Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3441
Mr. Dedalus: Stephen’s father
Mrs. Dedalus: Stephen’s mother
Stephen Dedalus: the protagonist and focal character of the narrative
Uncle Charles: Stephen’s granduncle
Dante: Stephen’s governess
Brigid: the Dedalus’ maid
Rody Kickham: student at Clongowes
Nasty Roche: student at Clongowes
Wells: student at Clongowes who pushed Stephen into the ditch
Simon Moonan: student at Clongowes, caught “smugging”
Tusker Boyle: student at Clongowes, caught “smugging” with Simon
Jack Lawton: Stephen’s competitor in class
Father Arnall: Stephen’s math and Latin teacher
Fleming: student at Clongowes; Stephen’s friend
Father Dolan: prefect of studies at Clongowes
Brother Michael: medical attendant in the infirmary
Athy: student at Clongowes
Mr. Casey: friend of the Dedalus family
Eileen: Stephen’s friend, a Protestant
Cecil Thunder: student at Clongowes
Corrigan: older student at Clongowes
Mr. Gleeson: teacher at Clongowes, will flog Corrigan
Mr. Harford: Stephen’s writing teacher at Clongowes
Father Conmee: the rector at Clongowes
In the first brief section of the chapter, Stephen is very young. He remembers a story his father told him, and a song he likes to sing. He thinks about Dante, and her brushes (maroon for Michael Davitt, green for Parnell—both Irish nationalist leaders), and about their neighbors, the Vances.
Next, Stephen is at Clongowes Wood College. Stephen is playing football (soccer) with the others, but stays outside of the action because he is younger, smaller, and weaker. He remembers another student, Nasty Roche, questioning him about his name and his father. He remembers being left at school by his mother and father, his mother crying, and his father telling him to write if he wanted anything, and “never to peach on a fellow.” He remembers being pushed into a drainage ditch by a student named Wells. Stephen is cold and obviously homesick, and is counting the days until Christmas break.
The boys go inside, into a math class. The teacher, Father Arnall, has a game where the students are divided into teams, York and Lancaster (after the English War of the Roses), and Stephen is struggling with the difficult math. He and another student, Jack Lawton, are constantly competing for first place in these classroom games.
At dinner, Stephen is not hungry and only drinks tea. He feels ill, and thinks about being home. Later, in the playroom, he is teased by Wells about whether or not he kisses his mother before going to bed. In study hall, he changes the number on his desk from 27 to 26 days until the Christmas holiday. He tries to study geography but cannot concentrate. His mind wanders, and he thinks about his father, Dante, and Mr. Casey arguing about politics—Stephen does not understand politics, but wishes he did.
They go to chapel for night prayers, and then go to be. In bed, Stephen fantasizes about traveling home for the holidays. When he wakes up, he feels even more ill, and his friend Fleming tells him to stay in bed. Wells, worried that he has made Stephen ill by pushing him into the ditch, begs Stephen not to tell on him. The prefect comes, and, convinced that Stephen is really ill, tells him to go to the infirmary. In the infirmary, Stephen meets Brother Michael, and thinks once again of home and his parents. He is afraid he might die before he sees them again. He talks to an older boy, Athy, who tells him riddles. In the infirmary, Stephen thinks about his father and his grandfather, and about the death of Parnell.
In the next section, Stephen is home for Christmas dinner. His family, Dante, and Mr. Casey are there. The meal is lavish, prepared and served by servants. An argument erupts at the table between Mr. Dedalus, Mr. Casey, and Dante about the Catholic church and its role in political matters. Stephen’s mother and Uncle Charles try to end it, not taking sides and pleading that they not discuss politics at Christmas. The discussion continues, and moves to the more specific and recent issue of Parnell and the role of the church in his downfall. Despite the urgings of Mrs. Dedalus and Uncle Charles, the conflict continues on a subtler level, as Mr. Casey tells an “instructive” anecdote aimed to provoke Dante, about spitting in the eye of a woman who was taunting him about Parnell. This brings the conflict to a boil, and the section ends with Mr. Casey and Dante shouting at each other across the table, Mr. Casey saying “no God for Ireland,” and Dante calling him a blasphemer. As Dante storms out of the room, Stephen notices that Mr. Casey and his father are crying for Parnell.
