The opening of “A Portrait …” is one of literature’s most famous:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.
He was baby tuckoo.
There are several remarkable things about this opening. Firstly, the title has set up the idea that what you are about to read is going to be an autobiography, of the writer, the Artist, Joyce, about himself as a young man. But this is not what we read, this is not an autobiography in seems, since, if it was, the pronoun would be ‘my’ not ‘his’; so, it is not told by the Artist, the author, it is told by a third-person narrator. Secondly, it is written in the past tense, fine, as expected, but the moment you read the word ‘his’ you know that ‘his’ refers to the Artist, James Joyce. We only use a pronoun when it is clear who ‘his’ refers to and the only name prior to this pronoun is the author’s. It is him. This is confirmed by the line “He was baby tuckoo.” Again the pronoun and still only one name, the same name, the author’s, so, he is not the author. Well, yes, he is the author, we just choose to ignore that: we willingly accept what the author has written in order to enjoy the story. We play along. A few pages on this third person narrator, to confirm his existence, gives baby tuckoo a name, Stephen Dedalus. This is a story about a boy called Stephen Dedalus that we understand is the young James Joyce. Why has Joyce chosen to write his own story narrated by a third person god-like narrator? Because it is a much more useful novelistic tool. Writing in the first-person disallows the writer access to the minds, thoughts, tastes, dreams, wishes, and desires of all the other characters in the story. The first-person “I” can only describe what he feels, sees, tastes, dreams, and desires. The third-person god-like narrator has access to everyone and everything, but more importantly, the past, and the future. Also, the ‘baby’ language is the manifestation of yet another novelistic tool, new for 1914 and used here for the first time; so effective and now so widely used: a device that allows the narrator to adopt vocabulary, vocal mannerisms, colour, and tone of the character’s own speaking voice. In literary terms this is called free indirect discourse, or as critic James Wood likes to say, close writing. This is familiar to us now, (Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels, 2012, for example, and almost any novel written in the last 100 years) but innovative then. Also, usually for his times, early twentieth century and before, in novels of coming of age (Dicken’s David Copperfield, 1849 for one), biographical, or auto-biographical, the narrator wrote from the perspective of adulthood; there was a distance from the narrator to the subject. But here, as Stephen grows on the path to maturity, so does Joyce’s language. In 1916 Joyce’s text was radical. It’s as if Joyce, with this opening, was writing about Stephen at 6 years old when he, the narrator, was 6 years old. The action and tone are far more immediate, compelling, and authentic, and along with the non-judgemental narrator sets the ground-work for modernism which would be experimented with and adopted, not just by Joyce but by his contemporaries as well.
However, we know from this opening that this is going to be a story about a person called Stephen Dedalus (James Joyce) and that we are starting at the time when he was a very young boy and that his father wore spectacles and a beard. The original title of this book was another name, Stephen Hero, but he changed the title and the hero’s name.
In Greek mythology Daedalus was a skilled inventor and architect who built the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete to house the Minator, a monster, half man, half bull. He was also the father of Icarus. After Theseus killed the Minator, with Daedalus’s help, and fled with Ariadne, the king’s daughter, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in the labyrinth but they escaped – after all, Daedalus built it – and flew the island by making themselves wings of feathers and wax.
Despite his father’s warning, Icarus, excited by the thrill of flying, flew too close to the sun god Helos as he rode his flaming chariot across the heavens, and the waxed wings melted, and Icarus fell and perished in the sea. Daedalus, after surviving another vengeful plot by Minos, escaped and finally settled in Sardinia where he joined a group led by Iolaus, nephew of Hercules; and as far as we know lived to a ripe old age.
In Romanticism, Icarus came to denote impetuousness, rebellion, and hubris, while Daedalus represented the classic artist, skilled, mature, and successful.
The young Stephen Dedalus is an observer, a listener. Early in the narrative he describes in great conversational detail a heated argument at the family Christmas table; an argument about Parnell, an Anglo-Irish politician, who by shrewd but steadfast political decisions became the figurehead of the Irish nationalistic movement in the nineteenth century; he renounced violent anti-Parliamentary action, but he was a protestant. Colm Tóibín writes that this scene could easily have been refracted around the tables of Irish dinners in the 1970’s and 80’s as family members argued over what was going on in Northern Ireland. And the scene where Stephen is unfairly punished resonated with Irish readers and writers: corporal punishment in Irish Catholic schools continued until the 1980’s. The influence of this book overshadowed generations of Irish long after it was published in 1916.
The young boy is also a thinker:
Was that a sin for Father Arnell to be in a wax or was he allowed to get into a wax when the boys were idle because that made them study better or was he only letting on to be in a wax? It was because he was allowed, because a priest would know what a sin was and would not do it. But if he did it one time by mistake what would he do to go to confession?
