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"Who Chose This Face for Me?": Joyce's Creation of Secondary Characters in "Ulysses" (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2008
pp. 146-150 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0124

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Among the many wonders of Ulysses, its extraordinary and sustained way of presenting characters figures prominently. Through verbal dexterity, narrative precision, and pyrotechnics of form, highly complex yet coherent images of Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom emerge and develop, satisfying one's sense of genuine, if not easily comprehensible, humanity. Many critics have written of these principal personae as depicted in the setting and culture of Dublin on 16 June 1904. Elisabetta Cecconi now contributes a very useful and intelligent study of Ulysses's secondary characters. Many, of course, are vivid and vital—unique presences who live in memory. Think of Buck Mulligan, Simon Dedalus, Dilly and Boody Dedalus, Haines, Mr. Deasy, Milly Bloom, M'Coy, Lenehan, Myles Crawford, Professor MacHugh, Josie Breen, Father Conmee, Tom Kernan, Martin Cunningham, the unnamed narrator of "Cyclops," D. B. Murphy, or the supposed Skin the Goat. All seem believable and more than one-dimensional, however eccentric or briefly seen. Cecconi asks how such characters are rendered so vitally, what indeed we get to know of them, and what remains unknown. She offers an enticing vista. Blazes Boylan comes to mind, stereotypical as a sexual bounder, who, we learn from various sources, is a tricky businessman like his father, and, while having tea with his sisters, is shrewdly judged by Molly to be not the marrying kind; Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell too, walking outside of lampposts and looking dotty, subsequently, "[w]ith ratsteeth bared," mutters "Coactus volui" ("I willed it under compulsion") (U 10.1111, 1113). It seems some internal, if unknowable, dynamic is at work. Even caricatures prove enigmatic, multi-dimensional.

Cecconi discusses theories of literary character, from A. C. Bradley's humanistic psychologizing through structuralist and semiotic textuality before recommending the integration of these strands. She proposes generally applicable strategies of observation and illustrates them by focusing precisely on four secondary characters: Buck Mulligan, Simon Dedalus, Josie Breen, and Milly Bloom. Minor characters, she advises, can be fruitfully studied through their interactive dialogues, the narrator's comments about them, and the ways other characters see them. She is detailed and very perceptive.

For Buck, she concentrates on his opening dialogue with Stephen, recognizing the character's wit, humor, love of parody, histrionics, impressive (if glib) range of learning, medical training, competence, competitiveness, and courage. The contrast between his bouncy vibrancy and Stephen's sullen distancing underlines Buck's insensitivity to Stephen's pain. Stephen thinks him a "[u]surper," his and Ireland's "gay betrayer" (U 1.744, 405). Willingly playing the fool, Buck enjoys shocking with blasphemy. The narrator's active verbs and descriptive nouns and phrases project his energy. Both "[s]tately" and "plump," with a face "equine in its length" (U 1.01, 15), he has quick shifts of register in his manner and banter:

There is something sinister in you ….

He broke off and lathered again lightly his farther cheek. A tolerant smile curled his lips.

—But a lovely mummer! he murmured to himself. Kinch, the loveliest mummer of them all!

(U 1.94-98)

In contrast to Stephen's bitter detachment and ongoing interior monologue, Buck's volatility, superficiality, and almost complete lack of inner mental processes are striking. His mockery destabilizes assumptions. Though his teasing of Stephen is hurtful, Cecconi finds little evidence of malice in him, and she respects his generosity and courage. She might have considered the fact that Buck tries to cheer up the jejune Jesuit and that, later in the day, with Haines, he avers that in ten years time Stephen will write something notable—which is far more optimism than Stephen would muster for himself, however complex we might infer Buck's motives to be at the time.

Cecconi notes Simon Dedalus's conversational flair, richness of anecdote, musical talent, and flirtatiousness. She sees that his sociability chills when Bloom calls attention to his son in "Hades" and again when Lenehan speaks of him in "Sirens." In "Wandering Rocks," Simon's irresponsibility toward his hungry children is underscored by Boody and Dilly. But his attitude toward Stephen is troubled, clearly mercurial: caring about his son's companions and welfare, yet alienated from him—as Stephen is...

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