• ‘Mulrennan Spoke To Him About Universe And Stars’:Astronomy In A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man

This article positions A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man through the lens of scientific discourses of astronomy, in particular in relation to popularizations of the science of entropy and its literary impact. It is argued that scientific readings of Joyce’s texts have tended to focus too much on ‘Ithaca’ and ‘Night Lessons’, to the neglect of key scientific metaphors for creativity and subject formation utilized in A Portrait. Focused close readings of the later chapters of A Portrait allow the author to make a case for reading Joyce’s use of the bildungsroman form in parallel with theories of cosmic evolution and decay. Science fiction, such as the work of H.G. Wells, and the poems of Yeats’s apocalyptic collection The Wind Among the Reeds, are offered as important points of comparison for Joyce’s transformation of astronomical ideas into literary texts. A final, more playful, section explores the politics of alien life in Mulrennan’s story of an old man who imagines ‘queer creatures’ in Chapter V of A Portrait.

This essay takes as its starting point the following throwaway comment by John Gordon, which he does not develop but which seems crucial:

Finnegans Wake, like Portrait before it, appears to instantiate a universal protocol of creation and destruction that applies equally to the formation of thoughts and the formation of stars. Everybody knows that Joyce wanted Finnegans Wake to be a book of everything, and to that end applied a definite set of, roughly speaking, cosmological theories.1

Here, Gordon suggests that throughout his career Joyce attempts to theorize a paradigm of creativity that would apply to both an individual thought and to the whole universe, microcosm and macrocosm. Throughout this essay I shall explicitly look at this link between the formation of thoughts and the formation of stars to explore connections between the process of Stephen’s subjectivity and the cosmic processes that are part of his aesthetic fantasies.

Scientific readings of Joyce’s oeuvre are more common than they used to be — still, most often, discussions of the influence of science on Joyce’s reading or on Joyce’s work focus on the most obviously scientific passages of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. For example, historically, the attention of literature and science critics of Joyce’s work has been primarily focused in Ulysses on the concept of parallax and the ‘Ithaca’ episode, and in Finnegans Wake the ‘Night Lessons’ chapter, II.2.2 This is partly because we have a better record of Joyce’s scientific reading and note-taking for Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, since he embarked on a programme of self-education in science in preparation for writing sections such as the ‘Ithaca’ episode or the ‘Night Lessons’ chapter. For example, in looking at Joyce’s knowledge of relativity theory we know that he read popularizations of the new physics by Bertrand Russell and Henri [End Page 90] Poincaré, as well as articles from the Encyclopædia Britannica.3 Therefore, it is useful to look at an earlier period of Joyce’s career, where the sources of his knowledge are harder to identify, but where close reading can still reveal new insights into his knowledge of science.

This does not mean that I will not address the key themes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as we know them. We can find new ways into the key issues of the book — religion, nation, the mind, creativity, and sexuality — via a close reading of references to astronomy and an attention to astronomical metaphors. Certainly, as Andrew Gibson, who has explored the politics of Joyce’s science in Ulysses in Joyce’s Revenge, would no doubt point out, Stephen’s first thoughts of astronomy and cosmology in A Portrait are associated with contemporary Irish politics.4 The child Stephen struggles to consider whether the universe has a boundary or is unbounded; he thinks, considering the end of his schema:

Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College


County Kildare



The World

The Universe [...]

What was after the universe? Nothing. But was there anything round the universe to show where it stopped before the nothing place began? It could not be a wall but there could be a thin thin line there all round everything. It was very big to think about everything and everywhere. Only God could do that

(P I.300–23).

Stephen goes on to think about Parnell, before Joyce explicitly compares Stephen’s cosmic uncertainty with his political ignorance: ‘It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak’ (P I.345–7). Ironically, Stephen looks forward to being like the older boys, assuming that in future he will have this knowledge, while Joyce in fact suggests that these questions can never be fully answered. [End Page 91]


Science is certainly not central to the way that A Portrait is usually taught and read. Therefore, before I go further, I would like to dwell for a moment on H.G. Wells’s ground-breaking contemporary review of the text. In it, he praises the novel ‘as a book to buy and read and lock up, but it is not a book to miss’, criticizing Joyce’s ‘cloacal obsession’ and also waspishly suggesting that ‘Mr Joyce has failed to discredit the inverted comma.’5 Wells also, as Joseph Brooker has pointed out, focuses on the Irishness of the work in a way that is excessive (especially in its concentration on Irish racial difference) but also refreshing in a contemporary critical environment where the universal, apolitical nature of Joyce’s works was a central part of their promotion by Ezra Pound. Brooker suggests that ‘Wells’s comments on the Portrait for all their immoderation, oddly and distantly prefigure the “re-Irishing” of Joyce that would take place in the late twentieth century.’6 But aside from the rest of the content of the review, we tend to forget that it opens with a surprising discussion of the relationship of literature and science:

