Reflections by Paul Mirabile on James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus who found fruition in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) & a key role in the 1922 classic, Ulysees
“You have a queer name, Dedalus,” says Brother Michael to Stephen Dedalus, the hero of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man in the first chapter. Strange perhaps, but quite significant for this tale : Daidalos in Greek means ‘architect, wiseman, artist, craftsman’. He was the universal artist in Greek mythology, the ingenious Athenian architect, who exiled to Crete, designed the labyrinth within which the terrible Minotaur was kept, a complex formation which analogues Dedalus’ intricate or labyrinth-like thinking patterns. A formidable name, thus, for Joyce’s protagonist, one in fact that evokes many of the author’s own traits.
James Joyce (1882-1941) once remarked that a male artist (writer, painter, musician) generally inherits many effeminate attributes from his mother (or from other female figures of the family), and as he matures and grows conscious of them, exploits them to create. Effeminate characteristics in a male engenders a sensitivity that overshadows the ‘virility’ of the father. This is certainly the case with Stephen Dedalus in our story, and perhaps too with James Joyce.
In chapter one, Stephen’s leanings towards his mother appear to be projections of Joyce’s, although the reader should be aware that A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916, is not an autobiography per se. However, Stephen’s word-associations and flashbacks dissociate, and concomitantly link the ‘masculinity’ of his boarding school surroundings with happy memories which depict his mother and her daily gestures and occupations. There is little doubt that these depictions were drawn from Joyce’s own experiences during his boarding school years.
Stephen felt lonely at the boarding school, studying and playing with boys who were tough, hardened by their fathers’ stern discipline and rough language, many of whom were footballers, pranksters or schemers. He had been brought up by his mother. She never taught him to play football, be a prankster or a schemer. Should that have been his father’s task ? His mother would never have taught him to rub rosin in his hands to harden them against flogging. Fleming, a school comrade, did, and you can be sure that his father had counselled him on that point. When Stephen was flogged along with Fleming, we are witness to the differences in their domestic upbringing : Stephen describes his flogger Father Dolan with great vividness ”looking through his glasses”, those same glasses that were seen through by his father in the first passage at the beginning of chapter one. Had Father Dolan — his ‘brotherly’ father– a ‘tough’ man indeed, misunderstood the scorn that young Stephen’s artistic propensities led him to experience?
Perhaps it is the lack of sympathy and understanding on the part of the father-figures he encounters throughout life that transports Stephen into a lonely, private world dominated by the mother-figure. When he is ill in the infirmary he is quick to address a letter to his mother ; his mother who smells ”nicer” than his father. Joyce, the narrator, also informs us that she played the piano, whereas the father did not …
The boys at the school teased him because he would kiss his mother every night before going to bed, something quite normal for him, yet ”girlish” for the boys. And even if they did kiss their mothers they would never have admitted it in front of the other boys, a habit that their fathers probably told them not to disclose when at school. Stephen had no ‘official training’ in these delicate matters by his father.
He discovered this lack of ‘manliness’ in him through his sensitive, perceptive insight into all that he felt, heard, smelt and observed. His mother’s sensitive world was an innate attribute, one that he consciously cultivated in a creative fashion, examining all that took place, criticising what he felt had been unjust or false. In fact, the opening chapter draws a suggestive parallel of Stephen’s (Joyce’s?) life as an artist and his inner relationship with his mother (and his father to a certain extent) as if she were an inseparable ally on his path to artistic glory.
”He longed to be home and lay on his mother’s lap,” grieves the narrator, defending the downcast Stephen, for indeed the boarding school proved terribly trying for him, violent in many ways, even physically violent by the flogging administered by the brothers and the fights against his comrades. Stephen would reminisce : ”She was a nice mother but she was not so nice when she cried.” Did this prevent him from crying when flogged by the brothers or humiliated by the boys ?
Stephen opens chapter one by recounting what his father had told him when he was a baby. But his father’s language is a child’s, spoken exactly as a child would. On the contrary, Stephen’s childish attempts at communication : too many pronouns, the repetition of a song sung by Betty Byrne : “O, the green wothe botheth … ,” his insight into the ages of his immediate family : “[T]hey were older than his father and mother but Uncle Charles was older than Dante,” and his eventual intellectual developments and abandonment of a Jesuit education due to a very severe and masculine environment, all bespeak a precociousness of character inherited from his mother, which did not prevent him, however, from showing great respect for his father.
At the end of chapter two, he stumbles across a prostitute. Stephen is greatly distressed. He is drawn towards this female but, ”His lips would not end to kiss her. He wanted to be held firmly in her arms, to be caressed slowly, slowly.‘‘ Like his mother would do ? This being said, the poor, lonely Stephen yielded to the prostitute’s charms …
Stephen’s love for his mother is deep: when he ‘exiles’ himself to Paris to study medicine in the first chapter of Ulysses (1922) he receives a letter that his mother has taken to bed very ill. He returns quickly, but refuses to kneel at her bedside and pray for her : ” ‘You could have knelt down, damn it, Kinch, when your dying mother asked you,’ Buck Mulligan said.” Buck even accuses him of killing his mother: “He kills his mother but he can’t wear grey trousers.” It goes without saying that Stephen did not kill his mother ; he deeply regretted her death. However, this disgraceful act towards her pleadings is explained by the fact that to kneel down on both knees represents a Church rite, ”the Jesuit strain in him”. The tortured Stephen disavows this ‘ecclesiastical’ gesture, this gesture of absolute obedience before authority. It were as if at that difficult moment his confused state of mind confounded the love of a mother and the hate of a Jesuit institution that Stephen (and Joyce) bore. It is true that the severity and pain of his seminary years had all but deadened the youth’s love for his mother. However, if he did feel a disliking at his mother’s bedside for those few moments, they should not be interpreted as hate for her, but rather as a transient absence of love. He will be redeemed of this absence of love by the love of languages, especially his ‘mother’ tongue, in spite of the sorrow he bore within him like some original sin.
Born from the mother, the mother breathes into her child the force and the will to live. Wrought from the womb, the child bathes in the sounds, accents and musical rhythms of his or her mother: the lullabies and nursery songs, the praises and reproaches. And a day will come when he or she must be weaned, and although the umbilical cord is cut the cultural cord continues to nourish the child, of which language is the most vital nourishment.
It is the mother tongue that motivates Dedalus/Joyce to desire his language … and the Others’ languages ! The desire to possess or master English, Italian, French, German, Norwegian, Latin and Greek. A polyglot’s desire to penetrate the womb of the Other out of which all languages have been wrought.
Throughout A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man Joyce is very methodical in developing Stephen’s acumen in word usage. The hero’s pursuit of intellectual ‘purity’ oftentimes turns him into a pedantic perfectionist correcting a word used outside its proper context with the person whom he is addressing. This preoccupation with perfection in proper word usage is only natural for someone who studies languages and realises that verbal force can be a veritable weapon. A word, above all other linguistic features, can be an instrument of puissance and persuasion when wielded with accuracy and precision. Stephen’s effort to instrumentalise English and use it to overpower his ‘opponent’ is manifest in his attempts to seek the word which best fits the circumstances of his daily human intercourse.
In chapter one, even at an early age, Stephen is asking himself ethnico-linguistic questions, making word comparisons when used in idiomatic expressions. For example, ”that was a belt round his pocket. And belt was also to give a fellow a belt.” (page 9) Stephen’s extraordinary memory focuses in and captures the moment the word or expression is used from which he could then make his point :”Go and fight your match. Give Cecil Thunder a belt.”
He knew this was not a ‘nice’ word, as his mother had told him, but one which belonged to a certain class of people. The youngster would soon come to accept these ‘not nice words’ however, comprise the very beauty of language, their social realism and above all their power to persuade! These idiomatic expressions were surely not learnt from his mother; they were acquired from his daily brushes with the many folds of social commerce.
In the same chapter he utters to himself the word ‘wine’ ; it immediately gives him the image of ”… dark purple because the grapes were dark purple that grow in Greece…” (page 43). Uttering a word and conjuring up its ‘topographic image’ also developed his intricate word-image analogies.
Stephen Dedalus hears: ” You are McGlade’s suck. Suck was a queer word,” reports the narrator. Stephen learns the meaning of this word by observing dirty water going down the drain in a wash-bowl; it made a sound like a suck, and he resumes : “The sound was ugly.” Here he devises an ‘aural relationship’ to word signification which one may define as an ‘onomatopoeic analogy’.
Similar word-image associations emerge in the boy’s mind with expressions such as ‘Tower of Ivory’ and ‘House of Gold’ spoken by his father, and whose precise significance escaped his young mind. It would take some time before he understood their semantic impact. The occasion occurred when he stole a glance at the cool, soft ‘ivory-like’ hands of a girl, and at ”her fair hair streaking behind her like gold in the sun.” And he concluded : “By thinking things you could understand them.” In other words by ‘visual analogical’ efforts Stephen could relate to and grasp the meaning of words.
