Dubliners by James Joyce

james-joyce pic Intelligent

 Irish writer, James Joyce (1882-1941)

The first-person narrator, a boy, walks past the house of his dying priest night after night, wondering whether he is dead yet, but this night knows it to be true.

“Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism.”

So begins the first story, The Sisters, in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners (1914) but in it is a clue to the theme of the book itself. Joyce wanted to write about the people of Dublin because to him it was the “city of paralysis” and the shadow of this word permeates the whole collection. For Joyce “paralysis” meant the inability to life meaningfully. Joyce spent most of his life on the continent, far away from Dublin, so strong was his belief that the city was tainted.

Here the “paralysis” is both literal, in the case of a dying priest after his third stroke, and moral: “simony” takes aim at the Catholic church’s corrupting stranglehold on Irish society; “gnomon” is somewhat different, being more about form than content (a gnomon is a parallelogram with a section removed, as well as the shadow-casting part of a sundial). The word is a cryptic warning to the reader that these stories contain many absences, not least traditional plot, character and scene-setting. These absences are part of what Joyce referred to as the style of “scrupulous meanness” with which he wrote Dubliners, meaning the frugality he applies to language, image and emotion.

Freytag’s pyramid, or dramatic arc or structure, suggests that a clear beginning consisting of a proper introduction of the setting and the characters, a middle discussing the conflict that would lead to a climax, and an end that ties the story together with a denouement are indispensable to any written work of fiction.

So was the literary thinking in 1914 – and in some circles it still is today. Joyce ignored it all, which may be why it took him 6 years to get this collection published.

In the story A Little Cloud, a shy and fragile clerk, known as Little Chandler, since “he gave one the idea of being a small man” meets in a bar, after 8 years, his friend Ignatius Gallaher, who once “known under a shabby and necessitous guise had become a brilliant figure on the London Press.” Little Chandler yearns of becoming a famous writer and dreams about the rave notices he would get for his work. He is delighted to see his old friend and Gallaher shouts him several whiskeys and regales the little man with innuendo and suggestions of his racy experiences in London and Paris: no married life for him. Of course, Little Chandler is late getting home to his young wife and child and had not brought the tea and sugar she had urged him not to forget. “She was in a bad humour and gave him short answers” and decides to go out and get the tea and sugar herself. “She put the sleeping child deftly in his arms and said: ‘Here. Don’t waken him’.” Little Gallaher cradles the child and stares at a photograph of his wife wearing an expensive blouse he had bought her. The image of his wife weaves no comparison to the “rich Jewesses” with “dark Oriental eyes” of Gallaher’s salacious plans and stories. Little Chandler feels nothing but entrapment, paralysis, in his mean little cottage with debt-laden furniture and no way of writing the book that “might open the way for him.” He reads some melancholy verse by Byron while nursing the child and wonders where he can find the time to write like that; he has so much to say. The baby wakes and cries and will not stop no matter how hard he tries to sooth him. Everything is useless. He is “a prisoner of life!” He loses his temper with the child and shouts at him which scares the infant and causes him to scream and “sob piteously”. His wife arrives and rescues the babe and glares at her useless husband and he listens to the child’s sobbing grow less and less in the arms of his loving mother. The story ends with Little Chandler just standing there as “tears of remorse started to his eyes.”

The reader is left with a feeling of pity and yearning for this little man who did the right thing, that every man should do, marry, start a family, and work to keep and protect them; while his friend did the other thing: travelled, wrote and became famous and whored around in London and Paris. This is the ending that Freytag’s pyramid espouses but it is a thought, not on the page but in the mind of the reader.

This was radical for 1914, when this collection first appeared. However, is it true today that more and more writers of fiction are leaving aspects of descriptive, consequential, and circumstantial narrative out of the text and up to the reader.  This is so true that it is not the writer’s place any more to answer the question, “And what did you mean by writing that?” After a story is in print – or, for that matter any creative work that is finally in the public domain – the meaning of what the reader reads is all to do with the reader – it means what the reader thinks it means – and has nothing to do any more with the writer and what was meant by the writer in the first place.

