A STUDY OF STEPHEN
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.
EXAMINE THE DEVELOPMENT OF STEPHEN’S ATTITUDE TO THE OPPOSITE SEX.
Joyce traces Stephen’s sexual development with great care. As an infant Stephen is aware that his mother smells nicer than his father does. As a small schoolboy he dreams of being kissed by her when sickness makes him long for home. As a young boy he imagines that he will marry his playmate Eileen when they grow up. It is Eileen’s soft white hands and golden hair that first stir his romantic boyish notions of idealised womanhood; but the way she puts her hand in his pocket and runs away is the first instance of what his relations with attractive girls are to be. He lacks the maturity to take the initiative in practice or to respond when a girl takes the initiative. Instead he glamorises the experience in words. For Stephen the mental romanticisation of love is one thing; the experience of living girls is another thing. The two experiences are never brought into harmony. Thus Stephen indulges romantic dreams about Dumas’ Mercedes, but it is significant that he pictures himself grandly rejecting her approaches because she had earlier slighted his love. The pose of grand, offended isolation is all too attractive to him.
The first fully recognisable sexual encounter occurs when Stephen goes to the party at Harrold’s Cross. He withdraws from the other children, relishing his isolation, while Emma glances repeatedly and invitingly in his direction. She rouses him to feverish excitement, and after the party she goes with him to the tram-stop. They stand on the tram steps, he a step above hers, and as they talk she keeps coming up to join him on his step. He knows that she is making an offer; he also knows that the experience is like the occasion when Eileen ran laughing away from him. But for all his sense of her beauty and his knowledge that she is ready to be held and kissed, he does nothing. The failure depresses him. Then, next day, he begins to turn the whole experience – which should have had a living climax – into a literary matter. He tries to write a poem to Emma and consciously brushes the realities of the scene out of his mind. He turns the memory into an exercise in vague, conventionalised poetic verbalism. And after that he goes and stares at himself in the mirror. His own pose as a romantic poet is more fascinating to him than the living girl who has inspired it.
Two years later, on the occasion of the school play, Stephen works himself up into an excited romantic mood in the belief that he will meet Emma after she has seen the play. Once more the devotion is an uncommunicated obsession based symbolically on a dramatic performance. After the play, in which he excels in the world of imaginary self-projection, Emma is nowhere to be found and he is plunged into despair. Stephen’s awakening sexuality, then, is blocked off from real human relationships and diverted into romantic dreams fed by his reading. The Count of Monte Cristo and Bulwer Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons supply him with imaginary situations of romantic love. As a result, his suppressed physical urges produce a perverted urge to sin and to force someone else into sin. The consequence is that when he meets a prostitute in the street one night, he is readily lured to her room and as she takes the initiative and embraces him he finds not only relief from the urges of lust but a new self-assurance.
For a time sexual experience with prostitutes runs alongside his romantic adoration of the Virgin Mary until the retreat sermons convince him of his wickedness and he repents. We are not told whether, after his loss of faith, he returned to the habit of visiting prostitutes. But clearly he fails to make a connection between the romantic sexuality in his mind, which is stirred so deeply by the sight of the wading girl, and the life of real contact with women. The wading girl becomes the ideal to move the artist to creative dedication. Real human relationship is not involved.
The fitful references to Emma in the last chapter of the book suggest a very slight interest in living beauty compared to the passionate intellectual interest in the theory of beauty. Though Stephen chooses to imagine that Emma flirts with Father Moran, the sight of her by the library door stirs the thought that she may be innocent and there is another uprush of emotion – but it all goes into dreams and words, not into real contact with her. He writes an extravagantly rhetorical poem to her and pictures himself, the priest of the imagination, listening to her confession. Stephen’s mental life and his concept of himself as the heroic lonely artist are plainly incompatible with sympathetic understanding of others. He indulges the notion that Emma is consciously rebuffing him and that Cranly is pursuing her when she ignores him outside the library. In consequence he mentally washes his hands of her: ‘Let her go and be damned.’ But the reader lacks evidence to know how far Stephen is deceiving himself. Indeed the last references to Emma in his diary giver the impression of a girl who is trying hard to make contact with him. She wants to know why she sees so little of him and whether he is writing poems, and his reply is a churlish rebuff calculated to embarrass her. Stephen’s final observation, ‘I liked her and it seems a new feeling to me’, is one of the most revealing sentences in the book. Stephen has expressed a liking for another human being and has conceded that the feeling is a new one to him.