He asked the kind of questions Irish Catholic schoolboys have been asking themselves – and no-one else – for decades.
The first chapter ends with Stephan ‘reporting’ to the rector his unjust punishment at the hands of the prefect of studies, Father Dolan. This was a brave thing to do and his classmates hoisted him up, carried him along and shouted “Hurroo!” and threw their caps into the air. A stirring chapter-end of vengeance, courage, just fulfilment, and Joyce’s poetic language, not in a character’s words but from the narrator’s prose.
The fellows were practising long shies and bowling lobs and slow twisters. In the soft gray silence he could hear the bump of the balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.
Stephan has grown up a lot since moocow and baby tuckoo.
Chapter 2 is a portrait of a disillusioned young man in search of something profound which even he does not know what it is: “He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld.” This “it” became “her” as if they would “make their tryst … in some secret place … and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured … Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall away from him in that magic moment.” This “her” in his mind (his muse?) is mingled with the heroine from Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo, Mercedes, or maybe its Ellen who, after a family bit of singing and dancing, comes with him on the tram where he is aware of her closeness, her wish for him to catch hold of her, “nobody is looking. I could hold her and kiss her” but he did neither and “stared gloomily at the corrugated footboard.”
This, a constant battle between the developing Artist and the developing Young Man.
And when he finally writes something about the tram, and Ellen and the kiss not made he “thought himself into confidence” over “a new pen, a new bottle of ink and a new emerald exercise” and “there remained no trace of the tram itself nor the tram-men nor of the horses” but only “of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden lustre of the moon” and the kiss not given became a kiss “given by both.” Finally, the Artist at work; and, so often, his muse, his Art is so confounded with women, with sex. Women “demure and innocent” he sees by day, but by night “her face transfixed by lecherous cunning, her eyes bright with brutish joy” and he is left by morning nothing but a “humiliating sense of transgression.”
At school, he is studious but aware of voices urging him “to be a good gentleman”, “to be a good catholic above all things”, “to be strong and manly and healthy”, “to be true to his country,” “to raise up his father’s fallen state by his labours”, and “to be a decent fellow.” All this bidding by voices all around, “but he was happy only when far from them, beyond their call, alone or in the company of phantasmal comrades.” The battle continues. Even in his own existence. From 1904 he lived with a Dublin chambermaid who had little education nor any understanding of Joyce’s work and felt that he made his life more difficult by writing so strangely. She was vivacious, humerous, loved music, bore him two children, and stuck by him through intense poverty in Zurich and Paris while writing his most famous work, Ulysses. He was a husband and father, a Man, but then inside something else something separate, an Artist.
He is cast in a school play but his part humiliates him, “A remembrance of some of his lines made a sudden flush rise to his painted cheeks” but, surprisingly, the excitement and youth around him “entered into and transformed his moody mistrustfulness.” On stage he was amazed that the play during rehearsals that seemed a “disjointed lifeless thing” had taken on a life of its own and it was a success. He is amazed and confused by this and “his nerves cried out for further adventures” – this is Art and it is Alive! I want more! When he meets his family in the excited crowd outside the theatre he feigns an errand he annoyingly says he has to make and leaves them all before they can say a word. He strides alone through the city, his mind a “tumult of sudden-risen vapours of wounded pride and fallen hope and baffled desire” until he finds himself in a “dark cobbled laneway” where he “breathed slowly the rank heavy air.” Then this …
That is horse piss and rotted straw, he thought. It is a good odour to breathe. It will calm my heart. My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.”
Here the close writing of the third-person narrator (“he thought”) in the past tense gets so close that it slips from the past tense into the first-person (“my heart…”) present tense (“… is calm”) – truly radical for literary 1916 – and suddenly Stephen Dedalus is James Joyce. But only for these three short sentences. After the ***** the third-person narrator and the past tense returns.
Stephen was once again seated beside his father …
There is no linking action between Joyce’s scenes; this stream-of-consciousness would be picked up by his peers and by writers even to the present (Marlon James, The Brief History of Seven Killings, 2015). The dialogue is sparse but realistic, but Stephen’s internal thought patterns are poetic and constantly at battle with the world around him. He feels he is alien from his family, “mythical kinship of fosterage” and burdened with a “savage desire … to defile with patience whatever image had attracted his eyes.” Joyce transformed the narrative into isolated scenes, the paragraph into pictures of feeling, and the sentence into impressionistic bits; like the painters were doing to landscape and interiors in studios and fields all over Europe.