An eminent novelist was asked recently by some troublesome newspaper what he thought of the literature of 1916. He answered publicly and loudly that he had heard of no literature in 1916; for his own part he had been reading ‘science’. This was kind neither to our literary nor our scientific activities. It was not intelligent to make an opposition between literature and science. It is no more legitimate than an opposition between literature and ‘classics’ or between literature and history.7

Wells does not go on to make specific claims about Joyce and science but I would still suggest that the fact that he sees the opening of his review as the place for this kind of discussion indicates that he wished to blur the boundaries between science and fiction in relation to Joyce’s novel. Even if Wells is only thinking about himself and his own writing at this point, the placement of this discussion suggests an identification with Joyce and his work.

It is interesting to think of Joyce, a relative unknown in 1917, being championed by this famous science fiction writer. I doubt that Wells consciously noted the passages from A Portrait which I discuss in this article but they may be part of the explanation for the otherwise incongruous [End Page 92] opening of the review. Joyce himself valued the review immensely, calling Wells ‘a very appreciative critic of my writings’,8 and went on to meet Wells in Paris in 1928, though they clashed over the aims and success of Finnegans Wake.9 It is not clear exactly how much Wells’s works Joyce had read in his youth, but in Finnegans Wake he alludes to both The War of the Worlds and, perhaps more tellingly, to This Misery of Boots, a more obscure socialist tract published in 1907, which I would suggest Joyce must have read around the time it appeared since this work was not reprinted.10 In his Trieste library, Joyce had copies of three of Wells’s comic novels (Bealby, The History of Mr Polly, and Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul), and one of his socialist polemics (A Modern Utopia), but he may have had more at some point.11


As we might expect from Stephen’s at times apocalyptic imagination, a central metaphor of A Portrait is the concept of entropy, primarily in its cosmic sense. The fear of an entropic running down or cooling down of a universe characterized by increasing disorder, which, theorized by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, was a common trope of late nineteenth-century science and also of the emerging genre of popular science fiction in works by H.G. Wells and Camille Flammarion. Popularizers explained entropy by suggesting that high level energy may suffer an irreversible ‘fall’ into lower level energy; thus, light may ‘fall’ to become heat, but cannot become light again. This ultimately leads to what is known as ‘Heat Death’, a universe where all energy is evenly distributed and all work is converted into heat. For example, Robert Ball in The Story of the Heavens (1885) — which Joyce references in Ulysses and which he may have first encountered around the period in which he was composing A Portrait—includes a chapter entitled ‘The Astronomical Significance of Heat’ that speculates about whether the sun might be cooling.12 In fiction, the wider significance of entropy was generally figured in metaphorical, apocalyptic terms in relation to a ‘dying earth’ genre; instead of wrestling with the idea of a dying universe, authors tended to depict entropy’s effect on a smaller scale, through a dying sun and the death of human civilization. Rather than the use of more scientific language, key popular images and metaphors for entropy were discussions of cold, darkness, and redness.

This is H.G. Wells’s description of entropy in relation to a dying sun near the end of The Time Machine: [End Page 93]

The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent [...]. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.13

Here, entropy is figured through snow and an encroaching darkness; in fact, as an aside, we might wish to link this moment, with its snow, darkness, and the isolated human figure of Wells’s time-traveller, with the strange image of ‘snow falling faintly through the universe’ imagined by Gabriel Conroy at the end of ‘The Dead’ (D 194.1613).

Part of the imaginative appeal of entropy as a metaphor for authors was the fact that it is visualizable on different scales, from microcosm to macrocosm, from the ice cube melting in a hot room to the death of the universe, with the death of the sun or the earth somewhere in the middle. Every thermodynamic system is a miniature universe, so the concept could be applied to both the whole world, and to the individual self. Other writers of the 1890s linked the idea of heat death specifically with modernity, especially with modern literature, modern culture, and the modern subject. For example, in Max Nordau’s polemical text Degeneration, in which he argues that artists such as Oscar Wilde, Henrik Ibsen, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche epitomize the decay and degeneration of humanity and society, he takes heat death as a metaphor for ‘a Dusk of the Nations in which all suns and all stars are gradually waning, and mankind with all its institutions and creations is perishing in the midst of a dying world’,14 later referring to the entropic ‘reddened light’ of this Dusk of Nations.15 He also refers to the ‘Dusk of Nations’ as a form of aesthetics.16 Though Nordau was hostile to many authors Joyce admired, critics such as Jean-Michel Rabaté and Marilyn Reizbaum have suggested that he influenced Joyce’s work.17 Further, as Michael Whitworth has pointed out in his discussion of the influence of entropy upon Joseph Conrad, the fear of the decay of the modern individual was often politically inflected, as here in Nordau, where we see a Dusk of Nations, in that Empires [End Page 94] were often held to be a system subject to entropy.18 Some of the principle’s appeal for Joyce might therefore be the subversive potential it offered in relation to the British Empire.

