Stephen Saying “No” to “Yes and No”
Generally speaking, I want to focus on two broad groups of “yes’s” and “no’s” in the Telemachiad. One involves the literal speaking of “yes’s” and “no’s,” obviously enough, and the other involves the unspoken behavior of characters, how they symbolically say “yes” or “no” by affirming or denying someone else. Though I think yes and no could also be applied in some cases to Stephen’s thought process (in line 279 of Episode 1, Stephen attempts to reject the overwhelming memory of his mother when he says “No, mother! Let me be and let me live”), for the Telemachiad I’d like to focus on yes and no as it relates to dialogue and the presence of multiple characters, so I will mostly be looking at the first two episodes.
In Episode 1, I found it interesting how rarely the words “yes” and “no” were used in response to questions that have definitive yes or no answers. Buck Mulligan is the only character who answers with the word “yes” in Episode 1, and his use is always related to another question, rather than resolving a previous question. It seems as though “yes” is Buck’s way of permitting Stephen to expand further on his complex ideas, which are usually controversial. Early on, Stephen would like to know how long Haines will be staying in the tower, but he only begins by saying “Tell me, Mulligan,” to which Buck responds, “Yes, my love?” A little later, Stephen wants to bring up the death of his mother, but he is initially hesitant to Buck’s prodding. He asks Buck, “Do you wish me to tell you?” even though it’s already clear Buck would like him to, so Buck says, “Yes, what is it?” Then, when Buck wants to be reminded of what he said about Stephen’s mother, he answers, “Yes? What did I say? I forget.” In all of these examples, “yes” grants permission for Stephen to ask a new question—which is not binary—rather than clarifying a binary question already established. The fact that the new question is open-ended without a yes or no answer relates to the business of paradox and contradiction discussed on pages 14 and 15.
While it is Buck explicitly saying yes in Episode 1, it is Stephen implicitly saying the same thing throughout the Telemachiad by acquiescing to the financial burden of paying for not only himself but also Buck and Haines. Stephen is saying yes to Haines staying in the tower, yes to paying for the day’s beverage purchases (both milk and beer), and yes to Deasy’s inferior conversation. Whether it involves getting paid or paying for somebody else, it seems that Stephen cannot say no. It’s also worth noting that Stephen never says “yes” to yes or no questions: for example, when Haines asks if he’s heard the ballad of joking Jesus, Stephen humorously replies, “three times a day, after meals.” While Stephen depends on others to say “yes” when he wants to initiate controversial conversation, he himself skips the “yes” and goes right to it. Haines is willing to say, “yes, of course… either you believe or you don’t, isn’t it?” and then says, “you don’t stand for that, I suppose?” Stephen, again, does not say “yes” but rather, “You behold in me a horrible example of free thought,” which I read as a rejection of not only Haines’ rendering of “a personal God” but also his usage of the binary opposition.
It seems that Joyce wants us to consider paradox and contradiction early on. Yes and no give us a concrete way of examining how different characters respond to the apparent problem of uncertainty, to which Stephen seems to be saying, “so what?”