Agenbite of Inwit, Stephen Dedalus, Ulysses, James Joyce

Agenbite of Inwit

—He can’t wear them, Buck Mulligan told his face in the mirror. Etiquette is etiquette. He kills his mother but he can’t wear grey trousers.

To listen to a discussion of this topic, check out the podcast episode here.

The text of Ulysses is populated by certain repeated phrases that shine light on the inner world of the characters. One of the first we encounter is “Agenbite of Inwit” in “Telemachus.”  Literally meaning “again-biting of inner wit,” it translates roughly to “remorse of conscience” and is derived from a medieval manual on morality called Ayenbite of Inwyt, which was translated, sometimes poorly, from French to English in the 1300’s. It’s remembered in modern times more as a fine example of the written form of the Kentish dialect of Middle English rather than as a work of literature or theology, and in fact, it seems that Ulysses revived its memory outside of academic circles.

Why does the title of an obscure medieval text clang through Stephen’s internal monologue again and again throughout the day? In 1903, both Stephen Dedalus and James Joyce had been medical students in Paris, striking out on their own away from the constricting culture of Edwardian Ireland. Both would receive a telegram urging them to come home due to their mother’s impending death. Both would deny their mother’s final wish – to kneel and pray at her bedside. Stephen, for his part, is haunted by guilt surrounding his mother’s death.

The prolonged illness and death of Joyce’s mother May Joyce upended not only her eldest son’s life, but the Joyce household altogether. Patriarch John Joyce’s alcoholism turned violent and abusive during and after her death, and with it came the financial unraveling of the already struggling Joyce family. May Joyce’s death of cancer was long and slow, punctuated by coughing up bile and phlegm as described in the novel.

James Joyce outwardly acted blasé in the face of his mother’s demise, once telling William Butler Yeats that his mother was dying, “but these things really don’t matter.” After returning to Dublin, Joyce reconnected with his friend John Francis Byrne(Cranley in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), who told him, among other things, “Whatever else is unsure in this world, a mother’s love is not,” and urged his erstwhile friend to respect his mother’s wishes and pray for her.

James Joyce Ulysses Buck Mulligan
Stephen Dedalus and Haines listen as Buck Mulligan recites a bawdy poem.

Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann says that it was during this time period that Joyce began running with Oliver St. John Gogarty’s crowd – a social circle that was more accomodating of the young Joyce’s detached Artist persona. However, Joyce’s correspondence from Paris shows that he leaned heavily on his mother for emotional support while he was a student there.

Ironically, it seems to be heretical Buck Mulligan who, upon concluding his mock Mass, churns up Stephen’s guilt in the opening scenes of “Telemachus.”

—The aunt thinks you killed your mother, [Mulligan] said. That’s why she won’t let me have anything to do with you.

—Someone killed her, Stephen said gloomily.

—You could have knelt down, damn it, Kinch, when your dying mother asked you, Buck Mulligan said. I’m hyperborean as much as you. But to think of your mother begging you with her last breath to kneel down and pray for her. And you refused. There is something sinister in you…

“Hyperborean” is a term taken from Nietzsche that means “above the crowd” and is a characteristic of the archetypical übermensch. A hyperborean individual doesn’t conform to a traditional Christian morality, adherents of which Nietzsche considered weak or degenerate. Much later in “Telemachus,” Mulligan again appeals to Stephen’s Nietzschean sensibilities (sarcastically of course):

My twelfth rib is gone, [Mulligan] cried. I’m the Uebermensch. Toothless Kinch and I, the supermen.

Mulligan takes no issue with lampooning religion or philosophy; if anything, he encourages it, but Stephen has transgressed a higher-higher power: amor matris, a mother’s love.

If you’re anything like me, you read these passages in Ulysses and think to yourself, “Jesus, Stephen, get over yourself. You should have just prayed. She gave you life, you self-involved twerp.” I haven’t really budged from this feeling over the years, but if I only examine my own feelings, I learn nothing about Stephen’s, and by extension Joyce’s, point of view. In 1903, May Joyce tried to convince Joyce to confess and take communion, but Joyce, who had wholly rejected Catholicism by that time, refused. He said he feared “‘the chemical action’ which would be set up in his soul ‘by a false homage to a symbol behind which are massed twenty centuries of authority and veneration.’”

It’s been said to the point of cliché that there are no ex-Catholics, only recovering Catholics, and Joyce was clearly frightened of relapsing. In his Trieste notebook, in which Joyce described many people from his life who would become characters in his novels, the section on Stephen Dedalus states, “Having left the city of the church by the gate of sin he might enter it again by the wicket of repentance if repentance were possible.” Confession and communion were too close to an attempted repentance for Joyce’s taste. He was in so deep in his youth and escape had given him such freedom that falling off the wagon could fatally set back the progress he’d made towards his own self-realization in Paris. The stakes were too high to partake in Church rituals just to please his mother.