In the next section, Stephen is back at Clongowes. He and the other students are talking about some boys who were in trouble at the school—some say they stole cash, others that they drank the altar wine, and Athy says they are all wrong, that the boys were caught “smugging,” a mild form of homosexual petting. The conversation then moves to the question of what punishment the boys will receive. The younger of the five, Simon Moonan and Tusker Boyle, will be flogged, while the three older boys can choose between expulsion and flogging.
They are called in from the playground, and in writing class Stephen has trouble because he has broken his glasses on the cinderpath. In Latin class, Father Arnall has exempted Stephen from work. The prefect of studies comes in to intimidate and discipline the students. First, he punishes Fleming, who Father Arnall had made kneel in the aisle for writing a bad theme and missing a question in grammar. He then singles out Stephen, and punishes him for not working, thinking that Stephen has tricked Father Arnall. When he is gone, Father Arnall lets them return to their seats, and Stephen is bewildered and upset at his unfair punishment.
Outside of the class, the other boys sympathize with Stephen, and urge him to go tell the rector. At lunch, Stephen decides that he will go and speak to the rector, though he remains hesitant and unsure until the last minute. As he leaves the refectory, he gets up the courage to turn and climb the stairs to the rector’s office.
After Stephen explains his case, the rector says that he is sure that Father Dolan made a mistake, and that he will speak to him. Stephen hurries out to the other students, who loudly cheer his success, lifting him onto their shoulders. The crowd dissipates, and at the end of the chapter Stephen is standing alone as the other students play cricket.
The novel begins with a cliched storytelling device: “Once upon a time…,” be we soon learn that this is not a conventional narrative. The initially confusing and opaque first paragraph represents a story Mr. Dedalus had told Stephen, who is very young in this first short section of the novel. Stephen is identified with the subject of the story (“He was baby tuckoo”), and it quickly becomes clear that the narrative is closely aligned with his perspective. The narrative is thus purposely limited by his immature vocabulary. For example, when we read, “his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hair face,” we are to understand that Stephen does not yet know the word “beard.” Stephen remembers a song he likes to sing, “O, the wild rose blossoms / On the little green place,” but the narrator shows us that he is not yet old enough to pronounce it correctly: “O, the green wothe botheth.” These first two pages are fragmentary and scattered, in order to represent the associative and impressionistic mind of a young child. Even in these seemingly random and incoherent fragments of his consciousness, the greater themes of the novel and the motivating forces of Stephen’s world are represented in microcosm. The political world is represented by Dante’s two brushes. The world of his family is shown to us. Sexuality is hinted at: (“when he was grown up he was going to marry Eileen”). Art is represented through his father’s story and Stephen’s song.
In these early pages of the novel, we are being introduced to the world of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, as well as being shown Joyce’s original and unusual narrative style. Although it is not a first-person narrative, the narrator is intimately engaged with Stephen’s consciousness throughout. This method has been called “free indirect discourse,” a third-person narrator, with many first-person characteristics. The narrator does not have a voice that is clearly distinct from Stephen’s, and he does not comment explicitly on the action. It is not a detached or conventionally omniscient storyteller, but is rather closely aligned with Stephen’s consciousness, mirroring his intellectual and linguistic development. It is not clear that the narrator knows more than Stephen does. Can the narrator, then, like the young man, be mistaken or deluded? Throughout the novel, there is the persistent possibility that we should not take the narrator’s words at face value, and that Stephen is being treated by the author with a subtle irony.
Throughout the first chapter, Joyce is trying to recreate the impressionistic world of a young child. After the first brief section, Stephen is older—probably about five or six years old. The novel is not always clear about dates, ages, and chronological time. Months and years will pass without mention, and we must infer Stephen’s age and maturity from various clues in the narration. A person’s life, as Joyce conceives it, is not significant because of its events or the order and circumstances in which they occur. Rather, memories are always colored by the present moment and expectations for the future; likewise, the present is always colored by memories and past experiences. Joyce’s narrative tries to capture this more fluid conception of the protagonist’s life, and is thus not concerned with establishing clear dates and times.
The narrative in the first chapter is highly impressionistic. Stephen’s senses are active—sight, smell, sound, and touch are all emphasized throughout. He is sensitive to color, and especially to hot and cold. His experience of being at school at Clongowes is characteristically cold and damp; his memories of home are characteristically warm and dry. This betrays both a childlike sensitivity to simple sense perception, as well as suggesting the early stages of Stephen’s developing artistic disposition. Stephen’s young imagination is especially vivid, and his sense perceptions are often, in this chapter, closely associated with an imaginative flight (such as when he dreams of going home).
Stephen’s reactions to his world are colored heavily by the influence of others—Dante, his father, and the older students. When Wells is questioning Stephen about whether or not he kisses his mother before going to bed, and then teases him when he says yes and when he says no, Stephen despairs: “What was the right answer to the question? He had given two and still Wells laughed.” It is not that Stephen is concerned with the true answer, but with the right one, the one that will allow him to fit into the social situation at hand. Stephen is, throughout the first chapter, trying to acclimatize himself to the existing social, political, and familial structures of his world. He is younger and smaller than the other students, and not at all self-confident.
Another aspect of the older students’ influence on young Stephen is his tendency to use their slang to explain things. When Stephen encounters some strange and ambiguous graffiti in the square, he confidently asserts, “Some fellows had drawn it there for a cod.” He is using his classmates’ slang, but it is not clear that he is at home with their language, that he either understands the joke itself, or even what a “cod” is at all. The words seem somewhat uncomfortable to him, as if he is quoting someone else. He will use this, throughout the chapter, as a way of “understanding” what is going on around him, but it is as if we don’t quite believe that he does in fact understand.
It is important to recognize that Stephen’s way of making sense involves a particular specific concern with language, here in the first chapter as throughout the novel. He is fascinated by words as names—his own name, as well as others:
God was God’s name just as his name was Stephen. Dieu was the French for God and that was God’s name too; and when anyone prayed to God and said Dieu then God knew at once that it was a French person that was praying.
This passage represents an interesting and illustrative combination of Stephen’s early capacity for abstract, complex, metaphysical thought, as well as the comically childlike simplicity of his understanding of language and religion. Stephen is fascinated by language, by the very fact that a word can represent a person, or even God.
Stephen is also intrigued by meaning, especially cases of double meaning: “He kept his hands in the sidepockets of his belted grey suit. That was a belt round his pocket. And belt was also to give a fellow a belt.” Note the confident simplicity of Stephen’s tone. Recognizing a new aspect of language is, for Stephen, to have gained a new level of understanding.
Stephen’s life at Clongowes is presented as alternating between a hostile and unpleasant present and a more desirable alternative. The strength of his young imagination contributes greatly to this—he is constantly imagining, in vivid detail, his impending journey home for the holidays. While his impression of Clongowes is constantly couched in terms of coldness and wetness, unfriendliness and unfamiliarity, he imagines his home as warm, dry, familiar, and friendly. So it is appropriate that the next section, as Stephen is home at Christmas, begins with this description:
A great fire, banked high and red, flamed in the grate and under the ivytwined branches of the chandelier the Christmas table was spread.
The narrator, assuming Stephen’s level of associations, sets up the scene at home using language of warmth, comfort, and tranquility. Stephen is more at ease there, though he is still an outsider. This is the first year he is old enough to sit with the adults, so he feels a distance and alienation from them similar to what he felt at Clongowes. He is a total stranger to the world of politics that dominates their discussion, and once again we see him sit silently, observing and reacting rather than acting and speaking himself.
Stephen’s understanding of politics, as described in the earlier section, is typical in its binary construction:
He wondered if they were arguing at home about that. That was called politics. There were two sides in it: Dante was on one side and his father and Mr. Casey were on the other side but his mother and Uncle Charles were on no side. Every day there was something in the paper about it. It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant…
The world which Stephen is growing into is highly politically charged—he is aware of this, but also aware that he does not understand it and must remain, for the time being, outside of this dynamic.
