- When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.
We can’t help but admire the poetic ambition of Stephen Dedalus at the conclusion of A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. We have seen him dodge the nets of foul jesuits who lecture the boys on the exact coordinates of hell, along with his fracturing family and frivolous friends. He also seems to possess an ability to question as much as confront, to delve deeper to further insight. He engages his schoolmates in dialogues exploring art, truth, and beauty. His friend Cranly does offer a pointed insight: “- It is a curious thing, do you know – Cranly said dispassionately – how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” This is a charge that some have levelled at Joyce as well, though the wealth of comic blasphemy and stark realism in his work surely makes up for it. Even if Stephen may be a bit self-obsessed, bearing some of the scars of his religious education, we are optimistic for his future.
When we meet him again in the first chapter of Ulysses, things have changed. He had gone off to school in Paris where he was just dipping his toe in the cultural waters before he was called back home by telegram: “- Mother dying come home father.” (Clearly Mr Simon Dedalus is no poet, though this incident was from Joyce’s own life.) Now he is living in an old war tower with his friend, medical student Buck Mulligan. The atmosphere is far removed from the lyrical dialogues of his past, as Mulligan and houseguest Haines lightly chat with mocking arrogance. Witness how Mulligan coarsely rephrases Cranly’s observation about Stephen: “Because you have the cursed jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way.” His friends are no longer pushing him toward further insight but now just to see him fall. He pays the rent with his teacher’s salary and still Mulligan begs for money for the pub as well as the key to the tower itself. Stephen relents with silent bitterness. No wonder his final thought, the final word of the chapter: “Usurper.”
Let us keep in mind that we are following Homer’s The Odyssey, so Stephen is not the hero of this epic but rather the besieged son Telemachus. In his father’s absence, the suitors have run amuck with drinking and singing, making general mockery of his kingdom. And so Mulligan rules the tower with gleeful disrespect, and Haines the Englishman has arrived to offer a subtler, more learned form of condescension. In The Odyssey, Athene appears disguised to offer some advice for Telemachus but here in Joyce’s version, she is an old milkmaid with a few empty words during a brief transaction. She even shows reverence for the impudent Mulligan, which vexes Stephen: “She bows her old head to a voice that speaks to her loudly, her bonesetter, her medicineman: me she slights.” It does seem like a toxic environment for him – comically tormented by his friends, his own education seemingly stalled by his insecurity.
But we cannot blame Stephen’s despair solely on his company. He is stricken with guilt for his mother, with whom he refused to pray for her last request at her deathbed. Mulligan mocks him for this as well, perhaps rightly so. He has flown by the nets that have been flung at him, but he’s gone too far: his rejection of nation, god, and family have gotten him lost in a state of paralysis. He is so burdened by his depth of emotion, by his feelings of injustice and persecution, that he cannot move forward. So while he calls himself a poet, he will not write down his literary theories for fear that they would be sullied; though he has rejected his religion, he refuses even a meaningless gesture of prayer to comfort his mother.
No wonder he so identifies with Hamlet: “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory.” Though we can all relate to Hamlet in some way, that quote from Act II Scene II is very Stephen. He has a theory of Shakespeare’s work that he will unveil in the library in Scylla and Charybdis, but here it is already being mocked by Mulligan: “He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.” This is a witty corruption of Stephen’s theory that manages to somehow completely deflate it – we all understand how a stray comment can sting when directed at something that’s important to us. We will later see how Stephen deals with further criticism, but for now he can’t manage more than a few muttered words in reply. He can only wander along behind them, listlessly, dragging his ashplant that might have once been an emblem of poetic style: “Its ferrule followed lightly on the path, squealing at his heels. My familiar, after me, calling Steeeeeeeeeeeephn.”
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Telemachus presents a bit of a challenge for new readers. We must bring a considerable amount of contextual knowledge to understand what’s really going on. Otherwise, we might mistake Stephen for a bit of a mope, a fragile young man who seems defeated. On my first read, Mulligan’s character resonated much more – thereby proving Stephen’s point about the old milkmaid who is charmed by his garrulous nature. The phrase about Hamlet really stuck out to me, as it seemed so preposterous that I wanted to skip forward to the library scene to find out what it was all about. I advise some folks to just skip to Leopold Bloom’s section to best introduce themselves to Ulysses, but these first few chapters serve as a crucial bridge from Joyce’s earlier work. Don’t give up – this is what we want to shout to Stephen, but to first time readers as well. Stephen’s narration will get more engaging in the next chapter, with elements of humor and empathy. Still he feels trapped, by his nation, by all nations, by history itself. Up next: Stephen at work in Nestor.