The character of Stephen Dedalus is a harshly drawn version of Joyce himself at age twenty-two. Stephen first appeared as the main character of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which followed his development from early childhood to his proud and ambitious days before leaving Dublin for Paris and the realization of his artistic capabilities. When we meet Stephen again at the beginning of Ulysses, it is over two years after the end of Portrait. Stephen has been back in Dublin for over a year, having returned to sit at his mother’s deathbed. Stephen’s artistic talent is still unrealized—he is currently a reluctant teacher of history at a boy’s school. He is disappointed and moody and is still dressed in mourning over the death of his mother almost a year ago. Stephen’s interactions with various characters—Buck, Haines, Mr. Deasy—in the opening episodes of the book crystallize our sense of the damaging ties and obligations that have resulted from Stephen’s return to Ireland. At the beginning of Ulysses, Stephen is a self-conscious young man whose identity is still in formation. Stephen’s aloofness and his attempts to understand himself through fictional characters such as Hamlet dramatize his struggle to solidify this identity.
Stephen is depicted as above most of the action of the novel. He exists mainly within his own world of ideas—his actions in the world tend to pointedly distance himself from others and from the world itself. His freeness with money is less a demonstration of his generosity than of his lack of material concerns. His unwashed state similarly reflects his removal from the material world. His cryptic stories and riddles cut o-thers off rather than include them. He stubbornly holds grudges, and our admiration of his noble struggle for independence is tempered by our knowledge of the impoverished siblings he has left behind. If Stephen himself is an unsympathetic character, however, the issues central to his identity struggle are easier for us to sympathize with. From his contemplation of the eye’s perception of the outside world to his teaching of a history lesson to his meditations on amor matris or “mother love,” Stephen’s mental meanderings center on the problem of whether, and how, to be an active or passive being within the world.
Stephen’s struggles tend to center around his parents. His mother, who seems to blame Stephen for refusing to pray at her deathbed, represents not only a mother’s love but also the church and Ireland. Stephen is haunted by his mother’s memory and ghost in the same ways that he is haunted by memories of his early piety. Though Stephen’s father is still alive and well, we see Stephen attempting to ignore or deny him throughout all of Ulysses. Stephen’s struggle with his father seems to be about Stephen’s need to have a space in which to create—a space untainted by Simon Dedalus’s overly critical judgments. Stephen’s struggle to define his identity without the constraint or aid imposed by his father bleeds into larger conflicts—Stephen’s struggle with the authority of God, the authority of the British empire, even with the authority of the mocker or joker.
After the first three episodes, Stephen’s appearances in Ulysses are limited. However, these limited appearances—in Episodes Nine, Fourteen, and Fifteen—demonstrate that Stephen’s attempted repudiation of authority and obligations has precipitated what seems to him to be the abandonment of all those close to him. At the end of Episode Fifteen, Stephen lies nearly unconscious on the ground, feeling as though he has been “betrayed” by everyone. Never before has Stephen seemed so much in need of a parent, and it is Bloom—not wholly father nor mother—who cares for him.
Though Stephen plays a part in the final episodes of Ulysses, we see less and less of his thoughts as the novel progresses (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Stephen becomes drunker and drunker). Instead, the circumstances of the novel and the apparent choices that Stephen makes take over our sense of his character. By the novel’s end, we see that Stephen recognizes a break with Buck Mulligan, will quit his job at Deasy’s school, and has accepted, if only temporarily, Bloom’s hospitality. In Bloom’s kitchen, Stephen puts something in his mouth besides alcohol for the first time since Episode One, and has a conversation with Bloom, as opposed to performing as he did earlier in the day. We are thus encouraged to understand that, in the calm of the late-night hours, Stephen has recognized the power of a reciprocal relationship to provide sustenance.