In Brief

In Telemachus Mulligan says, "The aunt thinks you killed your mother" and he reproaches Stephen: "You could have knelt down, damn it, Kinch, when your dying mother asked you." Here he resembles his model Oliver Gogarty, who casually declared to all his acquaintances “that Joyce was ‘mad,’ and ‘had killed his mother by telling her what he thought’” (Ellmann, 173). But Mulligan overstates the facts, assuming that they were similar to those surrounding Joyce’s mother’s death in August 1903, and Stephen's confrontation with his mother in Circe suggests that, rather than acting from cavalier disregard for her, he felt mortally threatened by the demand to kneel down before a God whom he had pledged in A Portrait of the Artist not to serve any longer. The filial guilt prompted by his dream of the dead woman is nothing compared to his terrified feeling that she has returned from the afterlife to reproach him for impiety and demand that he "Repent!"

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Ellmann writes of Mary ("May") Joyce’s illness, “Her fear of death put her in mind of her son’s impiety, and on the days following Easter she tried to persuade him to make his confession and take communion. Joyce, however, was inflexible; he feared, as he had Stephen Dedalus say later, ‘the chemical action’ which would be set up in his soul ‘by a false homage to a symbol behind which are massed twenty centuries of authority and veneration.’ His mother wept, and vomited green bile into a basin, but he did not yield. His aunt Josephine Murray argued with him” (129, emphasis added). Four months later, in Mrs. Joyce’s final hours, “she lay in a coma, and the family knelt about her bed, praying and lamenting. Her brother John Murray, observing that neither Stanislaus nor James was kneeling, peremptorily ordered them to do so. Neither obeyed” (136). 

Joyce may have refused to compromise his spiritual integrity by making false declarations of faith, but he was not so priggishly self-righteous as to attempt to ruin other people's spiritual consolations. After his mother's death, he comforted his nine-year-old sister Mabel, sitting beside her on the stairs with “his arm around her, saying, ‘You must not cry like that because there is no reason to cry. Mother is in heaven. She is far happier now than she has ever been on earth, but if she sees you crying it will spoil her happiness. You must remember that when you feel like crying. You can pray for her if you wish, Mother would like that. But don’t cry any more’” (Ellmann, 136). The Stephen Dedalus of Telemachus was as sensitive to his mother's suffering as Joyce was to Mabel's: "Silent with awe and pity I went to her bedside. She was crying in her wretched bed."

Given such complex family dynamics, the accusation made by Gogarty and Mulligan seems callous and shallow. Joyce felt there was some, but only some, truth to the charge. At the end of August 1904 he wrote to Nora, “My mother was slowly killed, I think, by my father’s ill-treatment, by years of trouble, and by my cynical frankness of conduct. When I looked on her face as she lay in her coffin—a face grey and wasted with cancer—I understood that I was looking on the face of a victim and I cursed the system which had made her a victim” (Ellmann, 169). But he did not back down from his principled stand about kneeling in prayer. In the following paragraph of the same letter he wrote, “Six years ago I left the Catholic Church, hating it most fervently....I made secret war upon it when I was a student and declined to accept the positions it offered me....Now I make open war upon it by what I write and say and do.” 

Ulysses appears to heighten and focus the guilt Joyce felt, maximizing its narrative importance as much as the treatment of the black panther episode minimizes the narrative importance of those events. His anguish at the ghost's implicit demand that he kneel down in prayer attains a shattering climax in Circe, when it explicitly commands him to pray and repent: "Prayer is allpowerful. Prayer for the suffering souls in the Ursuline manual and forty days' indulgence. Repent, Stephen....Repent! O, the fire of hell!" The threat of fiery hell recalls the grand guignol horror of the Jesuit priest's sermons in part 3 of A Portrait, which terrifed Stephen into piety. By refusing to submit again to the almighty bludgeoning, he also, interestingly, plays the part of Don Giovanni, who refuses to "Repent!" even as the statue threatens him with eternal damnation.

John Hunt 2011

May Murray Joyce surrounded by her father John Murray, her son James (age 6), and her husband John. Source: Ellmann, courtesy of Mrs. May Joyce Monaghan.