James Joyce, Intertextuality and Memoir

Posted by Janine Utell on 14 Aug, 2012

James Joyce as novelist and father appears in two graphic memoirs by women about their own fathers, an intertextual move that allows for the creation of an imaginative framework for reading their fathers: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (2006) and the more recent Dotter of Her Father's Eyes by Mary Talbot (2012; with Bryan Talbot).  

Much has been written about Bechdel's use of Joyce’s fiction to explore father-daughter dynamics, most extensively by Ariela Freedman, who focuses on Bechdel's appropriation of Ulysses and its relation to "the problem of...reconciliation" (2009: 135). Mary Talbot's memoir works through her relationship with her father James Atherton, a Joyce scholar and author of The Books at the Wake: A Study of Literary Allusions in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1959), by extending the deployment of Joyce into the novelist's relationship with his mentally ill daughter Lucia. Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, and Joyce himself are intertexts illuminating a dynamic wherein the daughter becomes a transgressive figure as she resists and rereads the father via the novelist, his work, and his life.

Bechdel uses her own coming-out story to investigate her father's homosexuality and probable suicide (Utell, 2011; Watson, 2008; Pearl, 2008; Gustines, 2006). The relationship between Bechdel and her father is characterized by gender reversals via Bechdel's literary reversals of myths and archetypes, as pointed out by Watson (2008); these reversals and rewritings are themselves a rather Joycean move. 

Bechdel is more interested in an alternative canon of writing on lesbian sexuality rather than Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses, resisting her father’s influence while also recognizing shared affinities, both in their sexual identity and in their turning to literature as a way of making sense of it all (Pearl, 2008: 287). Each follows his or her own quest; she writes of the day she began Ulysses and realized she was a lesbian, "I embarked that day on an odyssey which, consisting as it did in a gradual, episodic, and inevitable convergence with my abstracted father, was very nearly as epic as the original" (Bechdel, 2006: 203).   

Chapter 7, "The Antihero's Journey," has numerous textual and visual references to Ulysses, highlighting the shared quest and the ways they use literature and writing for self-revelation. Joyce's novel provides a vehicle for transformation; melding of word and image shows Bechdel incorporating the novel into a new understanding of her father (even as she claims her understanding of the novel is limited). Early in the chapter, she recalls memories shared at the start of the book of her father as frightening.

Bechdel, Alison (2006) Fun Home (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 197, 4) Bechdel, Alison (2006) Fun Home (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 197, 4)

The use of a low-angle perspective and a composition wherein the figure fills the entire frame illustrates the power of the father and the diminution of the perceiving subject. (Here is Bechdel staging the photograph of herself used for drawing this panel.) She says, "In my earliest memories, Dad is a lowering, malevolent presence" (Bechdel, 2006: 197). The heavy brow and glasses masking the face, the positioning of the groin, all create an authoritarian and unwelcoming male figure.  

Immediately after, however, we see Bechdel in her father's high school English class where she is the star pupil; a new relationship is conjured by the Joycean intertext and a reading life which might on the surface seem to be at odds but is revealed to be shared by the father-daughter dyad. The text/image melding signifying Bechdel's appropriation of Joyce's text, and her father's story and influence, is made visible toward the end of the memoir.  

Bechdel, Alison (2006) Fun Home (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 230, 1-4) Bechdel, Alison (2006) Fun Home (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 230, 1-4)

In this instance of recursivity, Bechdel's father is a supportive figure (Freedman, 2009: 137). The parallel lines of the bodies move us visually to the horizontal panels and lines of text that follow (typeface reproduced by hand) one from Bruce's letter to his daughter, the other from the first episode of Ulysses. The Joyce passage is from “Telemachus,“ which takes Stephen Dedalus as its subject, a son figure to Bechdel's daughter and another instance of reversal. The “inverted Oedipal complex” makes reference to Bechdel's family romance, again via reversal, “inversion” being a sexological term from the late 19th century to describe homosexuals, one Bechdel would know from her reading (hinted at by the stacks of books scattered throughout the chapter).  

