A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
by James Joyce
Honestly, there’s not much to say about Stephen’s mother. She’s always present as a background figure in family scenes; we know that she’s a peacemaker (or at least tries to be), and that Stephen is sympathetic toward her even as they grow apart. We also get the feeling that Mary is a good but unimaginative woman whose faith in the Church sustains her through the downward trajectory of the Dedalus family. She’s cautious and conservative, and she is reluctant to see Stephen go to university and then abroad.
Initially, she’s the "nice mother" that Stephen yearns for at Clongowes, but he quickly grows out of needing her help and attention. By Chapter Two, he is the one who tries to take care of her (he wants to buy her a warmer shawl), and in Chapter Five, we see that he only allows her to mother him because he knows she likes it. Stephen demonstrates his own special brand of tenderness towards her, which is sometimes so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable. However, as the novel draws to a close, we see that he has blocked off whatever part of him responds to her pleas; as he explains to Cranly, his own ideals take precedence over everything else, including whatever feelings he has for his family. One of the major decisions made by Stephen in the novel is not to go to Church for Easter, despite his mother’s fervent wishes.