My Expectation

James Joyce was a genius with languages, the kind of person who, if he were alive today, would probably always win at Scrabble. He was one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, but even he learned a thing or two while in school. His novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man details the coming of age of Stephen Dedalus, someone who has a lot in common with Joyce.  Our first summer reading, “My Expectation” (pages 3–4 in the CUA Primer), is a short excerpt from that novel, in which we observe Stephen in study hall in Ireland musing about his geography textbook and about quite a number of other things that he connects to it. Don’t worry if there are details in the reading that you don’t quite understand. Part of what the novel does is to throw you right into Stephen’s experience, with you trying to figure things out about his world at the same time he is. Later today, we will post a video of a scholar of English literature discussing the passage, but for now, see what you think about it.

The title of the CUA Primer, In a Sense All Things, comes from something that Aristotle said about the mind’s ability to take in all kinds of things throughout the universe. That is to say, there is a sense in which our minds give us the ability to connect to everything else. In “My Expectation,” Stephen reacts to the connection he feels to the larger universe. What kind of reaction does he have? How have you reacted to the feeling that you are part of something much bigger than yourself?

(Incoming first-year CUA students, please login with your Cardinal Mail account below and let us know in the comments section your thoughts on these questions or about other ideas you have in reaction to reading the piece. We would love to hear what you think!)

Photo: “Globe–sunlit, portrait” by Bryan Atchison, used by permission; Bingham Globe by National Geographic.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Brittany Young says:

    Stephen feels rather intimidated and belittled by his newfound connection to the universe. He realizes that his place in it is tiny and almost insignificant, and that, even so, there are still basic things (like politics) that he does not fully understand. Stephen comes into a state of inferiority and smallness through his pondering of the “big” questions.

    By engaging in one of my favorite activities, stargazing (which is almost like looking at a map), I often encounter the same feeling of smallness as Stephen. Except in my case, this is often followed by a wave of wonder and excitement upon the realization that generations before and after me have seen and will see the same sky, since, like Stephen said, “the earth moved(s) round always.”

  2. Bryan Atchison says:

    Thanks, Brittany! I really appreciate your writing down these thoughts!

  3. John Gaudreau says:

    Upon realizing his own personal connection to the universe, Stephen feels mentally fatigued and discouraged by this new information. Meanwhile, he still faces great difficulty in trying to learn and better comprehend the meaning of politics and where the universe ends. As a result of this lack of knowledge, Stephen believes that the universe is neglectful to his very existence and his status quo will never change.

    Although Stephen may have found the universe to be an endless space devoid of emotion, I find the universe to be the opposite. When I think about how large the universe is compared to how small my own world is, I feel part of something that is so much bigger than myself. For me to exist in a world where I have my family, friends, and faith to lead me and guide me on my journey, I already feel part of something incredible.

  4. Julia Kelley says:

    Sometimes the world is so big and there are so many questions and things that we hear but can’t explain can be frustrating. I see where Stephen in these pages is feeling very small in the world. Understanding that every single one of us is important for creating this world is sometimes hard to believe since individually we are one of billions of people. We think that whatever we do doesn’t matter and how can one tiny person make a different.

    I see myself as a tiny person in a big world. I am one of the millions of teenagers and adults who just want to make a mark on the world and be known by all for doing something amazing. I’ve come to accept that it is impossible for everyone to know me but it shouldn’t stop me from making a difference in other’s lives.

  5. Jaesen Evangelista says:

    I definitely agree with the following comments about Stephen feeling belittled and somewhat overwhelmed with the vastness of the universe. However, Stephen also addresses two extremely important topics other than the universe: politics and God.

    He ponders on which side is the right side when it comes to politics. In this excerpt, he is faced with only two sides: the “green round earth” and “the maroon clouds” (which I have come to interpret as heaven). In a world so full of different opinions, especially when it comes to religion and spirituality, we tend to forget that we do not know which side is the right side. We forget that we may be equally right or equally wrong as the other party, whether we are on the side that embodies more earthly beliefs or the side that embodies more heavenly beliefs. We forget that we actually don’t know what is true. When we look at it from Stephen’s perspective, politics is just a human belief of what is unexplainable. And it’s funny that we argue over such things when we actually know nothing anyway.

    This also leads into the topic of God. Stephen explains that God has many names, such as Dieu in French, but he is still God. From this, I realized that even though there are many different religions and many different interpretations of what God is, there is still one God. This idea presents a unity within the diversity of religions around the world, such as Islam, Judaism, and yes, Catholicism. It shows that though we may think we are praising separate gods, praying different prayers, and reading different scripture, we are truly offering ourselves up entirely to one being, one universe, and one God.

  6. Ana Volz says:

    “It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak.”

    Stephen’s reflection on his place in the universe leads him to experience pain, smallness, and weakness. The words which James Joyce uses to describe Stephen’s experience probably have a negative connotation for most of us–myself included. As human beings, we find security in feeling the opposite–comfortable, powerful, important. However, in my opinion–as painful as it may be–it’s really crucial for us to have moments when we feel like Stephen did in the selection. Feeling pain at our lack of understanding is what drives us to learn, discover, seek. Feeling small and weak can lead a person to pursue the Omnipotent Creator. I think what’s important is for each individual to accept and embrace this experience–like Christ embraced the cross–knowing that it’s only through this weakness (to paraphrase St Paul) that one is made strong.

    Here’s a simple example of how I’ve experienced this in my life. As a former gymnast, I’m more muscular than most would expect for a girl my size. In elementary school, I used to arm wrestle all the boys and win. I remember some years ago when I lost an arm wrestle for the first time in a long time to my younger brother. I remember what it felt like to be overpowered. Literally overpowered. The was nothing I could do. All my strength, and it made no difference. It was frightening. I’d always felt so secure of my strength, of my ability to do whatever I set out to do. Honestly it made me feel vulnerable. I think this experience, as small and insignificant as it may be, taught me wisdom and prudence in some way. It taught me that I am not invincible. It gave me the opportunity to accept my weakness. Accept it, but not fear it–and still reach for the heights.

  7. James Ladley says:

    Interestingly enough, what initially struck me about this passage was the name of the person who was giving a monologue: Stephen Dedalus. What particularly struck me was his last name Dedalus, which sounds an awful lot like Daedalus from Greek Mythology. Like Stephen, Daedalus was responsible for various stories, two of the most famous being the tales of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, and the wings of Icarus. Like the Daedalus of the stories, Stephen was reportedly ingenious at his craft and it made him feel small, when he tried to envision the magnitude of meaning that goes behind the simplest of words. In the story of Icarus, as well as the one with the Minotaur and the labyrinth, Daedalus is put through various amounts of grief because of his creations. This includes nearly getting killed in his own labyrinth that he created himself, as well as losing his own son, Icarus, due to his inability to fly away from the sun and remain on a fixed path. In quite a few ways this is reminiscent of the author who couldn’t help but stray from the letter of the law, and decided to further expand the word of the law, as he demonstrated with his analysis of God through words alone. He states that “It was very big to think about everything and everywhere.” and that “Only God could do that.” Yet while it is true that only God can think of all things everywhere, we as human beings have the mental capability to assign names to all the things that we take in. This was made evident in Genesis as God put man on earth to be stewards to creation, and man justly named all life on earth as his first action. When I try to think about the reason behind why the first things on earth were called what they were, I couldn’t imagine the meaning behind those names, as there was likely no meaning, just a way of referring to something. Perhaps it was creation itself that gave meaning to words, which allow us to ask great questions that give us an even greater answer. For instance, I once heard a question that went along the line of “If there is nobody to observe the universe, would it exist.” kind of like the rhetorical question “If a tree falls down in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound.” The answer for the tree one is that sound waves travel through a medium, and if not interrupted will carry on through that medium so the sound does exist. Applying that same thinking to the universe, does it really need a medium to exist? An observer? I think that such a question is loaded to the point where it has the potential to adhered to any known phenomenon, from something as big as the universe, to something as simple as words. If words didn’t exist, would our thoughts? Would God? All very real, all very intense questions, something that I’m likely never gonna be able to comprehend, and something that Stephen Dedalus didn’t seem too eager to answer himself. Will there be a day where everything can e culminated to a line on paper? The most complex, watered down to a word on paper? I hope so, otherwise I don’t see how my thoughts will advance beyond a mild headache.

  8. Jessica McCarthy says:

    “But though there were different names for God in all the different languages in the world and God understood what all the people who prayed said in their different languages still God remain always the same God”

    When reading this passages the main character, Stephen Dedalus contemplates the way of life and the way of the universe. In his reaction to the sequence of himself and the universe the order becomes transparent to him. This type of philosophy is much bigger than the big question Stephen is asking himself, “what was after the universe?”

    Stephen reluctantly dug a little bit digger to acknowledge the theology of his life. “He could think only of God” and seeing how God and the universe correlate together.

    God, who is the almighty figure and understands “what all the people who prayed said in their different languages” ultimately holds the power, the answers, and the knowledge of the universe.

    I believe Stephen was overwhelmed and thoughtful reaction that God is above all and holds all the answer. For myself, being apart of something much bigger than yourself is humbling. You play a small part and participate in a small way for something that has a bigger picture. By being apart of something bigger than yourself, you are able to impact the bigger picture.

  9. Diego Amaya says:

    I was always knew that there was something bigger than me, maybe a galaxy with a plantet with other life beings. I always wanted to know if there was something bigger than God, if there was something before God.

Leave a Reply