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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 10 - 20th Century Prose  


In many ways James Joyce exemplifies the situation of numerous modern writers who rebelled against the forces that helped shape both them and their art. Like his alter ego Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce saw these forces -- family, country and religion --as restraints or "nets" that could only hinder his artistic growth. His solution, as we have seen, was to separate himself from them by going into permanent exile at the age of twenty-two.

Through exile, Joyce rapidly achieved a literal and aesthetic distance from his family, his "dear dirty Dublin," and his religion.(1) Yet Joyce remained obsessed with what he had rejected; the "nets" he successfully flew past formed the symbolic superstructure of all his works and even his concept of art.

Joyce's relationship to Ireland is complex, the source of strong but contradictory feelings. On the one hand, he resented his countrymen for continually betraying their leaders and for their narrowmindedness which made living in Ireland impossible, especially for an artist. On the other hand, Joyce's deep-rooted love for his native land made it equally impossible for him to disown it emotionally or mentally. More than any other modern European writer, with the possible exception of William Butler Yeats, Joyce chose to express his thoughts and feelings through the filter of his country, its history, and its people. Both Dubliners and Ulysses provide such a detailed physical portrait of Joyce's native city that Joyce himself once boasted that if Dublin were ever destroyed it could be rebuilt street by street from his work. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while concentrating more noticeably on its hero's personal and artistic development, clearly evolves within the same precise geographical setting.

Because Ireland is so indigenous to Joyce's works, a more detailed knowledge of its historical conflict with England is necessary for anyone who wants to read his books. As a Catholic, Joyce belonged to the religious majority, but that majority was subject to the political control of an ethnic and religious minority, the Anglo-Irish Protestants. Catholics were unable to vote until 1829, and even then, the divisions in Irish society made it difficult -- if not impossible -- to accomplish any political change.

But several people did try, chief among them Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), a charismatic Anglo-Irish politician and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Unfortunately, in 1889 Parnell lost whatever power he had in a way that illustrates the destructive tensions between religion and politics in Ireland. In that year, Parnell was accused of adultery with a Mrs. Katherine (Kitty) O'Shea, whose husband was suing her for divorce. The charge was true, and Parnell was too honest to deny it. Indeed, after the divorce was granted, he married Mrs. O'Shea, whom he had loved for many years. By then, however, the damage to his career and to Ireland's future was done. All the political parties (except the radical Fenians) had deserted him, the Church had mobilized public sentiment against him, and he was forced to give up his party leadership. He died in 1891, a broken man.

Parnell's fall and the reservoir of bitter feelings it left behind pervade much of Joyce's work. Both are central to an understanding of Dante Riordan and the Christmas dinner scene in Chapter I of Portrait. On a personal level, too, Joyce identified with Parnell, seeing his own artistic difficulties and the lack of public appreciation for his work mirrored in the antagonism and disloyalty shown Parnell.

Language, Culture, and the Politics of Literature

Despite his attitude toward Ireland and his decision to relocate to Europe, Joyce never once attempted to write in any language other than English. Fluent in German, French, and Italian (which he learned at first in order to read Dante, as he learned Norwegian to read Ibsen, in the original), Joyce nevertheless remained committed to English as his literary language of choice. There is, however, evidence that at first he may have felt uncomfortable writing in the language of Ireland's conqueror. In Chapter V of Portrait, Stephen Dedalus, while speaking with one of his college deans, an English priest, thinks, "The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. . . . His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language." Whether or not Joyce had the same reaction Stephen did, he nonetheless vehemently rejected the cultural nationalism of the Irish Literary Revival, a movement that sought to revive Ireland's proud literary and Celtic heritage. Indeed, Joyce's attitude toward the relationship between his art and his country was consistent throughout his life: he was an artist first and an Irishman second. This meant that he did not aim at creating a new national consciousness or identity for his countrymen. At the most, he only wished to show them what they really were. In this regard he was a realist, taking his cue from his French master, Gustave Flaubert, whose work he greatly admired. But Joyce went beyond Flaubert. In leaving Ireland, Joyce demonstrated his refusal to restrict himself to one set of cultural roots. He also initiated a personal odyssey that would transform him from a Dublin boy to a citizen of the world. This transformation is reflected in his fiction which depends on an ever widening frame of reference that shows his increasing reliance on European and world literature.

Dubliners: The Modern Short Story and the Religion of Art

Dubliners (1904), a collection of fifteen stories about Joyce's native city, is a book that Joyce felt constituted "a chapter of the moral history" of Ireland. Influenced by the realism of Ibsen, Joyce disdained the sentimental view of Ireland as a land of saints and sages. In a letter to his brother Stanislaus he wrote, "I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of hemoplegia or paralysis which many consider a city."

Dubliners (as well as Portrait and Ulysses) is decidedly modern, not only in its stark realism but because of Joyce's innovative approach to the form of the short story. Nineteenth-century authors and their audiences viewed human development as occurring within a stable social environment over a clearly defined period of time. This idea spawned the long novels that followed the hero's progress and maturation through a complex series of adventures, climaxing in a decisive confrontation and resolution of difficulties. The twentieth century, however, drastically altered its view of life and thus of art. Having lost faith in traditional institutions such as family, country, and religion, the moderns seem also to have lost their belief in the continuous development of a stable, unified personality. Instead, a character could experience what Virginia Woolf termed "moments of being" or brief episodes of self-awareness. Joyce called such a moment an epiphany, from the religious term that signifies the revelation of Jesus's birth to the Magi.(2) Although he employs a religious term, Joyce is describing a moment in the course of everyday life when the main character, as well as the reader, experiences a secular insight into his situation or self. One example of such a moment occurs at the end of "A Little Cloud" when Little Chandler "felt his cheeks suffused with shame and he stood back out of the lamplight. He listened while the paroxysm of the child's sobbing grew less and less; and tears of remorse started to his eyes." The retreat into the dark area of the room symbolizes Little Chandler's retreat from his artistic ambitions. "Shame" and "tears of remorse" seem to suggest that he regrets ever aspiring to being anything more than the clerk he is, but Joyce, like all the moderns, was ambiguous; perhaps the tears and remorse are signs of self-pity, not acceptance of reality. At any rate, the story alludes to the spiritual paralysis that Joyce sees throughout Dublin; Little Chandler is helpless to alter the smallest detail of his environment -- he cannot even stop his own child from crying but has to look on passively while his wife soothes the baby. The shame and remorse may come from this feeling of helplessness as well. Many of the Dubliners stories end in this way, in a moment of physical stasis and revelation of spiritual emptiness.

Finally, the fact that Joyce chose a religious term for this revelation suggests the awe he had for art and life, the same awe that Stephen Dedalus feels when he announces that, rather than join the Catholic priesthood he will dedicate himself to art and become "a priest of eternal imagination." If William Wordsworth and the Romantics found a supreme deity in Nature, Joyce found one in art.

Modernism and Myth

As a novel, Portrait falls within two existing literary traditions. The first is that of the Bildungsroman which traces the hero's education and development (see the Introduction to Romanticism section). Closely associated with, but not necessarily identical to it, is the Kunstlerroman, or "novel of the artist," which describes the artist's development. Joyce's mind created by combining, and in Portrait, like D. H. Lawrence in Sons and Lovers, he merges the two traditions. Starting with the seemingly random sensations of an infant, Joyce provides his readers with a semi-autobiographical novel that begins with its hero's childhood and ends when that hero is ready to assert his independence by leaving family and country for the city of Paris. In the intervening chapters, Joyce shows exactly how Stephen Dedalus arrives at this decision, and why he makes the choices that he hopes will create both a personal and artistic self.

Portrait's main character, Stephen Dedalus, is a symbolic union of the two main streams of Western culture. His first name, Stephen, recalls the first Christian martyr, and thus the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. His last name, Dedalus, derives from ancient Greek literature, which, together with Latin literature, forms the second major tributary in the development of Western culture. In particular, Joyce selected the myth or story of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, a versatile sculptor-architect-inventor, created for Minos, the King of Crete, a labyrinth in which to imprison the half-bull, half-man monster known as the minotaur. Daedalus himself was confined to the labyrinth after he helped Theseus escape with Ariadne, the king's daughter. But, using feathers and wax, Daedalus constructed two pairs of wings for himself and his young son, Icarus. They both succeeded in flying out of the labyrinth; however, Icarus disregarded his father's warning and, in the exhilaration of flight and escape, flew too near to the sun. The heat melted the wax in his wings, destroying them, and he plunged to his death into the water below which is known today as the Icarian Sea.

Daedalus in Greek means "cunning artificer" and serves to illustrate Stephen's artistic aspirations. The novel's epigraph comes from the passage in Ovid's Metamorphoses (VIII, 188) that recounts Daedalus's efforts to make the wings: "And he set his mind to work upon unknown arts." But the myth serves Joyce in other ways as well: consider the different father-son relationships in Portrait, both secular and religious, look for birds or images of flight, and, finally, ponder the connection of artistic creativity to both of these.

Another modern technique employed by Joyce is the repeated use of selected objects that resound with an accumulated significance. This repetition creates what is called a literary motif: a word, object, phrase, or image that occurs throughout the work, unifying it by stressing a particular theme. Examples of such motifs, in the first chapter alone, include the path/road, rose, hot or cold, and water. As the novel progresses, this fundamental principle of repetition expands to include similar scenes, particularly scenes in which Stephen is questioned and then urged to speak or behave in a certain way. Readers should watch for such similarities or parallels and examine them for any development or change on Stephen's part.

These scenic parallels are important for another reason as well: they form the novel's structure. Chapters tend to be organized around crucial events in Stephen's development, with little in the way of chronological transition, a technique typical, as we have seen, of literary modernism. Another organizing and unifying principle is, of course, the character of Stephen Dedalus. Joyce filters everything through Stephen's eyes. We see only what he sees and nothing that he doesn't.(3)

Finally, if readers must to a certain extent recreate the novel's structure in their own mind, it is also their responsibility to determine the exact nature of the author's relationship to the hero. Joyce, like Flaubert, felt that the artist should not intrude on his creation but, like God, should remain invisible, "refined out of existence." This belief raises questions about Joyce's attitude toward Stephen: is it sympathetic or distanced by irony as some critics suggest? Is Stephen, Dedalus -- or Icarus? These questions are left to the reader because Joyce has refused to provide clear-cut answers; instead, in the typical modernist manner, he has left clues within the work itself for each reader to decipher and follow.


(1) A non-observant Catholic, he lived with his common-law wife Nora for twenty-seven years before marrying her for legal reasons.

(2)The three kings who journeyed to Bethlehem with gifts for the infant Jesus.

(3) The limitations and bias of this point of view are implied perhaps by the title Joyce gave to his novel, A Portrait, not The Portrait.