Bechdel acknowledges her inability to imagine her father’s reality:  "I shouldn't pretend to know what my father's was" (230). This inability resides in language ("erotic truth," "gay") and how the categories it creates allow for misreading of others. The juxtaposition of Bruce's letter with Joyce's text illuminates how reading Joyce provides the daughter with interpretive and empathetic tools for re-reading her father. Bruce’s text echoes Joyce’s text, shown in the highlighting of the phrase “I’m not a hero,” and the placement of the two excerpts indicates the daughter making an imaginative and interpretive connection between the two. Such a move allows her to return to the past and see it anew, her memory transformed via textuality and Joycean reading.

Like Bechdel's memoir, Mary Talbot's shifts back and forth in time; where Bechdel's memoir is recursive, Talbot interleaves her own fairly linear coming of age story with the biography of Lucia Joyce, James Joyce's artistic and probably schizophrenic daughter. The present is depicted in full color, Talbot's past in sepia (with occasional splashes of red), and Lucia's story in black and white with blue wash. The Talbots discuss their collaboration here and here, and draw extensively on Carol Loeb Shloss’ biography Lucia Joyce: To Dance at the Wake (2003).

Talbot grapples with the pain of being a daughter misunderstood by a titan of a father, seeking both to understand the source of his inability to engage her and a way to overthrow his influence; likewise, Lucia, while beloved by her father, was never supported in her desire to be a dancer and never completely understood as an individual: "thwarted" as "a kind of madness itself," in the words of Cooke (2012).

Dotter of Her Father's Eyes is framed at the beginning and end by a moment in the present: Talbot finding an ID card of her father's in a drawer and recalling a line from Finnegans Wake: "My cold mad feary father" (Talbot, 2012: 3, 88). This phrase appears at the end of Finnegans Wake, in the final monologue by Anna Livia Plurabelle as she flows out to meet her father the sea in the form of the River Liffey (Joyce, 1939: 628; a reading by Devlin (1989) of Finnegans Wake amplifies my discussion here). The allusion captures the daughter’s return to the arms of the father and is given an ironic reversal here by Talbot, whose reconciliation with her father is ambiguous: the daughter rejects the return unless it is on her own terms.  

Lines from Joyce appear throughout Talbot's memoir, especially in the years of her girlhood.  

Talbot, Mary and Bryan (2012) Dotter of Her Father's Eyes (Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 25, 3) Talbot, Mary and Bryan (2012) Dotter of Her Father's Eyes (Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 25, 3)

This image, a half-page borderless panel, cuts back and forth between Talbot's tentative approach to her father and his response. The dissolves and absence of borders between the frames, especially in the second and third close-ups of daughter's and father's faces, capture not only the ever-present cigarette smoke (note the nicotine stains on the fingers) but also a sense that the father is overpowering. The more extreme close-up of his head melds into her anxious face with no border line to create a discrete space.  

The transition from kindly-seeming man to domineering authority figure over three shots appears to happen quickly and almost in response to the fear on the face of the daughter, despite the initial welcoming "Hello, 'frail blueveined child.” This line comes from a short poem by Joyce for Lucia called “A Flower Given to My Daughter,” written in 1913 (Lucia was born in 1907) and published in the 1927 collection Pomes Penyeach. The line is actually “My blueveined child”; with his misquote the father erases acknowledgment of possession.  

Over the third, fourth, and fifth shots, the father turns away and seems to move incrementally further until we arrive at the final medium-long shot. The final frame reveals the daughter diminished, the backs of their heads aligned and constrained in the narrow space of the panel, the upper third filled with the continuous clatter of the typewriter and the cloud of smoke that shuts the daughter out from her father.

