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Fathers and Sons: Bloomsday 2013

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There is a moment near the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses where the narratives of the two oscillating central figures finally converge, meeting and conversing in the same place after about 600-pages—and one full day—of near-miss encounters and psychological turmoil. Protagonist the first, the young-ish Stephen Dedalus who readers have traced through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and several of the Dubliners short stories, is Joyce’s alter-ego; he has spent the day mulling over the death of his mother and his subsequent guilt, teaching students and scholars alike, despite questioning his education and his career direction, and eating next to nothing while drinking substantially. Leopold Bloom has avoided his house since early in the morning for fear that he would run into his wife’s lover; he has wandered the streets of Dublin experiencing varying degrees of socio-cultural warfare directed at him, and has thought about sex extensively.  At its core, the novel is a twisted, cheeky, and complex derivation of Homer’s Odyssey: Bloom, a hapless Odysseus; his wife Molly an unfaithful Penelope; and Stephen, a symbolic Telemachus, yet a wanderer in his own right. Though Bloom and Stephen are not related, Joyce consistently draws parallels between the Homeric tradition and them, illuminating a figurative filial relationship between the two, and making their inevitable convergence all the more anticipated.

At almost 800 pages, it’s hard to imagine that Joyce’s novel occurs over the course of one day: June 16, 1904, “Bloomsday” and, in the instance of 2013, also the date of Father’s Day in the United States. In many ways, Bloomsday is as much about fatherhood, about patriarchal activity, and the value—and loss—of connection as it is about Joyce’s first meeting with Nora Barnacle, which makes this year’s synchronization all the more poignant. When Stephen and Bloom finally convene—first in the maternity ward of the hospital where the former is admittedly drunk, then at a brothel where Bloom aids the hallucinating Stephen before hallucinating himself, seeing his deceased son Rudy—their conversations are marred by mistaken identity, depression, and general malaise.  As the reader transitions to the third and final movement of the novel, “The Nostos” or the “homecoming”, Stephen rejects Bloom’s offer to stay the night at his house—echoing his claim at leaving his father’s house “to seek misfortune”—and wanders into the night, while Bloom returns home, defeated, exhausted, and sonless.

Stephen’s wariness towards fathers and fatherhood in general is a theme that runs deep in each of his appearances, both in Ulysses and Portrait; his goal in the latter is to become an artist and the governor of his own life. His last name, Dedalus, is that of his father, and also that of the mythological Greek craftsman who built wings so that both he and his son, Icarus, could escape Crete. Stephen takes this connection literally; if he is to become “Dedalus” instead of Icarus, he must “become his own father”, transcending the traditional patriarchal structure and avoiding the religious, creative, and social oppression he associates with fatherhood in general. He will not accept Bloom’s shelter because it would function as simply another governing body—even though Bloom is as directionless as he. In looking at Stephen’s creator, it is important to note that Joyce himself (the main governing body of Stephen) also had various misgivings about parentage. The author’s relationship with his own father was better than most, however he suffered greatly for John Joyce’s spendthrift behavior, and left Ireland, his family, and his faith to escape the patriarchal hold. Having said this, the day he chooses to commemorate in Ulysses—the day of his first date with his future wife—is also the beginning of his journey towards fatherhood.

Odysseus spent twenty years away from Ithaca: ten fighting the Trojan War, and ten attempting to return home. On Bloomsday—and this father’s day—we see Stephen, the Telemachus of the tale, is now the wanderer. Perhaps he inherited something from Bloom after all. -ht

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This entry was posted on June 16, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , .

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