I 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.
Actually 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.
For 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.
But 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.