An Analysis of the characters of Christy Mahon, Pegeen Mike and the Widow Quin in The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge

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Christy:  At First Weak, Timid

When we first meet Christy it is by way of report.  He is presented as a tramp, “a kind of fellow above in the furzy ditch groaning wicked like a maddening dog”, or a “queer fellow above, going mad — “.   When we first see him he is, according to the stage direction, a ‘slight young man – very fired and frightened and dirty’.  The first impression we get is one of timidity and fear: in short he is a coward but not totally lacking in spirit.  His retort to Michael’s accusation that maybe he is wanted for “robbing and stealing” is given with a flash of family pride: ”And I the son of a strong farmer”.  He relaxes as the others convince him that he is in a house safe from the ‘polis’, and begins to respond to their interest in the curiosity about his origins.  Was he the victim of bailiffs, agents, landlords; did he indulge in alchemy, marry three wives, fight “wars for Kruger”?  Pegeen’s impatient “you did nothing at all” provokes the required confession: “I killed my poor father, Tuesday was a week”.

The “lie” Begins

He is now definitely to be feared and respected, simply by what he has said. The hero in Christy is about to emerge; he is ‘a lad with the sense of Solomon’: “the peelers is fearing him”, he ‘should be great terror when his temper’s roused’, brave enough to “face a foxy divil — on the flags of hell”, and to stand up to “the loosed khaki cut-throats, or the walkin dead”.

The “lie” Takes Effect

Christy can hardly believe his ears: “Well glory be to God!” is all he can exclaim at the character the others are building for him.  When he is left alone with Pegeen who describes him as a “fine, handsome young fellow with a noble brow” his amazed reply is: “Is it me?”.  She further likens him to Owen Roe O’Sullivan (Eoin Ruadh O’Suilleabhain) the greatest of the Kerry poets, ‘a fine fiery fellow with great rages’ and passions.

Synge’s Sympathy For The” Lie”

The local response to Christy’s appearance on the scene highlight for us the drabness of such rural living, where the imagination has been starved, and there is longing for some excitement. Behind the obvious comedy in this scene we see a certain pathos: Synge was most definitely not out of sympathy with such peasant people (After all he had forsaken his own kind for their company).   

Christy Given Romantic Image

Pegeen’s mention of Eoin Ruadh O’Suilleabhain reveals much about her character: he was a rather rakish fellow, a womaniser and an eloquent poet.  She wants excitement and is prepared to defy the ‘priesteen’ and the powers of Rome to get it.  Maybe Christy is a re-incarnation of the poet – that is what she wants to believe.  Self-deception it is but understandable in the circumstances.  She and the others want a hero and Christy wants to be that hero.

So Christy has now progressed from tramp and coward to poetic hero, which brings us to the end of Act 1.  By this stage it is obvious that Synge has created a mock-hero, a parody of the hero of Celtic epic literature.

Christy Settles in To His New Image

At the start of Act II Christy feels quite at home and would be prepared to remain here ‘his whole life talking out with swearing Christians – never a day’s work’.  The emphasis is on talking rather than working.  He is aware now that his talent is verbal with a licence to lie or, at best, to bend and decorate the truth.

Heroes Must Prove Themselves

His status as hero is confirmed at this point by the arrival of the local girls bearing gifts, and by the Widow Quin’s announcement that she has entered him ‘in the sports below for racing, leaping, pitching’.  All heroes must be put to the test: it is a feature of the epic poem that the hero must prove his prowess and strength in epic combat.  For Christy this is to be done in the more humble local sports.

Comedy In Parody

The girls get their reward for bringing presents when Christy once again tells the story of his homicide (‘da-slaying’).  His new found confidence is reflected in the telling.  Now we have mime to enhance the comic absurdity.  There is even comedy in the “weapons” used; a chicken bone and mug replace the mighty weapons of the traditional hero.

Temporary Set Back For Christy

This comic episode ends with the return of Pegeen who bristles at the sight of other women, especially Widow Quin, making free and easy with her man.  They are dismissed imperiously and Christy receives a verbal punishing for his vanity.  “You’ll be shut of no jeopardy no place if you go talking with a pack wild girls”.   This provokes a great outburst of self-pity from Christy which softens the heart of Pegeen, making her realise how lucky she is to have found a lad with “a mighty spirit in him and a gamy heart”.

Power Of The “Lie” Again

Once again she is under the spell of Christy’s poetry, its rhythms and imagery: “it’s a lonesome thing to be passing small towns with the lights shining sideways, when the night is down”, “ drawn to the cities where you’s hear a voice kissing and talking deep love in every shadow of the ditch”, “but I was lonesome all times, and born lonesome, I’m thinking as the moon of dawn”, “the way I’ll not be waking near you another dawn of the year till the two of us do arise to hope or judgement with the saints of God”.

