Simon Dedalus

Simon Dedalus

In Brief

Joyce conceived Stephen Dedalus as a fictional persona for himself and created Stephen's father, Simon Dedalus, in the image of his own father, John Stanislaus Joyce. Simon plays a mid-sized role in Ulysses, appearing in a handful of chapters and receiving mention in many others. Stephen keeps his distance from his charming ne'er-do-well progenitor throughout the book, charting his own dissolute course and brooding on metaphoric conceptions of paternity (spiritual, artistic) that make readers wonder whether Leopold Bloom might become a surrogate parent to him. But John Joyce does not enter the novel only as a failed parent. As his son acknowledged to friends after his death in 1931, he inspired much of the book's humor and its extravagant flair for story-telling. Simon's accomplishments also include a glorious singing voice, a gift for memorable witticisms, and a large circle of friends and acquaintances. The many companions may well be the largest contribution that John Stanislaus made to his son's book. James left Ireland in 1904, at the age of 22. The gregarious male society he portrays in Ulysses is mainly his father's.

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In part 5 of A Portrait of the Artist, Cranly asks Stephen, "was your father what is called well-to-do? I mean when you were growing up?" When Stephen says yes, Cranly asks, "What was he?" and Stephen reels off an adventurous and ultimately disreputable vita: "A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody's secretary, something in a distillery, a taxgatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past." John Joyce inherited family money in Cork and steadily lost every penny of it after moving to Dublin.

For the rest of the family, the man's inability to preserve wealth and his heavy consumption of alcohol meant growing poverty and the loss of a stable, comforting home. But as the eldest son of a proud patriarch Jim was privileged, and the good education he received gave him the tools to conceive of himself as something other than a chip off the old block. It is true that he largely retraced his father's path of alcoholic excess and financial imprudence: in 1904 he wrote to Nora Barnacle, "How could I like the idea of home? My home was simply a middle-class affair ruined by spendthrift habits which I have inherited." In fiction, however, he found a way to surpass his father's prodigious capacity for entertainment.

Bloom alludes to this talent in Eumaeus by calling Simon "A gifted more respects than one and a born raconteur if ever there was one." In Calypso he thinks of Simon's talent for mimicry, recalling his impersonation of Larry O'Rourke: "Simon Dedalus takes him off to a tee with his eyes screwed up. Do you know what I'm going to tell you? What's that, Mr O'Rourke? Do you know what? The Russians, they'd only be an eight o'clock breakfast for the Japanese." Readers of A Portrait of the Artist will recall also his magnificently acerbic contempt for the clergy and his worship of Charles Stewart Parnell.

John Joyce was funny––socially assured, acidly irreverent, witty––and his son remembered and used some of his lines. Readers of the novel get an early taste of this wit when the men in the funeral party contemplate the changing weather and Simon remarks, "It's as uncertain as a child's bottom." Bloom thinks of another remark in Lestrygonians as he contemplates Parnell's brother John Howard Parnell: "Simon Dedalus said when they put him in parliament that Parnell would come back from the grave and lead him out of the House of Commons by the arm." The best mot is given to Joe Hynes in Cyclops. Ellmann recounts its genesis:

John Joyce, fearsome and jovial by turns, kept the family's life from being either comfortable or tedious. In his better moods he was their comic: at breakfast one morning, for example, he read from the Freeman's Journal the obituary notice of a friend, Mrs. Cassidy. May Joyce was shocked and cried out, 'Oh! Don't tell me that Mrs. Cassidy is dead.' 'Well, I don't quite know about that,' replied John Joyce, eyeing his wife solemnly through his monocle, 'but someone has taken the liberty of burying her.' James burst into laughter, repeated the joke later to his schoolmates, and still later to the readers of Ulysses.
When not in his better moods, John Joyce lapsed from charming wit into savage invective. The saying "street angel, house devil" might have been coined to describe this man, who was one thing to his friends and something more complicated and undependable to his family. In Hades Simon displays love for his dead wife: "— Her grave is over there, Jack, Mr Dedalus said. I'll soon be stretched beside her. Let Him take me whenever He likes. / Breaking down, he began to weep to himself quietly, stumbling a little in his walk." But before she died John made May's life miserable. Wandering Rocks evokes the man's mixture of affection and brutality when Dilly Dedalus, acting as agent for her near-starving sisters, confronts Simon outside the auction house where he has gone to sell furnishings from the house. After enduring his demands to "Stand up straight, girl," she presses her case:
      — Did you get any money? Dilly asked.
      — Where would I get money? Mr Dedalus said. There is no-one in Dublin would lend me fourpence.
      — You got some, Dilly said, looking in his eyes.
      — How do you know that? Mr Dedalus asked, his tongue in his cheek....
      — I know you did, Dilly answered. Were you in the Scotch house now?
      — I was not, then, Mr Dedalus said, smiling. Was it the little nuns taught you to be so saucy? Here.
He handed her a shilling.
      — See if you can do anything with that, he said.
      — I suppose you got five, Dilly said. Give me more than that.
      — Wait awhile, Mr Dedalus said threateningly. You're like the rest of them, are you? An insolent pack of little bitches since your poor mother died. But wait awhile. You'll all get a short shrift and a long day from me. Low blackguardism! I'm going to get rid of you. Wouldn't care if I was stretched out stiff. He's dead. The man upstairs is dead.
      He left her and walked on. Dilly followed quickly and pulled his coat.
      — Well, what is it? he said, stopping....
      — You got more than that, father, Dilly said.
      — I'm going to show you a little trick, Mr Dedalus said. I'll leave you all where Jesus left the jews. Look, there's all I have. I got two shillings from Jack Power and I spent twopence for a shave for the funeral.
He drew forth a handful of copper coins, nervously.
      — Can't you look for some money somewhere? Dilly said.
      Mr Dedalus thought and nodded.
      — I will, he said gravely. I looked all along the gutter in O'Connell street. I'll try this one now.
      — You're very funny, Dilly said, grinning.
      — Here, Mr Dedalus said, handing her two pennies. Get a glass of milk for yourself and a bun or a something. I'll be home shortly.
This is one of two long cameos of Simon in Ulysses. The other comes in the next chapter when he sings the beautiful M'appari aria from Flotow's opera Martha. The prose of Sirens lyrically presents the rapt attention of the listeners in the Ormond bar: "Braintipped, cheek touched with flame, they listened feeling that flow endearing flow over skin limbs human heart soul spine." Their excitement mounts as the song nears a climax presented in powerfully sexual language, and Simon receives a thunderous round of applause. In Penelope Molly does not seem to like the man ("such a criticiser," "always turning up half screwed"), but she appreciates his gift for natural, unforced singing. John Joyce sang in many amateur concerts and was thought to have one of the finest tenor voices in Ireland. His son James inherited at least some of his gift.

Another way that the elder Joyce figures in Ulysses is through the company he kept. The novel would be far less richly mimetic without the social presence of men like Richard John Thornton (the Tom Kernan of Hades), Tom Devin (the Jack Power of Hades), Matthew Kane (the prime inspiration for the Martin Cunningham of Hades and Cyclops), Reuben J. Dodd (spotted in Hades), Mick Hart (the Lenehan of Aeolus, Wandering Rocks, Sirens, Cyclops, and Oxen of the Sun), "Long" John Clancy (the Long John Fanning of Wandering Rocks), Christopher Dollard (probably the model for the Ben Dollard of Wandering Rocks and Sirens), George Lidwell (Sirens), Alf Bergan (Cyclops), and Timothy Harrington (briefly featured in Circe). These friends and political associates of John Stanislaus greatly assist the book's portrayal of Dublin as a warmly homosocial place, full of drink, music, jokes, stories, and easy conversation.

For readers who want to know more about Joyce's brilliant, irascible, and complicated father, the biography John Stanislaus Joyce (1998), by John Wyse Jackson and Peter Costello, is recommended reading.

JH 2023
John Stanislaus Joyce, father of James, in an oil portrait painted by Patrick Tuohy in 1923. Source:
Gisèle Freund's 1938 photograph of Joyce with his son Giorgio and grandson Stephen, sitting under Tuohy's portrait of John Joyce. Source: Gisèle Freund and V. B. Carleton, James Joyce in Paris: His Final Years.