I, I, and I

In Brief

"I, I, and I. I." As Stephen begins to explain to the Dubliners the ways in which Shakespeare’s identity resides within the characters he created, his mind wanders into thoughts of his own life and the metamorphosis of the self from day to day. Gifford points out this passage’s economical incorporation of both the discontinuity and continuity of identity—three distinguishable I’s and a single unified I.

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We are primed for this tension in the preceding lines. Though Joyce’s use of the triple “I” could be abstracted to represent any number of trinity-related concepts, his contextual emphasis on particular identity suggests the triple-self of consciousness: the past (memory), present (experience), and future (anticipation). “Molecules all change,” Stephen thinks. “I am other I now.” And yet identity somehow remains stable thanks to memory’s continuity, as he thinks two lines later: “But I, entelechy, form of forms, am I by memory because under everchanging forms.

Gifford notes that the Aristotelian term entelechy signifies the actuality of particular existence with the “power to produce other actualities of the same kind” (206). Stephen thinks of two earlier actualities: "I that sinned and prayed and fasted" (the fornicating and repenting adolescent represented in chapters 2, 3, and 4 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), and "A child Conmee saved from pandies" (the six-year-old boy represented in chapter 1).

Identity is central to any book where the author is writing about himself, but Joyce plays in particularly daring ways with its continuities and discontinuities. In Circe, the character of the fan speaks to Stephen: “Is me her was you dreamed before? Was then she him you us since knew? Am all them and the same now we?” This syntax imposes transitive properties on otherwise separate identities. The comparison can be made to a mechanical fan, an object of nearly identical yet ontologically distinct blades that expand through space and time to produce their own overarching unity.

JW 2014
James Joyce at the age of 6, "A child Conmee saved from pandies". Source: Wikimedia Commons.
James Joyce at the age of 20, two years before the time represented in the novel. Source: achive.org.
James Joyce at the age of 33, when he was writing the novel. Source: Wikimedia Commons.