Comedy Of Christy’s Victory’ Over Shawn

Christy is now given and opportunity to act the hero.  Shawn Keogh, that representative of ‘respectability and conformity’, has to be confronted and humiliated.  Our new hero enjoys inflicting this humiliation on Shawn Keogh: he himself had often suffered similarly at the hands of his own father.  At the height of his heroic success Christy is suddenly brought back to earth with a bump when he sees “the walking spirit of my murdered da”, “that ghost of hell”.

Another Side To Christy By His Father

Ironically Christy in hiding has to suffer the humiliation of hearing his father sarcastically describe the real Christy:

“An ugly young streeler with a murderous gob”

“a dirty stuttering lout”

“a lier on walls, a talker of folly, a man you’d see stretched the half of the day in the brown ferns with his belly to the sun”.

“he’d be fooling over little birds – or making mugs at his own self in the bit of glass – – -“.

“if he seen a red petticoat coming swinging over the hill, he’d be off to hide in the sticks… “

“a poor fellow that would get drunk on the smell of a pint”

“the laughing joke of every female woman”

“the loony of Mahon’s”

This is not exactly the character reference that Christy would give and had given to himself! An interesting point to note, however, is that the father has a ‘power’ of words himself!

Christy Becomes ‘The Playboy’

Once again Synge deglamourises the peasant and his lifestyle, reality keeping a firm grip on fantasy.  The cult of the hero needs to be exposed for what it is; gratuitous violence masquerading as bravery.  (Synge was a pacifist and was appalled by the violence of his own day and the false image of Ireland and its people that was being manufactured to support political ideas).  The Widow Quin dubs Christy sarcastically ‘the walking Playboy of the Western World’.  Christy is now in the hands of the Widow Quin and she being the practical person she is cashes in on his fear of exposure.  Since she cannot have him for herself she will demand a fee for his silence: ’give me a right of way I want, and a mountainy ram, and a load of dung at Michaelmas’.  The Act ends with Christy half-reassured that he has bribed the Widow into silence, and off he goes to his greatest test as hero, indeed the traditional test of all heroes.

Christy: Proven Hero At Last without ‘Lies’

In Act III Christy successfully proves himself at the races winning all before him, so when he returns to the Shebeen in triumph he is master of all.  There is no limit to his courage and confidence now.

Pegeen Abandons Herself To His Power

He quite overpowers Pegeen – the first time she has ever softened, she ‘the fright of seven townlands for my biting tongue’.  He raises her to such a level of passion that she is prepared to abandon everything for this ‘raggle-taggle gipsy man’, who according to Father Reilly would ‘capsize the stars’.  Pegeen becomes a ‘heathen daughter’ and renounces her engagement to Shawn Keogh ‘that quaking blackguard’.  Christy obliges by chasing him off and Michael gives his approval and blessing to both Pegeen and Christy.

Fantasy is Finally Driven Out By Reality

At that point Christy’s final test begins.  His father, ‘a raving maniac’, bursts in and attacks Christy with a stick.  The spell, which had mesmerised them all, is suddenly broken.  The hero becomes the victim who is to be sacrificed for the people.  Pegeen dismisses Christy with ‘Quit off from this’.  After he has chased his father outside and apparently killed him, he returns to find that the Widow Quin is the only one who still wants him.  This he passionately rejects with the infamous line – ‘What’d I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts’ – (Cue: Riots!).  He mistakenly thinks that the ‘killing’ will restore him to Pegeen’s favour but he soon learns that there is a world of difference between a ‘gallows story and a dirty deed’.  Humiliation, as the women try to put petticoats on him, is followed by final rejection by Pegeen who places the rope on him.  Shawn is triumphant, ‘Come on to the peelers till they stretch you now’.  Respectability, self-interest – the usual social norms return.  Christy now realises that he is finished here, his future is elsewhere and when his father comes back from the dead again, the two are re-united in a new relationship which makes them independent of the society that had made Christy into a hero and a poet.  Like the bard of old he is destined for a higher, if lonelier, existence, one preferable to village respectability.  ‘The thousand blessings upon all that’s here, for you’ve turned me a likely gaffer in the end of all, the way I’ll go romancing through a romping lifetime ….’

The Cuchulainn Parallel

One commentator on Synge, Declan Kiberd, in a very interesting book Synge and the Irish Language, sees a parallel between Christy and his story and the legend of Cuchulainn.  He sees it as mock-heroic satire that the  ‘Godlike Cuchulainn should re-appear in a feckless peasant’.  For Pegeen Christy evokes the ancient world of the poet and its heroic virtues, ‘it’s the poets and your like, fine fiery fellows with great rages ‘;  ‘You with a kind of quality name, the like of what you’d find on the great powers and potentates of France and Spain’; ‘the like of a King of Norway or the Eastern World’.