In A Portrait, this metaphor of entropy is focused, not merely upon the earth as in the science fiction I have mentioned, but on the whole universe. On the smaller scale it also represents, at key moments, the journey of Stephen’s mind and soul — but is also, as we will see, a metaphor for Joyce’s narrative and the processes of the Bildungsroman.


In this crucial passage from the opening of Chapter III of A Portrait, Stephen at Belvedere struggles to balance his erotic fantasies and thoughts of self with his mathematical studies:

The equation on the page of his scribbler began to spread out a widening tail, eyed and starred like a peacock’s: and, when the eyes and stars of its indices had been eliminated, began slowly to fold itself together again. The indices appearing and disappearing were eyes opening and closing; the eyes opening and closing were stars being born and being quenched. The vast cycle of starry life bore his weary mind outward to its verge and inward to its centre, a distant music accompanying him outward and inward. What music? The music came nearer and he recalled the words, the words of Shelley’s fragment upon the moon wandering companionless, pale for weariness. The stars began to crumble and a cloud of fine Stardust fell through space

(P III.27–39).

In Joyce, Chaos and Complexity, Thomas Jackson Rice suggests that here Stephen’s mind ‘turns inward to transform an algebraic equation into the fantastic geometry of fin-de-siècle design’ and emphasizes how Stephen moves away from the reality of mathematics.19 This critique of Stephen’s mathematics as mathematics is certainly valid to an extent, especially since we sense irony in the phrase ‘distant music’ as we remember it being used by Gabriel Conroy in ‘The Dead’ to aestheticize his wife Gretta. However, Rice is perhaps being too hasty in suggesting that there is no meaning in this passage beyond a portrayal of Stephen’s self-absorption. Instead, we could underscore the intricacy and complexity of the repeating pattern emerging [End Page 95] simultaneously from Stephen’s thoughts and from the cosmos itself. Stephen’s equations take on lives of their own to create an association of mathematics, astronomy, and the mind; first one equation ‘began to spread out a widening tail’ (P III.27–8) and then another sum is seen to ‘unfold itself (P III.41). These equations are associated with the stars, becoming miniature universes in their own right, as their indices are ‘eyes and stars’ (P III.29).

Therefore, we might wish to link the image created in our minds by Stephen’s mathematical and astronomical pattern not to an aesthetic object at all, but instead to these photographic plates of nebulae which Robert Ball included in The Story of the Heavens and which Joyce must have seen. We can see similarities between Stephen’s pattern and these intricate photographs of nebulae. A nebula is a site of intense creativity; in the same chapter where he addresses entropy, Ball explains the ‘nebular theory’, which suggested that cooling nebulas collapse and fragment to become stars and ultimately planets, as energy is converted into matter. The process of this passage and its rhythms are one of gradual development, as with nebulae, of opening and closing, mimicking Stephen’s thoughts but also mimicking a cosmos becoming as Joyce later puts it ‘ever vaster, farther and more impalpable’ (P V.629). The passage is also informed by modern science — Stephen appears aware of the life cycle of stars, as ‘stars being born and being quenched’ (P III.32), that is, he sees them in scientific terms. In relation to the Bildungsroman genre, this passage mirrors Stephen’s gradual development as a person, as a ‘distant music accompanying him outward and inward’. The ‘eyes’ of the constellation or equation are also the ‘I’s’ of his developing subjectivity.

However, in Stephen’s development there is a tension, even a danger; given my discussion of entropy, we might expect this sudden apocalyptic turn at the end of the paragraph, where ‘[t]he stars began to crumble and a cloud of fine Stardust fell through space’ (P III.38–9), which leads us on to the next paragraph which is more explicitly entropic. The shift to this more apocalyptic feeling seems to be sexual in part, as signalled by the reference to Shelley’s fragment on the moon. Although Stephen thinks of this poem as ‘distant music’, there does not seem to be a setting of the poem from the right period; however, the words were included in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, which was mined for material by composers, so it may well be that Joyce knew (or even sang himself) a version of the poem that has since been lost.20 Here is the only complete stanza of the poem: [End Page 96]

Art thou pale for weariness

Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,

Wandering companionless

Among the stars that have a different birth, —

And ever changing, like a joyless eye

That finds no object worth its constancy?21

Stephen imagines the moon to be like himself and he takes on a contradictory role here, as both the feminine chaste moon and also the sinner and explorer of entropic decay that the movements of stars in the passage represent.


