Currying favor with Stephen in Telemachus, Mulligan
promises to take his side against the frighteningly aggressive
Haines: "If he makes any noise here I'll bring down
Seymour and we'll give him a ragging worse than they gave
Clive Kempthorpe." He seems to be recalling an incident
of schoolboy hazing from his time at Oxford University (Oliver Gogarty spent a
term there in early 1904), and Stephen responds with a revery
about such an event happening at "Magdalen"
(pronounced Maudlin), one of the Oxford colleges. The violence
implicit in the scene softens his stance toward Haines.
Familiarity with Oxford is the basis of the friendship
between Mulligan and Haines ("the oxy chap downstairs"),
but the impoverished Stephen has never been there: rather,
Mulligan’s words provoke a purely imaginary scene in his
thoughts. If “Chrysostomos”
introduced the novel's reliance on interior monologue, the two
paragraphs starting with "Young shouts of moneyed voices in
Clive Kempthorpe's rooms" announce a feature of interior
monologue that Joyce will employ frequently: conjuring up a
In the years when he was beginning to write fiction, Joyce described moments when events seem to be charged with symbolic significance as “epicleti” (a Greek Orthodox term for the moment of transubstantiation) or “epiphanies” (“a sudden spiritual transformation,” in the words of Stephen Hero). As Terence Brown observes in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Dubliners, such passages are not symbolic in the familiar sense of pointing beyond realistic events to “transcendent realities.” They are evanescent but very mundane moments in which psychological and social meaning lurk in the realistic details. In Ulysses as in A Portrait, Joyce both creates such fictive moments himself and shows Stephen composing them in his thoughts. Leopold Bloom often does the same thing.
This particular epiphanic moment bespeaks uppercrust British
educational privilege, with overtones of homosexuality and
cruelty. To be “debagged” is to have one's
pants pulled off, a schoolboy prank sometimes called
"pantsing" or "depantsing." Citing Eric Patridge's Dictionary
of Slang, Slote identifies the word as an "Oxford and
(less commonly) Cambridge expression, from circa 1890,
to remove the 'bags' or trousers of an objectionable student."
The term apparently derived from "Oxford bags," the baggy
pants worn by Oxford undergraduates in Joyce's time. Stephen
combines it with effete English talk ("Oh, I shall expire!
Break the news to her gently, Aubrey! I shall die!") and with
alarmingly concrete physical details ("With slit ribbons of
his shirt whipping the air he hops and hobbles round the
table, with trousers down at heels, chased by Ades of Magdalen
with the tailor's shears").
In much the same way that a schoolboy game of hockey makes
Stephen think of the gruesome
slaughters of war in Nestor, this harmless
schoolboy hazing seems to evoke rape and castration in his
imagination. With scissors being wielded around bared legs,
"bags" could well refer to something other than trousers! In
this connection, it is interesting that Stephen also adds to
the scene his recurrent personal association with cattle. He
is Bous Stephanoumenos,
bullockbefriending bard, and his Greek given name evokes the
garlanding of bulls before their sacrificial slaughter.
By giving Clive Kempthorpe “A scared calf’s face
gilded with marmalade” and having him call out, "Don't
you play the giddy ox with me!,”
Stephen creates a sacrificial victim with a distinct
resemblance to himself, just as he discerns kinship between
himself and the pitifully weak Sargent in Nestor.
Like Bloom, Stephen embodies the pacifism and physical cowardice that were such a notable part of Joyce’s constitution. Telemachus shows him responding to Mulligan's call for a hazing by conjuring up a fictive scene in which the aggressive action contains echoes of real violence; in doing so he identifies with the victim and recoils. Rather than welcome Mulligan's invitation to join forces against the alarming roommate, Stephen decides, after his little meditation is concluded, that violence cannot justify further violence: "Let him stay . . . There's nothing wrong with him except at night." In Proteus he will do the same thing once again, conjuring up a scene of bloody retribution and recoiling from it.