In youth Cuchulainn was athletic, handsome, articulate, attractive to women, a leader of men.  Christy is the opposite, ‘cowering in a ditch’, ‘a lier on walls’, ‘a slight young man’, ‘a talker of folly’, ‘the laughing joke of every female woman’ – all of which is to change through the power of a lie.

Christy’s father tried to marry him off to the Widow Casey.  The men of Ulster wished to marry off Cuchulainn to protect their own women from him.  Cuchulainn is victorious using the sword of King Conchubair just as Christy is victorious in the borrowed clothes of Shawn Keogh.  Cuchulainn woos Emer against her father’s wishes.  Emer has another suitor just as Pegeen has Shawn Keogh.  Both these suitors retire afraid of their opponents’ strength.  Cuchulainn and Christy triumph at games and win their loved ones.  Christy’s ‘great rages’ echo Cuchulainn’s great battle-rages.  Cuchulainn meets the warrior druidess to advise and prepare him for his struggle; Christy meets the Widow Quin, who also advises for a ‘fee’.

Comedy And Satire In The Parody

But Synge’s purpose is to make a mock-hero of Christy, probably a response on his part to the determined efforts of his contemporaries to manufacture super-peasants for a political ideal.  The only relic of the real hero left is the ‘gift of the gab’ upon which Christy is solely dependent.  The ancient hero is reincarnated in a ‘feckless peasant’ struggling to escape the grinding poverty and dullness of life in the West of Ireland.  For Synge there is no glamour in such harsh reality but a little fantasy can bring humour and escape, if only temporarily, so that not only Christy but the people of Mayo can go ‘romancing’, he for ‘a romping lifetime’, they for a few days at least.

The Widow Quin, Christy and Pegeen Mike.
The Widow Quin, Christy and Pegeen Mike.


At First, Realistic and Strong

Like all the other villagers Pegeen is trapped by rural convention which declares self-interest and respectability to be the social norms.  It is ironic that when we first meet her she is preparing for her marriage to Shawn Keogh who most typifies this self-interest and respectability.  She is going to make the best of the world she finds herself in.  From the start we can see that she is strong-willed and dominant.

Latent Romantic

She has no love for Shawn Keogh whom she addresses contemptuously as Shawneen.  Indeed she laments the lack of eligible and romantic young men in the district which can only boast of such as “Red Linahan, has a squint in his eye, the Patcheen has a limp in his heel, or the mad Mulrannies …”  Her idea of a man is one who has the courage to break the law and tell stories of Holy Ireland – a Daneen Sullivan or masrcus Qwuin.  The absence of any romance in her life and the absence of any fire or passion in Shawn Keogh are facts that she had had to live with and, God help her, will have to continue to live with fore the future.  She is hard-headed enough, however, to accept Shawn as a poor substitutue for a real husband but he is better than no man at all.

Character of a Heroine

So the first part of Act I establishes her strength of character and her spirit: she can handle all the men, from her father, Michael, to Shawn Keogh.   She has no fear of authority, ecclesiastical or civil: ‘Stop tormenting me with Father Reilly’ she sneers at Shawn, and ‘Daneen Sullivan knocked the eye from a peeler’ shows her admiration for one with courage enough to stand up to and get the better of authority.

First Meeting With Christy: Contempt Turns to Admiration

Into such a world ruled by self-interest and respectability stumbles Christy, young, tired and frightened.  Their interest is immediately aroused (a ‘strainseir’ is always an object of great curiosity in an Irish village.)  Pegeen’s contempt for men is still evident when she contemptuously challenges Christy: ‘You did nothing at all’, ‘Would you have me knock the head of you with the butt of the broom?’  Christy’s confession that he had killed his ‘poor father’ for striking him takes her aback.  Suddenly her attitude changes: here is a man at last, another Daneen Sullivan or Marcus Quin, who has had the courage to challenge and overcome authority by killing his father.

Pegeen Falls Under Spell of The ‘Lie’: Romance Stirs

Christy’s ‘lie’ begins to work its magic on them all except Shawn Keogh (he isn’t the type that needs some excitement in life so he remains outside the spell).  This gauche, (awkward), young man is beginning to appear as a potential knight-in-shining-armour or hero come to snatch her from the jaws of her fate.  So, unwittingly she becomes an agent in the build-up of Christy into something larger than life.  Fantasy is at work.  The strong-willed, sharp-tongued young woman begins to melt as romance at last enters her life.  All thoughts of self-interest and respectability are abandoned as she loses her head to the stranger.

