Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Simple Twist of Fate

Joyce quotes are italicized 
Dylan quotes are bolded

So far we have seen Stephen's street ramblings change from a light, willful participation in a fantasy world (Blackrock) to a seemingly addictive, distorted, alien world (Dublin). The change can be "diagnosed" in part by more "tangible" causes--the lower social class, the increased sexual frustration, religious anxiety, etc. There may also be a more abstract element of "coming of age" that cannot be explained by events that effects the drastic difference in tone we see between the different ramblings. 

The Blackrock fantasy was much more grounded in the Count of Monte Cristo. It was much less confusing, very sunny, etc. 

There would come to his mind the bright picture of Marseille, of sunny trellises, and of Mercedes

The difference between the two is best shown in this passage: He returned to his wanderings. The veiled autumnal evenings led him from street to street as they had led him years before along the quiet avenues of Blackrock. But no vision of trim front gardens or of kindly lights in the windows poured a tender influence upon him now.

The appeal of a Mercedes comes from Stephens desire for an intimate relationship, and his inability to go about getting one (the tram scene is an example). He describes his Mercedes fantasy in the following passage...

He did not know where to seek it or how, but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured. He would fade into something impalpable under her eyes and then in a moment he would be transfigured. Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him in that magic moment.


I think that the Bob Dylan song "Simple Twist of Fate", both musically and lyrically fits Stephen's street ramblings. 

I'll start with some Dylan lines. 

They walked along by the old canal
A little confused, I remember well
And stopped into a strange hotel with a neon burnin’ bright
He felt the heat of the night hit him like a freight train
Moving with a simple twist of fate
A saxophone someplace far off played
As she was walkin’ by the arcade
As the light bust through a beat-up shade where he was wakin’ up,

The imagery feels very similar. It's used to create a sense of loneliness surrounded by a bustling world. The protagonist in Dylan's song finds himself alone in the middle of the city of neon signs (neon always implies nightlife) and saxophones. There is this very real and very alive city that is completely separated from the protagonist. 

He hears the ticking of the clocks
And walks along with a parrot that talks
Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in
Maybe she’ll pick him out again, how long must he wait
Once more for a simple twist of fate

Again, we have the lone soul walking among the bustling city docks. This time, he's hoping "she'll pick him out again" as he waits for a simple twist of fate.

In Portrait, we get very similar passages.

He passed unchallenged among the docks and along the quays wondering at the multitude of corks that lay bobbing on the surface of the water in a thick yellow scum, at the crowds of quay porters and the rumbling carts and the ill-dressed bearded policeman.

He had wandered into a maze of narrow and dirty streets. From the foul laneways he heard bursts of hoarse riot and wrangling and the drawling of drunken singers

By day and by night he moved among distorted images of the outer world. A figure that had seemed to him by day demure and innocent came towards him by night through the winding darkness of sleep, her face transfigured by a lecherous cunning, her eyes bright with brutish joy. 

These are all images of someone who doesn't know what else to do than look for a simple twist of fate--his Mercedes to step out of the shadow... or to "pick him out again". 

There are a lot more more parallels you could draw. The first passage in "Simple Twist of Fate" for example seems to fit Stephen's Tram Ride experience. Also the "she" in the song is widely considered to be a prostitute. Also the line "People tell me it’s a sin, to know and feel too much within" reminds me a lot of Stephen's religious anxiety. 

In any case, I highly recommend giving Dylan's song a listen to get the full impact... the whole song sounds like a theme-track to Stephen's street ramblings. 


  1. I'm impressed with the connection you made here--when you read the lines in Portrait did they immediately evoke the Bob Dylan song for you or did you come across the song after reading? The parallels of the dock descriptions seem almost uncanny. In both the "I" figure is passive--waiting for the "she" to come up to them, but it is interesting that in the Dylan song the "I" is waiting for the women to pick it out, and in Stephen's reverie the women has picked him out--"came towards him."

  2. It's amazing the connections that can be made between media. I highly doubt that Dylan modeled his piece off of Stephen's experiences, which just goes to show how ubiquitous this lonely feeling is. I know you're quite the experienced one in terms of music and poetry. Have you noticed any other works with this theme? Also, the way you organize your post is excellent. All the italics and bolds and quotes make it much clearer.

  3. I love this song, and you've made a very convincing case that its general mood and imagery reflects something of what Joyce is doing with Stephen in chapter 2. Key to both is the tension between "fate" and coincidence, or coincidence subjectively interpreted as "fate." One of Stephen's central conceits at this time is his conviction that he is marked for some special purpose in life, some "fate" that will transcend the gloom of his present circumstances. The characters in the Dylan song reflect more life experience, more hard-won emotional credibility, than 12-year-old Stephen in this chapter--but that's part of the point. He tends to imagine himself as this world-weary, beleaguered romantic figure--he "sees himself" wandering among the docks, surrounded by adults and reflecting the mood of the setting. We can imagine him listening to Dylan and writing himself into the song, seeing it as a reflection of his soul.

  4. I don't listen to a lot of Bob Dylan, just a few albums, but out of what I've listened to this song is definitely one of my favorites (you brought me on to him, so thanks for that). When I was reading this passage, I definitely got music in my head, sort of somber, lonely music. As soon as your post mentioned Dylan, I knew it would be this song. It is an excellent track, the best on the album if I do say so, and it just fits perfectly. I agree with what 'Person' said above, that it speaks to the ubiquitous nature of loneliness and longing for something that is still somewhat undefined, a longing for an amalgamation of things. Stephen isn't the first one to feel this, and he won't be the last, and Joyce's depiction of this is just one of the many artistic representations of this...ennui, maybe? Not quite, but both Stephen and the subject of the song "felt [that] emptiness inside."

  5. This is a really intriguing and fitting connection you've made. After finishing the novel now, it's interesting how Stephen still remains in this mindset of wandering and waiting for a "twist of fate," to be picked out by a Mercedes, as you point out. The strange and "tragic" aspect of this is that Stephen has decided he wants to create beauty as opposed to dwelling on what is not beautiful, the "dirty streets" one can get lost in. He goes away out of this motivation for discovery and yet he still wants to be discovered himself, beckoned by a lady into a house like Davin was. There is the sense that, even though he has a higher purpose this time, he has set out to continue the wandering described in this song and scene you bring up. He has mostly given up on the fate involved in faith and yet he is aware that he cannot completely dismiss religion; he has chosen to assume control and agency through creation yet cannot help but await a "twist of fate" he has no power over.