The second equation is directly associated with Stephen’s soul, as the mathematical and quasi-celestial movements of the sum are incongruously compared with his entropic quest for sexual experience in Dublin’s brothels:

The dull light fell more faintly upon the page whereon another equation began to unfold itself slowly and to spread abroad its widening tail. It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the balefire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and the cold darkness filled chaos.

A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul. At his first violent sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and had feared to find his body or his soul maimed by the excess. Instead the vital wave had carried him on its bosom outside of himself and back again when it receded: and no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them. The chaos in which his ardour extinguished itself was a cold indifferent knowledge of himself

(P III.40–54).

Stephen’s desire and his will to knowledge are mapped both on his scribbler in mathematical symbols and, by means of the image of stars, against the whole cosmos. The reference to a return to ‘chaos’ accurately describes Stephen’s soul as a universe characterized by increasing entropy, running itself down, with the final ‘cold darkness’ suggesting heat death, the end state of an [End Page 97] entropic universe. The references to ‘chaos’ in this passage have a more specific meaning than we hear initially: ‘chaos’ was still used in a scientific, cosmic sense at the time, referring to the period before the formation of the universe, or after its destruction. This is certainly how Robert Ball uses the word in The Story of the Heavens; chaos is what exists before or after matter.

Further, as I have pointed out, entropy was often explained through a metaphor of falling. In this sense, entropy, and in particular metaphors of heat and cold (‘ardour’ and ‘indifference’), that occur in the second paragraph are scientific metaphors for the ‘fall’ into knowledge suffered by Stephen. We also saw the way that Nordau made a connection between modernity and entropic degeneration; in his sexual rebellion, Stephen becomes more modern, more fallen, and more threatened. In the opening of this essay, we saw that for Gordon A Portrait creates a ‘protocol of creation and destruction’;22 here the protocol of creation, the nebular hypothesis, and the protocol of destruction, the process of entropy, are shown to be intimately related — just as Stephen’s sexuality is simultaneously creative and damaging.

Later in the chapter, after the ‘hell fire sermon’, Stephen’s apocalyptic imagination becomes more conventionally religious, while remaining entropic. Stephen appears as a dying star in a universe made of the light, wind, and warmth of God’s favour:

A wasting breath of humiliation blew bleakly over his soul to think of how he had fallen, to feel that those souls were dearer to God than his. The wind blew over him and passed on to the myriads and myriads of other souls on whom God’s favour shone now more and now less, stars now brighter and now dimmer, sustained and failing. And the glimmering souls passed away, sustained and failing, merged in a moving breath. One soul was lost; a tiny soul: his. It flickered once and went out, forgotten, lost. The end: black cold, void waste

(P III.1370–8).

Here Stephen’s modern subjectivity falls into a more traditional, Biblical lexicon, but the most important aspect of this passage, I would argue, remains its relationship with the earlier mathematical discussions — the concept of entropy has simply been lifted into a more fully religious context. Further, entropy appears to apply only to Stephen. God miraculously preserves the universe of other souls leaving only his soul to experience the end of the world. Thus, throughout Chapter III of A Portrait, we see connections established between entropy, modernity, spiritual degeneration, and sexual sin. [End Page 98]

In this sense, Joyce appears to be deliberately playing with the form of the Bildungsroman—the genre is predicated on the idea of development, but here, for a modern subject at least, and perhaps even for all Bildungsromane, this development entails a fall, entails, in fact, degeneration, just as in entropy, where the development of a system necessarily involves increasing dispersal and ultimately the threat of its degeneration. As in the case of the solved sums earlier in the chapter, we see the child Stephen both grow and degenerate as part of A Portrait’s narrative. He gains knowledge, but over time his possibilities for change and the energy associated with his potential is dispersed.

Moreover, Stephen’s experience of watching these sums’ stars slowly unfold may be like the experience of readers watching A Portrait unfold: after all, Stephen sees these sums as like his own life, but beyond that, Joyce perhaps sees them as like his novel, a ‘vast cycle of starry life’ (P III.33). It is a critical commonplace that the structure of A Portrait is one of rise and fall and we might point out that Stephen cannot ever return to where he was after each fall. We might say, then, that the narrative is entropic.


The model for this portrayal of the stars throughout A Portrait may have been Joyce’s scientific reading but one particular literary source is just as likely to have inspired these apocalyptic stars.