The mother is transformed into a powerful symbol of the church and the sway religion held over both a young Joyce and a young Stephen Dedalus. Much later in the novel, as Stephen faces the ghost of his mother in Bella Cohen’s brothel, he declares, “Non serviam,” a Latin phrase meaning “I will not serve.” These were also Lucifer’s words to God when the fallen angel was cast out of the kingdom of Heaven. Furthermore, it is an echo of Stephen’s final words in Portrait:

I will not serve in that which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of 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.

Capitulating to his mother’s wishes would have meant sacrificing his artistic integrity, career abroad and losing everything with which he identified. Coming back to Dublin from Paris had already been a major step backward in life for Stephen/Joyce. Praying for his mother could have been the death knell for his dream. Through sheer will, Stephen would not be another piglet consumed by the old sow, Mother Ireland.

Though this decision confers Stephen some degree of atheistic heroism, the emotional toll of such a bold stance cannot be escaped. His guilt at his mother’s wishes transforms the waters of Dublin Bay to bile and phlegm and Mulligan’s shaving bowl to the china bowl at her bedside catching her ejected bodily fluids:

Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. Across the threadbare cuffedge he saw the sea hailed as a great sweet mother by the wellfed voice beside him. The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.

The sea, a symbol of motherhood, grey and sweet in Mulligan’s eyes (and snotgreen and scrotumtightening), is far more sinister in Stephen’s grieving mind. No matter how principled his stand, a mother’s love is a mother’s love. Stephen, having rejected the societal pillars of family, church and state, is primed to need both a father figure and a mother figure. In his book ReJoyce, Anthony Burgess points out the subtle way in which Stephen is pointed in the direction of such a caretaker figure. Stephen confronts Mulligan for slandering his mother as “beastly dead” (a description that came directly from Gogarty himself). Mulligan retorts in frustration:

—And what is death, he asked, your mother’s or yours or my own? You saw only your mother die. I see them pop off every day in the Mater and Richmond and cut up into tripes in the dissecting room. It’s a beastly thing and nothing else. It simply doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t kneel down to pray for your mother on her deathbed when she asked you. Why? Because you have the cursed jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way. To me it’s all a mockery and beastly.

Mulligan, a medical student, has a much more clinical view of death in contrast to Stephen’s ghost-haunted visions. He sees people die (pop off) every day at the hospital or dissected as part of his studies. The Mater Hospital is located on Eccles St. in Dublin, Burgess points out, just up the road from another Joycean-famous Dubliner. In any case, Mulligan is blasphemer-in-chief of Ulysses, his blasphemy profaning not only ecclesiastical matters, but also the dead mother of a friend. Non-hyperborean individuals tend to reserve a reverence for the dead which Mulligan has abandoned when discussing Stephen’s mother. In the Trieste notebook, Joyce describes Gogarty’s “coarseness of speech” as “not the blasphemy of a romantic,” and this is an illustration of that idea. Nothing is sacred, not even respect for the deceased, who are nothing more than inert meat for study. “It simply doesn’t matter,” he says, echoing the words Joyce said to Yeats.

Though Stephen, like Joyce, has emphatically rejected off the Church and tradition, outwardly he goes through the motions of respecting the dead. Stephen’s retort to Mulligan’s defense above is not that Mulligan has caused his mother offense, but that Mulligan has caused Stephen offense. Adopting the trappings of mourning – namely, all black clothing – allows Stephen to outwardly present his moody demeanor, a particularly emo fashion choice. Ellmann puts it this way: “[Joyce] dressed in black, a Hamlet without a wicked uncle….” Mulligan comments on Stephen’s choice in this exchange:

—The mockery of it, he said contentedly… God knows what poxy bowsy left them off. I have a lovely pair with a hair stripe, grey. You’ll look spiffing in them. I’m not joking, Kinch. You look damn well when you’re dressed.

—Thanks, Stephen said. I can’t wear them if they are grey.

—He can’t wear them, Buck Mulligan told his face in the mirror. Etiquette is etiquette. He kills his mother but he can’t wear grey trousers.

Joyce characterizes his literary avatar in this way to highlight his immaturity, just as anyone who dressed in goth or emo fashion in high school might look back at their yearbook and crack a self-deprecating joke about their morbid fashion choices. Mourning clothes were customary in 1904, but Stephen had broken much greater taboos, so why not shirk this custom as well? This outward representation of mourning adds to the mystique of his brooding, artistic temperament. All he needs is a Joy Division album tucked under his arm.

