James Joyce: Master of the House

One of the many things that Ulysses teaches us is that the mind can be a crazy place, a non-linear labyrinth of seemingly nonsensical juxtapositions and unexpected epiphanies.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post re-evaluating my longstanding frustrations with Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.  Towards the end of that post, I argued that while Stephen doesn’t necessarily treat the people who care about him in the best manner, it is understandable why he would be hesitant to trust them given the grief he’d received from people who supposedly had his best interests at heart in Portrait‘s early chapters.  It was with this understanding in mind that I typed the following pledge at the end of the post:

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.

And as I was typing that last sentence, it happened: one of those gleefully random moments when your brain instinctively shoves a seemingly irrelevant thought into the forefront of your consciousness and leaves you to make sense of the results.  My fingers typed “his rejection of a Dublin that has always rejected him,” and my mind instead projected this line:

For I had come to hate the world / This world that always hated me.

Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Stephen’s non serviam delivered in the weathered, husky tenor of Colm Wilkinson.

Then, because I had just finished writing about Stephen declining Bloom’s offer to stay the night in “Ithaca” (and because my brain can’t ever leave anything alone), I began to tease this comparison out further.  “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” the song in Les Miserables where the quoted line comes from, occurs just after the hit musical’s protagonist has been saved by a tremendous act of mercy.  In both the musical and the Victor Hugo novel that inspired it, Jean Valjean has just ended a 19-year jail sentence for “stealing a mouthful of bread” and then trying to escape prison, and his paroled life is dominated by society’s rejection of a person forever branded as a convict.  Finally, a bishop kindly takes Valjean in and provides him food and a place to stay for the night.  Valjean, suspicious of friendly faces in a world that’s always left him for dead, steals the bishop’s silver and flees, only to be captured by the police and returned to the man he wronged.  However, instead of pressing charges, the bishop claims that he actually gave Valjean the silver, hands him two additional silver candlesticks, and saves him from going back to prison.  The bishop then tells Valjean that he has “bought [his] soul for God” and that Valjean must “use this precious silver to become an honest man.”  “Valjean’s Soliloquy” thus features Jean Valjean wrestling with this act of mercy, feeling shame over his previous crimes and the cynicism at their foundation, and resolving to move his life in a better direction.

And the more I continued to think about Les Mis while writing about Ulysses, the more I realized the extent to which this scene in the musical is the inverse of what happens between Stephen and Bloom in the progression from “Circe” to “Ithaca.”  Not only is the chronology of the scenes in reverse order (Bloom saves Stephen from the police before he takes him in and offers food and shelter), but Stephen refuses the offer that Valjean accepts.  To be sure, Valjean’s acceptance comes with a robbery attached, so Bloom being politely declined is clearly a better outcome than the bishop’s situation.  But it’s intriguing to consider the extent to which Valjean’s story begins by accepting redemption from the bishop, whereas Stephen’s story ends by declining such kindness from Bloom.  And this line of thought only provoked more questions: to what extent is Stephen an anti-Valjean? Is the Jewish Bloom Joyce’s version of Les Miserables‘s bishop?  And what do these issues say about the potential relationships between the ethical perspectives constructed by Joyce and Hugo in these seminal texts?

Continue reading “James Joyce: Master of the House”

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