The most striking occurrences of stars in Yeats’s early poems are the apocalyptic endings of poems, which are a particular feature of The Wind Among the Reeds. Barton R. Friedman has suggested that these poems are characterized by what he calls ‘dissolving surfaces’, as ‘material surfaces seem to dissolve before the personae’, just as they do in Stephen’s reveries.23 For example, he notes that in the poem, ‘He Remembers Forgotten Beauty’, beauty fades even as the speaker attempts to embrace it: ‘When my arms wrap you round I press /My heart upon the loveliness /That has long faded from the world.’24 This poem is, of course, important for the Stephen of Chapter V of A Portrait. However, Friedman fails to point out that it is usually the stars that ‘dissolve’ in these poems as the heavens repeatedly threaten to become immaterial. Moreover, though some Yeats critics, such as Stephen Putzel and R.F Foster, have emphasized the role of apocalypse in the early poetry, they have not pointed out that this is primarily an astronomical apocalypse. In ‘The Secret Rose’, ‘He Hears the Cry of the Sedge’, ‘He Tells of the Perfect Beauty’, [End Page 99] ‘The Valley of the Black Pig’, and ‘He Wishes his Beloved Were Dead’, the end of the poem imagines an image of the end of time, figured through the stars disappearing or falling out of the sky. These apocalyptic moments often relate to sexual desire, as in A Portrait, but are also linked with the desire for cosmic knowledge, as in the example of ‘The Secret Rose’, which closes by asking the eroticized, quasi-Rosicrucian, rose of cosmic secrets:

When shall the stars be blown about the skyLike sparks blown out of a smithy, and die?Surely thine hour has come, thy great wind blows,Far off, most secret and inviolate rose?25

Interestingly, the death of the stars is compared to sparks being blown out of a smithy, suggesting that something is being created as a result of this destruction, just as poetic creativity is predicated upon astronomical catastrophe. Correspondingly, Stephen’s knowledge of himself is predicated upon the same idea of apocalypse.

Foster explains this imagery in relation to the millennialism which ‘was widely prevalent in Yeats’s circle’ and which undoubtedly played a part in his construction of these apocalyptic moments.26 He points out that Madame Blavatsky ‘had prophesied that the world would pass from a cycle of materialism into a cycle of spiritual growth some time in 1897.’27 Also potentially important was Victorian anxiety about the change of century. After all, Yeats published the collection in 1899, on the verge of a new epoch. However, neither millennialism, nor historical change, adequately explains the crucial role of the unstable and difficult stars in these apocalyptic moments. In ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ we note that ‘moth-like stars were flickering out’ when Aengus has his vision: this links them with mothlike whiteness, but, combined with their ‘flickering’, also suggests that the stars may be just as short-lived and vulnerable as moths.28 In fact, Yeats’s emphasis on the stars’ vulnerability is sourced in the contemporary science of entropy. It is somewhat surprising to think of the occult figure of Yeats influencing Joyce’s portrayal of physical science; however, in this moment, where Joyce constructs mathematics as magical, Yeats’s influence is palpable:

O the grey dull day! It seemed a limbo of painless patient consciousness through which souls of mathematicians might wander, projecting long slender fabrics from plane to plane of ever [End Page 100] rarer and paler twilight, radiating swift eddies to the last verges of a universe ever vaster, farther and more impalpable

(P V.624-9).

This image might be said to romanticize science, but it also anticipates some of the changes that would be wrought by the new physics: the universe becoming ‘ever vaster’ suggests the later idea of an expanding universe and its ‘impalpable’ status suggests theories such as Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Even before the breakthroughs of the new physics were disseminated, Joyce seems well aware of the way in which science might not shine a bright light of reason upon the world, but rather a creative twilight. Here Joyce acknowledges that science might increase uncertainty rather than providing definite truths. There appears to be a shared anxiety of representation in relation to both art and science; while the mathematician struggles to reach a fugitive universe through mathematical, spectre-like symbols, the artist might feel that the universe evades his attempt to capture it in language.


In this final section, I shall attempt to move beyond ideas of entropy to place my argument about astronomy in a stranger, more speculative, but also a more fully political context. In the final chapter of A Portrait, in Stephen’s diary, we find the following short entry:

14 April: John Alphonsus Mulrennan has just returned from the west of Ireland. (European and Asiatic papers please copy). He told us he met an old man there in a mountain cabin. Old man had red eyes and short pipe. Old man spoke Irish. Mulrennan spoke Irish. Then old man and Mulrennan spoke English. Mulrennan spoke to him about universe and stars. Old man sat, listened, smoked, spat. Then said:

—Ah, there must be terrible queer creatures at the latter end of the world.

I fear him. I fear his redrimmed horny eyes. It is with him I must struggle all through this night till day come, till he or I lie dead, gripping him by the sinewy throat till . . . . Till what? Till he yield to me? No. I mean him no harm

(P V.2745–57). [End Page 101]

One target of this passage, as Declan Kiberd has pointed out, seems to be J.M. Synge, his use of dialect, and, especially, his prose work The Aran Islands.29 The latter text describes belief systems on the Aran islands as follows:

Afterwards we went up on the Dun, where Michael said he had never been before after nightfall, though he lives within a stone’s-throw [...] Though Michael is sensible of the beauty of the nature round him, he never speaks of it directly, and many of our evening walks are occupied with long Gaelic discourses about the movements of the stars and moon.