The argument at Christmas dinner both confirms and alters the conception of politics Stephen had. The “two sides,” at his house anyway, are clear. Mr. Casey and his father are devout supporters of Parnell, and spare no words in their criticism and even condemnation of the Catholic church. Dante, though also a supporter of Irish liberation, is foremost a Catholic, and condemns Parnell for his adulterous affair. We hear Stephen remember her ripping the green velvet back from the Parnell brush when the scandal broke.
Stephen is, of course, silent during the argument, though Uncle Charles and Dante periodically refer to his presence, scolding Mr. Dedalus for his language in front of the child. Although he is silent and passive, we are aware that his mind, as ever, is active. As he tries to understand the conflict he has witnessed, he must complicate some of the categories and binaries he has constructed:
Stephen looked with affection at Mr. Casey’s face which stared across the table over his joined hands…. But why was he against the priests? Because Dante must be right then. But he had heard his father say that she was a spoiled nun and that she had come out of the convent in the Alleghanies when her brother had got the money from the savages for the trinkets and the chainies. Perhaps that made her severe against Parnell.
Stephen clearly does not understand the terms of the conflict, and in a sense the specifics are not what are important here. This is a significant, perhaps epiphanous, moment in Stephen’s life—not because of what he learned about Irish politics at the dinner table, but because he is forced to consider his sources of authority. He likes his father, Dante and Mr. Casey equally, and must come to terms with their radical disagreement. This memory becomes significant for Stephen because of its more general implications for his understanding of national and religious politics, which he eventually seeks to escape altogether. The stable world of Stephen’s binaries—right, wrong; good, bad—seems threatened here.
Mr. Dedalus’ vocal and quite crass questioning of Catholic authority shocks Stephen, but influences him profoundly. His father’s criticism of the church prefigures his own questioning of Jesuit authority at the end of this chapter, and ultimately his rejection of the church as a young adult.
If we understand Stephen as a figure for the young artist, then we can see Clongowes and the Jesuit authority as representing many of the forces active in Ireland that, in Joyce’s conception, repressed the artist. First, the incident with Wells pushing him into the ditch places Stephen in the role of the righteous innocent victim, which the other boys seem to support by agreeing that “it was a mean thing to do.” He comes to embrace this image as the novel progresses. His alienation from the other students and his existence along the margins of the social scene at the school prefigure his sense of the necessity of “exile” from his home country.
When Stephen, at the start of the final section of this chapter, hears the other students discussing Simon Moonan and Tusker Boyle, he is primarily trying to figure out what they did wrong; he does not think to question that they did wrong. It would never occur to him to question the school authorities here. It is clear that Stephen is convinced that the students must have been doing something wrong for them to be punished so severely.
When he is punished unjustly by Father Dolan, he seems immediately certain that the authority, in this case, has made a mistake. Stephen never wavers in his moral indignation—he is certain that the punishment was indeed “cruel and unfair.” The pain of his punishment is moral rather than physical—his ego and his integrity are hurt more than his hand. Likewise, his hesitation when it comes to informing the rector is practical, not moral—he thinks the rector might not believe him, in which case the other students will laugh at him. That might just mean more pandying at the hands of Father Dolan. However, for the first time in the novel, Stephen decides to act of his own accord, and his certainty is rewarded. His “success” in going to speak to the rector is one of many “climaxes” in the novel. It represents an important moment in the development of Stephen’s soul; this questioning of authority prefigures his later rebellions.
At the end of the chapter, the tone is triumphant. Stephen is cheered by his classmates, and carried on their shoulders—symbolically centralized among them, rather than marginalized. However, the crowd soon dissipates and Stephen is alone once again. He observes rather than participates in the cricket match, but this time his isolation and distance seem different. Rather than feeling uncomfortably alienated, he feels good to be alone—“He was happy and free.” This kind of “happy exile,” or willful alienation, will come to characterize Stephen’s relationship with the politics and religion of his country as he gets older. He is still outside of the game as the chapter ends, but he has achieved an apparently significant moral victory for himself.
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