Although Dubliners is considered one of the greatest short story collections ever written, it is Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, who is generally considered the father of the modern short story. “The revolution that Chekhov set in train – and which reverberates still today – was not to abandon plot” – or Freyberg’s Pyramid – “but to make the plot of his stories like the plot of our lives: random, mysterious, run-of-the-mill, abrupt, chaotic, fiercely cruel, meaningless”. Chekhov’s short stories had been available in English since 1903, but Joyce didn’t get Dubliners published until 1914. He claims not to have read them. Many critics think this a little implausible since Dubliners seems to owe a lot to the work of the Russian. However, Joyce finished the collection by 1907, and with Chekhov’s work having been available in English only for a few years when Joyce was working as a teacher in Europe, it is entirely possible that he did not read it. Although William Boyd, American novelist and short story writer asserts that Chekhov liberated Joyce’s imagination as much as Joyce liberated writers that followed and “that the Chekhovian point of view is to look at life in all its banality and all its tragic comedy and refuse to make a judgment”. The Joycean view seems to look at life from the inside of his characters: to chart his country’s “moral history” in Dublin; and he does this by turning the plot inwards. It’s the landscape of dreams, desires, hopes and disappointments that bind the 15 stories together into a whole, which in itself is unique, creating a form of a novel in fifteen disparate but morally interconnected chapters: the early stories are from childhood, the centre charts the middle years, and the final devastating story, The Dead, his masterpiece, culminates in a mature realisation of man’s insignificance in the universe. In fact, the first image of the first story: a boy looking up at a window behind which lies a dead man, is reflected in the last image of the last story where a man looks out of a window contemplating all the dead that have gone before him and which one day he will join. Images like bookends.

Joyce’s narrator varies from story to story: first person in the first, but usually in the third-person but not of the omniscient kind:

“…as he set himself to fan the fire again, his crouching shadow ascended the opposite wall and his face slowly reemerged into the light. It was an old man’s face, very bony and hairy.” (Ivy Day in the Committee Room). The narrator doesn’t know the face until it is seen as everyone else sees it, including the reader. It’s like the narrator and the reader see and know everything at the same time; as if you and he are watching the scene together.

It is the final story, The Dead, that marks Joyce a masterful writer and it is easy to argue that it is the best short story ever written. It is the quintessential modern story although it’s structure is almost classic. It opens with a scene featuring minor players in the story; a device used by Shakespeare in the opening scenes of many of his plays: it’s a way to introduce the scene and action before the principle players emerge, creating setting, background, and expectation. The bulk of the story is the colouring of the situation: the interconnecting relationships, the characters, the party as life’s metaphor, building tension and expectation, preparing the reader for what will happen.

Lily the house maid is “run off her feet” tending to guests as they arrive for the annual dance party given by the aging Misses Morkan, Kate and Julia, and their niece Mary-Jane, a music teacher to some of the “better-class families on the Kingstown and Dalkey line.” All eyes and ears are attuned to the arrival of Gabriel Conroy, the old ladies’ nephew, and his wife, Gretta, but they are also worried that the local drunk, the course-featured Freddie Mullins, might make a too-soon appearance and spoil the party. All arrive as expected and the party is in full swing; shoes shuffle and skirts swish and sway to the dance music on the polished floor of the upstairs parlor under the chandelier and a piano recital is given by Mary-Jane and songs are sung by the talented tenor, Mr Bartell D’Arcy. The strata of Dublin society are represented: the proud and successful Gabriel and his unhappy wife, Gretta; the Morkans drenched in their good-natured, middle-class hospitality cocooned in their well-established morality; and the likes of Freddie Mullins who prizes a drink over employment, filial duty, and nationalistic pride.

And then there are the galoshes. Gabriel wears them and urges his wife to, but she refuses. They are a symbol of modernity, recently arrived from London and “Gabriel says everyone wears them on the continent”. They are a sign of progress but, of course, the locals don’t wear them, much to Gabriel’s disappointment, thinking that he may have been able to bring the modern world into the lives of his community and family; Aunt Julia isn’t even sure what they are; Gretta thinks they’re funny and “says the word reminds her of the Christy Minstrels”. The social boundaries are clearly drawn.

On the dance floor, Gabriel, preoccupied with his forthcoming speech and worrying that his planed quotes from Browning “would be above the heads of his listeners”, is half-jokingly harassed by his dance partner, Miss Ivors, who “has a crow to pluck” with him. She chastises him for writing book-reviews for an English newspaper; refusing to holiday in his “own land” among his “own people” and to speak his “own language” and therefore labels him a ‘West Briton”.

Gabriel is a dignified man. He is angered by Miss Ivor’s assertions regardless of her light-hearted tone; considers Dublin, like Joyce, a back-water of pseudo-happy and ignorant people; looks to England and Europe for artistic, fruitful, and intellectual sustenance; but, despite all this,  tonight he is excited by the idea of Gretta and he spending the night, without the children, in a local hotel. Their marriage has soured over the past few years into something that he sees as all too common in this society. He is hoping for, maybe even lustful, but at least an intimate night alone with his wife.

