Anthropomorphism and Other Figures of Speech in James Joyce's Ulysses

Article excerpt

This close reading from 'Proteus' shows how Stephen, the would-be writer, projects his mind onto the Dublin landscape. Analysing his anthropomorphism helps explain subjective transformations of the objective world in the modern hero's mind. Figures of speech which trap the poet's consciousness are examined in their philosophical context. Stephen's difficulty in crossing the waste land symbolizes the attempt to reach meaning in language and Joyce, while seeming to guide us, in fact deconstructs (invalidates) our interpretative endeavours.


Stephen, brought back from a self-imposed exile by the news that his mother was dying, is miserable. Alone and estranged from his countrymen, yet suffering acutely from the common blows history has dealt them, he is frustrated at not being able to give written expression to his artistic talents. The first three chapters of Ulysses, the 'Telemachiad', focus on Stephen's story. In 'Telemachus' and 'Nestor', it is Stephen's fear, as an Irishman, of having been displaced in history by the English that is to the fore. So much so, in fact, that perhaps we lose Stephen behind the bluster of the other characters. In the third chapter, 'Proteus', Stephen finds the opportunity to let his thoughts wander uninterrupted as he walks along the beach. Dejected, homeless, feeling himself cast off, he sees his dejection in the waste land around him. His antagonistic relationship with his Dublin background--he feels both that it is a part of him and that he is cut off from it--is played out as the landscape before him becomes a feature of his subjective vision.

Anthropomorphism is the projection of human characteristics onto the natural world. The Stephen of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man gives us a working definition of the term:

By his monstrous way of life he seemed to have put himself beyond the limits of reality. Nothing moved him or spoke to him from the real world unless he heard in it an echo of the infuriated cries within him. (1)

Analysing anthropomorphism as an outward projection of what we feel inwardly may prove a useful way of trying to understand subjectivity and its distortions of 'reality'. If Joyce's style is allusive and elusive and the use of interior monologue sometimes difficult to follow, perhaps anthropomorphism offers us a way in, a starting point from which to trace the flow.

Anthropomorphism is often seen as a specifically modern phenomenon which tries to pass itself off unnoticed--the subjective parading as natural. This practice has also been much decried. As Alain Robbe-Grillet says in Pour un nouveau roman, for modern man it was inconceivable that he should look at the world and that the world should not return his gaze. (2) Paul de Man in The Rhetoric of Romanticism defines anthropomorphism as 'a conceit by which human consciousness is projected or transferred into the natural world'. (3) I think de Man uses the word 'conceit' here in both its senses, as 'an elaborate metaphor or artistic effect' and 'excessive pride'. It is man's conceit to see himself reflected in everything he looks at and his further conceit not even to realize that he does so.

My intention therefore is firstly to locate and then to analyse anthropomorphism. In so doing I hope that not only a clearer picture of the functioning of Stephen's mind (which is notoriously difficult to follow) will emerge, but also a more general insight into the subjective working of the modern mind or at least its representation in literature. I shall look first at the portrait of man reflected in the sea and then at the use of language filtered through Stephen's consciousness. From this focus on the individual I shall then extrapolate to the consciousness of the poet, or would-be poet. This consideration of language will take me beyond anthropomorphism to an analysis of other figures of speech and their articulation of subjectivity, which will then be followed by an evaluation of this subjectivity within modernist discourse. …