The Epiphany of the Magi


eve5I guess everybody is familiar with the story of the three Wise Men who had ventured to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. After a long, tiring journey, the Magi seemed to have lost their way, but thanks to the help of the comet star that had lighted up and pointed them the right direction, they eventually succeeded in reaching their destination. At the end of that journey they were recompensed by the sight of the physical manifestation of the son of God on earth: Jesus. This event is called Epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia: manifestation, striking appearance), that is, a moment of a sudden revelation.

eve4Actually this narration may have another symbolical interpretation, as the journey of the Magi may also represent the crisis of the modern age, where men, as modern Magi, seem to have lost many of their certainties and desperately need a focus, represented by the divine illumination of the comet, to direct them to that truth they need to give meaning to their hollow lives. James Joyce makes his alter ego Stephen Daedalus lecture on the nature of epiphanies during a discussion with his friend Cranly on Aquinas’ s interpretation of beauty. An epiphany is ” a sudden spiritual manifestation” which may be provoked by “the vulgarity of speech or a gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself” (from Stephen Hero), it is a moment of claritas that leads to the truth, the quidditas, as Aquinas would say.

Joyce experimented the epiphanetic kind of writing especially in his early production and particularly in Dubliners to abandon it gradually. In Dubliners each character experiences one or more epiphanic moments, but Joyce seems to say that this is not enough to awake them from the state of paralysis that dominates their minds, therefore being unable to change their lives and reverse the routines that hamper their wishes, they are all destined to fail.

eve2For example the protagonist of Eveline, one of the short stories included in Dubliners, has the chance to radically change her life, but she hesitates  She has been sitting at the windows for hours till the night “invades” her soul, forcing her to take a decision. Time is running out: should she leave that night with her lover and re-create a new life in Buenos Aires or should she just keep on looking after her family as she had promised her mother? Happy and sad memories fill her mind and contrasted feelings as well, till she hears a “melancholy air” that reminds her of the very last moments she was at her mother’s deathbed. Everything becomes clear. She suddenly understands that she has to abandon any hesitation and escape(claritas) if she doesn’t want to end up miserably like her mother (quidditas). She must go away.

eve3But when Eveline arrives at the docks, all her determination fades away.  The illuminated ship that would take her to Buenos Aires is only a black mass for her (claritas)  and the joyful whistle of the boat becomes a mournful lament (claritas). She feels that if she left, the sea would engulf her(claritas), therefore overwhelmed by a paralyzing fear she refuses to leave (quidditas) and prefers a hopeless present to a hopeful, even if uncertain, future. She just couldn’t do it.


32 thoughts on “The Epiphany of the Magi

  1. Stefania, what an interesting blog! Looking forward to reading more. I’m going to try to find out if the painting at the top is a J. Waterhouse.

    • Hi Beth, thank you for dropping by. Actually,I don’t know who is the painter of the picture above, I just found it so hopelessly romantic. I think I have even used it in another post. 🙂

  2. Is it not amazing how a word of biblical origin like ‘Epithany’ has currency in our modern language. I find that fascinating. Thank you for a very interesting post. Bev

  3. I do not know much about James Joyce so I really enjoyed this – and I agree wight he other readers about the nice painting and it fits in so well (and loved this “understands that she has to abandon any hesitation”)

  4. What a great post! I would love one more paragraph of analysis at the end, though. Which was her true epiphany – the moment she decided to leave, or the moment of doubt and lament that followed? Is this a case of an epiphany ignored, or simply a darker kind of epiphany?

  5. Thank you so much Joelle for your kind words. All epiphanies are true, but not necessarily we give consequence to the “quidditas” revealed. Even if you become aware of the right thing to do, you may not be ready or strong enough to act. Eveline understands that her only hope for a better future is leaving with her lover ( who is ready to marry her), but at the same time she cannot escape the burden of responsibilities ( her younger brothers and sisters, even her vioent father ) she is used to facing daily. The final epiphanies at the docks are actually a sort of panic attack: all the symbols of joy and freedom become for Eveline signs of death and fear that paralyze her body and will

  6. Food for rather gloomy thought – he who hesitates?
    Or would that new life have turned out even more miserable than the existing one, and the epiphanies were common sense setting in or a guardian angel doing its thing?
    Very well written!

    • You are right , we don’t know what would have happened if she had stayed, but Joyce believed that there could not be any chance of happiness in his country and suggested self exile. Point of views. Iam going to discuss it in the next post actually. 😉 Thanks for you nice words of appreciation. Stefy.

  7. Getting deep and interesting here Stephy. I think many people would rather stay where they are no matter how bad, than take the chance on something new.

      • Sadly so many people live their whole lives like that. I finally left a bad marriage after 30 years (12 years ago) if I didn’t I would have been one of those beached boats.

  8. Another brilliant, insightful post weaving together so many wonderful literary threads. Do your students know how lucky they are to have such a wonderful teacher and guide, leading them through the classics? A true inspiration for all teachers… Cheers, Alex

  9. We studied something similar when we read the novella “the train has whistled” by Pirandello. This sound make the protagonist realize that there is an unexplored world outside his house and his duties. I think that very often in our life some apparently stupid events can make us think to something that it’s important so this technique is not so distant from reality

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