Trapped in Purgatory with Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren

August 15, 2017 | 2 books mentioned 10 3 min read

“Hell is other people,” according to the three characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. In Sartre’s vision, eternal damnation is mental, rather than physical, torture. Inez, Garcin, and Estelle have been selected to antagonize each other. Stuck in a gaudy, cramped room without any glass, they become each other’s mirrors. Inez is cunning and abrasive. Garcin is pensive but frail. Estelle is vain. They are terrible people, but terribly entertaining characters.

coverSartre uses each character’s anxieties as weaknesses. Inez hates Garcin because he is a coward. Inez lusts for Estelle, but Estelle only has eyes for Garcin—merely because he is the only man available. Garcin is too busy thinking about what is happening on Earth to pay attention to Estelle, and she loathes being ignored. Their methods of torture are simple, cyclical, and eternal.

Each time I read Sartre’s claustrophobic play, I wonder: who would be my torturers? I won’t admit the two actual people who would vex me in a Sartrean Hell, but I will admit the two characters in literature who would annoy me forever: Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren.

covercoverIf I were stuck in a Second Empire drawing room with no exit for all eternity, my torturers would definitely be Stephen and Anse. I love both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and As I Lay Dying because I detest the central characters of both books.

Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces Stephen’s development, the text hews to his melodramatic sense of self. James Joyce’s method is sound—Stephen’s acquisition and mastery of language, as well as his skepticism toward his surroundings, are captured in the novel’s narrative style—but Stephen is taxing on the reader. He’s a jerk. He writes a noxious villanelle (“Are you not weary of ardent way, / Lure of the fallen seraphim.” Really?). Each prosaic moment of his existence must reflect some ancient Irish myth.

What irks me most is his glib disbelief. I’m a Catholic who knows that doubt is endemic to faith, but Stephen’s rejections—“I will not serve”—are couched in language that elevates his importance. He renounces God because he thinks himself to be God. He has become his namesake, the great artificer. Like many lapsed Catholics, Stephen is—in the words of his friend Cranly—“supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” But Stephen dismisses that belief as a stepping stone toward his real goal: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode or life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.”

I can’t stand him.

This was all Joyce’s intention, of course, but that doesn’t diminish how much I hate Stephen. I imagine him leaning against a bookcase, arms crossed, huffing well actually forever and ever while the door to my Hell remains shut.

Anse Bundren is also terrible, but for different reasons. He’d sit in the center of the only couch in Hell, and spread his knees so that nobody else could fit. He’s selfish, lazy, and a hypocrite. His inert state is such a perfect contrast to William Faulkner’s profluent story in As I Lay Dying—a tragicomic journey story. He begins the book sitting on his back porch, “tilting snuff from the lid of his snuff-box into his lower lip, holding the lip outdrawn between thumb and finger.” Behind him, his wife Addie is dying. In front of him, his son Cash is building Addie’s coffin.

Anse is full of excuses: “he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die.” He’s also full of complaints, calling himself a “luckless man.” He promised Addie that he would bury her in Jefferson with the rest of her family, but it soon becomes clear that he has other reasons for making the trek. His children don’t respect him because he doesn’t deserve it. And he’s quick to offer empty religious intonations: “The Lord will pardon me and excuse the conduct of them He sent me.” Get over yourself, Anse—and quit jabbering about your new teeth.

Certainly the central traits of Stephen and Anse that I most detest—self-importance and selfishness—are the two traits I pray that I never hold myself. Great literature has a way of making us recognize our own faults after we’ve first criticized them in others.

Who would be your literary torturers in Hell?

Image Credit: Pixabay.

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and a contributor to the Catholic Herald (UK). He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and the Kenyon Review. He is the author of Longing for an Absent God and Wild Belief. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at


  1. For me, the insufferably jovial, busy-busy protagonist of “The Martian”. There wouldn’t be room on Mars for the two of us. But probably my loathing for him is mixed up with how much I hated the book.

    Stephen certainly can be obnoxious, but I think his youth and genius go some way in mitigation. And I rather approve of his “I will not serve…” credo.

    Who else? Not sure I’d get along too well with your typical Hemingway character. Oh, and Robinson Crusoe! Almost as bad as the Martian guy, but in a slightly better novel.

  2. “What irks me most is his glib disbelief.”

    Cards on the table, then. But “glib,”? More like “sneering”.

    You write, citing SD/JJ:

    “ ‘I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode or life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning’ ”

    I can’t stand him.

