Thursday, February 7, 2013

Chapter Five from James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"

The last chapter of Joyce's "Portrait" at first left me unsure how to write about it. Unlike the previous chapters, which showed a clear trajectory and theme, this one seemed more complicated, since Stephen Dedalus's emotions and identity seems to continually shift and reform. This increasingly complex depiction of Stephen's changeable nature and shifting thoughts foreshadows the stream of consciousness Joyce uses throughout Ulysses. Yet that doesn't mean that chapter five lacks structure or direction, and after much consideration I think the key to chapter five is that it contains a condensed version of Stephen's development in the first four chapters.

For example, the opening of chapter five makes several direct references to Stephen's experiences and character in chapter one. The pool of water under his jar of dripping reminds him of "the turfcolored water of the bath in Clongowes," and his mother washes him as though he were still a small child. It is as though he has temporarily reverted to state of childhood. He does not even know what day it is, and he realizes that he will be late for his classes at the University. Even the poetry that comes to his mind is "drivel." Yet when he reaches Trinity college, Stephen remembers the warmth of his friend Davin, which dimly reflects his memory of the boys at Clongowes celebrating his courage in speaking to the dean about his unfair punishment. Yet though Stephen remembers Davin warmly, he also realizes that his friend's worship of the "sorrowful legend of Ireland," limits his intellectual development, trapping him in the "attitude of a dullwitted loyal serf." However appealing Davin's warmth and kindness are, to Stephen they also represent another trap.

Trinity College

Davin also reflects Stephen's sexual desires and fantasies, referencing Stephen's experiences in chapter two. Stephen recallst Davin telling him about walking home from a hurling match. Davin got lost in the dark, and finally stopped at a lonely cottage. A young woman, half undressed and possibly pregnant, answered the door with a large mug of milk. She tells Davin her husband is gone for the night, and asks him to stay the night with her. But Davin does not go in (unlike Stephen, who goes into a prostitute's room in chapter two), but leaves in a fever of desire. Stephen only breaks from his reverie when a woman lays her hand on his arm to offer to sell him some flowers. This gesture recalls Stephen's first experiences with a prostitute, who had laid her hand on his arm to lead him to her room. But the woman in chapter five is not seducing Stephen to bed, but only enticing him to buy her flowers. This time, Stephen does not follow the girl, but only roughly tells her he has no money. Within the previous context, Stephen's rough answer might be understood to reflect his bitterness at the tawdry financial motives of the women he slept with. Indeed, though he initially sees the flower girl as guileless, when he looks closer he "saw only her ragged dress and damp coarse hair and hoydenish face." Yet, Stephen's refusal of the flowers also indicates his loneliness, that perhaps he does not have a girl he loves enough to buy flowers for. His self-absorption leaves him without a partner or true love.

Stephen's Green

Having left the flower girl and his sexual reveries behind, Stephen now enters into Trinity college, a center of Jesuit teaching which reflects religious conversion Stephen experiences in chapter three. As he enters his physics classroom, he finds the dean lighting a fire. This fire seems to represent the religious passion Stephen experienced in the earlier chapter, or perhaps it even suggests the hell fire that so terrorized him. If this is the case, then the terrible fires of hell Father Arnall threatened him with have been reduced to a small, domesticated flame, as Stephen's religious passion has waned. In fact, Stephen tells the priest "I am sure I could not light a fire," perhaps indicating his lack of faith, or at least his lack of religious passion.

Yet, while at Trinity Stephen shows the kind of cold, passionless intellectualism that he imagined he would embrace as a priest in chapter four, indicating that he has not escaped completely from the bounds of religion, especially its contempt of the body and its passions. His discussion of beauty with the dean reflects this rigid intellectualism. Instead of putting forth his own ideas, Stephen answers the priest's question about the nature of beauty with a series of quotes from Aquinas. Instead of wrestling with his own writing and creativity, Stephen focuses excessively on the exact meanings of particular words, like "detain." The priest meanwhile surprises Stephen by not knowing the word "tundish," which the Irish call a funnel.  This small misunderstanding leaves Stephen humiliated and wondering if he, as an Irishman, will ever have the command and comfort speaking English as an Englishman.

After his class, Stephen encounters his classmates, and repeatedly demonstrates his emotional distance from them. He refuses to sign a petition for universal peace, and resists taking sides in his classmates' arguments and political discussions. He mocks his friend Davin for signing the petition for universal peace when he has Fenian pamphlets in his room. Though Davin entices him to join the Irish movement, Stephen passionately refuses, arguing that "no honorable or sincere man...has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections...but that you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another.  And you invite me to be one of you. I'd see you damned first." If Stephen demonstrated a cold intellectualism talking to his dean, once he escapes the confined atmosphere of the classroom, he shows some of the passion and desire for freedom that an artist needs. By rejecting both the icy rationalism of the priest and the hot-headed passions of his Fenian friend, Stephen forges a path to his own artistic freedom. He tells Davin "when the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets."

There is one net, however, that Stephen fails to mention. He has a young lady he's interested in, the elusive EC. He is angry at her because he imagines he saw her flirting with a priest at an Irish language class. His failure to understand or empathize with women leaves him baffled, while his jealousy leaves him frustrated and bitter.  It's only after he recognizes that his beloved might have a bird's soul of her own, and that he has judged her harshly, that he is inspired to write a poem for her. Though many critics have doubted the quality of Stephen's villanelle, as a writer and musician myself, I think that the quality of the poem matters less than the fact that Stephen is writing at all. Great writing, like great music, takes an enormous amount of practice, and Stephen's youthful talents might be refined and developed through great effort. Indeed, Joyce mocks the artistic pretensions of Little Chandler in "A Little Cloud," partly because Chandler imagines himself a great poet when he's never written a single line or even read a volume of poetry.

The last net Stephen faces is perhaps friendship and companionship. Before he leaves Ireland, he speaks to his friend Cranly about his intentions. Cranly reminds Stephen that leaving would make him "alone, quite alone...and you know what that word means? Not only to be separate from all others but to have not even one friend." Stephen, perhaps naively, imagines that Cranly is projecting his own loneliness onto him. Yet by rejecting the quiet offer of friendship Cranly makes, Stephen has escaped Ireland's last net. At last, he is free to leave Ireland for what he hopes will be the beginning of his artistic life.

Other blogs for James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Blogs for James Joyce's Dubliners:

Blogs for James Joyce's Ulysses: 

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