If you have read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then you'll already have something of a sense for Stephen's intense, and at times impossible, personality. Through most of Stephen's childhood in Portrait, he is a very serious and religious kid, but toward the end he begins to form a rift with the Church. By the conclusion of the book, Stephen has renounced the Church and has replaced it with the life of the artist. He is about to head off to Paris for his medical studies, and resolves to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." His mother, for her part, hopes that he will learn "what the heart is and how it feels." And that's the last we hear of Stephen.
From Stephen's conversation with Mulligan and his own visions in "Telemachus," we gather that his mother died in the three-year interim between the two books. Stephen was called back from Paris, and on his mother's deathbed her one wish was that her son pray over her. Stephen stubbornly refused, and now is wracked with guilt. In the first few pages of the book, we get one of the many visions of his mother that Stephen will have in Ulysses,
Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown grave-clothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. (1.47)
In all of Stephen's visions of his mother, she appears to him as a disgusting corpse. Even in his mind, she is dead. It's almost as if his refusal to pray over her has killed even his memories of her. And we don't know about you, but we've never described someone's breath as "reproachful." The adjective is telling; it immediately becomes clear that Stephen is projecting his guilt onto this image of her, that this is not his mother's ghost so much as the ghost of Stephen's remorse.
Now, the other thing you might notice from this passage is that his pain "was not yet the pain of love." If you read that and thought, "Oh boy, another guy who can't love…" then you're not alone. But the good news is that Stephen has begun to mature since the end of Portrait. At the close of that book, he romanticizes renunciation and independence. By the opening of Ulysses, however, he has begun to see the downsides of completely cutting yourself off from the rest of the world.
Imagine that you decide to buy a convertible and drive West (or East, depending on where you live). Your plan is to just leave that awful place where you born, and so you proudly say good-bye to all of your family and friends the bird as you drive off into the sunset (or sunrise, depending on which way you are heading). Add to that that you tell everyone that you are off to do Great Things, and then, half a mile down the road, the car breaks down. You get towed back and have to live with all those same family and friends that you've just given the bird to. That's where Stephen is right now.
But he's beginning to learn some things. For one, he has learned the art of self-deprecation. In "Proteus," we hear him making fun of his earlier ambition and vanity,
"Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F? O yes, but I prefer Q. Yes, but W is wonderful. O yes, W. Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria." (3.38)
In "Telemachus," we see that Stephen has begun to sense that the flipside of renouncing everything is loneliness and isolation. At the opening of Ulysses, Stephen is remarkably cut off from the rest of the world. When Haines tries to get a handle on Stephen as a radical irreligious thinker, he tells him, "You behold in me a horrible example of free thought" (1.295). It's as if Stephen is paying down the debt that he racked up for all of his earlier views.
Well, Stephen's a good example of the most negative possible stereotype of only children: he's selfish; he wants the whole world to bend to his wishes; he has a callous disregard for the feelings of other people. That's why it comes as something of a surprise in 'The Wandering Rocks,' when we are reminded that Stephen actually has a whole brood of sisters back home.
What that means is that while Stephen was off gallivanting in Paris, and while he's off wasting his money on drink in Dublin, there are actually a bunch of hungry girls living in the Dedalus home with little hope of escaping their situation. Early on in the novel, we think that Stephen's guilt is relegated to the death of his mother, to things that are past and over which he now has no control. When we see his sisters, we realize that there's plenty to feel guilty about right here in Dublin, and that each day he's choosing not to help his family.
In "The Wandering Rocks," this problem is made explicit when Stephen runs into his sister, Dilly, by a bookcart. She has brought a French primer to teach herself French. Stephen thinks this is absurd, but tries not to show it, and after that he begins to feel sympathy for his sister – to realize that she has a glimmer of his own mind. But he knows that he won't be able to return home, and his guilt over his sister begins to mix with that over his mother.