These people make no distinction between the natural and the supernatural.30

However, I would suggest that there is far more to this passage in A Portrait than a parody of Synge’s works. Stephen relays to us what must originally have been, at least in Mulrennan’s initial telling, a comic tale about the simple ignorance of country folk. In fact, the initial version of this passage in Stephen Hero is much more straightforward:

The story was this. The officer and a friend found themselves one evening surprised by a heavy shower far out on the Killucan road and forced to take refuge in a peasant’s cabin. An old man was seated at the side of the fire smoking a dirty cutty-pipe which he held upside down in the corner of his mouth. [...]

The young lady who was much amused began to tell the peasant about the animals of prehistoric times. The old man heard her out in silence and then said slowly:

—Aw, there must be terrible quare craythurs at the latther ind of the world.

Stephen thought that the officer told this story very well and he joined in the laugh that followed it

(SH 242–3).

The politics of this version are in many ways clearer. Stephen sides with the scientific, rationalist army officer against the peasant’s view by consenting to laugh. In Stephen Hero, astronomy is far less important and the ‘queer creatures’ imagined by the old man seem to be dinosaurs; however, what dinosaurs and aliens have in common is their unknowable, problematic status. Neither the officer, nor the young lady, nor Stephen, seems aware of their [End Page 102] position simultaneously inside and outside science. They are creatures of scientific hypothesis, but seem creatures of fantasy or magic; dinosaurs and aliens point at unknowable extremes in time and space, at worlds prior to or beyond the primacy of human reason.

To return to the later version of this scene in A Portrait: first Mulrennan, who, this time, is not an army officer, but a student with revivalist leanings, and the old man speak Irish, then they change to English so that Mulrennan can explain the miracles of science to the old man. The old man seems at first to be a receptive audience — he listens, smokes, spits. However, he then suddenly subverts the authority of Mulrennan’s science. What could blur Synge’s distinction between the natural and the supernatural more effectively than the ‘terrible queer creatures’, the alien life, which the old man imagines? These are not the fairies, spirits and leprechauns of the Celtic Twilight or earlier Irish legends, though they are akin to them in their mythic force. These creatures are the antithesis of Mulrennan’s authoritative science. But they are not unscientific. At this moment in the history of science, as Joyce no doubt knew, the prospect of life and civilization on Mars was both a literary fantasy (in books such as Wells’s The War of the Worlds) and an established, though controversial, scientific theory, via Percival Lowell and his study of supposed ‘canals’ on the surface of the planet. So, for example, in his discussion of the Martian canals (in reality optical illusions) in a 1906 book, Lowell asserts the definite existence of life on Mars:

That Mars is inhabited by beings of some sort or another we may consider as certain as it is uncertain what those beings may be. The theory of the existence of intelligent life on Mars may be likened to the atomic theory in chemistry in that both led to the belief in units which we are alike unable to define.31

Though mistaken, Lowell was a serious astronomer and his views were widely discussed. It is hard for us to put ourselves back in an age when alien life seemed so real and so close. However, we must accept that the old man is entirely modern, entirely of his cultural moment, in wanting to believe in ‘queer creatures’ (P V.2752). The implied condescension of Mulrennan is misplaced. What Joyce is criticizing here, despite the fear the old man inspires, is neither the old man himself, nor Gaelic speakers, but the power structures created by the ethnographic research of people like Synge, Yeats, and Lady Gregory. [End Page 103]

However, Stephen’s attitude, unlike that of Mulrennan, is not exactly one of condescension. In the more everyday scene of Stephen Hero, Stephen laughs easily at the old man, but here he responds to him as a threat. He senses the power and otherness of the old man’s worldview and wishes, if not to kill him, at least to make him yield, to control the irrationality, imagination, and myth-making found in the heart of the science that the old man suggests. However, it may be that the old man and Stephen are not as dissimilar as they appear. Given my earlier discussions of apocalypse, it is significant that the old man locates the queer creatures, or aliens, ‘at the latter end of the world’ (P V.2752–3). This phrase is a pun of sorts: the aliens imagined are at the end of the world both spatially and temporally. We can see how this moment fits with Stephen’s entropic, apocalyptic, and dying earth fantasies earlier in the novel. Despite the similarity between Stephen and the old man, which we can discern as readers but which Stephen cannot, I would like to take a bold step and suggest that beyond these speculations, for Stephen at least, there is a ‘real’ alien in this passage and it is the old man himself. The West of Ireland is Stephen’s ‘latter end of the world’, his deep space, Mulrennan a space man. Here be dragons.

The old man is powerfully Othered by Stephen. The way this is done is through his ‘red eyes’, his ‘redrimmed horny eyes’, that make Stephen wish to destroy him, to struggle with him ‘all through this night till day come, till he or I lie dead’ (P V.2748–56). Stephen’s horror of the old man becomes an irrational fantasy that taps into the tropes of fin de siècle science fiction. For example, we can see how in this passage from The War of the Worlds the pressure of representing alien Otherness is captured through their eyes, as with the old man’s eyes in A Portrait:

Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth--above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes--were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous [...]. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.32 [End Page 104]

This is the first vision of the alien bodies in The War of the Worlds, where their appearance occasions disgust and a desire to attack them. In Stephen’s imagination, the old man’s red eyes and his sinewy throat create a similar fight or flight response. Stephen first suggests he wishes to kill the old man, then merely to dominate him. His language in this moment, whether coincidentally or deliberately on Joyce’s part, taps into an emerging linguistic trope in contemporary science fiction alien encounters. He says: ‘Till he yield to me? No. I mean him no harm’ (P V.2756–7). In science fiction alien encounters, the phrase ‘meaning no harm’ is frequently used. This phrase came into circulation during the fin de siècle period and is an established trope from then onwards. I think I have traced its origin to this moment in The War of the Worlds, where one of the characters says, when discussing what to do about the alien invasion:

And the great thing is, we must leave the Martians alone. We mustn’t even steal. If we get in their way, we clear out. We must show them we mean no harm.33

I shall end with some definitions. I have been discussing aliens as though it were not anachronistic to do so. However, the first references to aliens meaning extra-terrestrial life that I have been able to find dates from 1920s. It may be that there were earlier references that Joyce knew. Nonetheless, the word ‘alien’ draws together so many versions of what the old man represents to Stephen that it is metaphorically, if not historically, appropriate. Taking several definitions from the OED the old man is:

  1. A.

    1. 1.

      1. a). Belonging to another person, place, or family; not of one’s own; from elsewhere, foreign.

    2. 2. Of a foreign nature or character; strange, unfamiliar, different. Also: hostile, repugnant; [...]

    3. 4. Of, belonging to, or relating to an (intelligent) being or beings from another planet; designating such a being; extraterrestrial.34

As I have pointed out, the old man subverts scientific modernity in his challenge to Mulrennan, but he is also part of it. At the beginning of this essay, we saw the child Stephen reflect upon the boundaries of the universe and we observed that ‘It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant [End Page 105] and that he did not know where the universe ended’ (P I.345–6). However, Stephen’s education has taught him to remain inside the boundaries of what he thinks he understands by the term ‘universe’ or the term ‘politics’ — the old man, in his remark and in his very being, points him beyond this, to the end of the world. Stephen’s horror in the face of this story suggests an awareness that these cosmic fantasies are, as we have seen, a potential part of his subjectivity and its processes. Finally, in the old man’s challenge, and I would argue throughout A Portrait in Stephen’s imagination, the mythic force of astronomy supplants the more hierarchical ethnography as a model of scientific knowledge for the Irish artist. Similarly the traditional Bildungsroman is augmented or undermined by science and science fiction tropes.

Ultimately, it is significant that this crucial moment comes right at the end of A Portrait, in the context of Stephen’s own journey into the unknown as the next entries of his diary deal with his departure for Paris. Unlike Joyce, Stephen is not yet equipped to realize it, but still, he means this brave new world of mythic science no harm.

Katherine Ebury

KATHERINE EBURY is a lecturer in modern literature at the University of Sheffield. Her first monograph Modernism and Cosmology, published with Palgrave in 2014, examined the influence of the new cosmology inspired by the Einsteinian revolution in works by Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett. Additionally, she has published reviews and articles on literature and science in Joyce Studies Annual, Journal of Modern Literature, and Irish Studies Review.


1. John Gordon, Joyce and Reality: The Empirical Strikes Back (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2004), p. 259.

