Tuesday, November 20, 2012

James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (Chapter 1)

The first chapter of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man depicts Stephen Dedalus as a young child. The chapter begins with a sing-song story and a collection of Stephen's earliest impressions of his parents and their friends, including Dante and Uncle Charles. At first, everything in this youthful world seems peaceful, but already the seeds of discord have been sown--Dante's two hairbrushes, red for Michael Davitt and green for Parnell, represent the impending Irish political crisis.

Clongowes Wood College

In the next scene, Stephen attends Clongowes, a highly respected Jesuit school for boys.  Although he succeeds in his studies, Stephen finds Clongowes a confusing, harsh place.  A bully, Wells, pushes him into a ditch and mocks him for kissing his mother. Stephen gets sick from the cold, slimy ditch water, but because his father told him to never "peach on a fellow," he keeps the name of his bully secret.  While he's in the infirmary, Stephen hears one of the Brothers sorrowfully announcing that Parnell is dead.

Charles Stewart Parnell

Stephen goes home for Christmas, but instead of the peaceful house he remembers, he discovers that the Irish political conflict deeply divides his family.  This conflict establishes many of the themes of the book such as the contrast between unity and conflict as well as innocence and experience. The fight pits Dante, a strongly Catholic woman outraged by Parnell's scandal, against Stephen's father and his Uncle Charles, who vigorously support Parnell. Dante insists that the priests and bishops who condemned Parnell for his adultery "behaved rightly" because "God and morality and religion come first." But the men argue that the church and its henchmen betrayed Parnell to the British, and they mourn him as their "dead king." Only Stephen remembers how once they were on the same side, because Dante had struck a man with her umbrella for taking off his hat during "God Save the Queen." By the end the fight devolves into screaming and sobbing.

The irony of this intense conflict is that it is most destructive to the cause that all the participants support: Irish independence.  The savage squabbles and mistrust in the aftermath of Parnell's death prevented the country from uniting or finding a way to move forward, thus ensuring the paralysis Joyce depicts in Dubliners.

Just as a scandal rocked the adult world, on his return to Clongowes Stephen discovers that another vague "scandal" divides his school.  A group of older boys committed some terrible crime, perhaps a sacrilegious one like stealing and drinking the altar wine, or perhaps a sexual one, like "smugging" two of the younger boys. The boys face either expulsion or flogging, and the priests are so incensed that they strictly punish many of the younger boys for small infractions.  When the prefect of studies visits Stephen's Latin class, he notices that Stephen is not working like the other boys.  The teacher tells him that Stephen broke his glasses, and he can't study until his father sends a new pair.  But the angry prefect insists that Stephen broke his glasses on purpose and punishes him by beating his hands.

Though Stephen's punishment is mild compared to the church's destruction of Parnell, it reflects the harsh and unfair practices of the church.  Just as the political scandal divided Irish Nationalists and devout Catholics, Stephen's punishment sets the students of Clongowes against their prefect.  The other boys encourage Stephen to take his case to the rector, to ensure that the prefect does not punish him again the next day.  Ironically, though Stephen refused to implicate Wells in his sickness, and his father told him not to "peach on a fellow," Stephen now finds himself tempted to tell on his prefect.  After careful consideration, Stephen visits the rector, who brusquely assures him that the prefect only made a mistake and it won't happen again.

The other boys greet Stephen with cheers when they realize what he's done, briefly displaying the unity that alludes adults in their country.  Once he's alone again, Stephen feels "happy and free," and vows to remain humble despite his triumph.

Blogs for James Joyce's Dubliners:

"The Sisters" and "An Encounter"

"After the Race" and "Two Gallants"

"A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts"

"Clay" and "A Painful Case"

"Ivy Day in the Committee Room"

"A Mother"


"The Dead"

Other blogs for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

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