Looking at her, Stephen thinks, "She is drowning. Agenbite. Save her. Agenbite. All against us. She will drown me with her, eyes and hair. Lank coils of seaweed hair around me, my heart, my soul. Salt green death" (10. 477).
What is clear in the passage is that, though Stephen has begun to recognize the pratfalls of complete independence, he is terrified of returning home to help and then not being able to escape his situation. Stephen's worst nightmare is ending up just another Simon Dedalus, wasting his money on drink every night and talking about the dreams he had when he was young.
It's important to note the extent to which this family matrix makes up Stephen's concerns and neuroses. His broader problems with authority – with the Church, with the English, with the literary norms of the time – are, to some extent, extensions of his problems with his family. In "Oxen of the Sun," Stephen is frightened by a clap of thunder because it occurs to him that God may be punishing him for his blasphemy. But when he works up the courage to mock the idea, he refers to God as "old Nobodaddy" (14.24). In other words, Stephen has some unresolved issues with his father.
One way to think of Dedalus is as a merciless portrait of Joyce himself at the age of 22. In Dedalus, Joyce emphasizes the part of him that is a self-centered literati with enormous ambition and little interest in others. Of course, Joyce's saving grace is that there's also much of Leopold Bloom in him, a man whose merits Stephen has yet to understand.
In "Proteus," we get an extended glimpse of how Stephen's mind works as he wanders up and down Sandymount Strand with his ashplant. It's clear that he's remarkably erudite, but on top of that, we begin to see just how incredibly creative his mind is. Ideas turn cartwheels in his head, and one is constantly morphing into another. Stephen's is the mind of an artist, not just of a scholar.
To pick just one of many examples, as Stephen watches his shadow stretch out onto the rocks, he wonders why the shadow does not continue "endless, till the farthest star? Darkly they are there behind this light, darkness shining in the brightness" (3.78). The idea of stars during the day as a sort of "darkness shining in the brightness" is a pretty remarkable image, and it quickly transforms into another image, and then another. Stephen may not yet have produced anything, but his mind is a work of art unto itself.
The other thing that's clear about "Proteus," though, is that Stephen is hardly living in the world – he's lost inside his own head. There is a sharp contrast between Bloom's embodied-ness, his appetites and sexual desires, and Stephen's seeming concern for nothing at all but what happens between his ears. To this extent, Stephen's mind can come to seem like a prison. Later, in "Scylla and Charybdis," as he wraps up his Hamlet argument, "he laughs to free his mind from his mind's bondage" (9.365).
Now, "Scylla and Charybdis" is an important chapter for our understanding of Stephen. Though he doesn't mean to, as he presents his theory on Hamlet, he also puts a lot of his personal cards on the table. The theory is nuanced and complicated, but an important aspect of it is that the author and his work are inseparable. Both Eglinton and Russell favor a Platonic view of art, where the artist tries to capture what they call "formless spiritual essences." But for Stephen, formless spiritual essences are inseparable from the particular details of one's life.
In relation to Hamlet, Stephen argues that Shakespeare's relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway shaped his work, but the notion of the artist's personal life bearing relevance to his work also comes up in the very words of Stephen's own theory. Stephen's artistic credo itself is shaped by his own life and experience. He argues that as an artist, Shakespeare renounced his position as a son, and by trying to make himself his own father, he "was and felt himself the father of all his race" (9.311). One cannot read the lines without thinking of Stephen's relationship with his own father, and of his pledge at the end of Portrait – to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race.
We're going to suggest, though, that one of Stephen's most important thoughts on art comes earlier in the book. The issue for Stephen is that he does not recognize it as a revelation, just as a tossed off thought. Looking at a broken mirror in "Telemachus," he says, "It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant" (1.65). The idea is that the Irish, living under the oppression of the British, can't but produce broken images of themselves as oppressed peoples.
