Sacred Heart of Jesus

Sacred Heart of Jesus

In Brief

Stephen smashes the lampshade in Circe in response to a nightmarish apparition of his mother urging him to "Repent." This hallucination continues an association between apostasy and familial independence that began in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and grew in Telemachus and Nestor, but Circe adds something new to the toxic brew of maternal and religious guilt: invocation of the "Sacred Heart of Jesus." Stephen's horrified rejection of this popular Irish Catholic devotional practice makes him a kind of anti-Eveline.

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A Portrait shows Stephen moving from intense religiosity in parts 3 and 4 to Luciferian "I will not serve" in part 5. In that final chapter, Cranly quizzes him about his loss of faith and asks, "Do you love your mother?" He lectures Stephen about the importance of a mother's love, prompting a tart reply: "Jesus, too, seems to have treated his mother with scant courtesy in public." The implied contradiction between Stephen's uncompromising intellectual independence and his relationship with his mother becomes explicit in the opening chapters of Ulysses, which describe how filial love and spiritual integrity came into conflict when he was asked to pray at his dying mother's bedside. Stephen's refusal to make a show of submitting to God created a perfect storm of guilt, manifested in his dream of being visited by a "mute, reproachful" ghost. Mulligan probes the wound by blithely remarking that "you killed your mother."

These earlier scenes do not discuss Mrs. Dedalus's own religious beliefs, but the return of her ghost in Circe shows her to have been a conventionally pious Irish Catholic. The dream is now a nightmare, May's tender solicitude for her son proceeding from fear of his impending damnation: "Who saved you the night you jumped into the train at Dalkey with Paddy Lee? Who had pity for you when you were sad among the strangers? Prayer is allpowerful. Prayer for the suffering souls in the Ursuline manual and forty days' indulgence. Repent, Stephen.... I pray for you in my other world. Get Dilly to make you that boiled rice every night after your brainwork. Years and years I loved you, O, my son, my firstborn, when you lay in my womb.... (With smouldering eyes.) Repent! O, the fire of hell!... (Her face drawing near and nearer, sending out an ashen breath.) Beware! (She raises her blackened withered right arm slowly towards Stephen's breast with outstretched fingers.) Beware God's hand! (A green crab with malignant red eyes sticks deep its grinning claws in Stephen's heart.)"

The cancerous claws plunged into Stephen's heart (cancer is a crab, and green the color of his mother's vomited bile) anticipate May's final, most effective appeal. Praying to the Sacred Heart, the dying woman makes herself indistinguishable from the crucified Jesus: "(Wrings her hands slowly, moaning desperately.) O Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on him! Save him from hell, O Divine Sacred Heart!… (In the agony of her deathrattle.) Have mercy on Stephen, Lord, for my sake! Inexpressible was my anguish when expiring with love, grief and agony on Mount Calvary." The devotion to the Sacred Heart, widespread in Ireland at the turn of the century, was founded on a French nun's report that Jesus had pulled his heart out of his chest and placed it in hers. For Stephen, this is not a generous offer of salvation but a spiritual malignancy thrust into him by the long arm of the church. Immediately afterward, he apocalyptically "smashes the chandelier."

In an article titled "The Sentence That Makes Stephen Dedalus Smash the Lamp," Colby Quarterly 22.2 (June 1986): 88-92, Frederick K. Lang agrees with Weldon Thornton that May's prayers for Jesus to "Have mercy" recall the language of the "Litany of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus," a work included in "numerous prayerbooks and religious manuals" (88). Among these works, Slote and his collaborators note, is the Ursuline Manual (Dublin: Richard Coyne, 1841) that May has previously mentioned. But May's final sentence carries more force. Lang detects a source in Devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Dublin: Richard Grace, 1841), which includes, just before the "Litany," "An Act of Reparation" for offenses done to the Heart of Jesus. It contains the sentence "inconceivable thy anguish when expiring with love, grief, and agony, on Mount Calvary." Citing a claim made by Áine Nolan on JJON, Slote quotes from a similar prayer called "A Reparation of Honour to the Sacred Heart" in the Ursuline Manual: "Inexpressible, we know, was the bitterness with which the multitude of our sins overwhelmed thy tender heart: insufferable the weight of our iniquities which pressed thy face to the earth in the garden of Olives, and insurmountable thy anguish when expiring with love, grief, and agony, on Mount Calvary, in thy last breath thou wouldst reclaim sinners to their duty and repentance."

