Monday, December 10, 2012

Reading Chapter Two of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

In Chapter Two of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus enters his brooding, awkward adolescence. The chapter opens with Stephen spending time with his Uncle Charles. No longer the passionate political firebrand introduced in the first chapter, Uncle Charles now indulges Stephen with treats and prays regularly in the chapel. While Uncle Charles becomes a more peaceful character, the dissipation of his political passions and ideals suggest that he, like Ireland herself, has fallen into a rut.

In his free time, Stephen devotes himself to reading The Count of Monte Cristo. He becomes especially fascinated by the character of Mercedes, who represents his pure, romantic longings. Yet even in his imagination Stephen sees himself refusing her, quoting, "Madam, I never eat muscatel grapes." Though Stephen indulges in romantic fantasies, physical reality often disgusts him. Joyce emphasizes this dichotomy by contrasting summer with autumn/winter, and Dublin with the countryside. For example, "the cattle which had seemed so beautiful in the country on sunny days revolted him" when he saw them in the filthy stockyard during autumn.   

As the chapter progresses, Stephen becomes more and more ensnared by the rough world he despises. His father's money troubles at first keep him from returning to school, then force the family to leave their country haven for the harsher world of Dublin. His Uncle Charles grows too "witless" to go on errands, reflecting the disarray and stupidity that have infected Irish politics. However, his uncle's decline leaves Stephen free, and he wanders the city. But Dublin fails to live up to Stephen's imaginary Marseilles--instead of bright skies and "sunwarmed trellises," the real world has "lowering skies." Even when the shops are decorated for Christmas, Stephen only feels embittered and angry with his circumstances. He remains gloomy even at a children's party he attends, withdrawing into a snug corner of the room to "taste the joy of his loneliness."

At this same party, however, Stephen meets an unnamed girl who infatuates him. When they ride home on a tram together, he thinks about taking her in his arms and kissing her. Once again, his fantasy proves more appealing than reality because he abstains, though whether it is fear or guilt or nerves that hold him him back he doesn't say. Still, his frustration grows and instead of seeking out the girl herself, he writes a poem about the experience of being with her, perhaps his first artistic creation. 

Soon Stephen's reveries come to an end. His father announces that Stephen and his brother will go back to school at Belvedere, another Jesuit school similar to Clongowes. In explaining how he managed to get them places at the prestigious school, Mr. Dedalus tells the family how the rector remembered Stephen because he had reported to him how the prefect, Father Dolan, punished him unfairly. The rector and Father Dolan had a good laugh at Stephen's expense, but appreciated his "manly" spirit. Though Stephen never says a word, or gives the reader any hint of his emotions, it's hard to think that his triumph from Chapter One was nothing but a joke to the priests around him. At the time Stephen took it very seriously indeed, and the callous laughter of the Jesuits must only increase Stephen's bitterness and alienation.

Belvedere College, Dublin

The next scene in the book shows the backstage preparations for a play at Belvedere. Stephen has been there a couple of years, and will perform the part of a "farcical pedagogue," perhaps an ironic commentary on Stephen's excessive obedience and uptight, pedantic manners.  He is excited to learn that the beautiful girl he met at the children's party will attend the play, perhaps specifically to see him. His friends, including his rival, Heron, tease him about the girl, but Stephen brushes them off.  He remembers how Heron had taunted him years before for liking Lord Byron's poetry. After the play, Stephen finds his family waiting for him, but the elusive girl is gone. Frustrated, Stephen runs a ways down a hill, until the pungent order of "horse piss and matted straw" robs him of his fantasies and calms his raging heart. Once again, the real world abruptly brings Stephen out of his romantic fantasies.

Stephen's frustration only grows during a trip to Cork with his father. Bored by his father's reminisces, annoyed by his father's competition with him, Stephen watches humiliated as his father drinks too much. His mind wanders to a poem by Shelley, and he takes comfort in its artistic power. Yet if Stephen blames his father's improvidence for his troubles, the next scene proves him wrong. Stephen collects some money for writing an award-winning essay and exhibition. At first thrilled with his new wealth, he quickly spends all his money on a useless attempt to "build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life" and "dam up...the powerful recurrence of tides within him." His money was a brief distraction, and now Stephen is as isolated and frustrated as before.

Wandering the streets, Stephen finds himself drawn to the red-light district. A woman in a long pink gown takes him to her room, where a "huge doll sat with her legs apart in the copious easy chair beside the bed."(Subtle, James Joyce). Stephen kisses her, then he "[surrenders] himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips." (Even more subtlety, of course). Finally, Stephen finds some release for his pent-up frustration.

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"

Blogs for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Chapter One

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Blogs for James Joyce's Ulysses: 

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