Agenbite of Inwit, Stephen Dedalus, Ulysses, James Joyce

Ep. 9 – Remorse of Conscience

James Joyce, Ulysses, literature, Stephen Dedalus, riddle, Ireland, DublinKelly and Dermot discuss the recurring phrase “Agenbite of Inwit” and why Stephen repeats it over and over on June the sixteenth. Other topics included in the discussion are Buck Mulligan as nagging conscience, the gothic horror of growing up Irish, Catholic guilt and whether or not Stephen would have been better off praying at his mother’s bedside.

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St. Ursula, Buck Mulligan, James Joyce, Ulysses

Ulysses CCD: St. Ursula

—I pinched it out of the skivvy’s room, Buck Mulligan said. It does her all right. The aunt always keeps plainlooking servants for Malachi. Lead him not into temptation. And her name is Ursula.

Part of an occasional series on Catholicism in Ulysses.


Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan discuss, as Stephen puts it, a symbol of Irish art – the cracked looking glass of a servant, a literal looking glass that Mulligan stole from a literal servant. “Skivvy” means a menial laborer or a servant. Mulligan laments that his aunt only keeps unattractive servants to keep her nephew out of trouble. “Lead him not into temptation” is a play on a line from the Lord’s Prayer. But it’s her name, Ursula, that we’ll focus on today. There’s no wrong time to learn about the religious allusions found in a Buck Mulligan insult.

Naming the servant “Ursula” connects her to a saint with a distaste for the less fair sex and an interesting legend attached to her. “Ursula” is  Latin for “little female bear” and she is the patron saint of archery, England, and the cities of Cologne, Germany and Binangonan, Philippines. Her feast day was on the 21st of October until it was removed from the liturgical calendar in the late 1960’s. St. Ursula lived in the 3rd or 4th century and, based on several biographies I read, is either a valiant warrior for women’s rights or a total fabrication.

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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.

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Homer The Odyssey Ulysses James Joyce Stephen Dedalus

Ulysses & The Odyssey: Telemachus

I am now writing a book based on the wanderings of Ulysses. ‘The Odyssey,’ that is to say, serves me as a ground plan. Only my time is recent and all my hero’s wanderings take no more than 18 hours. – James Joyce, 1918

For a discussion of this topic, check out our podcast episode here.

Welcome to the first post in an occasional series in which I read The Odyssey, break down the references in each of Ulysses’ eighteen episodes and pull out the ancient Greek parallels. Ulysses has its basis in Homer’s ancient Greek epic, so exploring the journeys of Leopold Bloom and Odysseus side by side seems like an obvious route. However, a word of caution: while The Odyssey is present in the text of Ulysses, knowing and understanding the Homeric parallels in Ulysses will only take you so far and will sometimes present you with “false friends” – apparent parallels where there are none. It’s kind of like the Spanish word embarazada. It looks a lot like a familiar English word, but using it to mean embarrassment might lead to… well, embarrassment.

Telemachus_and_Mentor1
Telemachus and Mentor, Pablo E. Fabisch, 1699

Just so we’re clear on terms – “Homeric parallels” are the ways in which Ulysses is modeled on Homer’s Odyssey. “Ulysses” is the Latin name for the main character (Odysseus in Greek) after allIf you’ve used a reading guide or annotation to Ulysses, you’ve likely noticed that each episode in the novel is given a title corresponding to The Odyssey. The first chapter about Stephen and the boys in the tower is called “Telemachus,” for instance. Although these designations are common coin amongst Ulysses enthusiasts, they never appeared in any published edition of the book. They were popularized by Stuart Gilbert after they appeared in his 1930 book Ulysses – A Study.  Joyce provided Gilbert with a schema outlining his novel as well as prominent themes and parallels in each episode. If you use an annotation that lists the corresponding organ, color, art etc. for each chapter, these also have their roots in Joyce’s schemata.

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