Pegeen’s Jealousy Evident

It is ironic that Christy is affected differently at first: at the end of Act I and the start of Act II he relishes the new found respectability and comfort.  But this isn’t allowed top last for long.  Pegeen’s jealousy temporarily breaks the spell when she finds other women tampering with Christy, and she sadistically enjoys his terror at her mention of him ‘swaying and swiggling at the butt of a rope – in great anguish, getting your death’.

Romance Continues To Hold Her

The spell re-establishes its hold over her when Christy responds with his self-pitying yet unwittingly passionate poetry: ‘it’s a lonesome thing to be passing small towns’ – ‘the cities where you’d hear a voice kissing and talking deep love in every shadow of the ditch’.  She even further builds up his character, attributing to him ‘a mighty spirit and a gamy heart’, which he shortly afterwards displays before the Widow Quin and Shawn Keogh when the latter comes to bribe him to leave.  ‘For what is it you’re wanting to get shut of me?’ he arrogantly asks Shawn.  Pegeen is not present  to see Christy’s cringing reaction top the appearance of his ‘murdered da’.  This must give Christy the necessary, if subconscious, incentive to prove himself at the sports to consolidate his position with Pegeen.

 Pegeen Abandons Herself To New Christy

After his successes at the sports Christy returns to the Shebeen with Pegeen positively aglow with admiration and love.  In the love sequence that follows she abandons herself completely to Christy’s verbal hypnosis.  She can hardly believe her own ears when she speaks, ‘And to think its me talking sweetly …. Well, the heart’s a wonder – there won’t be our like in Mayo for gallant lovers….’  Even the dispensation ‘in gallous Latin’ can’t dissuade her now – she belongs to the ‘young gaffer who’d capsize the stars’ and who indeed had capsized her world.  To her father she is a ‘heathen daughter’.  In her ecstasy she really enjoys humiliating Shawn Keogh and when Christy chases him out she passionately announces to her father: ‘Bless us now, for I swear to God I’ll wed him, and I’ll not renege’.

Pegeen: The Woman Scorned

With the re-entry of Old Mahon and his claim that all Christy had given him was a ‘tap of a loy’, suddenly Pegeen snaps out of her trance and turns impetuously on Christy, ‘And it’s lies you told, letting on you had him slitted, and you nothing at all’.  Her pride has been hurt and she feels publicly humiliated and in her rage she abandons him to fate.  ‘Take him on from this or I’ll set the young lads to destroy him here’.

Fantasy At The End

Ironically she does not realise that she has just provided Christy with his greatest opportunity yet to prove himself a hero.  Old Mahon’s ‘dying’ yell finally dispels that last trace of fantasy.  Reality returns: the villagers are one again against the intruder that would bring the law and trouble to them.

Pegeen: Tragic Figure

Pegeen must lead in purging the community of this menace and to her eternal shame she realises too late what she had done: she has freed Christy from any last ties that would have impeded his progress ‘to the stars’.  He doesn’t need her now, whereas she does need him, but she has lost and he has won.  She is indeed almost the tragic heroine at this stage; the Dido deserted by her Aeneas.

Note: The character of Pegeen is said to have many of the qualities of Molly Allgood (Maire O’Neill), Synge’s fiancée, with whom he had a rather tempestuous relationship.  She played the part of Pegeen in the first production and, like her, was independent and wayward, temperamental and warm-hearted, restless and very ambitious, and in the end lost her Playboy to death.

The Widow Quin
The Widow Quin


The Widow Quin (Is there a Newcastle West connection?!) is presented as a worldly, materialistic woman whose life is governed by shrewd opportunism rather than passion.  Though she does put her eye on Christy it is not passion but rather self-interest that motivates her.  She has ‘buried her children and destroyed her man’ and has few illusions left about life.  She is the least affected by the spell of Christy’s charisma, except for Shawn Keogh of course, who is deaf to the magic of Christy’s words.  For a short while she does fancy herself as a rival to Pegeen, and the only ‘fault’ in her character is that she underestimates the strength of Christy’s love for Pegeen, it is a love to which she could never aspire.

Fit Rival To Pegeen

When we meet her first she is obviously someone to be reckoned with: Pegeen bristles at her entry and feels threatened.  Whereas any of the men in the play would have been easily subdued with a few sharp words from Pegeen, the Widow is impervious to her scorn.  Though Pegeen does best her in their first encounter, the Widow doesn’t leave without a good parting shot that unsettles Pegeen, reminding her in Christy’s presence of her engagement to Shawn Keogh.

Widow As Comic Agent

When we meet her she has Christy to herself with the chorus of village girls.  With a few direct personal questions she has found out from him all about his background, his father, and the reason for the ‘gallous deed’.  Her comic sense encourages Christy to tell his story this time with mime, which puts them all into such good humour that Susan and Sara suggest that he would make a fine second husband for the Widow Quin.