Joyce himself certainly used his mother’s death as an artistic inspiration that allowed him to “stage manage” his grief, as Justin Beplate described it. Grief is not so great that it can’t be applied to artistic forms to move others. On one hand this could be viewed as a way of coping with his loss. On the other, it sometimes took on extra levels of callousness. Following his mother’s death, Joyce acquired a collection of his parents’ old love letters, which he read and then rejected on the grounds that they contained nothing useful to his writing. Joyce mined every aspect of his young life for scenarios for his novel, and his mother’s death was no exception. In this passage below, Stephen recalls singing “Who Goes with Fergus?” for his mother, a song also requested by May Joyce.

Fergus’ song: I sang it alone in the house, holding down the long dark chords. Her door was open: she wanted to hear my music. Silent with awe and pity I went to her bedside. She was crying in her wretched bed. For those words, Stephen: love’s bitter mystery.

Mulligan recalls Stephen’s mother calling the doctor “Peter Teazle,” which May Joyce did as well:

Her cerebral lobes are not functioning. She calls the doctor sir Peter Teazle and picks buttercups off the quilt.

Sir Peter Teazle is a character from the 1777 Richard Brinsley Sheridan play A School for Scandal. Though Mulligan views this quirk as a sign of her deteriorating mind, Ellmann portrayed it as a joke meant to bring a tiny bit of levity to her dire situation and her unraveling family.

You can take the Artist out of Catholicism, but you can’t take the Catholicism out of the Artist. Catholicism is not merely a religion, but an entire set of cultural beliefs that inhabit its adherents psyches’ to the point where it’s hard to tell where one ends and another begins. Hyperborean though he may be, Stephen is plagued by supernatural tormentors, chief amongst them the shade of his mother:

In a dream, silently, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, bent over him with mute secret words, a faint odour of wetted ashes.

The Trieste notebook reveals that Joyce had a similar dream following the death of this mother.  Though Stephen sees himself as an Artist, a man superior intellect, rising above the shackles of a backward-looking Church and culture, he is awfully frightened of ghosts and ghouls:

Her glazing eyes, staring out of death, to shake and bend my soul. On me alone. The ghostcandle to light her agony. Ghostly light on the tortured face. Her hoarse loud breath rattling in horror, while all prayed on their knees. Her eyes on me to strike me down. Liliata rutilantium te confessorum turma circumdet: iubilantium te virginum chorus excipiat.

Ghoul! Chewer of corpses!

No, mother! Let me be and let me live.

The Latin in this passage translates as, “May the glittering throng of confessors, bright as lilies, gather about you. May the glorious choir of virgins receive you” and is a part of a prayer that can be said for a dying person in the absence of a priest. As much as Stephen wants to avoid Church rituals, they come unbidden into his mind.

Of course, being plagued by a vengeful ghost also helps Stephen step into the Hamlet role, though he openly steps in the Lady MacBeth role in his mind while speaking to Haines:

Speaking to me. They wash and tub and scrub. Agenbite of inwit. Conscience. Yet here’s a spot.

James Joyce, Ulysses, literature, Stephen Dedalus, riddle, Ireland, DublinOut damn spot! The stain of his remorse can’t be washed away so easily. Despite all his youthful philosophizing, Stephen knows he was wrong. He is haunted, above all, by his past, both recent and distant. The nightmare of history he speaks of in “Nestor” is as much the nightmare of his own personal history, personified as a ghostly mother, as it is the turbulent history of Ireland. Until Stephen can grapple with his inner ghosts, they will continue to dog his every step and invade his private flights of intellect. Ending the nightmare would require Stephen to confront his own wrongdoing and make peace with his past and his apostasy. The ghost that haunts him is not literally his mother, but his own inner turmoil over abandoning Mother Church. It takes the form of a repeated incantation of medieval morality again-biting his inner wit. And it reminds him, again and again. Stephen suffers because, as modern as he thinks he is, his mind is controlled by a medieval ideology that he just can’t shake. Agenbite of Inwit is what we now refer to as “Catholic guilt.” It’s a well known feeling to anyone who has abandoned the religious aspects of Catholicism. The cultural residue remains behind and doesn’t wash away so easily.  


Further Reading:

Beplate, J. (2007). Stephen’s lyrical language: memory and imagination in Ulysses. Études anglaises, vol. 60,(1), 42-54.

Burgess, A. (1968). ReJoyce. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Ellmann, R. (1959). James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gibbons, L. (2015, Dec. 3). The ghosts in James Joyce’s modern machine. The Irish Times. Retrieved from

Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gilbert, S. (1955). James Joyce’s Ulysses: a study. New York: Vintage Books.

Trieste Notebook:


Published by

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.