Critical Essays The Question of Autobiography


The question of how much autobiographical material Joyce inserted into the fictional character of Stephen Dedalus has long been a matter of debate. Scholars and critics still produce evidence on both sides of the issue, but for the most part, the question has been largely resolved through the contributions of Richard Ellman, Joyce's definitive biographer, and Joyce's brother Stanislaus, who wrote his own book about Joyce, My Brother's Keeper.

Despite the countless similarities between Joyce's own childhood and that of Stephen Dedalus, Stanislaus Joyce makes it clear that "Stephen Dedalus is an imaginary, not a real, self-portrait." Significant details exist to verify this view, including Joyce's school records at Clongowes and Belvedere, as well as recorded interviews with several of Joyce's friends. Stanislaus points out that although Joyce "followed his own development closely, has been his own model and [has] chosen to use many incidents from his own experience . . . he has [also] transformed and invented many others."

One example of such invention is Joyce's portrait of Stephen as a physically weak, cowering and innocent "victim" at Clongowes. In contrast to this view of Stephen, Stanislaus remembers Joyce as a relatively well-adjusted student and "a good athlete," who won "a variety of cups for his prowess in hurdling and walking." He also recalls that Joyce was less isolated, less retentively bookish, and at times, less manageable than Stephen. In the Clongowes' Punishment Book, we find that Joyce, unlike Stephen, was never pandied mistakenly for an incident involving broken glasses, but the book does record that Joyce received at least two pandies for forgetting to bring a book to class, and on another occasion, he was pandied for using "vulgar language."

Other variances between Stephen and Joyce are found in Joyce's treatment of Stephen's friends, most of whom are clearly intellectually inferior to him. Stanislaus remembers, to the contrary, that Joyce's friends provided him with significant mental stimulation throughout his adolescent development.

Yet another difference between the creator and the creation exists in Joyce's relationship with his father. Ellman states, "In A Portrait, Stephen denies that Simon is in any real sense his father, but James himself had no doubt that he was in every way his father's son." In addition, Stanislaus recalls the Cork incident in the novel (where Stephen travels with Simon to Cork) and states that Joyce's feelings during that trip were quite different; unlike Stephen, who was disgusted by his father's visits to various pubs, Stanislaus emphasizes that "my brother's [James'] letters home at the time were written in a tone of amusement even when he described going from one bar to another."

Joyce's fictional representations of his friends at the university are just that — fictional. He changed many of their personalities, invented non-existent dialogues, and deliberately excluded significant individuals in the novel. Clearly, Stephen Dedalus is Joyce's fictional persona, whom he used to express his ideas about the lyrical, epical, and dramatic forms of literature.

In conclusion, in spite of the obvious autobiographical similarities, Stephen is a fictional representation of Joyce's art. Stephen exists, as does the novel, as an example of the author's "handiwork," behind which Joyce is "invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent . . ." and, probably if he had his way in the matter, is still standing concealed somewhere, "paring his nails."