Further Challenge to Pegeen

The comedy abruptly ends when a jealous and frosty-faced Pegeen enters.  Once again as she leaves the Widow Quin has another fine parting shot for Pegeen as she reminds Christy that she, the Widow Quin, and not Pegeen had thought of entering him for the sports.  She certainly has the ability to bring out the worst in Pegeen!

A Woman of Action: Understands Human Nature

She deals with the three principal male characters in one short period: she barters with Shawn Keogh for her services in rescuing Pegeen from Christy, she flatters Christy, and then she coaxes Old Mahon into leaving but not before getting information about Christy from him.  This episode shows what an important role she has in the play: her main function is to initiate action and to keep it going.

  • Her threat to take Christy spurs Pegeen into action thus declaring her interest in Christy.
  • She enters Christy for the sports thus giving him the opportunity to prove himself a hero.
  • She controls Old Mahon thus keeping the action going as she wants it.
  • She manipulates Shawn Keogh which results in Christy looking a fine fellow, and she better off with his bribes.
  • She again sends Old Mahon off as Christy hasn’t yet been fully established as hero.
  • When Christy is finally exposed it is she alone who tries to save him from the anger of the village men and Pegeen, and this is ironic considering her reputation for being self-centred and heartless.

Widow has her Good Points

When Christy describes the Widow Casey in such horrific terms with her ‘limping leg’ and ‘blinded eye’ and her ‘noted misbehaviour’; she is ‘a hag with a tongue on her has the crows and seabirds scattered’, the Widow Quin seems positively angelic by comparison.  Earlier Christy had remarked on the ‘two fine women fighting for the likes of me’.  So the Widow Quin is a very presentable-looking woman even though her character is assassinated by the jealous Pegeen who slanders her with rearing ‘a black ram at her breast’ and ‘shaving the foxy skipper from France for a threepenny bit’.  Never does the Widow’s language take on the venomous tone and brutal imagery of Pegeen’s, though she can hurt when she wants to: Pegeen she says is ‘a girl you’d see itching and scratching – with a stale stink of poteen on her’.  In a way she is proved right in the end – Pegeen is not fit company for the new Christy, and it is Pegeen, not the resourceful Widow, who will tragically weep at his departure.

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An Analysis of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man




The reader must not identify Stephen with Joyce in every respect.  For instance, Stephen is represented in his days at Clongowes Wood College as a timid boy, conscious of his smallness and weakness, who tries to avoid being involved in the rough and tumble of football.  It is true that the young Joyce disliked fights, but he was keen on hurdling (not hurling!) and cricket and won cups for his prowess.  This practice of taking a certain aspect of his own character and intensifying and exaggerating it when picturing his alter ego, or second self, is typical of Joyce’s method.  The exaggerations often move Stephen a distance from the real Joyce.  Who would guess from A Portrait that Joyce’s cheerful disposition earned him the nickname “Sunny Jim”?

Stephen, then, is not simply a direct self-portrait.  Indeed it is significant that Joyce called his book A Portrait of the Artist and not A Portrait of an Artist.  For Joyce was never content to record particular experiences for the sake of their interesting particularities.  He wanted to achieve universality.  Of his first book of short stories, Dubliners, he wrote: ‘If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of every city in the world.  In the particular is contained the universal.’  So we may assume that in studying the growth and development of Stephen Dedalus he was not exclusively concerned with getting to the heart of the young James Joyce or an imaginary equivalent, but in getting to the heart of the young artist as such.

In calling his hero ‘Stephen Dedalus’ Joyce consciously combined the name of the first Christian martyr and that of Daedalus, the legendary Athenian craftsman.  Daedalus was credited with making statues that could move.  He constructed the famous labyrinth at Crete.  He made wings from feathers and wax so that he and his son Icarus could escape when Minos imprisoned them in the labyrinth.  Icarus flew too near the sun so that the wax melted and he fell into the sea and was drowned.  In giving his hero these names Joyce gave him symbolic status.  The martyr suffering for his faith and the skilful, inventive artificer are joined in one person.  Daedulus is significant both because he was a cunning craftsman giving life and complexity to his inventions and because he escaped imprisonment by the adventure of flight.


In the presentation of Stephen’s infancy Joyce has compressed a series of references that hint at the larger issues in the child’s future life.  In fact infant memories are the acorn containing a promise in miniature of the future tree.  The bedtime story sets the young hero on the road of life encountering a cow which is a symbol of the Ireland with which he will have to come to terms.  The physical experience of finding relief and warmth in wetting the bed is followed by discomfort: this little miniature of delight seized that has to be paid for in pain, of ecstasy followed by sordidness or agony, sets the tone for many of the coming experiences.  In the memory of Dante’s brushes, representative of Davitt and Parnell, is foreshadowed the Irish political strife that is to ruin the Christmas party and provide a public background which Stephen, the university student, finds suffocating.  The demand that the child should apologise or have his eyes pulled out foreshadows the later full-scale demand for repentance to escape the torments of hell.