2. For selected examples of writing on parallax, see Justin Kiczek, ‘Joyce in Transit: The “Double Star” Effect of Ulysses’, James Joyce Quarterly 48.2 (Winter 2011), 291–304; Barbara Stevens Heusel, ‘Parallax as a Metaphor for the Structure of Ulysses’, Studies in the Novel 15.2 (Summer 1983), 135–46. On ‘Ithaca’ see Michael Livingston, ‘”Dividends and Divisors Ever Diminishing”: Joyce’s Use of Mathematics in “Ithaca”’, James Joyce Quarterly 41.3 (Spring 2004), 441–54; Vicki Mahaffey ‘Sidereal Writing: Male Refractions and Malefactions in “Ithaca”’, in ‘Ulysses’: En-Gendered Perspectives, edited by Kimberly J. Devlin and Marilyn Reizbaum (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), pp. 254–66; David Chinitz, ‘All the Dishevelled Wandering Stars: Astronomical Symbolism in “Ithaca”’, Twentieth Century Literature 37.4 (Winter 1991), 432–44. For science in the Wake, see Allen Thiher, ‘James Joyce and the Laws of Everything’, Fiction Refracts Science: Modernist Writers from Proust to Borges (Columbia: University of Missouri Press 2005), pp. 178–217; Andrzej Duszenko, ‘The Joyce of Science: Quantum Physics in Finnegans Wake’, Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies 24.2 (Fall-Winter 1994), 272–82.

3. On Joyce’s notes from supplements to the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica and from Poincaré and Russell, see, for example, Jean-Michel [End Page 106] Rabaté’s Joyce Upon the Void (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1991), pp. 1–21. See also Jeff Drouin’s recent work on the influence of debates about relativity in The Egoist on Joyce’s work, ‘Early Sources for Joyce and the New Physics’, Genetic Joyce Studies 9 (Spring 2009).

4. On the political contexts of scientific discourse in ‘Ithaca’, see Andrew Gibson, Joyce’s Revenge: History, Politics, and Aesthetics in ‘Ulysses’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 227–51.

5. H.G. Wells, ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce’ Nation XX (February 24, 1917), 710–12.

6. Joseph Brooker, Joyce’s Critics: Transitions in Reading and Culture (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), p. 18.

7. Wells, p. 710.

8. Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’ (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 108.

9. With regard to Finnegans Wake, Wells wrote: ‘You have turned your back on common men [...] What is the result? Vast riddles.’ See Wells to Joyce; 23 November 1928; LI 275.

10. Joyce plays on The War of the Worlds in the Wake in ‘The war is in words and the wood is the world’ (FW 98.34–5) and also alludes to Martians at FW 581.14. The Misery of Boots appears in the Wake as ‘Mr R. E. Meehan is in misery with his billyboots’ (FW 466.33–4).

11. Michael Patrick Gillespie with Erick Bradford Stocker, James Joyce’s Trieste Library: A Catalogue of Materials at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre (Austin: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, 1986), items 539 and 540, pp. 254–6. For a different, non-scientific version of the Joyce/Wells relationship, see recent work by Keith Williams that explores the mutual influence of Wells and Joyce in relation to early cinema tropes. See Keith, Williams, ‘“Sperrits in the Furniture”: Wells, Joyce and Animation, Before and After 1910’, Literature and History 22.1 (2013), 95–110.

12. Robert Ball, The Story of the Heavens (New York: Cassell and Company, 1885).

13. H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895; London: Penguin, 2007), p. 85.

14. Max Nordau, Degeneration (London: Heinemann, 1892), p. 19.

15. Nordau, Degeneration, p. 23.

16. Nordau, Degeneration, p. 24.

17. See Jean-Michel Rabaté, James Joyce and the Politics of Egoism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 28–32 and Marilyn Reizbaum, James Joyce’s Judaic Other (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press 1999).

18. Michael Whitworth, ‘Inspector Heat Inspected: The Secret Agent and the Meanings of Entropy’, The Review of English Studies 49.193 (1998), 40–59.

19. Thomas Jackson Rice, Joyce, Chaos and Complexity (Champaign: University of Illinois Press 1997), p. 71. [End Page 107]

20. Charles Wood, the Irish composer, had set a different Shelley poem to music in 1905, ‘As the Moon’s Soft Splendour’. Stephen might be thinking of this music.

21. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Selected Poetry (London: Penguin 1985), p. 226.

22. Gordon, Joyce and Reality, p. 259.

23. Barton R. Friedman, ‘Dissolving Surfaces: Yeats’s The Wind Among the Reeds and the Challenge of Science’, Yeats Annual 7 (1989), p. 60.

24. W.B. Yeats, Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 2000), p.47.

25. Yeats, p. 66.

26. R.F. Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life. Volume I: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.162.

27. Foster, Yeats, p. 162.

28. Yeats, Selected Poems, p. 45.

29. Declan Kiberd, The Irish Writer and the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005), p. 62.

30. John Millington Synge, The Aran Islands (1907; Cork: Mercier Press, 2008), p. 96.

31. Percival Lowell, Mars and Its Canals (London: Macmillan, 1906), p. 376.

32. H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (London: Penguin, 2012), p. 22. Italics mine.

33. Wells, War of the Worlds, p. 158.

34. ‘alien, adj. and n.’ OED Online. Accessed 29 July 2013. [End Page 108]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.