After all the singing, dancing, and a minor ruffle between the Catholics and “the other persuasion”, the goose is carved at the head of a fine, happy, and plentiful supper table. Gabriel’s speech is a great success.  The champagne flows freely. The annual party is drawing to a close and Gabriel while putting on his coat asks after his wife. He finds her standing high on the landing in the semi-darkness gazing at nothing in particular but seemingly listening to something. There is a plaintive singing voice “in the old Irish tonality” and distant chords on a piano that seemed to render his wife transfixed. This is the peak of the drama. What is happening to Gretta, what is going on in her mind, will bring down the story’s protagonist. But Joyce stretches the tension. There is the walk with others into the city, then to the hotel, then to their room, and their preparation for the night. Here, he, all expectant and eager, is willed finally to ask why she is so melancholy. Her reply, his reaction, and the devastating realisation because of it, ends the story.

What begins as a classically structured tale of Dublin life, full of Chekhovian realism bolstered by detail, humour, character, emotional connections, and social hierarchy, the epitome of life itself, ends as a modern fable, not based on action, but internal thought. And like all good writers, Joyce ends with an image: a disappointed and humbled man gazing through a window on to a darkened city as snow gently begins to fall all over Ireland.

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”


The works of James Joyce, Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake, are out of copyright and can be downloaded, via various formats, for free here.

From the Paris Review. September 21, 2016

In light of my last post about James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” here is an interesting article from The Paris Review.

English writer and critic, Herbert George “H. G.” Wells 1866 – 1946.

In honour of H. G. Wells’s sesquicentennial, here’s a letter he wrote to James Joyce in November 1928, brought to light a few years ago by Letters of Note. The note finds Wells reacting, irascibly if not uncharitably, to early passages of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which had by then begun to circulate in literary magazines. 

I’ve been studying you and thinking over you a lot. The outcome is that I don’t think I can do anything for the propaganda of your work. I have enormous respect for your genius dating from your earliest books and I feel now a great personal liking for you but you and I are set upon absolutely different courses. Your training has been Catholic, Irish, insurrectionary; mine, such as it was, was scientific, constructive and, I suppose, English. The frame of my mind is a world wherein a big unifying and concentrating process is possible (increase of power and range by economy and concentration of effort), a progress not inevitable but interesting and possible. That game attracted and holds me. For it, I want a language and statement as simple and clear as possible. You began Catholic, that is to say you began with a system of values in stark opposition to reality. Your mental existence is obsessed by a monstrous system of contradictions. You may believe in chastity, purity and the personal God and that is why you are always breaking out into cries of cunt, shit and hell. As I don’t believe in these things except as quite personal values my mind has never been shocked to outcries by the existence of water closets and menstrual bandages—and undeserved misfortunes. And while you were brought up under the delusion of political suppression I was brought up under the delusion of political responsibility. It seems a fine thing for you to defy and break up. To me not in the least.

Now with regard to this literary experiment of yours. It’s a considerable thing because you are a very considerable man and you have in your crowded composition a mighty genius for expression which has escaped discipline. But I don’t think it gets anywhere. You have turned your back on common men—on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence, and you have elaborated. What is the result? Vast riddles. Your last two works have been more amusing and exciting to write than they will ever be to read. Take me as a typical common reader. Do I get much pleasure from this work? No. Do I feel I am getting something new and illuminating as I do when I read Anrep’s dreadful translation of Pavlov’s badly written book on Conditioned Reflexes? No. So I ask: Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?

All this from my point of view. Perhaps you are right and I am all wrong. Your work is an extraordinary experiment and I would go out of my way to save it from destructive or restrictive interruption. It has its believers and its following. Let them rejoice in it. To me it is a dead end.

My warmest wishes to you Joyce. I can’t follow your banner any more than you can follow mine. But the world is wide and there is room for both of us to be wrong.

H. G. Wells

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.

The Irish writer, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (1882-1841).

The opening of “A Portrait …” is one of literature’s most famous:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo.

