In Brief

Looking at Stephen peering into his cracked mirror, Mulligan exclaims, "The rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in a mirror... If Wilde were only alive to see you!" He is alluding to the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), where Oscar Wilde defines two great movements in 19th century literature in terms of the reactions of the reading public: “The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. / The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.”

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Wilde’s meaning seems clear enough: the benighted bourgeois are like Caliban, the anti-hero of Shakespeare’s The Tempest who resists Prospero's civilizing influences. When realistic art accurately imitates humanity in all its imperfection—the extreme form was "naturalism" as practiced by Émile Zola and other late 19th century writers—middle-class readers are outraged by an ugliness that they understand all too well. But when romantic art presents avant-garde visions of what humanity might be, they howl in protest at having no ability to relate to it.

But Stephen is himself a romantic artist. Why should Mulligan compare him to the critics of such art?  He probably intends no exact analogy but is merely playing with the implicit contrast between external reality and subjective experience: Stephen is appalled by his appearance in the mirror because it corresponds so poorly to his internal self-conception. If so, then Mulligan is only stating in his own way what Stephen has already thought about himself, using Robert Burns rather than Wilde as a touchstone: “As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me?

JH 2011
Oscar Wilde, photograph taken in 1882 by Napoleon Sarony. Source: Wikimedia Commons.