Therefore, it can be said that Stephen’s relationships with girls suffer because of his egotism. He cultivates an image of himself as an isolated artist. His sexual instincts are satisfied with prostitutes. His romantic yearnings are channelled into poems and day-dreams.
DISCUSS THE REASONS WHY STEPHEN CHOOSES EXILE FROM HIS NATIVE LAND.
Stephen chooses exile from his native land partly because he cannot come to terms with the authorities that hold its people in their grip. Indeed his mental development is achieved through a series of struggles with authority as it is represented in the home environment from which he ultimately decides to flee. His sense of injustice is stirred when he is a young schoolboy. When Wells asks him if he kisses his mother at bedtime, he discovers that whether he should say Yes or No he will be laughed at. Wells has already shouldered him into the ditch, and this first experience of school bullying makes him ill. Christmas at home, which is expected to be all warmth and friendship and happiness after the chilly misery at school, turns out to be a time of angry political quarrels among adults who are all supposed to be devoted to Ireland. When Stephen returns to school, after suffering the misfortune of having his glasses broken he suffers the injustice of being punished for it. Priests are supposed to be good, he thinks, but they get angry and behave cruelly. To make things worse, he later discovers that his bold protest against injustices becomes a subject for laughter among those responsible for the injustice.
The undermining of Stephen’s confidence in the moral authority of the powers-that-be at school is accompanied by the undermining of his respect for his own father. The visit to Cork reveals Mr. Dedalus as a boastful, flattery-loving, gas-bag and drunkard, drinking and boasting while all the time his financial affairs are deteriorating and the home is getting more squalid. Stephen’s boyish attempt, when he gets his prize money, to stem the tide of sordid poverty that seems to be sweeping over his family proves absurdly inadequate. His attempt, after confession, to remodel himself on the pattern of perfection taught by the Church, leads to extravagant feats of self-discipline that deny his most powerful aspirations towards life and beauty. When the suggestion is made that he should consider a vocation to the priesthood, an instinctive inner conviction assures him that his future cannot be in subjection to an ordered system like that of the Church. The vision of the wading girl stirs the religious outburst, ‘Heavenly God!’ and we recognise in the way the landscape calls up in him poetic phrases that satisfy his thirst for harmony between the outer world and his inner emotional life, that he is a future artist not a future priest.
It is from a sordid scene at home and past the mad cries from a nunnery that Stephen makes his symbolic progress across Dublin to the university, where study opens up a world of exciting philosophical thought. But even here there is no prospect of ultimate life-long satisfaction. For the university teachers are seen as limited and unimaginative (aren’t we all!), and the students’ enthusiasm is stirred by causes with which Stephen cannot sympathise. The idealistic support for the Czar’s peace initiative strikes him as sentimental. He feels unable to commit himself to corporate demands or protests. The enthusiasm of students such as Davin for the cause of national independence, the revival of native culture, and enmity against England seem to require a commitment that mortgages life in advance of living it. Stephen senses his own Irish inheritance, not as a great blessing, but as a series of fetters imposed by history willy-nilly on his generation. Moreover he knows from the past that Irish nationalist movements tend to lead, not to victorious achievements by the leaders, but to their betrayal and martydom.
Stephen himself demands of life, above all, freedom in which he can work creatively as an artist. Closely associated with the demand for freedom is his sensitive responsiveness to beauty in the spoken and written word. He has found in his home an increasing sordidness and crudity that are the antithesis of beauty. He has found in the Church a cruelty hostile to justice and freedom, for the caning with the pandybat at Clongowes is of a piece with the horrendous torments pictured in Fathert Arnall’s sermons as the future eternal lot of millions of fellow human beings. He has found in the political life of Ireland a collection of inherited attitudes and passions that embitter family relationships, that turn young students into obsessed fanatics, and that claim people’s thoughts and energies before they have had time to develop their own individualities.
The upshot is that Stephen turns the rebellious slogan of Lucifer, in turning against God, ‘I will not serve’, into his own motto in rejecting the demands of home, fatherland, and Church, and dedicating himself to the task of expressing himself freely as an artist.
The decision takes shape in his mind in association with thoughts of the career of his mythical ‘ancestor’, Daedulus, who found escape in flight from imprisonment in a labyrinth. Stephen has often trod the maze of Dublin streets seeking escape of one kind or another, whether in the confessional or in the brothel. Only when he crosses a bridge to an island (Bull Island?!) and stares out to sea does he glimpse the vision of true fulfilment. He cannot find it without flight. His mother prays, he says, that, ‘I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels.’ So, he sets out, ‘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.’ His final prayer is not directed to God but to his role model, Daedulus. He prays: ‘Old father (Our Father??), old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.’
DISCUSS JOYCE’S USE OF HUMOUR AND IRONY IN ‘A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN’.
Irish writers are often noted both for their irony and for their humour, and Joyce uses a great deal of comic irony in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man. Irony is not always comic. It is ironic when a hero kills his own son not knowing who he is, but this irony is wholly tragic. It is ironic that a Christmas party meant to be the occasion of peace and goodwill should turn into a violent family row and a virulent exchange of abuse. It is sad too, and Stephen feels its sadness; but it also has its comic side. We smile when Dante, a rather self-important person conscious of her own dignity, is turned into a screaming virago quivering with rage, and when Mr. Dedalus lets off steam in comic abuse of Church dignitaries.
Humorous irony in literature often revolves around the way self-important people are brought down to earth with a bang. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Stephen is the main concern of the author and he happens to be a rather self-important and pretentious person. Joyce often punctures his pretentiousness – not in his own eyes and not in the eyes of other characters, but in the reader’s eyes. For instance, when Stephen makes his righteous protest against being unjustly punished by Father Dolan, he pictures himself like some great public figure of history standing up against tyranny. The little boy appealing to his headmaster sees himself in this grand light and, when his protest has been accepted, he resolves not to take advantage personally of his vanquished foe, and we smile at his childish self-importance.
Stephen’s romantic dreams often evoke this indulgent smile in the reader. He pictures himself, at the end of a long series of heroic adventures, proudly declining Mercede’s offer of grapes. When he helps to lead a gang of boys, he sets himself apart from the others by not adopting their symbols and uniform, because he has read that Napoleon also remained unadorned. These comic comparisons made by the little boy are rich in ironic humour.
These are of course the kind of imaginative exaggerations which are common to childhood. But they lead to less usual extravagances in the growing artist. When a boy sits down, as Stephen does, to write a poem to a girl, and begins it by imitating Lord Byron’s habit of entitling such poems, but finishes up staring at himself admiringly in the mirror, the gap between supposed intention and reality is wide. Later Stephen imagines a stage triumph before Emma’s eyes and rushes off to claim his due of feminine admiration only to finish up in a squalid corner of the city amid the smell of horse urine. These contrasts are the stuff of irony. So is the contrast between the boy’s glamorous dreams of himself as a romantic lover and the actual experience to which they lead in a city brothel.
The retreat sermons are a sustained ironic piece, and the irony this time is not primarily at the expense of the hero but of the Catholic Church and its clergy. The sermons seem to start reasonably enough but gradually become a burlesque (the Tommy Tiernan treatment!) of the kind of teaching given in retreats. That is to say, they follow the course of traditional moral exhortation but push the examples to such an extreme that the effect is laughable. A further irony is that the ingenuity with which torments are seemingly devised by God and the relish with which they are described by the priest are not congruous with notions of a loving God and a religion of love. Equally ironic is the meticulous and literal way in which Stephen tries to mortify his senses and discipline his mind. The sermons plainly have had the effect on him which the priests had hoped for. Now that Stephen is repentant we naturally warm to him in sympathy, but we still smile at the degree of vanity and self-centredness he shows in trying to model himself anew.
In some respects the irony at Stephen’s expense is sharpest in the last chapter of the book. For when he becomes as student his aspirations are aimed higher and higher. The contrast between these aspirations and the reality around him is often laughably sharp. At the end of Chapter 4, for instance, Stephen has enjoyed raptures expressed in language of lyrical beauty. At the beginning of Chapter 5 he is drinking watery tea and chewing crusts of fried bread at a dirty kitchen table. Joyce puts these two episodes together with comic intent. Again Stephen propounds his high doctrine of beauty to his fellow students who, for the most part, have only crude and vulgar witticisms to contribute to the conversation.
Stephen dismisses real living beauty from his mind in order to theorise about beauty with his intellect. Inspired suddenly by Emma’s beauty, he writes a poem in a language utterly removed from the idiom of living human relationships. It is poetry so precious and “high-falutin” that real feeling is left out. The irony of praising Emma so richly in secret and virtually snubbing her when she makes natural friendly approaches is both amusing and rather sad. Not for the first time we want to shake Stephen to try to knock some sense into him; above all to make him a little more human.
REVISION ‘GRACE NOTES’ TO PONDER IN ‘PORTRAIT’
THEME: The growth of a sensitive, introspective, questioning, observant boy to manhood. It is a masterpiece of confessional fiction. The novel is a perfect example of bildungsroman – a novel of maturation.
STRUCTURE: The novel is very well planned. It is divided into five sections. The first four end with an epiphany – an insight, a manifestation of inner reality – accompanied by joy an elation like those who undergo mystical or religious experience. If each section ends in joy, each section begins on a depressed note. The final section sees the hero being released from the narrow confining restraints and leaving Ireland to fulfil his artistic destiny in a larger world. The overall structure, rhythm of the book is ‘flight and fall’ – this is captured very well in the final section of Chapter 4. At each stage Joyce finds a style appropriate to Stephen at that stage of his development. The conventional labels for this style are ‘interior monologue’ or ‘stream of consciousness’.
Childhood: sad, suffering, repression, fear, denial (is not just a river in Egypt!). He feels imprisoned by the restrictive conventions of home, school and society.
Catholic Church: He is haunted by this relationship which attracts and repels him. He has a highly developed sense of sin and guilt.
Sex: He is obsessed with sexual desires, fantasies and frustrations.
SYMBOLISM: The novel is heavily charged with imagery and symbolism. Section 2 of Chapter 4 is highly significant. There are many sinister impressions created here by the language. The spiritual director excludes the light – blocks it out – which is seen as a denial of nature. The skull is symbolic of death. The ‘dangling cords’ are seen as a noose. The word ‘crossblind’ is highly charged signifying ‘blinded by the cross’ or maybe ‘blind to the cross’.
Names are richly symbolic in the novel. Stephen – first Christian martyr, also college on Stephen’s Green. Daedulus – inventor from Grecian mythology – name means ‘cunning artificer’. Stephen later says he will use, ‘silence, exile and cunning’ as his weapons.
Some words carry significant symbolic associations. Check out ‘whiteness’, ‘coldness’, ‘dampness’ and ‘obedience’ . And again ‘whiteness’ after confession.
Cow images are significant. ‘Moocow’ is Ireland. In Fr. Arnall’s sermon hell is filled with filthy cows with long filthy tails.
Eye imagery is rather ominous for Joyce. ‘Apologise, apologise, Pluck out his eyes….’
CULTURAL NATIONALISM: The key passage here comes in section one of Chapter 5. Stephen is now a free spirit – wants to fly from Ireland – he has rejected nationalism. He rejects the spiritual, cultural and political values in favour of what he perceives as a more cosmopolitan outlook. He feels superior to people like Davin. He views Irish history in terms of betrayal – Tone, Parnell, etc. Loyalty involves self-destruction – Adams, Hume? Davin asks, ‘Are you Irish at all?’ Stephen describes Davin as having, ‘a rude Firbolg mind’ mocking his political outlook. Ireland is rejected because of narrowness of outlook and poverty of imagination.
Cultural nationalism was very prevalent in the early years of the twentieth century, the period covered by the novel. Interest in myth, legend and language at a new high. Stephen rejects this as backward. These people, e.g. Davin, are insulated, isolated and insular because they reject all influences from the outside (England).