 There are several remarkable things about this opening. Firstly, the title has set up the idea that what you are about to read is going to be an autobiography, of the writer, the Artist, Joyce, about himself as a young man. But this is not what we read, this is not an autobiography in seems, since, if it was, the pronoun would be ‘my’ not ‘his’; so, it is not told by the Artist, the author, it is told by a third-person narrator. Secondly, it is written in the past tense, fine, as expected, but the moment you read the word ‘his’ you know that ‘his’ refers to the Artist, James Joyce. We only use a pronoun when it is clear who ‘his’ refers to and the only name prior to this pronoun is the author’s. It is him. This is confirmed by the line “He was baby tuckoo.” Again the pronoun and still only one name, the same name, the author’s, so, he is not the author. Well, yes, he is the author, we just choose to ignore that: we willingly accept what the author has written in order to enjoy the story. We play along. A few pages on this third person narrator, to confirm his existence, gives baby tuckoo a name, Stephen Dedalus. This is a story about a boy called Stephen Dedalus that we understand is the young James Joyce. Why has Joyce chosen to write his own story narrated by a third person god-like narrator? Because it is a much more useful novelistic tool. Writing in the first-person disallows the writer access to the minds, thoughts, tastes, dreams, wishes, and desires of all the other characters in the story. The first-person “I” can only describe what he feels, sees, tastes, dreams, and desires. The third-person god-like narrator has access to everyone and everything, but more importantly, the past, and the future. Also, the ‘baby’ language is the manifestation of yet another novelistic tool, new for 1914 and used here for the first time; so effective and now so widely used: a device that allows the narrator to adopt vocabulary, vocal mannerisms, colour, and tone of the character’s own speaking voice. In literary terms this is called free indirect discourse, or as critic James Wood likes to say, close writing. This is familiar to us now, (Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels, 2012, for example, and almost any novel written in the last 100 years) but innovative then. Also, usually for his times, early twentieth century and before, in novels of coming of age (Dicken’s David Copperfield, 1849 for one), biographical, or auto-biographical, the narrator wrote from the perspective of adulthood; there was a distance from the narrator to the subject. But here, as Stephen grows on the path to maturity, so does Joyce’s language. In 1916 Joyce’s text was radical. It’s as if Joyce, with this opening, was writing about Stephen at 6 years old when he, the narrator, was 6 years old. The action and tone are far more immediate, compelling, and authentic, and along with the non-judgemental narrator sets the ground-work for modernism which would be experimented with and adopted, not just by Joyce but by his contemporaries as well.

However, we know from this opening that this is going to be a story about a person called Stephen Dedalus (James Joyce) and that we are starting at the time when he was a very young boy and that his father wore spectacles and a beard. The original title of this book was another name, Stephen Hero, but he changed the title and the hero’s name.

In Greek mythology Daedalus was a skilled inventor and architect who built the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete to house the Minator, a monster, half man, half bull. He was also the father of Icarus. After Theseus killed the Minator, with Daedalus’s help, and fled with Ariadne, the king’s daughter, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in the labyrinth but they escaped – after all, Daedalus built it – and flew the island by making themselves wings of feathers and wax.

The Fall of Icarus by Jacob Peter Gowy, 1637

Despite his father’s warning, Icarus, excited by the thrill of flying, flew too close to the sun god Helos as he rode his flaming chariot across the heavens, and the waxed wings melted, and Icarus fell and perished in the sea. Daedalus, after surviving another vengeful plot by Minos, escaped and finally settled in Sardinia where he joined a group led by Iolaus, nephew of Hercules; and as far as we know lived to a ripe old age.

In Romanticism, Icarus came to denote impetuousness, rebellion, and hubris, while Daedalus represented the classic artist, skilled, mature, and successful.

The young Stephen Dedalus is an observer, a listener. Early in the narrative he describes in great conversational detail a heated argument at the family Christmas table; an argument about Parnell, an Anglo-Irish politician, who by shrewd but steadfast political decisions became the figurehead of the Irish nationalistic movement in the nineteenth century; he renounced violent anti-Parliamentary action, but he was a protestant. Colm Tóibín writes that this scene could easily have been refracted around the tables of Irish dinners in the 1970’s and 80’s as family members argued over what was going on in Northern Ireland. And the scene where Stephen is unfairly punished resonated with Irish readers and writers: corporal punishment in Irish Catholic schools continued until the 1980’s. The influence of this book overshadowed generations of Irish long after it was published in 1916.

The young boy is also a thinker:

Was that a sin for Father Arnell to be in a wax or was he allowed to get into a wax when the boys were idle because that made them study better or was he only letting on to be in a wax? It was because he was allowed, because a priest would know what a sin was and would not do it. But if he did it one time by mistake what would he do to go to confession?

He asked the kind of questions Irish Catholic schoolboys have been asking themselves – and no-one else – for decades.

The first chapter ends with Stephan ‘reporting’ to the rector his unjust punishment at the hands of the prefect of studies, Father Dolan. This was a brave thing to do and his classmates hoisted him up, carried him along and shouted “Hurroo!” and threw their caps into the air. A stirring chapter-end of vengeance, courage, just fulfilment, and Joyce’s poetic language, not in a character’s words but from the narrator’s prose.

The fellows were practising long shies and bowling lobs and slow twisters. In the soft gray silence he could hear the bump of the balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.

 Stephan has grown up a lot since moocow and baby tuckoo.

Chapter 2 is a portrait of a disillusioned young man in search of something profound which even he does not know what it is: “He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld.” This “it” became “her” as if they would “make their tryst … in some secret place … and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured … Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall away from him in that magic moment.” This “her” in his mind (his muse?) is mingled with the heroine from Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo, Mercedes, or maybe its Ellen who, after a family bit of singing and dancing, comes with him on the tram where he is aware of her closeness, her wish for him to catch hold of her, “nobody is looking. I could hold her and kiss her” but he did neither and “stared gloomily at the corrugated footboard.”

This, a constant battle between the developing Artist and the developing Young Man.

And when he finally writes something about the tram, and Ellen and the kiss not made he “thought himself into confidence” over “a new pen, a new bottle of ink and a new emerald exercise” and “there remained no trace of the tram itself nor the tram-men nor of the horses” but only “of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden lustre of the moon” and the kiss not given became a kiss “given by both.” Finally, the Artist at work; and, so often, his muse, his Art is so confounded with women, with sex. Women “demure and innocent” he sees by day, but by night “her face transfixed by lecherous cunning, her eyes bright with brutish joy” and he is left by morning nothing but a “humiliating sense of transgression.”

At school, he is studious but aware of voices urging him “to be a good gentleman”, “to be a good catholic above all things”, “to be strong and manly and healthy”, “to be true to his country,” “to raise up his father’s fallen state by his labours”, and “to be a decent fellow.” All this bidding by voices all around, “but he was happy only when far from them, beyond their call, alone or in the company of phantasmal comrades.” The battle continues. Even in his own existence. From 1904 he lived with a Dublin chambermaid who had little education nor any understanding of Joyce’s work and felt that he made his life more difficult by writing so strangely. She was vivacious, humerous, loved music, bore him two children, and stuck by him through intense poverty in Zurich and Paris while writing his most famous work, Ulysses. He was a husband and father, a Man, but then inside something else something separate, an Artist.

He is cast in a school play but his part humiliates him, “A remembrance of some of his lines made a sudden flush rise to his painted cheeks” but, surprisingly, the excitement and youth around him “entered into and transformed his moody mistrustfulness.” On stage he was amazed that the play during rehearsals that seemed a “disjointed lifeless thing” had taken on a life of its own and it was a success. He is amazed and confused by this and “his nerves cried out for further adventures” – this is Art and it is Alive! I want more! When he meets his family in the excited crowd outside the theatre he feigns an errand he annoyingly says he has to make and leaves them all before they can say a word. He strides alone through the city, his mind a “tumult of sudden-risen vapours of wounded pride and fallen hope and baffled desire” until he finds himself in a “dark cobbled laneway” where he “breathed slowly the rank heavy air.” Then this …

That is horse piss and rotted straw, he thought. It is a good odour to breathe. It will calm my heart. My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.”


Here the close writing of the third-person narrator (“he thought”) in the past tense gets so close that it slips from the past tense into the first-person (“my heart…”) present tense (“… is calm”) – truly radical for literary 1916 – and suddenly Stephen Dedalus is James Joyce. But only for these three short sentences. After the ***** the third-person narrator and the past tense returns.

Stephen was once again seated beside his father …

There is no linking action between Joyce’s scenes; this stream-of-consciousness would be picked up by his peers and by writers even to the present (Marlon James, The Brief History of Seven Killings, 2015). The dialogue is sparse but realistic, but Stephen’s internal thought patterns are poetic and constantly at battle with the world around him. He feels he is alien from his family, “mythical kinship of fosterage” and burdened with a “savage desire … to defile with patience whatever image had attracted his eyes.”  Joyce transformed the narrative into isolated scenes, the paragraph into pictures of feeling, and the sentence into impressionistic bits; like the painters were doing to landscape and interiors in studios and fields all over Europe.

But it is in part 3 that Joyce’s major theme, his Christian faith, is described and exalted in a lengthy sermon as his sinful, lustful, self is set against it and painted as on a slippery but vengeful slope to hell and damnation. The Christian parable is given in a naturalistic and almost movie-like narrative; the glory of heaven rent asunder by the treachery and downfall of the once “shining angel’, Lucifer, who is cast from heaven along with his “rebellious angels” into their fiery haven of Hell; and to fill the gap in Heaven left by these fiends, God created Adam and Eve and gave them a wondrous garden to live in; but Lucifer was jealous of these clay-born creatures and tempted them to disobey God and eat the forbidden apple; so the archangel Michael cast them out into the “world of sickness and striving, of cruelty and disappointment, of labour and hardship to earn their bread in the sweat of their brow;” but God is pitiful and promises a redeemer that will take on all the suffering of the fallen people and give them a way to salvation. It’s a heady and powerful text to the developing mind of a teenage boy who sees nothing but poverty and temptation all around.

He came down the aisle of the chapel, his legs shaking and the scalp of his head trembling as though it had been touched by ghostly fingers. He passed up the staircase and into the corridor along the walls of which the overcoats and waterproofs hung like gibbeted malefactors, headless and dripping and shapeless. And at every step he feared he had already died, that his soul had been wrenched forth of the sheath of his body, that he was plunging headlong through space… Flames burst forth from his skull like a corolla, shrieking like voices: Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell!”

Alone in the darkness of his room, curled up on his bed, hands covering his face his fear of Hell becomes manifest with images of reeking dung and weeds and  “goatish creatures with human faces … trailing their long tails behind them … soft language issued from their spittleless lips … circling closer and closer to enclose;” and so terrified he springs up, vomits, cries, prays and walks the city streets always conscious and fearful of his blackened and sinful self but fearing more the idea of confession: saying aloud what he has done, the seven deadly sins – he lost his virginity at 14 with a whore – he knows them all; the thought of saying it all to a goodly priest; shame fell on him like ash.

There has never been a more vibrant, terrifying description of a young boy’s idea of hell fostered by effective and horrific mind-altering descriptions from a pulpit, feeding the limited but hungry imaginations of those who listen. The Church knows how to do it.

But he does confess and is absolved of all his sins and the chapter ends with Stephen “sitting by the fire in the kitchen, not daring to speak for happiness” and dreaming of a glorious altar with fragrant masses of white flowers as he awaits among other communicants for the body and blood that will soon be his.

Stephen Dedalus, our 16-year-old hero, is now pious and as blameless as any person can be: his intricate piety and self-restraint – he allocates a rigorous discipline to all his senses – even surprised himself but they failed to eradicate “childish and unworthy imperfections” and he felt the “flood of temptation many times” but always eluded them like jumping back from an incoming wave which threatened to engulf him. His piety and dedication grows until the possibility of a priestly life is offered and his contemplation of it is many faceted in poetic language of the mind and the soul and the landscape and the image of an innocent girl standing island-like in the river shallows of the beach. Her skirts and petticoats are hitched up above the waves and “her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh.” He runs from the idea of her and has to eventually admit that his “inherent sinful nature” makes a religious life impossible.

The fifth and final chapter sees him a university student, living at home and still existing on watery tea and fried bread crusts soaked in yellow dripping. He is not a punctual student and misses more classes, English, French, Physics, than he attends. He, instead, seeks out compatible priests and peers and discusses with them his theories and definitions, based on Aristotle and Aquinas, of truth, art, and beauty. Such dissertations are punctuated by scenes of the everyday streetscape: passing students, argumentative men, noisy vehicles and pretty girls, “holding the umbrellas at cunning angles…their skirts demurely”, who were his only distraction. There is always a connection between women, art and sex: each can dislodge the over but it is always art that has the strongest power but which is the most hidden but aches to be exposed; he aspires to “the highest and most spiritual art,” literature.

The penultimate scene is a long conversation with fellow students culminating in a more intimate discussion with his friend, Cranly, about freedom, art, and escape. Finally, the third person gives way to the first, Dedalas is Joyce, in the form of diary entries from March 20 to April 27 1904 where his mother is putting his second-hand books in order and dreading the inevitable: the loss of her son’s love that enables him to learn his own life “away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels.”

Welcome, O life. I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.   

But it is his oath and his confession to Cranly, a few pages earlier, that rings the loudest and the most true:

 I will no longer serve in that which I do not believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning. 

And that is what he did.


You can find the free ebook here, along with all his other works published by www.ebooks.adelaide.com a wonderful resource of texts out of copyright established and maintained by the University of Adelaide.