It is possible that "blueveined child" inspired the choice to draw the Lucia sections in blue/black tones. Bryan Talbot has also said he was aiming for a “melancholic feel” (Whitman, 2012: n.p.). It is likely that Joyce used his daughter as creative inspiration not only for poetry but, more significantly, for young female characters in Finnegans Wake (specifically the daughter Issy), even as he denied Lucia her own creative outlets.  

Talbot, Mary and Bryan (2012) Dotter of Her Father's Eyes (Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 78,5-7) Talbot, Mary and Bryan (2012) Dotter of Her Father's Eyes (Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 78,5-7)

Talbot draws on the Joyce family's decision to move from Paris to London, which would have interfered with Lucia's dance career. Her face is desperate, a recurring image throughout Talbot's book. Joyce is presented in the first third of the panel as though he has been interrupted, looking over his shoulder, dominating the space. The next frame cuts to a medium shot where we are deprived of a view of the expression on his face as Lucia cries out. We are unable to see how he might respond to this plea, although his comment in the final third of the panel seems to indicate his inability or unwillingness to take her seriously as he turns to papers, much as Atherton turned to his typewriter. Lucia does not even appear in the final shot as her father turns his back to her, and to us.

Talbot concludes her memoir with Lucia's institutionalization, her own pursuit of a doctorate in English, and her father's death. Dotter of Her Father's Eyes has a more ambiguous resolution than Fun Home, never moving towards the same embrace of reconciliation we see literally and figuratively in the much-commented-upon final image of Bechdel’s book. Talbot chooses to appropriate and retell the story of her father and his career in Joyce on her own terms.  

With her own father's failure to emerge from the world of his work and acknowledge her Talbot weaves the story of another father whose gaze so overpowered his daughter she could dance only in the dreamworld of his book. Joyce and the world of his fiction preoccupied Talbot’s father throughout his life, and in the end this is what provides Talbot, and Bechdel, a space for shaping the stories of themselves.


Thanks to Dr. Benjamin Harvey for drawing my attention to Talbot's book; I also acknowledge the writing of Sarah Leopold, a former student whose senior thesis work on Ulysses enlightened me on Joyce and daughters.


Bechdel, A. (2006) Fun Home (Boston: Houghton Mifflin)

Chute, H. (2006) “Gothic Revival” http://www.villagevoice.com/2006-07-04/books/gothic-revival/.  Accessed 9 July 2012.

Cooke, R. (2012) “Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot -- Review” http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/27/dotter-fathers-eyes-talbot-james-joyce.  Accessed 9 July 2012.

Devlin, K. (1989: 232-47) “ALP’s Final Monologue in Finnegans Wake: The Dialectical Logic of Joyce’s Dream Text”, in Morris Beja, Coping with Joyce: Essays from the Copenhagen Symposium (Columbus: Ohio State University Press)

Freedman, A. (2009) “Drawing on Modernism in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home,” Journal of Modern Literature 32, 4 (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 125-140)

Gustines, G. (2006) “‘Fun Home’: A Bittersweet Tale of Father and Daughter” http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/26/books/26gust.html?_r=1.  Accessed 9 July 2012.

Joyce, J. (1939) Finnegans Wake (New York: Penguin)

Manning, S. (2011) “Bryan and Mary Talbot Reflect on ‘Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes’” http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=34732.  Accessed 9 July 2012.

Pearl, M. (2008). “Graphic Language: Redrawing the Family (Romance) in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home,” Prose Studies , 30 (3), 286-304 DOI: 10.1080/01440350802704853

Shloss, C. (2005) Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (New York: Picador)

Talbot, M. and B. (2012) Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse)

Watson, J. (2008). “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home,” Biography, 31 (1), 27-58 DOI: 10.1353/bio.0.0006

Whitman, E (2012) “Exclusive Interview: Mary & Bryan Talbot Discuss Dark Horse Comics’ Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes” http://www.dailyblam.com/news/2012/01/14/exclusive-interview-mary-bryan-talbot-discuss-dotter-of-her-fathers-eyes. Accessed 9 July 2012.