The only true thing in life

The only true thing in life

In Brief

In the final chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen's friend Cranly has said, "Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother's love is not. Your mother brings you into the world, carries you first in her body. What do we know about how she feels? But whatever she feels, it, at least, must be real." Looking down at Sargent in Nestor, Stephen thinks of his mother: "She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only true thing in life?"

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Both passages show Stephen forced to question his ruthless pursuit of spiritual independence. In A Portrait, he asks Cranly what he thinks of Pascal, who "would not suffer his mother to kiss him as he feared the contact of her sex," or Aloysius Gonzaga who "was of the same mind," or Jesus who "seems to have treated his mother with scant courtesy in public but Suarez, a jesuit theologian and Spanish gentleman, has apologized for him." After some further conversation, he decides that Cranly's devotion to women disqualifies him for Stephen's friendship: "He had spoken of a mother's love. He felt then the sufferings of women, the weaknesses of their bodies and souls: and would shield them with a strong and resolute arm and bow his mind to them. . . Away then: it is time to go. A voice spoke softly to Stephen's lonely heart, bidding him go and telling him that his friendship was coming to an end. Yes; he would go. He could not strive against another."

In Nestor, he has not yet learned to bow his mind to women, but he has suffered his mother's death and the guilt it occasions in him. His thoughts run on to Columbanus carrying Christianity from Ireland to the continent, leaving behind a heartbroken mother, Sargent's mother, his own mother: "She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire, an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes. She had saved him from being trampled underfoot and had gone, scarcely having been."

Ellmann records various ways in which Joyce tried to atone, later in life, for the callous way in which he had treated his mother. He tried to reconstitute with his sexual partner the bond he had lost with May Joyce, viewing Nora as a kind of mother. On Sept. 2, 1909 he wrote to her, "O that I could nestle in your womb like a child born of your flesh and blood, be fed by your blood, sleep in the warm secret gloom of your body" (293). To Stanislaus he said that "There are only two forms of love in the world, the love of a mother for her child and the love of a man for lies (293). "In later life, as Maria Jolas remarked, 'Joyce talked of fatherhood as if it were motherhood.' He seems to have longed to establish in himself all aspects of the bond of mother and child. He was attracted, particularly, by the image of himself as a weak child cherished by a strong woman, which seems closely connected with the images of himself as a victim, whether as a deer pursued by hunters, as a passive man surrounded by burly extroverts, as a Jesus or Parnell among traitors. His favorite characters are those who in one way or another retreat before masculinity, yet are loved regardless by motherly women" (293).

JH 2012
Photographic portrait of Joyce, date unknown. Source: