Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of Joyce’s artistic bildungsroman, is named after the Grecian mythological craftsman Daedalus, who made Icarus’ wings. Joyce’s novel traces the intellectual and religio-philosophical awakening of young Dedalus as he begins to question and rebel against the Catholic and Irish conventions he has been brought up in. He finally leaves for Paris to pursue his calling as an artist.
The novel begins “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face. He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt. O, the wild rose blossoms On the little green place. He sang that song. That was his song. O, the green wothe botheth. When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell” 2.
This beginning disrupts the canonical 1st-person narration of childhood characteristic of the Victorian novel. We watch Stephen gradually gather bits of information and emerge into more coherent, concatenated expressions of consciousness, as though the text were his psychic mirror (compare to What Maisie Knew). As a child, thinking of God “made him very tired to think that way” 12. By the middle, Stephen’s processing of ideas is “His soul was still disquieted and cast down by the dull phenomenon of Dublin” 83.
The lengthy and complex sermon later in the text suggests a kind of readerly training of attention that mirrors Stephen’s increased digestion of ideas. “It was strange too that he found an arid pleasure [disinterestedness!] in following up to the end the rigid lines of the doctrines of the church and penetrating into obscure silences only to hear and feel the more deeply his own condemnation” 115. At first, he comes in and out of listening as he interrogates the letter/spirit of the law in the Bible. The priest wishes against “hearing language” that is disgusting – a shutting off of experience and knowledge that is becoming anathema to Stephen’s way of being in the world 135.
Much of the novel is dedicated to documenting the same grubby school life that Stephen reenters as a teacher in Ulysses. There are also ecstatic moments of joy and desire, as when he sees the girl standing in a stream (almost like Bloom and Gertie, but much more natural and idyllic). This is Stephen’s Romantic/Werther phase, or an experiment in courtly love: “Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy” 189. It provides the vision of “wholeness and radiance” which also becomes his artistic vision. Outside of the brothel where he loses his virginity and repeatedly returns, Stephen’s interactions with women are fantasy. He obsesses over Emma (Bovary? a sort of fiction of a woman?), as well as a number of other “muses” who never materialize.
Stephen’s last phase is a flirtation with his boyhood before becoming an adult. His friend Cranly has a less sophisticated way of dealing with similar questions as Stephen: “Institution! Individual!” he cries paradoxically at another boy 221. He meets his muse 247. The birds in flight and knowledge – 249 (like Yeats and Keats and the whole poetic tradition).
He and Cranly finally confront one another on issues of faith and transubstantiation 269-70. “I will try to express myself in sme mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning” says Stephen 274. There is a latent homosexual moment as Stephen “thrilled at his touch” and Cranly says that Stephen will live alone, and not have anyone, even one “who would be more than a friend, more even than the noblest and truest friend a man ever had,” but will not explain 275. The final 5 pages are a diary before Stephen moves to Paris.
The shifts in tone over the novel experiment with genre in ways that prefigure Ulysses – disjointed stream of consciousness, religious discourse, epistolary and textual sources, etc. It ends, however, in the first person, in the form of the diary Stephen writes before leaving for Paris:
April 16. Away! Away! The spell of arms and voices: the white arms of roads, their promise of close embraces and the black arms of tall ships that stand against the moon, their tale of distant nations. They are held out to say: We are alone – come. And the voices say with them: we are your kinsmen. And the air is thick with their company as they call to me, their kinsman, making ready to go, shaking the wings of their exultant and terrible youth.
April 26. Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
April 27. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead 281.
In a kind of Kunstlerroman, the writing style changes to reflect Stephen’s changing consciousness (the fragmented recollections of childhood, lushness of adolescence and feeling, self-sufficiency and neutrality towards the end). The novel is noted for its extraordinary compression of ideas and efficacy of language. Stephen’s view of art, that the artist, “like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined, out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails,” is attributable both to other modernists’ ideas of the mask, ironic detachment, and the objectivity of art (see Pound, Yeats, Eliot), as well as to Flaubert, from whose letters the quote is taken. He achieves the same kind of “supreme neutrality that Joyce saw as the beginning of artistic awareness” as Gabriel in “The Dead.”