot threads that Joyce seems less interested in resolving the more he gets entranced by his polylingual dreamland. And it may be one of the reasons we may be so quick to see Stephen as a failure: he’s given such an unceremoniously awkward exit that his Bloomsday disappointment ends with a whimper instead of a bang. That’s unfortunate because, like the Blooms, Stephen will also wake up (somewhere) on June 17th and continue to try to forge his own artistic path on his own terms. So why are we more likely to see “Ithaca” as the final word on Stephen while we look longingly towards a reconciliation between Bloom and Molly that would have to occur on a date beyond the scope of the novel?
This assigning of closure to Stephen’s narrative is particularly distressing because, unlike the Blooms, Stephen is only 22 years old when Ulysses concludes. How can we evaluate the life of a person and judge it to be a failure when that person has barely even begun to live? Joyce may have had a more successful 1904 than Stephen, but even he hadn’t published anything beyond an individual poem or two by June 16. His first major publication would come two months later (under the pen name “Stephen Daedalus,” no less), so who’s to say a successful literary career isn’t still available to young master Dedalus? Just how long should it take to “forge” an “uncreated conscience”? Perhaps, just as we try to see the possibility of the Blooms’ reconciliation despite the day being primarily characterized by its sundering, we should similarly see Stephen’s narrative in Ulysses as endemic of his just having a bad day rather than the final confirmation of his failure.
And it’s curious to think how different Stephen’s journey in Ulysses ends compared with the conclusion of Portrait. Neither ending serves as the last word on Joyce’s young artist. (In fact, Ulysses really demonstrates how inconclusive Portrait‘s ending is). But Portrait‘s conclusion may do more justice to Stephen. It’s obviously not certain whether Stephen will succeed in the artistic agenda he sets out for himself as he resolves to leave Dublin. But Portrait‘s triumphant ending leaves open the possibility for success as well as failure (similar to the ending of “Penelope”), while Ulysses seemingly takes success off the table. It is precisely because a bildungsroman tells the coming of age of a young protagonist that it should end in such an open-ended and potentially hopeful fashion, since so much of that character’s story has yet to be written when the book closes. It’s what makes Stephen’s anticlimactic exit from Ulysses so galling: Joyce’s increased ambivalence towards Stephen essentially becomes the final net thrown to constrain his flight, making Stephen’s portrait as an artist the depiction of failure when really his painting is only the beginning of a discontinued series.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more envious I become of my students whose only exposure to Stephen Dedalus are through the pages of Portrait. I struggle to think back on my early exposure to Stephen and recall my thoughts about him when they weren’t also influenced by Stephen Hero and Ulysses. Maybe that’s the crux of the problem: the more we’re exposed to all of Joyce’s works, the more we naturally view Stephen as a character in three books rather than as the protagonist of one. And the big problem with that is that we then essentially freeze Stephen in time. Since Stephen Hero provides an alternative version of Portrait‘s fifth chapter and Ulysses picks his story up and concludes it two years later, then holistic readings of Stephen Dedalus primarily focus on him as a 20- to 22-year-old kid. And doing so makes us lose sight of the early moments in his life that drew us to him in the first place. The toddler entertained by his father’s story of the moocow, who resolves to marry Eileen Vance. The pushed-around boy who stands up to Father Dolan when he feels he’s been the victim of unfair punishment. The poor teenager traumatized by the terrorizing hellfire sermon who pledges to amend his life in earnest (if somewhat ridiculous) fashion. And the young man standing on Dollymount Strand whose chance encounter with a bird-like girl finally sets him on the path he’s been searching for his whole life. Sure, Stephen’s a bit of a pill in that fifth chapter and beyond, but he’s much more endearing and sympathetic in his journey to that concluding section, and it’s unfortunate that that journey gets pushed to the side the moment Stephen Hero and Ulysses enter the picture.
The unfortunate irony is that we may actually lose the ability to understand why Stephen is the way he is in those later episodes the more we prioritize them in our evaluation of the character. In my case, by tying my assessments of Stephen to his life as a 20-year-old loner, I became guilty of my main criticism of Joyce’s young artist and lose sight of the main attribute I admire in Bloom: I failed to empathize with Stephen. Given the rocky pattern of rise and fall that carries Stephen into Portrait‘s fifth chapter, is there any wonder why he is the way he is? His refusal to compromise may come across in a vacuum as frustrating stubbornness , but for a character that everyone tries to forcibly shape into their own image throughout the first four chapters of Portrait, it may be a necessity. The best articulation of this relentless pressure for Stephen to conform comes in Chapter Two:
While his mind had been pursuing its intangible phantoms and turning back in irresoluteness from such pursuit he had heard about him the constant voices of his father and of his masters, urging him to be a gentleman above all things and urging him to be a good catholic above all things. These voices had now come to be hollowsounding in his ears. When the gymnasium had been opened he had heard another voice urging him to be strong and manly and healthy and when the movement towards national revival had begun to be felt in the college yet another voice had bidden him to be true to his country and help raise up her fallen language and tradition. In the profane world, as he foresaw, a worldly voice would bid him raise up his father’s fallen state by his labours and, meanwhile, the voice of his school comrades urged him to be a decent fellow, to shield others from blame or to beg them off and to do his best to get free days for the school. (p. 82)
Especially considering that this passage occurs while Stephen recalls being literally caned for professing a love of Byron, it’s no wonder why the older Stephen rebels against other people’s desires for him to compromise elements of his artistic ambition, even if those compromises may seem reasonable to us.
