- The Grotesque GiganticStephen Hero, Maximalism, and Bakhtin
The failure of Stephen Hero haunts all of Joyce’s later work.1 Often considered by scholars to be merely a first draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,2 Stephen Hero was, in fact, an entirely different kind of undertaking—both in terms of scale (its manuscript reaching almost 1,000 pages) and structure (Slocum and Cahoon 8–9). Stephen Hero, I argue, is an early manifestation of what I will here refer to as Joyce’s maximalism, an artistic mode that he would employ more fully in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Although Ulysses and Stephen Hero are very different novels, there is still a clear continuity between the precise detail in which Joyce first attempted to record his artistic development, on one hand, and his later boast that an obliterated Dublin could be rebuilt from the details in Ulysses,3 on the other. Both the impossible goal of a complete record of the “fluid succession of presents” (qtd. in JJ 145) leading up to Joyce’s artistic awakening and the exaggerated boast suggest, at least on their surface, an obsession with completion that we also see in the Wake.
Though later in this essay I will be giving the term a more precise definition, I would like to define “maximalism” provisionally as a literary mode characterized by the use of an opened-up, polyphonous narrative structure to produce the overwhelming experience of taking into consideration the myriad of tiny details in one’s environment, while also responding to the limitations of a physical book that prevent the author from representing this minutia in totum. We see evidence of this mode in Stephen Hero, and we can see the source of the novel’s failure in the difficulties that Joyce—or any author—faces when confronting the structural demands of maximalism. Challenging John Barth’s estimation that Joyce was “a maximalist except in his early works,”4 I argue that traces of [End Page 63] Joyce’s maximalism can be found all the way back to his earliest extant works, and that Stephen Hero represents a failed maximalism. This failure echoes through Joyce’s later works, and Ulysses, in particular, sidesteps Stephen Hero’s weaknesses and contradictions to execute its maximalism more successfully. My discussion of the limitations of Stephen Hero, and Joyce’s response to it, draws centrally on the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, especially his concepts of “polyphony” and “the grotesque,” both of which are vital for understanding how maximalism functions in a literary work. In my analysis of Joyce’s fiction, I will pay special attention to his changing relationship to Stephen Dedalus, and the character’s diminished importance between A Portrait and Ulysses (and his absence from the Wake). In part, I will show how Stephen, constructed initially as an autobiographical representation of his author, was unsustainable as the sole focal point of a maximalist novel, not only because of the necessarily polyphonic nature of a maximalist narrative, but also because the character, as presented in Stephen Hero, was held too far above the carnivalizing that comes hand-in-hand with the maximalist mode. Comparing the Stephen of Stephen Hero to the Stephen of Ulysses illustrates a sharp contrast in Joyce’s attitude toward his character. This distinction is particularly clear in the debate scenes, which are far more frequent in the Stephen Hero fragment than in Ulysses. In the earlier work, these scenes demonstrate Joyce’s consistent deference toward Stephen, which is absent from the later works. The grotesque, and by extension the carnivalesque, are inextricable features of maximalist writing, and so Joyce’s refusal to carnivalize Stephen in Stephen Hero infects the novel with a structural aporia.
My intention is to reorient Stephen Hero’s position in Joyce’s oeuvre, viewing it not simply as a precursor to A Portrait but instead as a first attempt at the kind of expansive narrative Joyce would undertake in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. What I wish to narrate is not primarily the story of Stephen Hero’s failure, but instead the story of how Joyce finally managed, with Ulysses, to create...