A moment later, though, we get a pivotal moment in the book – the unannounced move to stream-of-consciousness:
Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to rid of vermin. It asks me too. (1.60)
As Stephen looks at the mirror, the prose suddenly turns from external description to internal thought. And Stephen's first thought is about how he is perceived by others, how he cannot control the look of his face. By thinking this internally, however, he can make us as readers recognize that perhaps the solution to the problem of Irish art is to open up the minds of these servants. Instead of just recounting the details of their oppression over and over again from the exterior, the idea is that if you move into their minds you'll liberate your art by opening up whole new worlds.
If not a realization of Stephen's, it is one of Joyce's, and it may be one of the stumbling blocks that lies between Stephen and the fulfillment of his ambition.
Above, we dedicated an entire section to Stephen's selfishness and his seemingly impossible personality. But it's important to note here that Stephen's personality is, to a large degree, shaped (and perhaps distorted) by his ambition. Stephen's hopes for himself (and his fear of not fulfilling them) can't help but shape the way that he behaves and speaks. It's as if his ego has blown out of all proportion in an effort to hide from himself the fact that he hasn't yet done anything. It's as if his arrogance is there to erase the possibility that he may fail.
In "Scylla and Charybdis," when Eglinton suggests that Shakespeare made a mistake by marrying Anne Hathaway, Stephen retorts, "Bosh! A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery" (9.90). It's a bizarre declaration unless one considers just how many mistakes Stephen has made of late. In his mind, he is the "man of genius," and he is searching for ways to turn his own flaws and shortcoming into "portals of discovery."
For the time being, though, Eglinton and Russell don't offer him a place in their anthology of Irish writers and they don't even invite him to a reading by Moore later that evening. For the time being, Stephen's talent goes unrecognized and unappreciated in Dublin.
At the end of "Circe," Stephen has a vision of his dead mother asking him to repent. He is horrified, and begins to cry nonsensically: "The intellectual imagination! With me all or not all. Non serviam!" (15.915). Stephen rushes out into the street where he gets in an altercation with the English constable Private Carr. When Carr thinks Stephen has insulted his king, he socks him in the face and Stephen goes down flat on his back, his hat spinning off onto the sidewalk.
Stephen has just re-affirmed his fundamental belief, "Non serviam" (I will not serve). Yet, it's hard to think of a place where Stephen is worse off than he is in this scene. He's flat on his back; Mulligan has stolen his key; he has no place to sleep; he's estranged from his family and doesn't seem to have any friends, and if it weren't for Bloom, he would have lost all his money in the brothel. As Bloom scampers over to pick up his hat, it seems less like Stephen has renounced everyone and everything than that he has been abandoned.
Yet it's here that things begin to turn for the better. Bloom takes Stephen to the cabmen's shelter. One must give Stephen the benefit of the doubt considering how drunk and exhausted he is, but in "Eumaeus," Stephen is still sullen and despondent. He's turned off by Bloom's idea for a utopian society because it seems to condescend to the artist, and their conversation is quite lopsided, with Bloom putting in all the effort.
Afterward, though, Stephen accepts Bloom's hospitality and returns to 7 Eccles Street with him. They stay up late into the night talking, and as they share their thoughts and beliefs, one notices that this is the first time Stephen has carried on a reciprocal conversation with anyone since the book began. (It's also the first time he's eaten or had anything except booze to drink.) Bloom clarifies Stephen's belief that Mulligan is taking advantage of him, and considering what he's been through, Stephen seems to be in a pretty good mood when he takes off sometime around 4am.
When we first read the book, we remember that we were putting all our effort into romanticizing these final scenes as a glorious coming together between Stephen and Bloom, as Stephen's transformation. It's not quite that. Stephen, for example, recites an anti-Semitic poem for Bloom and doesn't notice the degree to which it offends him. As Stephen leaves, Bloom senses that he's indifferent and many of their future plans together probably will not come to fruition. But the point is that Stephen's beginning to come around. He's beginning to get back into the human fold.