The first chapter of the book represents a young boy beginning his intellectual-linguisitc voyage, and as the story unfolds and Stephen’s mental capacities become more and more meticulous and keener, his discernment into word usage becomes more demanding when speaking to his peers or to elders.
The second chapter deals with his mental and physical vicissitudes : his father sells the house. The family moves to Dublin. Stephen goes to college. These changes affect his way of thinking, for he is a boy who is already conscious of his detachment from the rest of his schoolmates. He excelled in essay writing and was good in Latin. Stephen’s remark concerning his friend Heron is worthy of mention. Stephen ruminated over the fact that Heron, like the bird, had the same bird-like features. The name Heron suited the boy’s features quite nicely : ‘‘Vincent Heron had a bird’s face as well as a bird’s name. A shock of pale hair lay on his forehead like a ruffled crest.” His forehead too was ”narrow and bony” and he possessed ”a hooked nose.” (page 70) Again, Stephen’s capacity to ‘see’ and associate, analogically, words, or as he says their ”logical parallel”, marks a perspicacious penchant for conjoining the signifier with the signified. In the case of Heron: the name fitted the face. For Heron indeed was the perfect heron.
On page 83, again, whilst attending a seminar in the anatomy theatre, Stephen found the word foetus carved into a desk. This made him suddenly concentrate deeply on the meaning of this odd word. Did it portray reality, a raw and life-like reality, beyond all formal study and ‘higher’ education ? Did this word represent mankind in both its primitive and highest stages ? Did it not evoke the image of the mother … his mother ? Indeed fœtus remained in Stephen’s thoughts for the entire day. He wrestled with it, coming to the conclusion that a word is what man is : ” in the outer world a trace of what he had deemed till then a brutish and individual malady of his own mind.” The words brutish and malady are significant inasmuch as they actually do go far beyond the formal education that Stephen was pursuing. In fact, fœtus provoked yet another urge in the need for reality in language, which his studies in Latin certainly strengthened by discovering the origins of words and their semantic impact on human communication ; they taught him to train his mind to think in terms of precision, brevity and beauty. However, Stephen’s plunge into reality was more often forged outside the sacred walls of that ‘manly’ institution, amongst his myriad frequenting with the world of words uttered by the ‘womanly’ creatures of the whore-filled Dublin streets. This remarkable double-life, in chapter three, manifests itself sharply when Stephen is torn from those ‘womanly’ streets and is plunged into a ‘manly’ Jesuit retreat, where by the force of many well-delivered Hell-fire sermons a multitude of salacious temptations put his semantic perspicacity to trial.
In the Jesuit homilies or sermons during mass, the power of word usage is fully revealed to our heroic hero. So powerful is this usage that he confesses his previous dealings with prostitutes to a father confessor after listening to the ravings of a Jesuit concerning Judgement Day, death, hell, brimstone, fire and other Catholic-contrived image-filled words. The barrage of religiously-orientated words left him reeling in disbelief, which in turn obliged him to ‘believe’ the meanings of all the words which resonated clearly in his mind: judgement, death, soul and heaven. Yet, where were their true meanings? Were they what Stephen really thought them to be, or were they the Jesuit brothers’ invention, forcing themselves upon his young mind? Indeed, the answer becomes clear at the end of the book: Stephen sought his own definitions, his own knowledge, not the knowledge delivered from the books or the sermons of erudite Jesuit priests and brothers. Every word preached were weighed carefully to suit the disposition of the students, to create an ambiance of need, of weakness; a weakness to be satisfied in the pure thought and ‘word’ of God. Every ‘priestly’ word declaimed during mass weighed heavy upon Stephen’s mind. It only lightened when our hero was able to ‘think it through’ and not fall into an abominable, guilt-riddled contempt of himself.
A decisive step in Stephen’s life occurs in chapter four. Instead of accepting a career as a novice, then as a Jesuit priest, he strides out into the world on his own, knowing well his method of attaining knowledge would never have found favour in the eyes of the Jesuit brothers. To give an example, during a long conversation with a Jesuit priest, Stephen again scrutinises word usage. The priest mentions his journey to Brussels. He remarks that the people there wear ‘jupes‘, and when they ride bicycles, it makes them look ridiculous. The mention of this foreign word causes Stephen to smile : ”The vowel was so modified as to be indistinct”. Stephen’s thought was obviously an attack against the priest’s pronunciation of the French word, an attack that went far beyond this one priest to humiliate the Jesuit institution as a whole. The word ‘jupe’ also emitted an olfactory sensation ; a perfumed fragrance. Stephen says that when articles of clothing were mentioned he could actually smell perfume. Here again we read another indication of a word’s power upon Stephen’s mind, whether it be aural, visual or olfactory ; that is, the ‘femininity’ of the image-sensation overrides the ‘masculine’ pronunciation of the word. The loquacious priest’s voice faded into the background as Stephen’s innate linguistic conscious rose to the surface : ”As the priest spoke, Stephen’s mind erred : ‘The echoes of certain expressions used in Clongrowes (his boarding school) sounded in remote caves of his mind. At this point he was interrupted …”’ Stephen’s linguistic prowess acts like an etymological Time Machine, now straining back in intellectual pleasure, now fixed in the present which creates a spiral movement to his thought patterns. Chapter four ends with this beautiful passage which depicts the young artist’s sagacious ability to put into motion that spiral rhythm. I shall quote the passage in full.
”He drew forth a phrase from his treasure and spoke it softly to himself.
“-A day of dappled seaborne clouds-
“The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord. Words. Was it their colours ? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue ; sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the grey fringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours ; it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their association of legend and colour ? Or was it that being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language many coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose ?”
Here the past has been contracted into Stephen’s present circumstances: And no doubt, Joyce’s, too.
“Bous Stephaneforos!” mock his comrades. Yet, Stephen took great pleasure in the distorted orality of his name: did not ‘Bous’ in Greek mean ‘cow’ or ‘bull’ and his first name ‘Stephen’, ‘crown’? He was indeed the ‘crowned bull’! The ‘engarlanded bull’! ”His strange name seemed to him a prophecy. […] He would forge a legend, his name a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring imperishable being?” Was Stephen not the sacred bull of distant mythological or legendary heroes? Could he also be the victorious bull in the Irish epic tale the Tain Bo Cuailngy ? Whatever bull it be, Stephen knew his Destiny would be a glorious one, bathed in golden aura. Did his comrades know it?
Chapter five opens with Stephen’s acute criticism when reading poetry; certain verses arrest his attention: “Whoever heard of ivy whining on a wall ? And what about ivory ivy ? […] The word now shone bright in his brain, clearer and brighter than any ivory sawn from the mottled tusks of elephants’‘. Perhaps this poetic oddity of ‘ivy’ reminded him of the ‘Tower of Ivory’ that his father had mentioned, and recalled, too, those of the girl’s soft hands. Could analogical processes elicit such linguistic associations ? In Stephen’s case they certainly did.
Chapter five also initiates the beginning of Stephen’s literary career, his life as an artist, dedicated to ”putting words on paper”. Although the spiral rhythm of his mind abets him in his linguistic and poetic quests, he realises, too, that words belong to the epochs in which they were couched. Whilst reading Ben Jonson: ”He thought : ‘The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master on his lips and mine ! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.’”
How perspicacious Stephen has become at the end of his formal education : He understands that words of past literature, however potent or poetic, are acquired speech, whereas his present tongue, his ‘mother’ tongue, is innate. It would seem that once again he refutes the authoritative voice of the past, its literary ‘fixedness’, its stringent rules which must be acquired — as if these usages were quite artificial, dead — museum pieces for show and admiration. Stephen strains towards the future … towards horizonless linguistic freedom: His own invented Discourse because now innate (his mother’s), now acquired in the daily social practice of language production or creation.
Indeed his comments on word usage reflect a growing intellectual acumen, and permits us to comprehend fully his overpowering knowledge of ‘innate’ language. Stephen defines beauty and art in this chapter, surpassing Artistotle and Thomas d’Aquinas (or so he believes!). He rebukes his father’s ”curious idea of gender‘‘ ; Mr. Dedulas calls his son ”a lazy bitch”. Stephen muses mockingly: ”he has a curious idea of gender if he thinks a bitch is masculine” (page 259). A snippy remark aimed at his father’s linguistic ignorance, which in fact represents a critique of authority : the church … the father-image … the Jesuit priest. Only art will triumph. Art as a spiral cadence of an alternating succession of static and kinetic energies that leads us ”to action, to do”. Static energy holds or arrests our attention, as do words said by others that arrest Stephen’s attention. Kinetic energy thrusts words into our present circumstances which in turn sends them hurtling into the future. For example, further on in the chapter, Stephen is speaking with a Jesuit priest about his decision to take leave of the school ; the word ‘funnel’ is brought up in their conversation pertaining to the pouring of oil into a lamp. Stephen is quick to point out that funnel is out of place here, and that the word ‘tundish’ should be employed in this function. The priest confessed that he had no idea that the word existed and promised Stephen that he would look it up. Stephen insisted on its semantic veracity as if the priest did not take him ‘on his word’.
It is at this moment in the book where Stephen’s expanding linguistic knowledge runs parallel to his diminishing reverence towards those who had educated him.
Again on page 227 we read the word tundish, only this time written in Stephen’s diary : ”… that tundish has been on my mind for a long time. I looked it up and find it English and good old blunt English too. Damn the dean of studies and his funnel! What did he come here for to teach us his own language or to learn it from us? Damn him one way or the other!”
This plain-spoken critique and rejection of authority, and Stephen’s meticulous manner, had made him a better man than even his mentors. Is our hero then a self-sufficient snob ? An overweening upstart ? A pompous prig ? No doubt he can be characterised by all three … Yet, his passion for language spurred him on to become the artist he longed to be after experimenting with the tools of empiricism, since language, being both innate (the mother) and acquired (schooling/social intercourse), can only be learnt with the tools with which it had been forged. Language is human ; it is an integral part of humanity and not the sole property of an authoritative elite.
Stephen plunged into the complex world of word usage at all levels, a sort of socio-linguistic adventure and scrutiny, and like his narrator, James Joyce, emerged from it in all his ‘graphic’ self : The young writer-artist who rebelled against ‘good grammar’, refusing to put hyphens between nouns, or nouns and qualifying adjectives to create compound words ; it was his way of rebelling against prescribed grammar ; that is, against authority. Here is a short list of the ‘rebels’ taken at random : “moocow, hornpipe, terrorstricken, softhue, priestridden, seventyseven, seventysix, whitegrey, granduncle, strangelooking, deathwound, ironingroom, slateblue, rainladen, priestlike, darkplumaged, carriagelamps, suddenwoven (anger), freshfaced, hollowsounding, curtainrings, etc.” The long ligatured or hyphen-less words contrast greatly with Joyce’s use of short, choppy, racy, sentences; sentences devoid of detail. The characters are description less. ‘Literary’ or Dickension-type interpolated clauses are rare (he ejaculated, she ruminated, etc.). Joyce oftentimes has recourse to the simple ”he/she said”.
The rhythm of writing is a flux of Stephen’s verbal consciousness or series of dialogues with brief, curt responses or questions. We are no longer reading ‘classical’ literature but not exactly something that Joyce will experiment in Ulysses or in Finnegans Wake (1939). Something perhaps unfamiliar, estranged from the reading habits of the early twentieth century reader, not the story-plot, but the form in which the story-plot has been cast. It were as if Joyce turned to the languages of the Other in order to express both his own mother tongue and a discourse of his own, embedded within that mother tongue. As if the mature writer-artist in trespassing the rules of ‘good’ English grammar, not only trespassed the authority of the ‘father-figure’, be it his father, Father Dolan or any Jesuit priest, but also instituted an invented discourse which distanced him from the mother tongue (the mother?) only to come back to it in a creative attempt to strike out on his own.
There is no doubt that Stephen Dedalus/ James Joyce is indeed the ”prince of words” …
Joyce, James, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (Penguin Modern Classics, London, England) 1931.
Joyce, James, Ulysses (Yilin Press, Nanjing, China) 1996.
Burgess, Anthony, Re Joyce Here comes Everyone, (W.W. Norton Company, London England) 1965.
 The verbal form in Greek of the proper name is ‘daidallo’ ‘to work, adorn’, the nominal form ‘daidalon‘ ‘a work of art’ and the adjectival form ‘daidalos’ ‘cunning’. These forms have given the French noun ‘dédale‘ ‘maze, labyrinth’.
 Ulysses, Yilin Press, Nanjing, 1996, page 4.
 Ulysses, page 5.
 Ulysses, page 8.
 A short coat in English, skirt in French
 Located thirty kilometres from Dublin.
 Anthony Burgess, Re Joyce. Here comes Everybody. Faber and Faber, 1963.
Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.
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