    This was all Joyce’s intention…”

    Oh, dear Gawdz no, that certainly was not Joyce’s intention although I’m equally certain he knew your reaction was inevitable in some readers. The villanelle is meant to be the not-quite-profound work of a young man (because it was: Joyce wrote it as a young man and he meant it) but Stephen wasn’t concocted for the purpose of reassuring the reader that all the reader’s passions and judgments are sounder, especially when it comes to Belief.

    Joyce was tapping into an emancipatory Zeitgeist and Stephen the jejune poet was, nevertheless, a member of its vanguard. A hero not only for future readers like him but for Joyce, as well, who used Stephen as a vehicle for projecting himself into the battles and pleasures of a future he yearned for and knew he wouldn’t live to see. Stephen is forever, still, cocky-young and sneering and the battle rages on while the book reproduces apprentice Stephens in every generation.

    To quote from a decent paper on Joyce (which helpfully aggregates citations I might otherwise use up an hour chasing down):

    “In his youth Joyce wrote to Nora Barnacle on August 20th, 1904: “Six years ago (at sixteen) I left the Catholic Church, hating it most fervently. I found it impossible for me to remain in it on account of the impulses of my nature.” The Church’s attitude to sexuality was particularly repugnant to him. His letter went on: “I made ‘secret war upon it when I was a student and declined to accept the positions it offered me.” These positions, according to his brother Stanislaus, included that of priest; priests, he said were “barbarians armed with crucifixes.”

    “According to professor Ellmann “Joyce wrote to Nora: “Now I make open war upon it by what I write and say and do.” His actions accorded with this policy. He neither confessed nor took communion. When his children were born he forbade their being baptized. His grandson was baptized against his wishes and without his knowledge. He preferred to live with Nora Barnacle for twenty seven years without marrying her. When at last a wedding became necessary for purposes of inheritance, he had it performed in a registry office.”

    However, Joyce’s rejection of the Church was compatible with considerable interest in it and in its procedures. As an example of that, Joyce regularly attended the services of Holy Week. He did so, however, “like a tourist of another persuasion”, standing at the back of the church.”

    Joyce, in his Lennonesque spectacles, paring his nails in the back of that Church, was the Old father, the old artificer and he designed Stephen Dedalus to win. And win he did.

    Having said all that: my tormentors in That Room would have to be JPS and “The Beaver”.

  3. Dave Eggers reading his entire bibliography out loud over and over for eternity.

    Or Jennifer Weiner complaining about Franzen until the end of time.

    Looking at Joe Meno’s smug face and having him read anything he wrote 24 hours a day.

    Yep, that would do it for me.

  4. For me, Brenda from “Goodbye Columbus,” because she whines all the time. I’d just want to slap the heck out of her and scream, “Shut Up!!!” Any of the characters from Faulkner’s “AS I Lay Dying.” God what a motley crew of people. I hated the book and the only person I liked was Addie. Go figure. The one likable character dies.

  5. Also, Martha from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” because she screams and gets on my nerves (She reminds me of my alcoholic mother, and the play reminds me of my home life). And, oh yes, St, John from Jane Eyre. What a pompous jerk. Religious to a fault. Self-important….ye Gods, save me from being stuck in Hell with these two.

  6. The thing about Anse Bundren is that he is talking in order to deceive others about his true intentions. He rambles on to annoy others and to distract them into paying him no attention, whereas the “real Anse” is cold and calculating and knows exactly what he wants.

  7. Dimitri Karamazov and Gully Jimpson (The Horse’s Mouth). Both mercurial and full of passion, the former so full of hatred for his father, the latter so full of himself and his holy grail of the perfect painting.

  8. Steve, we don’t always see eye to eye, but you rocked this comment section.

    I think Joyce’s epic snark was a defensive weapon against a state-sanctioned religion that dominated the lives of the Irish ( and still impacts today). My own Catholic-patriarchy-inspired snarkery in my 20’s gave rise to this excerpt from a longer ditty called “The Glide Away Slide Away Catholic Girl”:

    I rode out to Brighton, and what did I see
    But the six-foot stone fence, of St. John’s Seminar-y
    Where out playing softball, protected…from me
    Were 32 dusty young male priest-to-be.”

  9. @Moe

    It’s somehow appropriate to this thread to make the announcement in it that Hell has frozen over: you like a comment of mine, and I think your ditty excerpt is brilliant. So brilliant (and totally *on piste*) that I’ll re-post and imagine S. Dedalus singing it with unrepentant gusto while pedaling past that very stone fence:

    “I rode out to Brighton, and what did I see
    But the six-foot stone fence, of St. John’s Seminar-y
    Where out playing softball, protected…from me
    Were 32 dusty young male priest-to-be.”

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