By having May speak these words about herself Joyce magnifies Stephen's guilt. His mother becomes a second crucified Christ, and he becomes one of those sinners whose "ingratitude, contempt, irreverence, sacrilege, and indifference" the devotional tradition deplored as causing further injury to the Sacred Heart. The smashing of the lamp shows just how susceptible Stephen remains to Catholic guilt and threats of damnation. Like Joyce himself, he has chosen apostasy without achieving complete disbelief. His terror at the Father's thunderclap in Oxen of the Sun is repeated in Circe when the Son offers to invade his chest. Lang observes that the hanging purple shade in the brothel appears to remind him of the "perpetual lamp" hanging in every Catholic church "before the altar where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved" (91). In the story "Grace" a red lamp "suspended before the high altar" became a symbol of meretricious simony. In Circe it embodies Stephen's fear that Christ's eucharistic body is malignant. As Lang wryly notes, the smashing of the purple shade constitutes a very specific way in which Stephen has "sinned against the light" (92).

In addition to completing one arc of Stephen's fictive life, this scene enlarges the portrait of Stephen's mother, whose piety could be inferred from previous passages but not clearly known. Lang's article offers evidence for supposing that Joyce's mother was intensely pious and regularly acted upon the most extraordinary of Christ's "promises" to Sister Margaret Mary: "the grace of final perseverance shall be granted to everyone who for nine consecutive months shall communicate on the first Friday in the month; they shall not die out of a state of grace." In The Trieste Notebook Joyce wrote under "Mother," "Every first Friday she approached the altar." Circe attributes this devotion to the Sacred Heart not only to May Dedalus but also to Bloom's Catholic mother Ellen: "O blessed Redeemer, what have they done to him!... Sacred Heart of Mary, where were you at all, at all?"

Joyce's earlier fictions are filled with references to the Sacred Heart. Stephen Hero twice mentions one of its icons which hangs in the house of Mr. Daniel. In part 5 of A Portrait, as Stephen tries to write about E.C. he recalls being in her parlor, "asking himself why he had come, displeased with her and with himself, confounded by the print of the Sacred Heart above the untenanted sideboard." In "Grace" Mrs. Kernan "believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions." In "A Mother" Mr. Kearney, like May Joyce, goes "to the altar every first Friday."

But the most suggestive analogue for what happens in Circe comes in "Eveline," where a "coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque" hangs on the wall of the girl's home. The promises of the Sacred Heart cultus were reciprocal, Christ's offers rewarding believers who consecrated their lives to him and strove to please him in their actions. The grim domestic life that Eveline is preparing to abandon for Frank has been founded on a familial promise, "the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could. She remembered the last night of her mother's illness.... As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother's life laid its spell on the very quick of her being––that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.... She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape!" Standing in the station at the North Wall, on the verge of joining Frank on the ship to Buenos Aires, "she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty.... Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer."

Paralyzed by guilt and fear, Eveline does not board the ship. Her posture at the end of the story bears a striking resemblance to Stephen's terror in the whorehouse, but their trajectories diverge. Instead of heeding the call to return to the fold of the faithful, submit to authority, and perpetuate an endless cycle of reciprocal promises, Stephen responds with a violently apocalyptic gesture of defiance.

John Hunt 2024

Jesus making promises to Margaret Mary Alacoque. Source:

Catholic holy card depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus, ca. 1880, held in the Auguste Martin collection, University of Dayton Libraries. Source: Wikimedia Commons.



The Laundress, 1888 oil painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Source: