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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

by James Joyce

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Joyce's Hero: Absurd or Serious

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James Joyce’s first published novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), recounts Stephen Dedalus’s struggle to understand and then break free of family, church, and country. The journey of this representative young artist is a growing apart or wrenching away from increasingly imprisoning influences, in Stephen’s case, from an economically impoverished home, a theologically impoverished Catholic Church, and the politically impoverished nationalism of Irish independence. Crucial here is that familial, religious, and national “railings” that first fascinate and guide the child increasingly become “bars” that imprison the adult. The task of the artist, then, is to break free of these constraints and from their bars forge new and better formations. The artist will create not only the guideposts and protective railings of the future, but in the process will likely have to sacrifice his well-being and perhaps a bit of his sanity as well. For Joyce, the image of the artist apart conjures up ambivalence, specifically, excitement alternating with dread.

At the beginning of A Portrait of the Artist, Stephen is not only a very young child, an “object” protected and guided, but an object in a story, a character (baby tuckoo) “written” in by his father’s narration. Stephen is the near-opposite of a man apart—he is the very young child whose story is being created by another. Stephen is at once both a child shaped by his parents and a character embedded in a story he didn’t create, a combination producing an object who is anything but apart. Later, at home and in Catholic school, Stephen is either speechless (at Christmas dinner) or victimized (knocked down by schoolmates and beaten on the palms by a prefect). Stephen’s only independence revolves around his sensitivities to words (“belt,” “iss,” “suck”) and stimuli, especially temperature, moisture, and smell.

By the end of Chapter One, however, Stephen commits his first real act of independence: he protests his palm-whipping. At the end of Chapter Two, the increasing apartness Stephen feels as the result of his family’s sudden poverty and his sensibilities— which separate him from his father and his surroundings—culminates in his “French kiss” with a prostitute, the prelude to a period of whoring that would seem to break his ties to Catholicism. The social apartness created by Stephen’s whoring is less a creative, artistic separation than a destructive, uncreative separation, a mere rebellion. Therefore, in Chapter Three, Stephen gradually regrets his falling away from the Church until, at the end, he not only confesses but readies himself for the Host. In this chapter, Joyce creates, after a gradual slope toward the heights of separation, a fall: this physically central chapter of the book is a loss of Stephen’s momentum toward apartness, a reversal, a device to create audience conflict and make final victory more sweet: the reader, cheering Stephen on toward separation, wonders, “Can he do it, can he really break free?”

Joyce keeps reader conflict alive as Stephen decides to mortify his flesh and devote himself to prayer. But Stephen’s movement toward separateness cannot, of course, be stopped: interior apartness is manifested when Stephen declines an offer to join the Jesuits; exterior apartness is forced on him when his family must move because they cannot pay the rent. Later, Stephen wanders alone on the beach meditating on his apartness from immature peers and staring at multiple figurings of his solitude: little islands of sand amidst the sea; the moon as a body detached from earth, solitary in the evening sky; a hawklike man confused for a god.

Chapter Five cuts once and for all Stephen’s ties to family,...

(This entire section contains 2183 words.)

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religion, and nation. Leaving the house, Stephen figuratively leaves behind the economic and spiritual poverty that make him feel apart. Then he asserts his interior solitude. Arriving at the Catholic university, he scorns a dean for his cloistered lifelessness, attends a boring physics class with cobwebbed windows and a droning professor, and denounces a political gathering for its unthinking worship of hero and nation. In conversations with friends, and in a poem he writes to the shawled girl, E. C., or Emma Clery (fully named inStephen Hero, Joyce’s first and only unpublished novel from which A Portrait of the Artist was taken), Stephen asserts aesthetic independence. Finally, Stephen asserts his independence from nation when he tells Cranly he will leave Ireland. Here then, is a heroic odyssey into apartness, one ending far from its beginning: from a character (baby tuckoo) in someone else’s story and real life drama (his family’s) to, at the end of the book, Stephen’s diary entries, those solitary, mini-narratives, where others become, for Stephen, characters in his story. Stephen traverses the distance from a character inextricably interconnected to a creator apart.

A recurring debate in Joyce criticism concerns this issue of Stephen’s heroism. The question is whether Stephen’s journey from character in a story to the creator of stories is heroic. Joyce’s brother, Stanislaus, regarded the title he invented, Stephen Hero, as deliberately ridiculous. Wayne Booth states and asks, “The young man takes himself and his flight with deadly solemnity. Should we?” F. Parvin Sharpless answers, “Joyce’s classicism sees all aspects of human life as meaningful and absurd at the same time. This is true even of things which he might be expected to value most: the creative process of the literary artist.” While Sharpless’s answer is a good one, it might be better if Booth’s question were broken into two more specific questions. First, Is Stephen an exciting victor or a tragic loser? Second, Is Stephen a serious or absurd figure?

Searching for an answer to the winner/loser question, readers can look back to the last name Stanislaus Joyce invented for Stephen, “Dedalus.” Daedulus, “Old father, old artificer” as Stephen calls him in the last line of the book, was a mythical Greek figure whose name means “cunning craftsman.” Recall here Stephen’s declaration: “I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” Daedulus is an ambivalent figure. A renowned sculptor and engineer, he apprenticed his nephew, Talos, but pushed him off a cliff when Talos proved a greater genius than Daedulus and when it was discovered Talos was having incestuous relations with his own mother, Daedulus’s sister. Daedulus also built several ambivalent devices. First, a hollow wooden cow so King Minos’s wife Pasiphae could have sex with a magnificent white bull. Second, the labyrinth, which kept in the half-man/half-bull minotaur (the monstrous product of the coupling mentioned above) but also kept his food— humans—from getting out. Finally, Daedulus created the famous wax wings that melted and caused Icarus’s fall.

In summary, Daedulus, the mythic character on which Joyce builds his novel’s character, is not just skillful but deceitful or cunning. Further his devices are ambivalent, both good and bad. The depiction of Daedulus, and other artificers in mythology, points to the idea that human creation and creations have their price, their down side, just as valued knowledge of good and evil produced its price: the Fall from the Garden of Eden.

The reader should also recall the Latin epigraph (opening quotation) from Portrait of the Artist that Joyce borrowed from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Here is a translation: “And [Daedulus] altered/ improved the laws of nature,” written in the context of constructing the waxy wings. The figure of the great artist and grand artificer are myths still having purchase on the present, on the role of the artist, but especially for our own times, on the ambivalent state of technology: that all creations are ambivalent, not only in their effects upon their creators, but upon nature and humanity. The artist, then, is both hero and, like Daedulus, Icarus and Talos, victims who when approaching too close to the gods or the “laws” of nature, must either be punished or sacrificed. This is key to understanding Stephen’s friends calling him “Bous Stephanomenos” and “Bous Stephanoforos.” As Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch explains, Bous is Greek for bull. Foros is the bull as powerful victor and menos is the bull as sacrificed animal. Stephen, as artist, is this bull, an ambivalent symbol of powerful victor and tragic victim.

While the bull symbol still has application to the pagan bullfight, it has largely been replaced by the Christian symbol of a meek sacrificial lamb. The lamb may have less magical ambivalence because it is not both strong and weak, but it does have greater application to the more common defeat of the weaker by the stronger. Armed with all of this classical mythology, it should be clearer why Stephen has been represented as a bull rather than a lamb: he is strong, or resolved, and un-Christian; further he is becoming a pagan, a lover of nature, the senses, and experience.

Now to the question of whether Stephen is absurd or serious, which may, in turn, be broken down into multiple specific questions. Here are just three of many that could have been asked. Is the recently self-excommunicated Stephen absurdly selfish or uncompromisingly principled when he refuses to do his “easter duty” for his mother? Is Stephen’s villanelle to be taken by readers as an adolescent poem or a serious work of art? Is Stephen’s own association with Daedulus, including the line, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” to be looked on as the product of foolish youth, or as an inspiring declaration. There is little doubt that Stephen views his principles, artistic output, and philosophy as serious. But, echoing Booth, should we? This is a far more difficult question than whether Stephen is a winner or loser for this answer depends far more on taste. While Joyce, as I hope I have shown, furnishes ample and hard hints that Stephen is both winner and loser, Joyce does not tell the reader what his—Joyce’s—tastes are.

Some might sympathize with Stephen’s principled rejection of his “easter duty” feeling that his mother will get over it. And some of us might like Stephen’s anti-love poem which combines images of mother, Virgin, and Emma Clery; womb and mind; gestation and artistic creation; the child, the poem, the art object; religious devotion, sexual attraction, and self-sacrifice. But others might view the poem and its creation as elementary. But there is still the question of whether we readers should regard Stephen’s most famous declaration above as absurd or serious. In other words, should we understand this line as an example of childish megalomania, hubris, and youthful pride bound for an adult fall? Or is this serious stuff, the artist as smith of a new conscience, new ethics, a new way of seeing and understanding the world?

Perhaps this question can have no answer, since we cannot know what Joyce meant here (unless it is stated somewhere clearly in his letters). Without evidence we must decide for ourselves. Perhaps it is just as well. Even if we interpret Stephen as a selfish and foolish youth, it is less the rightness or wrongness of his struggle that is at issue than depicting the struggle itself. And, after all, if Stephen is selfish and foolish, this is, after all, a portrait of a young man, not a mature one. Had Stephen’s principles, poems, and aesthetic philosophy been mature and fully formed, these would not have belonged to the realist portrait of a young man.

Whether or not one likes the way Stephen handles his struggle, it does show the effects of the battle fought by anyone refusing to act on certain received ideas or act out particular received practices: ostracism, loneliness, self-doubt, and conversely, intolerance, selfishness, hubris. In many ways, Joyce knew these problems as his own. Should readers fault either Joyce or Stephen—or both—if they deem Stephen’s principles selfish, his poem adolescent, and his declaration overblown? Or should they credit Joyce for a realistic portrait of youth? As answering involves knowing the thoughts of Joyce, perhaps it is better to shift focus from mere evaluation of talent toward his work’s effect on the world. Perhaps we might say the following: If Stephen and Joyce can be faulted for anything, it is far less for what they said and did than what they didn’t say or do. That is, in Portrait of the Artist both concentrated almost exclusively on how the artist, him or herself, must suffer and be sacrificed for freedom. On the other hand, precious little in Portrait of the Artist indicated how the artist’s “alteration or improvement of nature,” as Ovid put it in Joyce’s epigraph, impacts upon the world.

Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.

Myth and Identity in Joyce's Fiction: Disentangling the Image

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The Literary Revival of turn-of-the-century Dublin was much concerned with expressing Irish aspirations through heroes. Finn and Cuchullain supplied imaginatively what Ireland had not been able to achieve in reality: an Irish hero who vanquished all foes. Joyce’s contempt for this form of self-consolation is well documented. In his broadside “The Holy Office” he parodies Yeats as he declares that he, Joyce, “must not accounted be / One of that mumming company.” Stephen of Stephen Hero devotes much energy to debunking the Revival. What is perhaps less well known is that Joyce’s initial contempt gave way to a profound understanding of the psychology of the Revival and of the uses of myth in the creation of identity.…

The English, having been their own masters for centuries, have created many models of the successful life; the Irish, being colonials, have been unable to do so. As with American blacks and Indians, subjection to a foreign culture has destroyed all authority figures in the society.

This latter point is, I think, the theme of the first episode of A Portrait. The novel begins with the beginning of a children’s story, a moocow coming down along the road and meeting a nicens little boy, Stephen. The little boy, who will grow up to become the “bullock befriending bard,” learns as he grows older to associate cows with mothers and with mother Ireland. And what comes down along the road and meets Stephen in the early part of the novel is his nationality. He goes off to Clongowes to find that his father is not as important as the other fathers.

—What is your father?

Stephen had answered:

—A gentleman.

Then Nasty Roche had asked:

—Is he a magistrate?

Lesson: the civil officers of the English government are the important people in Ireland. He learns the Story of Hamilton Rowan, who used the only strategy available to him, silence, exile, and cunning, to escape English captivity. Lesson: Irish heroes are not conquerors, but people who cope cleverly with being conquered. He gets shouldered into the square ditch. Lesson: the small and the weak must develop cunning or must suffer.

He summarizes the lessons he has learned on the flyleaf of his geography book:

Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements Clongowes Wood College Sallins County Kildare Ireland Europe The World The Universe

For now, at least, he is defined by his place. His mind will be formed by the experience of this place. And the process of formation is what we are reading: the narrative style of this section is that of a young boy’s internal voice explaining the salient features to himself:

That was the way a rat felt, slimy and damp and cold. Every rat had two eyes to look out of. Sleek slimy coats, little little feet tucked up to jump, black shiny eyes to look out of. They could understand how to jump. But the minds of rats could not understand trigonometry. When they were dead they lay on their sides. Their coats dried then. They were only dead things.

Unlike the internal voice of Maria in the story “Clay,” which helps her exclude anything which might endanger her rather fragile idea of who she is, Stephen’s voice, like Leopold Bloom’s, actively explores his world and comes to conclusions about world and self that are scrupulously tentative. It is this scientific approach which will eventually enable him to see his personal myths and those of his culture for what they are: an imaginative accommodation of subject status to the creation of a significant self.

Stephen’s education in the effects of colonial status is also the theme of the Christmas dinner episode which follows. The real tragedy of the fight between Dante and the two men, Mr. Casey and Simon Dedalus, is not that the family does not get along, but that their ideas of themselves have been formed entirely by the institutions that govern them. Their powerless rage succeeds only in spoiling the dinner, and is capped by Mr. Casey’s tale of spitting in a woman’s eye, and Dante’s boast of the church’s role in killing Parnell. Injustice of the conqueror begets the meaner injustice of the conquered. This Christmas dinner is Stephen’s first with the adults; the children eat in a separate room. It is his initiation into the adult world, and what he learns is that, in Ireland at least, there is no adult world. Stephen writes his complete address as citizen of the universe, but Simon, Mr. Casey, Dante show him that Ireland will be his farthest boundary if he stays there.

Stephen encounters his nationality just as David Copperfield encounters Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse or as Pip gets temporarily lost in the feckless Finches of the Grove men’s club, but his is the greater hurdle. The nationality dilemma is particularly insidious because one’s identity is derived from the very thing that is the impediment to one’s development.

Young Stephen comes to awareness of his situation only gradually, by intuiting from small signs. There is something about the adult males around him that affects his feeling about himself. For example, he thinks how pleasurable it would be to deliver milk for a living

if he had warm gloves and a fat bag of gingernuts in his pocket to eat from. But the same foreknowledge which had sickened his heart and made his legs sag suddenly as he raced round the park, the same intuition which had made him glance with mistrust at his trainer’s flabby stubblecovered face as it bent heavily over his long stained fingers, dissipated any vision of the future. In a vague way he understood that his father was in trouble and that this was the reason why he himself had not been sent back to Clongowes.

The father’s descent has apparently been precipitated, as John Joyce’s was, by the demise of Parnell and the victory of anti-Parnell forces within the Irish Party. Stephen’s fantasies of himself as the Count of Monte Cristo indicate that something of this has come through to his youthful consciousness. The Monte Cristo fantasy is formed on the same pattern as the Celtic Revival fantasy. Edmond Dantès (read heroic Ireland) languishes in prison while Mercedes (read Kathleen ni Houlihan) is forced to marry the rich enemy; Dantès escapes, becomes rich Count, gets revenge. It is, of course, the usual fantasy of the powerless. Later Stephen will figure himself as artist spurned by a materialist woman, and, in Ulysses, as Hamlet: characters wrongfully cast out by philistines. The mythic formula of his life has been determined by the story of Parnell and its aftermath in his own family. The Celtic Revivalists had resurrected Parnell as Cuchullain, but Stephen, as he did under the table, chiasmically changes the form of the story. Parnell rises from obscurity to heroic status, then falls; Dantès falls from heroic status to obscurity, then rises. In progressing from the Count to Hamlet, one essential change has taken place: his youthful belief in ultimate victory has been defeated.

This habit of savoring one’s position as victim of injustice is a species of mental sin discussed by Aquinas under the name “morose delectation.” “He chronicled with patience what he saw, detaching himself from it and testing its mortifying flavour in secret.” It is a solitary sin, dependent for its continuance upon continued mortification. This helps to explain why Stephen is not interested in joining societies for the improvement of things in general:

[W]hen the movement towards national revival had begun to be felt in the college yet another voice had bidden him be true to his country and help to raise up her fallen language and tradition.… [But] he was happy only when he was far from [such voices], beyond their call, alone or in the company of phantasmal comrades.

As an alternative to his private myths the Celtic Revival is emotionally unsatisfactory: the springdayish optimism of the civic improver lacks the kind of interesting complexity he seeks.

In choosing Edmond Dantès over Cuchullain, Stephen has chosen, with Gabriel Conroy, the Continent in preference to Ireland. He has also chosen a literary form: he has chosen to be a novelistic hero in preference to an epic hero. As M. M. Bakhtin has pointed out, epic heroes do not develop and they have no secrets:

The individual in the high distanced genres is an individual of the absolute past and of the distanced image as such, he is a fully finished and completed being. This has been accomplished on a lofty heroic level, but what is complete is also something hopelessly ready-made.… He is, furthermore, completely externalized. There is not the slightest gap between his authentic essence and his external manifestation. All his potential, all his possibilities are realized utterly in his external social position.… Everything in him is exposed and loudly expressed.

Clearly, Stephen Dedalus, he who hides under the table and composes the chiasmic word-charm, he who will understand trigonometry and politics, cannot be a never-changing Cuchullain. Similarly, the world that he inhabits cannot be the easily interpreted good-or-bad world of the epic and of the Celtic Revival; it must be the difficult to interpret world of the novel. Cuchullain always knows who his enemies are. Even if they are his son or his foster brother, there is no doubt about their enmity, and his course of action is clear. Edmond Dantès, on the other hand, does not know who his enemies are, is not aware of all the machinations and secret self-interests that determine his fate.

The peasant theme in A Portrait offers an example of the shifting and tentative, the novelistic nature of Stephen’s personal mythopoeia. Stephen’s thoughts on the subject begin with a struggle between the romantic view of peasants as picturesque and the view that associates them with darkness and bats, and, unlike the peasant theme in Stephen Hero, undergoes a progression. Stephen, going to sleep at Clongowes, thinks,

It would be lovely to sleep for one night in that cottage before the fire of smoking turf, in the dark lit by the fire, in the warm dark, breathing the smell of the peasants, air and rain and turf and corduroy. But, O, the road there between the trees was dark! You would be lost in the dark. It made him afraid to think of how it was.

Romantic notions based on the repetition of the word fire give way as the word dark repeats in his mind. Living with peasants would destroy his boundary line, the embryonic identity he has been constructing; the “you” he has created, a person who, in contrast with rats, will someday understand trigonometry and politics, would disappear in the darkness.

But his attitude is not one of simple revulsion. He likes the way peasants smell, and from the beginning he has associated the sense of smell with his mother, who put the queer-smelling oilsheet on his bed. Mothers are frightening too because they embody the dark womb that precedes the “once upon a time” of consciousness. He sees the peasant seductress of Davin’s story as “a type of her race and his own, a batlike soul waking to the consciousness of itself in darkness and secrecy and loneliness and, through the eyes and voice and gesture of a woman without guile, calling the stranger to her bed.” The guileless Kathleen calls the stranger, a common Irish term for the English, to her bed. The political joining of Ireland with England which took place in 1800 was called the Act of Union. Out of this union is born the “disorder, the misrule and confusion of his father’s house and the stagnation of vegetable life, which was to win the day in his soul.”

Later the girl he is in love with flirts with a priest who is of the Celtic Revival persuasion. The priest, Father Moran, has a brother who is a potboy in Moycullen, so Stephen imagines her as giving herself to the peasantry and associates her with Davin’s seductress. Again: feminity—peasantry— preconsciousness. Stephen contrasts himself to this peasant priest: he himself is the “priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.” In the logic of this metaphor the Celtic Revival is journeying into dark chaos looking for the “radiant image of the eucharist.” And the priest is perfectly willing to encourage the journey toward the Celtic past and toward the peasant life, knowing that it leads to Catholic Ireland.

The peasant theme of the novel concludes with the diary entry—a condensation of a section of Stephen Hero—about John Alphonsus Mulrennan, a Celtic Revival folklorist who has just returned with a new hoard of material he got from an old man with red eyes; material about terrible queer creatures at the latter end of the world. Stephen, as he did at Clongowes, expresses fear:

I fear him. I fear his redrimmed horny eyes. It is with him I must struggle all through this night till day come, till he or I lie dead, gripping him by the sinewy throat till … Till what? Till he yield to me? No. I mean him no harm.

It is here that the peasant theme reveals itself for what it has been from the start: a personal myth which has changed gradually in its meaning. At Clongowes Stephen longed for some ideal life away from home and school, a Lake Isle of Innisfree, and the peasant cottage appeared briefly in this form. Then he needed a creation myth to explain his condition, and Davin’s Kathleen ni Houlihan seductress filled the part. Later, as he began to see his life as a struggle for intellectual survival the peasant became the force of primordial darkness. In Mulrennan’s account, however, he is too much the real peasant, with pipe and comic carryings on, to sustain any of these myths. The peasant myth collapses. And with the collapse Stephen takes a step toward achieving the classical temper he has been striving for.

The first step in the direction of truth is to understand the frame and scope of the intellect itself, to comprehend the act itself of intellection. Aristotle’s entire system of philosophy rests upon his book of psychology and that, I think, rests on his statement that the same attribute cannot at the same time and in the same connection belong to and not belong to the same subject.

Stephen’s peasant, like the Celtic Revival peasant, has been formed by the fears and desires of the beholder. In this final passage, before he catches himself at it, he has nearly turned the peasant into the jailer of Edmond Dantès. Stephen, like his countrymen, has been actively repairing the damage of colonial status with elaborate mental constructions. Having begun to realize this, he rejects the Yeatsian reconstruction of the Celtic past as the proper goal of his art: “Michael Robartes remembers forgotten beauty … Not this. Not this at all.” According to his own esthetic doctrine he will have to learn to see through his own mental nimbus and discover a consistent view of his subject based upon its perceivable attributes.

And A Portrait itself, when compared to Stephen Hero, illustrates this point. In Stephen Hero Stephen’s objection to the Celtic Revival is the subject; in A Portrait the mythopoeic process itself—the human need which results in Celtic Revivals— is the subject. “Once upon a time” signals the beginning of Stephen’s conscious life as the be- ginning of a made-up story. “He was baby tuckoo.” All human identity is myth-created. We know ourselves by a story we tell, or are told. Joyce has “disentangle[ d] the subtle soul of the image from its nest of defining circumstances.” “The image,” that which will be his artistic subject in all of his major work, is identity and mythopoeia.

The theme is a treacherous one; to deal with it the writer must first undergo a stripping of his own self-myth. The high-flying images of the final diary entry show that Stephen, although he has taken the first steps, is not yet ready. In Ulysses, under the tutelage of the clear-eyed Leopold Bloom, he will complete the lesson begun here.

Source: William O’Neill, “Myth and Identity in Joyce’s Fiction: Disentangling the Image,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 379-91.

Three Young Men in Rebellion

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James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was first published forty-seven years ago, not in Ireland but in New York, 1916. This was a year in the First World War; in Dublin the year of the Easter Week rebellion. Joyce, then at Zurich in neutral Switzerland, was thirty-three, fifteen years younger than [Samuel] Butler had been when he gave up his rewriting of The Way of All Flesh. The haze was not so dense for Joyce, and he had not so far to look backward. ThePortrait is also a most carefully rewritten or restyled novel, in fact an entirely recast one. He had begun it in its original form as Stephen Hero even before he went away from Ireland in 1904. He had carried this first form of the book forward to double the final, present length of the Portrait, and then gave it up still incomplete so as to start his story all over. Looking back, he himself called Stephen Hero “rubbish.” But even as it stands, the Portrait might be justly styled in part an autobiographical revenge, for like Butler Joyce voices through his story the grievances that he still held against his home, his mother country and most of her people. His recollections of the System, if that is the right word here, are rather bitter ones, though the bitter tone is notably muted by comparison of the Portrait with what survives of the earlier Stephen Hero draft. The real life prototypes are at times so thinly veiled that any reader with even the most casual knowledge of James Joyce and his city is obliged to recognize some of them and to sense that the Portrait as a whole is the actual life story of a gifted young man’s Catholic upbringing in Ireland at the turn of the century. The great danger is to read it as straight third person, the entire story comes filtered to us through the consciousness of a persona, here the young man whose artistic dilemmas and moral strictures it re-presents. Stylistically it is the most subtle of the three novels in the interaction of its own images and the verbal miming of its own thought. It is a literary classic of our times. Already it shows us Joyce busy as a beaver working hard to rechannel the tradition of the novel and to dam up the deep and dark waters of the subconscious, or unconscious. Quite explicitly he proclaims a revolution of the word.

Rebellion, revolt, and resistance have for centuries found in Ireland a fertile soil in which to flourish. “The Croppy Boy,” “Kelly the Boy from Killanne,” “The Rising of the Moon,” “Seaghan O’Duibhir an Gleanna,” are a few only of the defiant rebel songs, set to traditional airs, that Joyce, a gifted singer as a young man, heard in the air all about him in his own Irish days:

And though we part in sorrow Still Seaghan O’Duibhir a cara Our prayer is “God, save Ireland” And pour blessings on her name. May her sons be true when needed, May they never fail as we did, For Seaghan O’Duibhir an Gleanna We’re worsted in the game.

Most of these are political rallying songs. James Joyce’s disenchantment with Ireland extended so far as to make him despair of the turn taken by most of Ireland’s revolutionary politics, of her better-left-unspoken Gaelic speech, and, as he saw it, of the fatal paralysis that left her prostrate at the portals to the realm of the spirit, “the realms of gold” that he himself most of all respected: art, the way of the artist, and in particular the power that the word of the artist, or literature, has to help a people know itself, judge itself truthfully, and face the chaos and possibilities that the contemplation of its own image might disclose. Thus the Portrait becomes an artist’s, not a social reformer’s story as is Butler’s Way. Stephen Dedalus leaves Ireland at the end of the story, but he is defiantly hopeful: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” “Silence, exile, and cunning” are the “only arms” that he now finds at hand to defend himself in the unjust warfare that has been provoked, as he sees it, by his home, his fatherland, and his church. No one would dream from this ending that Dublin was then a city of classical song and the center of the Irish Renascence, Lady Gregory, the Abbey Theater, W. B. Yeats; nor might one infer readily, nor indeed at all that some few years earlier, 1886, Dom Columba Marmion, the distinguished Benedictine, a curate in Dundrum on the outskirts of Dublin, also left Ireland to enter a European cloister at Maredsous. Still one wonders sometimes: If those whose job it was to educate James Joyce had been themselves more creative spirits, would his Catholic faith have become so much unhinged? They might have opened their minds and hearts perhaps wider to what was going on in his.

Stephen Dedalus is as deeply convinced that the Church is to blame for the paralysis he finds all around him as had been Butler’s Ernest Pontifex. Whereas Ernest blames mostly the Church of England, Stephen blames instead the Church of Rome. For the English Establishment, for Crown and Castle, for the Anglican Ascendancy in Ireland, Stephen has as much contempt as Ernest has for Victorian piety, but Stephen’s own spiritual reaction has been conditioned by the Catholicism that as he sees it had made Ireland a land neither of scholars, artists, nor of saints.

The Stephen Dedalus story, at least as we have it in the Portrait, is that of a young man’s growing up in Holy Ireland, his discovery of himself and of his vocation, his loss of innocence and his growth in experience, his flight to the continent of Europe. “You talk to me,” he says, “of nationality, language, and religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, another subversive book, is the American novel with which the Portrait has been persistently compared. Huck’s territory and Stephen’s, the wilderness and the urban diaspora, are, however, different kinds of solitude for retreat. Hemingway’s Nick Adams, “the town’s full of bright boys,” and Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, in The Great Gatsby, are American cousins of Stephen Dedalus as well as is Huck Finn. This quest is age-old, as old as Homer. It sent the son of Odysseus on his travels. Joyce calls the three opening Stephen Dedalus chapters of Ulysses his Telemachia.

The Portrait tells the Stephen story mainly in terms of the three Jesuit schools that Stephen, and Joyce himself, attended in Ireland: Clongowes Wood, an exclusive elementary boarding-school; Belvedere College, or high school, as we might say, Dublin; and, finally, University College, Dublin, the Catholic University that John Henry Newman founded for Ireland in the early 1850s, which had been rescued by the Jesuits from extinction in 1883 and carried on under their administration for the next troubled quarter-century until 1909. Although it might look at first sight as though Stephen is as hard on his Irish Jesuits as Ernest Pontifex is on his Anglican schoolteacher divines, this judgment would go beyond the evidence of the Portrait itself. Father Dolan, “Baldyhead Dolan,” the prefect of studies, a priest of the Dr. Skinner type, beats Stephen at Clongowes for having broken his glasses, but Father Arnall, Stephen’s own class teacher, is remembered as “very gentle,” and Father Conmee, the Clongowes Rector, as a “kindlooking” man, who treats Stephen’s protest decently. Long after this, in Finnegans Wake, Joyce alludes to The Way of All Flesh as “a butler’s life … strabismal [or, wall-eyed, cross-eyed, and abysmal] apologia.” Jesuit readers of the Portrait, more likely than others, are apt to take note of Stephen’s appraisal of those Irish Jesuits who in the fiction at least show themselves eager at Belvedere to welcome the sixteen-year-old Stephen as a novice into their own priestly ranks: “Whatever he had heard or read of the craft of Jesuits,” writes Joyce, “he [Stephen] had put aside as not borne out by his own experience. His masters, even when they had not attracted him, had seemed to him always intelligent and serious priests.”

The central conflict that the Portrait dramatizes is that of Stephen’s vocation: Shall he be an artist or shall he be a priest? This conflict is actually resolved in the fourth, or Belvedere, section of the novel, after the crisis of Stephen’s high school retreat. Stephen is intellectually tempted by the prospect of a priestly vocation. His imagination, however, is powerless to view this otherwise than as “the pale service of the altar,” “cerements shaken from the body of death,” and in the half-vision, half-actuality of seeing the bird-like girl “in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea,” he makes up his mind not to be a priest but an artist, and to follow this vision of “mortal beauty,” “profane joy,” wherever it might lead him, even unto “the gates of all the ways of error and glory.” Unlike Ernest Pontifex, Stephen never commits himself to a priestly service in which he has no heart: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church.” Still the Portrait nowhere inveighs against the family system that brings down in retrospect Ernest’s strictures. In fact, tried as it is, Stephen’s sense of solidarity with his family is very strong. Stephen’s father, Simon Dedalus, is a drunkard, but on the whole he is shown as an amiable drunkard, who flirts with the barmaids and knows how to sing. Stephen’s mother is a rather ineffectual lady, but always a lady, a gentle lady, even when she and her impoverished brood of children are obliged, after many auctions and house-movings, to live on the wrong side of the tracks as the novel comes to a close.

For the most part its tone is serene; at times it is very comic. It would not be easy to find in modern fiction a more amusing and still realistic scene than the famous Christmas-dinner in the first section, when Stephen comes home from Clongowes Wood during his family’s affluent days to celebrate with them the birthday of the Prince of Peace. The Dedalus family and their invited guests quarrel violently about the rights and wrongs of Kitty O’Shea’s divorce and the consequent repudiation of Charles Stewart Parnell, “uncrowned king of Ireland”: the dinner breaks up with door-slammings, shouts, curses, clenched fists and crashes, upturned chairs and rolling napkin-rings—a first-class Irish brawl. The much frightened little boy Stephen “sobbed loudly and bitterly.” As Joyce closes the incident, “Stephen, raising his terror stricken face saw that his father’s eyes were full of tears.” Whereas the wealthy, leisured aristocrat Towneley is Ernest’s hero in The Way of All Flesh, so an idealized Parnell, blameless and broken, is Stephen’s hero in the Portrait. Neither Stephen nor James Joyce ever forgave Ireland for throwing Parnell to the wolves. Stephen cannot follow Parnell in person, and he cannot serve God as priest at the altar. He has no call to the drawing-room. What can he do? He can be, he thinks, an artist. In this way he will be saving Parnell and all his people, “race of clodhoppers” that he calls them, for the world of art: “I tried to love God, he [Stephen] said at length. It seems now that I failed.”

Fortunately it is not any man’s business to judge of Stephen’s, or Joyce’s, failure before God. Joyce himself succeeded admirably as artist; as he grew older, he edged far away from his symbolic identification with Stephen Dedalus. In Ulysses, the good man is Leopold Bloom: as Joyce told his friend Frank Budgen while Ulysses was still in the making, “As the day wears on Bloom should overshadow them all.” And in Finnegans Wake, he is Everyman, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, H.C.E., “Here Comes Everybody,” in a story where Everybody is Somebody Else. Stephen Dedalus did not become a priest at the altar, and neither did Joyce. When Stephen says in the Portrait that he will become instead “a priest of the eternal imagination,” his metaphor is meaningful, but he is talking about something else than the rite of priestly consecration. This metaphor should not be pushed too far in Stephen’s case, and in Joyce’s own it is one that has tended to obscure the two vocations between which he made an election; he himself chose not altar but art. It is a choice that haunted him most of his life.

Source: William T. Noon, “Three Young Men in Rebellion,” in Thought, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 151, Winter, 1963, pp. 559-77.


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