The story of Stephen’s development is the story of these contrasts and conflicts magnified.  The child growing to young manhood has to face the impact on his individuality of the forces at large in the world he has entered.  He is subject in turn to the pressures of family, of Church, and of his country, all trying to mould him in a particular way.  The disillusionment experienced after bed-wetting is symptomatic of his maturer experience in this respect.  The first separation from home at Clongowes is a move from the remembered warmth and cosiness of the family circle to a world of physical cold and discomfort and of emotional harassment by others, boys and masters.  A chill caused by bullying brings him to the school sickroom in a shivering delirium.  This is the first crisis of Chapter 1.  The Christmas party to which he has looked forward, and which opens with promise of warmth, good cheer, and family friendliness, turns sour and then erupts into a violent slanging match because the public controversies of Irish history have impinged on the private scene.  This is the second crisis of Chapter 1.  The shock for Stephen is that Parnell is a hero, that priests are good and wise men, that these adults are all for Ireland, and yet tears and rage break up their conviviality.  The third and last crisis of Chapter 1 is caused by the shock of Stephen’s first encounter with flagrant injustice – injustice perpetrated by a priest in authority.  Father Dolan punishes him cruelly when he is innocent.  The injustice stirs him to a brave and spirited bid for his rights.  If Stephen is the loser, by sickness and by family discord, in the first two crises, he is victor in the third.  The hero has protested in the face of the highest authority and has won his case.  His individuality has triumphed over the iniquities of the system.  This, in embryo, is the pattern of the artist’s destiny.


In the period between Clongowes and Belvedere Stephen develops as a normal, healthy young boy who goes shopping with his uncle, and enjoys riding in the milkcart and playing on a farm.  This is accompanied by two stirrings of his inner life: one is the sickening realisation that the family have financial problems, which turns to bitterness when they are forced to move from the comfort of Blackrock to the cheerless house in the city: the other is the romantic dream-life he creates for himself through reading The Count of Monte Cristo and picturing himself the partner of the lovely Mercedes.  The first crisis of Chapter 2 is the shock of failure within himself.  It occurs at the tram-stop with Emma Clery.  Her eyes, her chatter, her way of coming to stand on the step beside him all seem to invite him to hold her and kiss her.  But he does nothing; and the failure fills him with gloom.  When he tries to write a poem to Emma, he empties the incident of reality and precision of detail and transforms it into a mistily conceived dream.  As soon as the poem is written he goes to stare at himself – not to look for Emma.

The second crisis of Chapter 2 also involves self-dramatisation, this time in an actual theatrical performance on stage at Belvedere.  A deep inner disturbance of desire, tenderness, and melancholy is focused on the belief that now, two years later, Emma is to watch him on stage with admiring eyes.  The belief stimulates him to an excited and confident performance, after which he rushes out in wild expectation to his family, only to discover that Emma is not with them.  The shock sends him running through the night streets of Dublin to a filthy corner where rankness and stench quench his inner agony.  Interwoven with this record of emotional development Joyce traces the growing artistic confidence of Stephen’s persistence in championing the rebel Byron against the respectable Tennyson.

The Cork visit serves to detach Stephen irrevocably from his father and his like.  Tagging on behind his father, he recognises the hollowness of his garrulous bonhomie, is ashamed of the way he can be duped by an obsequious college servant, is embarrassed by his cheap flirtatiousness with barmaids, and is disgusted by his excessive drinking.  Shame and humiliation open a chasm between his father’s cronies and himself.  The experience reinforces the humiliation already felt in his ambiguous status at Belvedere – a leading boy whose home background is one of squalor.  And there is no escape to heroic self-confidence because he has become the victim of a restless inner lust and private orgies that fill him with self-loathing.  There is an unbridgeable gap between the real world around him and what transpires in his own angry, impotent, dejected soul.

In the last section of Chapter 2 Stephen makes a desperate attempt to re-establish order in his world and to rebuild effective relationships with his own family.  The money prizes he has won for academic work are spent lavishly and recklessly on giving the family a taste of affluent living and turning himself into their banker and benefactor.  When the money is gone, the whole attempt to stem briefly the tide of squalor and to come to terms with his family seems to have been futile. Meanwhile sexual desire is so strong that he turns innocent girls seen by day into objects of imaginary lustful indulgence in his private dreams at night.  There are still momentary day-dreams of fulfilment in the company of the idealised Mercedes; but the predominant urge is an animal demand to force some girl into sin and to take pride in it.  In this mood he encounters the prostitute who takes him home.  Thus the final crisis of Chapter 2 (like the final crisis of Chapter 1) ends in a kind of triumph, in that Stephen feels release, delight, and a new self-assurance when the prostitute moves into his arms.


As with each epiphany, after the elation there comes deflation!  The effect of sexual release upon Stephan is complex.  His senses are repelled by the vulgarity of the brothels; he is conscious of his sinfulness, and yet too proud to pray, and afflicted with spiritual indifference.  He is certainly not more open to others: on the contrary he finds himself scorning his school-fellows and simple worshippers.  The aesthetic delight in the office (litany) of the Virgin Mary still captivates him.  Stephen has not found a way to self-fulfilment nor to love of others.  The sexual act, which ought to be a means to both, has become one more experience for a would-be artist self-consciously inflating his own ego.  It is in this deeply unsatisfied condition that Stephen is subjected to the retreat sermons.

The first crisis of this (third) chapter occurs when the rector announces the retreat and speaks of the sanctity, self-sacrifice, and heroic achievements of St. Francis Xavier.  Stephen feels an ominous withering of his heart.  Father Arnall’s previous contact with Stephen at Clongowes revives childhood memories, and his sermons are to thrust him back into a state of childlike submission and obedience.  The introductory sermon and the sermons on death and judgement produce a second crisis, a sense of his shamelessness and foulness against which the thought of Emma stands in stark contrast.  The shock of conscious guilt is resolved temporarily by another mental act of self-dramatisation when he pictures himself, hand in hand with Emma, being forgiven and comforted by the Virgin Mary.  This romanticised day-dream is another absurdly extravagant product of the immature artistic mind.  On the third day of the retreat the sermons revolve around the horrors of hell with an emphasis upon the physical torment of the senses and the moral and spiritual torments that accompany it.  Designed to stir the conscience by stimulating fear, they constitute a burlesque of Catholic exhortations.  Joyce emphasises the parallel by making Lucifer’s slogan in rebellion against God (non serviam) Stephen’s own slogan of commitment to his artistic vocation.  Pride, the sin of Lucifer, is the sin which the egotistic young artist cannot recognise in himself.  The final crisis of this chapter brings Stephen to a condition of terrified remorse, which is removed only when he makes his confession and receives absolution.  Even in this act humility and sincerity are infected by self-dramatisation in the role of penitent.  Like the previous chapters, this chapter too ends on a note of ‘triumph’ – again a romanticised triumph, that of the self-consciously cleansed young man receiving the sacrament in the joy of forgiveness.


In Stephen’s next phase he cultivates his soul with elaborate devotional exercises, models his religious raptures on the romantic gestures represented in sacred art, and mortifies his senses with ingenious disciplines. The persistent habit of self-dramatisation is evident in Stephen’s various reflections on the director’s suggestion that he might have a vocation to the priesthood.  The first crisis of Chapter 4 comes when he weighs the call but suddenly realises that his own individuality can never surrender to the claims of such a calling.  He has a ‘pride of spirit’ that makes him ‘a being apart’.  He must learn his own wisdom in his own way and face the world’s snares.  The decision to apply for a university place follows naturally.  But there is a second brief crisis when Stephen meets a band of Christian Brothers who in their work and attitude have all the genuineness of devotion, humility, and charity which he himself lacks, and he feels ashamed and angry with himself in their presence.  This mood is resolved by the sudden assertion of his poetic self and his delight in words.  The final crisis of the chapter, and the climax of the book, occurs when, dreaming of his urge to creative achievement as an artist, and feeling ready to shake off all that impedes him from following his calling, he sees a girl wading in the sea.  Her beauty and her stillness fill him with rapture.  Stephen exclaims, ‘Heavenly God!’ bringing his religious sense into a new context in response to the image of loveliness.  The call of youth, beauty, and creativity throws him into an emotional ecstasy.  The decisive choice of his life has been made.


The final chapter has thus the air of an epilogue.  Yet the first section of it is the longest section in the book, and a good deal of experience is encompassed in Stephen’s thoughts.  The sordid scene at home is in stark contrast to the literary treasures stored in his mind.  Though he scorns the pedantry of the lecture room, he relishes the magic of language with acute sensitivity.  He has an off-hand attitude to the college time-table, and thinks but poorly of the dean of studies with whom he argues half-seriously, half-provocatively.  He sits through the physics lecture in detachment.  There is something of a show-down with fellow students in the entrance hall after the lecture, when he refuses to compromise with the sentimental aspirations of some of his companions and sign their petition.  His cleverness at the expense of other people’s earnest endeavours is bound to irritate and antagonise.  Stephen manages to make himself unlovable by parading unpopular views uncompromisingly and doing so with calculated scorn.   The charges of other students, that he lacks altruism and is a crank, win sympathy with the reader.  Too often he seems to be spoiling for a fight, even with his genuine friends, such as Davin.