Similarly, Stephen may seem to demand too much from his loved ones and treat them relatively coldly, and in many cases, that criticism is justified. But Stephen’s behavior occurs after years of having the people supposed to be looking out for him constantly undermine him. His victory over Father Dolan at the end of Chapter One is immediately taken away from him when his father runs into Father Conmee (the rector Stephen complained about Dolan to) and learns that Conmee laughed at Stephen’s antics alongside Dolan later that day. Speaking of Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father is primarily responsible for the Dedalus family financial problems, which send Stephen into isolation to avoid the troubles at home, and Simon’s primary role in Portrait seems to be to cut Stephen down and rob him of what he most desires. Not only does he also laugh at Stephen in recounting his encounter with Father Conmee, but he also bitterly insults him throughout the novel, from telling Johnny Cashman that “There’s that son of mine there not half my age and I’m a better man than he is any day of the week” during the Chapter Two trip to Cork (p. 91), to calling Stephen a “lazy bitch” at the beginning of Chapter Five (p. 154). May Dedalus, E.C., and Cranly may not have treated Stephen this harshly, but it’s not surprising why Stephen may read their hesitation over his actions as similarly insulting, given how he’s been consistently let down by his other loved ones throughout the novel.
This is to say nothing of the main criticism leveled at Stephen in Ulysses: that he spends too much time consumed by the loss of his mother to cancer and is ultimately defeated in the novel because he cannot “give up the moody brooding” (p. 8, 1.235-6), to use Buck Mulligan’s words. Indeed, this was a key element of how I read Stephen in Ulysses for years, as a character trying to reconcile himself to his mother’s memory, but unwilling to compromise on his rejection of her faith to do so. And I saw this as a failing in Stephen’s character, as further evidence of a paralyzed protagonist incapable of moving forward, to echo Joyce’s criticism. And then I lost my mother to cancer, and learned firsthand the paralyzing effects such grief can have on a person, even a year after the fact. In so doing, I gained new perspective on what Stephen must be suffering throughout Ulysses. It’s easy to say that someone should “give up the moody brooding” until it becomes time to actually do it, and Stephen’s simultaneous desire to move on and inability to let go should really cause us to ask ourselves if it’s really possible to let go of such brooding rather than to wonder why Stephen just doesn’t get on with it. From this perspective, the Stephen chapters of Ulysses aren’t just a continuation of Portrait or evidence that the young artist’s “non serviam” is a flawed strategy. It’s a glimpse into the life of a character at his lowest point, trying to continue on with his individual ambitions despite still being traumatized by the loss of a loved one, all while the people around him continue to either use him or dismiss him outright. And if he rejects Bloom’s assistance, he’s still got reason to be skeptical of friendly faces in his everyday life. At least his refusals have gotten more polite in the transition from Portrait to Ulysses.
Does this completely justify any of Stephen’s behavior towards others in Portrait‘s fifth chapter and in Ulysses? Of course not. Stephen still has to be held accountable if he hurts others or refuses to help loved ones in need. But there’s an ocean of middle ground between the complete vindication and outright dismissal of a character, and I must admit my perceptions of Stephen have always veered too far towards the latter. I judged Stephen for his inability to empathize with others and be more like Bloom without realizing that I was guilty of similar dismissals of Stephen. I was all too quick to point out his failure to achieve the success he set out for himself by Ulysses, without accounting for the fact that I too had achieved practically nothing at 22. In fact, when it comes down to it, what really is the critical assessment of Stephen Dedalus? That he’s a moody kid in his early twenties dealing with parental conflicts and relationship problems and hasn’t conquered the world yet? That’s basically every 22-year-old, and who would really want the assessment of their life to be based on who they were in their early twenties? Ironically, that universality of Stephen’s flaws gives him the same qualities we celebrate in Bloom: it makes him human. We herald the fact that in Bloom, Joyce has given us a hero with flaws, while simultaneously dismissing Stephen because he’s a flawed Hero. Bloom may have a more delightfully quirky, compassionate personality than the reserved, brooding artist, but Joyce has actually put them in similar situations. In fact, one could argue that Stephen’s exit down Eccles Street in the middle of “Ithaca” is merely his version of Bloom’s resigned return to his marital bed at chapter’s end. Both characters acknowledge the problems of the day and move on in their own way, taking the next step on their own terms. Maybe the time has come to return Stephen to his rightful place in the pantheon of Joycean heroes.
And what better time is there to do so than the 100 year celebration of Portrait?
So this year, in honor of the centenary of the novel that brought me to Joyce, I pledge to put the full Portrait back into Stephen’s portrait and to avoid the temptation to let Stephen Hero and Ulysses guide my reaction to him more than the novel he stars in.
In honor of the centenary of the book that ignited my love of modernism and taught me the beauty of internal monologue, I pledge to heed Stephen’s thoughts as much as his actions and to take a walk in his shoes before I become quick to judge his rejection of a Dublin that has always rejected him.
In honor of 100 years of silence, exile, and cunning, I pledge to remember that being a Bloomite and valuing the compassion and empathy of Joyce’s Odysseus doesn’t mean I have to cast Stephen aside in the process. Because there’s no forced choice between Stephen and Bloom, even if Joyce saw Ulysses as the line drawn in the sand between them, and erasing that line really should be the goal of a Bloomite grounded in embracing as many perspectives as possible. It’s the way to get maximum value out of the Joycean oeuvre and to find beauty in all of his stories and characters, even the ones who drive you crazy from time to time.
And the next time someone subtly smiles when I tell them my son’s name, I’ll subtly smile back.