But it is in part 3 that Joyce’s major theme, his Christian faith, is described and exalted in a lengthy sermon as his sinful, lustful, self is set against it and painted as on a slippery but vengeful slope to hell and damnation. The Christian parable is given in a naturalistic and almost movie-like narrative; the glory of heaven rent asunder by the treachery and downfall of the once “shining angel’, Lucifer, who is cast from heaven along with his “rebellious angels” into their fiery haven of Hell; and to fill the gap in Heaven left by these fiends, God created Adam and Eve and gave them a wondrous garden to live in; but Lucifer was jealous of these clay-born creatures and tempted them to disobey God and eat the forbidden apple; so the archangel Michael cast them out into the “world of sickness and striving, of cruelty and disappointment, of labour and hardship to earn their bread in the sweat of their brow;” but God is pitiful and promises a redeemer that will take on all the suffering of the fallen people and give them a way to salvation. It’s a heady and powerful text to the developing mind of a teenage boy who sees nothing but poverty and temptation all around.
He came down the aisle of the chapel, his legs shaking and the scalp of his head trembling as though it had been touched by ghostly fingers. He passed up the staircase and into the corridor along the walls of which the overcoats and waterproofs hung like gibbeted malefactors, headless and dripping and shapeless. And at every step he feared he had already died, that his soul had been wrenched forth of the sheath of his body, that he was plunging headlong through space… Flames burst forth from his skull like a corolla, shrieking like voices: Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell!”
Alone in the darkness of his room, curled up on his bed, hands covering his face his fear of Hell becomes manifest with images of reeking dung and weeds and “goatish creatures with human faces … trailing their long tails behind them … soft language issued from their spittleless lips … circling closer and closer to enclose;” and so terrified he springs up, vomits, cries, prays and walks the city streets always conscious and fearful of his blackened and sinful self but fearing more the idea of confession: saying aloud what he has done, the seven deadly sins – he lost his virginity at 14 with a whore – he knows them all; the thought of saying it all to a goodly priest; shame fell on him like ash.
There has never been a more vibrant, terrifying description of a young boy’s idea of hell fostered by effective and horrific mind-altering descriptions from a pulpit, feeding the limited but hungry imaginations of those who listen. The Church knows how to do it.
But he does confess and is absolved of all his sins and the chapter ends with Stephen “sitting by the fire in the kitchen, not daring to speak for happiness” and dreaming of a glorious altar with fragrant masses of white flowers as he awaits among other communicants for the body and blood that will soon be his.
Stephen Dedalus, our 16-year-old hero, is now pious and as blameless as any person can be: his intricate piety and self-restraint – he allocates a rigorous discipline to all his senses – even surprised himself but they failed to eradicate “childish and unworthy imperfections” and he felt the “flood of temptation many times” but always eluded them like jumping back from an incoming wave which threatened to engulf him. His piety and dedication grows until the possibility of a priestly life is offered and his contemplation of it is many faceted in poetic language of the mind and the soul and the landscape and the image of an innocent girl standing island-like in the river shallows of the beach. Her skirts and petticoats are hitched up above the waves and “her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh.” He runs from the idea of her and has to eventually admit that his “inherent sinful nature” makes a religious life impossible.
The fifth and final chapter sees him a university student, living at home and still existing on watery tea and fried bread crusts soaked in yellow dripping. He is not a punctual student and misses more classes, English, French, Physics, than he attends. He, instead, seeks out compatible priests and peers and discusses with them his theories and definitions, based on Aristotle and Aquinas, of truth, art, and beauty. Such dissertations are punctuated by scenes of the everyday streetscape: passing students, argumentative men, noisy vehicles and pretty girls, “holding the umbrellas at cunning angles…their skirts demurely”, who were his only distraction. There is always a connection between women, art and sex: each can dislodge the over but it is always art that has the strongest power but which is the most hidden but aches to be exposed; he aspires to “the highest and most spiritual art,” literature.
The penultimate scene is a long conversation with fellow students culminating in a more intimate discussion with his friend, Cranly, about freedom, art, and escape. Finally, the third person gives way to the first, Dedalas is Joyce, in the form of diary entries from March 20 to April 27 1904 where his mother is putting his second-hand books in order and dreading the inevitable: the loss of her son’s love that enables him to learn his own life “away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels.”
Welcome, O life. I go 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.
But it is his oath and his confession to Cranly, a few pages earlier, that rings the loudest and the most true:
I will no longer serve in that which I do not believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.
And that is what he did.
You can find the free ebook here, along with all his other works published by www.ebooks.adelaide.com a wonderful resource of texts out of copyright established and maintained by the University of Adelaide.
An excellent commentary about the use of omniscient third person narrative. For now I think I will stick to first person – this style of writing is tremendously complex and requires far more finesse than I have.
Also thanks for showing that beautiful writing in its full glory – sometimes one needs a perspective to understand more fully.