Stephen’s long theoretical argument about the character of beauty is sandwiched between Davin’s teasing reference to Emma and Lynch’s whisper, ‘Your beloved is here’.  The contrast between the unrestrained verbalism of Stephen’s talk about beauty and the equivocal, halting reservations that mark his attitude to a living woman is symptomatic of Stephen’s failure to integrate thought and action.  His head is full of theory about emotion and beauty, while his living experience of emotional commitment is confined to the brothel.

The thought that he may have misjudged Emma turns her in his mind, in a flash, into an epitome of natural gaiety and simplicity.  When the poetic inspiration seizes him, his thought transfigures her into an object of devotion to be hymned exaltedly.  The cry of the heart is transmuted into a precious rhetoric, rich and liturgical, but detached from the reality of the true relationship with Emma.  Indeed Stephen’s memories of her, now recalled, suggest a girl interested in him, ready to be responsive, doing her best to communicate, but being rebuffed by cool, oblique replies and the pose of isolation.  Joyce’s irony is never more subtle than here.  Stephen’s jealous anger at Emma’s friendliness with Father Moran seems disproportionate.  It seems to draw nourishment from his hatred of the Church and from his determination to make a priesthood of the artist’s calling, a priesthood to which she ought to turn in frank confession.  Stephen hovers between exaggerated condemnation of her as treacherous and exaggerated idealisation of her.  Finally he conjures up her image as that of the voluptuous, yielding mistress at the point when the finished poem flows through his mind.

In the penultimate section of the book Stephen snaps the ties with home one after another.  When he watches the birds and hears their cries it is the image of his mother’s face and the sound of her weeping that they blot out.  In deciding to fly, he is also consciously forsaking the Ireland of the vulgar barracking of Yeat’s play.  In conversation with Cranly he sums up his rebellious rejection of the Church and of the claims of his suffering mother.  In relation both to his mother and to Emma, Stephen manifests grave deficiency in human sympathy.  The self-righteousness of his attitude is as priggish as the inflated language in which he presents his decision.  In his own eyes his decisions are earthshaking.  He assumes to himself the importance of a future Beethoven or Shakespeare!

The notes from Stephen’s diary suggest that within his divided being the conscious artist has taken over from the man of direct sympathy and unselfconscious action.  The jottings have an artificial literary flavour.  They show a young mind making art out of life.  They sum up people and events with aphoristic dismissiveness.  They employ archaisms, literary allusions, and clever analogies in verbally discarding people who after all have loved Stephen – Emma, Cranly, his mother, his countrymen (‘a race of clodhoppers’), and Davin.  All are summarily treated as material for epigrammatic play by a super-mind.  Meanwhile Stephen’s own role is glamorised, his isolation, his spiritedness, and his resolve wrapped about with overtones of grandeur and heroism.  The element of earnestness in his acceptance of the artistic vocation must not be ignored, but it is expressed here with a pretentiousness and flamboyance that cannot but raise a smile.

In the end Stephen emerges as a proud, rather anti-social person far too much wrapped up in himself.  Cranly’s question, ‘Have you never loved anyone?’ ought to touch a raw nerve.  His lack of common humanity is surely Stephen’s dominant weakness.


Donal Ryan has hit the big time – at last!


Donal Ryan has hit the big time with his inclusion in the Leaving Cert syllabus list of texts for the Leaving Cert in 2017.  This recognition is obviously well deserved and students will enjoy his quirky depiction of Celtic Tiger Ireland.  It is amazing, and a source of great pride, how modern and with-it the ‘new’ Leaving Cert Syllabus really is, unlike the ancient ‘dead poet’s society’ attitude of years gone by.  Today, any young aspiring Irish writer who gets  shortlisted (or even long-listed) for the Booker guarantees him/her inclusion in the new course in a very short space of time.

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The Major Themes in the Poetry of Michael Longley

This year’s winner of the Griffin International Poetry Prize is Irish poet Michael Longley for his collection The Stairwell (Jonathan Cape).  In his acceptance speech on Thursday night in Toronto (June 4th, 2015), Longley said he had been writing since he was 15 years old.  “It’s my life.  It’s my religion.  It’s the way I make sense of the world,” he said.  The jury described Longley’s The Stairwell as ‘a book by a major poet writing at the height of his powers’. Longley has also won the Whitbread Poetry Award, the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.  What follows here is a selective and subjective analysis and review of the major themes and issues which frequently recur in Longley’s poetry.



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