Stephen thinks of his mother's "shapely fingernails reddened by the blood of squashed lice from the children's shirts." In response, Gifford notes that head lice infestation was chronic among Dublin’s poor. The John Joyce family’s periodic moves northward, from the comfortable suburbs south of Dublin into poorer and poorer neighborhoods, landed them at last in the midst of this urban plague.
In A Portrait of the Artist and again in Ulysses,
Stephen meditates on how physical affliction produces a
spiritual humbling. The final chapter of A Portrait
begins with a representation of the family’s poverty during
Stephen’s university years. Later, it shows how lice on his
body make him doubt the value of his rarified thoughts:
A louse crawled over the nape of his neck and, putting his thumb and forefinger deftly beneath his loose collar, he caught it. He rolled its body, tender yet brittle as a grain of rice, between thumb and finger for an instant before he let it fall from him and wondered would it live or die. There came to his mind a curious phrase from Cornelius a Lapide which said that the lice born of human sweat were not created by God with the other animals on the sixth day. But the tickling of the skin of his neck made his mind raw and red. The life of his body, illclad, illfed, louseeaten, made him close his eyelids in a sudden spasm of despair: and in the darkness he saw the brittle bright bodies of lice falling from the air and turning often as they fell. . . . His mind bred vermin. His thoughts were lice born of the sweat of sloth (254).
Robert Burns’ poem about a louse explores similar thoughts about
how the louse-infested body can humble the mind’s pretensions.