Amor matris

Amor matris

In Brief

Watching the pitiful Sargent copy his sums in Nestor, Stephen thinks, "Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him underfoot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only true thing in life?" A little later, he calls this true thing "Amor matris: subjective and objective genitive." The Latin phrase means "love of mother," but matris could be "subjective" genitive, meaning that the mother is the subject feeling the love, or "objective" in the sense that she is the object for whom the child feels love. Both kinds of love are crucially important to Stephen, judging by details in his fictional history and in Joyce's own life.

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Mother love preoccupies Stephen because he feels he poorly repaid his own mother's protective care. Like Sargent's, his mother saved him from the world's indifference: "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." But, having counted on this protection thoughout his childhood and adolescence, he subordinated his mother's spiritual needs to his own (as any healthy child must) when it came time to define himself as an adult. As an apostate, he refused to pray at her bedside, and he deflects his terrible Catholic guilt over that action by identifying with an early saint who chose religious faith over attachment to his mother: "His mother's prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode."

This decisive development has taken place in the unnarrated space between the end of A Portrait of the Artist and the beginning of Ulysses, but Joyce has prepared his readers for it in the final section of A Portrait. There, 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." Stephen has resisted Cranly's call to honor the supreme reality of "a mother's love," asking him 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."

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." Attachment to one's mother becomes associated in his thinking, then, with heterosexual desire, and both of them feel like hindrances on his path to spiritual independence. But things have changed by the time represented in Ulysses. Heterosexual love now appears to be not a stumbling block on Stephen's path to adulthood, but its necessary first step. As Stephen thinks in Scylla and Charybdis, "And my turn? When? / Come!"

Furthermore, the link between heterosexual love and amor matris seems to have persisted in Joyce's adult life, making his love for Nora in some ways an attempt to recapture the lost bond with his mother. Ellmann observes that on Sept. 2, 1909 he wrote to Nora, in language strongly reminiscent of Cranly's words in A Portrait and Stephen's in Nestor, "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). Later in life, Ellmann notes, Maria Jolas remarked, that "'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).

As for Cranly's notion that a mother's love is more real than anything else in one's life—"The only true thing in life," as Stephen says in Nestor—Joyce once remarked to Stanislaus 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).

JH 2021
Berenice Abbott's 1926 photographic portrait of Nora Barnacle. Source: